Rethinking Pembroke May Ball within the Context of the Climate Crisis

Humans develop traditions to create continuity in their lives and bring their communities closer together. Cambridge and Pembroke are especially rife with traditions that have stood for centuries, from Matriculation ceremonies and Formal Hall dinners, to eventually marching down to Senate House for a peculiar hand pulling (graduation) ceremony. One particular tradition that many Valencians look forward to each year is the May Ball/June Event at the end of Easter Term: an evening packed full of unlimited food, drink and entertainment held in the college grounds. For as long as anyone can recall, this event has been organized along the same lines each year by a hard working student committee who hope to put on an event that outdoes the previous ones but ultimately keeps those traditions that have been going for many, many years. This year, however, we attempted something different: to put the event through a regenerative process, with the view of making the tradition more sustainable, while ensuring that it was just as enjoyable as in previous years.

We often assume that traditions which have stood the test of time must be kept the same otherwise people will be up in arms. This is a common argument that is presented when changes are proposed: that it will alter things beyond recognition and the tradition will be completely lost. However, this view ignores the necessity for traditions to change over time to be compliant with the context of the current era in which they are held. This is how we see such stark variations in how we celebrate common holidays to just 100 years ago, despite seemingly the same tradition being celebrated. Thus in the face of the human-caused climate crisis of the 21 st century, it is necessary that change occurs in the way we plan for large scale traditional events such as May Balls, which have the potential for such a significant environmental impact due to the large amount of resources involved.

As you might have heard, the 2019 Pembroke May Ball this past June was rated the most sustainable May Week event across the whole of Cambridge according to the Sustain-a-Ball rankings, produced by the Cambridge University Environmental Consulting Society. This was no fluke and the whole committee worked extremely hard to make this happen. The secrets to our success were ensuring that sustainability was considered as a primary decisive factor in decision making from the beginning, not as an afterthought, and being committed to finding the solutions that worked best in our local Pembroke and Cambridge context, not those that were theoretically the most suitable. This meant we were able to implement successful sustainability strategies across numerous areas of the Ball, without compromising on the quality of the event.

What sustainability means for a May Ball event depends on how you look at it, and in some ways not holding a May Ball at all would be the most sustainable option: such an event will always use up more resources and generate more emissions than no event. However, that would go against the culture and traditions that thousands of students have worked hard to uphold. If we were to refresh Pembroke’s May Ball culture to be more sustainable, it would need to be from within, at the event planning stage.

Among the highlights of what we achieved were a 70% waste recycling rate through waste sorting stations (compared to typical recycling rates of 32% at UK festivals); dedicated drinking water stations to reduce use of plastic water bottles; and no ruminant meat on offer, which has the largest carbon footprint of any food: at least twice the emissions compared to any other meats. In addition to this, almost all the decorations for the ball were obtained from secondhand sources such as the Cambridge Scrapstore and local charity shops, and then recycled as much as possible at the end of the event.

In implementing all these substantial changes to such a traditional event, there were always some doubts in the back of our minds about how they would be perceived and whether there would be any backlash from the guests attending the May Ball. However, the response we received was overwhelmingly positive, with many guests noting in our feedback survey that they appreciated the commitment to sustainability they saw throughout the event and that they thoroughly enjoyed the event overall. This highlights the increasing awareness amongst Pembroke students of the environmental issues that we are facing and the desire for the events they take part in to take these seriously. As such, it is critical that in future years, the regenerative process of this valued Pembroke tradition continues, as the reality of our climate predicament becomes ever clearer.

In spite of the committee’s efforts to make this year’s event more sustainable, there are still many improvements that could be implemented to continue this sustainable regeneration process for future Pembroke events. Some suggestions, that we were unable to introduce this year, are to introduce reusable cups throughout the event (to reduce total waste volume), to increase vegan/vegetarian options further (to reduce emissions), to introduce compostable toilets (to reduce water usage) and to select less energy intensive rides (to reduce energy usage), while also seeking out renewable energy sources to power the event (to reduce emissions).

We often hold traditions in such high esteem that we are scared to start modifying them – especially when they have been passed through generations – even if we might think that it is the right thing to do. However, at critical times in history, critical interventions are necessary to keep such traditions alive by keeping them relevant within the context of our times. Much like confronting the climate crisis, we must not be afraid to take decisive steps to address our beloved traditions, so that they have a justified place within the low-carbon future that we need to transition towards.