The Greening of Burning Man

After returning from her trip to Mongolia, our Next Great Travel Writer contest winner Suzanne Roberts donned leopard pants and headed out to the annual Burning Man festival. Here, she sends us a dispatch about how the huge party in the desert has been working to become a sustainable event.

Every year during the week leading up to Labor Day, Black Rock City, a fully functioning metropolis, complete with a post office, radio station, airport, recycling center, bars, boutiques, and night clubs, is erected in the Black Rock Desert in northern Nevada as part of the annual Burning Man Festival, then disappears, virtually without a trace. Although many would call it the “biggest party in the world,” Burning Man is also the largest “Leave No Trace” event in the world, restoring the dry lake bed, aka “the playa,” to the condition in which it was found before the 50,000 or so people arrived.

Burning Man began in 1986 on Baker Beach in San Francisco when an 8-foot-tall wooden man was burned by Larry Harvey and his friend Jerry James. The event moved to the dry lake bed in the Black Rock Desert in 1990. Since then, the event has grown from a few hundred participants to a record 49,599 in 2008. People who haven’t been to Burning Man may think of it as a hedonistic free for all, but those who attend know that it is about radical self-expression, self-reliance, and gifting. These tenants create an artistic community, known as Black Rock City, but they also contribute to an environmental ethic. In 2006, Burning Man adopted its Environmental Statement, and was praised by Al Gore in 2007 for its “Green Man” theme and dedication to the environment. Here are some of the innovative ways in which the festival incorporates its “green” theme.

Give of Yourself: The society runs on a gift economy, which means that no money is exchanged (except for at the center café, which sells coffee and ice – passing proceeds along to charities) and that everyone comes prepared to give something of him or herself, whether it be an art installation, volunteer work, yoga instruction, solar recharging stations, dance clubs and bars, or performances that range from ballet and cabaret to fire dancing, flaming skydivers, and even geology and native plant courses taught by PhDs. From this creativity and gifting community have come ingenious ideas regarding ways in which to “green” Burning Man, as well as take the gift-giving off the playa in order to make positive contributions to the greater world.

Watch Out for ‘MOOP’: According to Roger Farschon, an ecologist with the Bureau of Land Management, the amount of debris created at the festival has consistently come in far short of their quota; the majority of the mostly wood matter left behind is roughly the size of a dime. Burning Man participants call this sort of debris “Moop” or “Matter Out Of Place,” and are instructed never to “let it hit the ground.” There is not a single garbage can on the playa, so participants must be self-reliant and “pack it out.” Also, a huge clean-up effort takes place during and after the event. Farschon calls Burning Man “a valid use of public lands,” and says, “to date, there has never been any major problems with the way they have left the playa.”

Photo: Big Rig

Offset Your Burn: Some critics object to Burning Man because of the amount of fossil fuel required to transport the participants (aka Burners) to the festival. But unlike most large-scale events, Burning Man offers participants several ways to offset their carbon dioxide. Festival-goers can visit the Cooling Man website to calculate their carbon usage, find helpful tips on how to “green” their burn, and donate to a list of carbon offsetting causes. Also, the entire playa is drive-free (once you park your vehicle, it stays put) except for the “art cars,” which travel no faster than five mph, and many of them run on alternative sources of energy such as biodiesel.

Burn the Man: While “The Man,” a 40-foot tall effigy that has become the symbol and namesake of the Burning Man festival still burns as a symbol of temporality, the wood from all other art installations is donated to Habitat for Humanity to build low-income housing in the Reno area. In 2006, donations totaled 42 units of lumber, which was the largest donation in Reno to Habitat for Humanity to date. Since then, donations have continued to increase.

Bringing About Change: Many movements have begun or sprung from the playa, like Earth Guardians, a group that teaches Leave No Trace practices on the playa and works with the Bureau of Land Management and the Friends of Black Rock on eco-restoration of fragile areas of the Black Rock Desert. Another group that has sprung from Burning Man is Burners Without Borders. The group responded to Hurricane Katrina and sent volunteers worldwide to lend a hand in the aftermath of disasters, such as the devastating earthquake in Pisco, Peru.

Photo: Recycle Camp

Go Solar: From Burning Man has also come another environmental bevy, Black Rock Solar, a nonprofit group that installs solar power for schools and hospitals in communities that are underserved by the renewable energy industry. With the help of MMA Renewable Ventures and NV Energy (formerly called Sierra Pacific) utility rebates, in the last year, Black Rock Solar has built solar arrays that will save local Nevada communities more than 1.3 million dollars over the life of the systems. According to Black Rock Solar Executive Director Tom Price, the group came up with the idea just in time for the 2007 Burning Man. Price said, “Last year, the theme was ‘The Green Man,’ so we loaned solar equipment to power the Man and surrounding pavilion. Because Burning Man operates on a gift economy where people give with no expectation of return, it creates a generous community who doesn’t hear an idea and say ‘That’s crazy.’ Instead, they say, ‘How can I help?’” Because so many people offered their help, Black Rock Solar quickly became a reality.

“Solar power does not have to be expensive,” says Price. “Most people have never seen a solar panel. It has to show up in small towns and under-funded clinics all over. Our fondest hope is that people will see what we are doing and steal the idea. Instead of building barns, we’re building power plants and giving the underserved a seat at the renewable energy table.”

When I asked Price, who also served as last year’s Burning Man environmental manager, what he thought was behind the negative criticism of Burning Man despite all the environmental efforts, he said, “Most of the criticism has come from people who have not attended Burning Man. Because it’s not like anything else, it’s hard to talk about. The idea of making a temporary city in the middle of nowhere is ridiculous, but we do it every year. And because we start from scratch, people try something new every year. One of the great environmental experiments is dealing with garbage. In the city, if you throw something away, it disappears. Here (on the playa), it lands at your feet. It’s a great object lesson.”

Burning Man has been repeatedly called “counter-culture,” and maybe it is time to take the lessons of that “counter-culture,” and look at the way in which our American culture has lived counter to the environment. Burning Man can also teach us the creative ways that self-reliance, artistic expression, and a gift economy can make our lives—as temporal as they may be—better both on and off the playa. For me, this means giving more of myself without the expectation of anything in return, that, in addition to having the opportunity to sport my leopard-print pants.

Photos: Suzanne Roberts