Can 45,000 people journey vast distances to a lifeless Nevada desert and participate in an environmentally sustainable festival devoted to burning stuff? As strange as it sounds, during the last week of August 2007, the annual hedonistic celebration Burning Man attempted to do just that: go 'green.'
What has Burning Man done to merit its theme, The Green Man? Is Burning Man making serious efforts to green itself, or is it all a front, a form of greenwashing? How will the Burning Man experience affect burners, and will they bring it home into their lives? What does the Green Man art theme say about the state of civilization and its trajectory? It was in search of answers to these questions and others unimagined that the author trekked to the playa this year.
A certain segment of the Burning Man community has long made respect for the environment a high priority. For years, event organizers have promoted a "leave no trace" ethic and encouraged all participants to scour campsites down to the tiniest scraps.
The under-appreciated Earth Guardians work year-round to keep the playa clean and tidy, and ensure that "burn scars" don't deface the desert. Burners Without Borders, a group of volunteers vowing to "bring it home," journeyed to the Hurricane Katrina destruction zone in 2005 to provide an estimated one million dollars worth of free home demolitions to help property owners clear away wreckage from the disaster. Last year, the same group salvaged six semi trucks full of reclaimed wood from the festival and donated it to Habitat for Humanity. (This year, a Burning Man spokesperson says it was even more).
But in the past few years, participants have demanded a much higher level of environmental responsibility. Just keeping the desert free from "MOOP" (matter out of place) was not enough.
According to Kachina Katrina Zavalney, volunteer coordinator for Burning Man's Green Team, at last year's burn, "I was walking around feeling unhappy -- not like I had a chip on my shoulder, but more like, 'Gosh, people think this place is so progressive, but yet it smells so bad from all the generators, it's so loud, there's not a lot that people can say about the environmental efforts or what's being done out here."
An alliance of like-minded volunteers converged around the Green Theme for 2007. The task was daunting.
"The idea of building a sustainable, temporary city in the middle of nowhere on its face is preposterous. There's no frame against which our work here can be compared except ourselves?because no one else does what we do. Given that, I think what we've been able to accomplish is extraordinary," said Tom Price, environmental manager for the Green Man theme.
Nobel peace laureate Al Gore, whose cable network Current TV was onsite to document the event, expressed optimism about the playa's green prospects.
"I think it's just great that the people of Black Rock City have made the Green Man this year's theme for Burning Man, and I hope that folks will use TV Free Burning Man as a platform to spread that great message even further," said the former vice president.
"Because we build the city from the ground up we're able to look at everything and change whatever we want to on a dime. So, we've looked at transportation, solid waste, materials, energy, art, media, everything, all aspects of the event," Price added.
Analyzing the environmental sustainability of a city of more than 45,000 people is a monumental task. Given space constraints, we'll examine a few elements: electricity, water, fuel, carbon, education, and the future.
Electrifying the Playa
This year, Burning Man LLC ("the LLC") worked with a team of Berkeley engineers from The Shipyard to install a 30-kilowatt solar photovoltaic (PV) array in the shape of the Native, sacred Zia Sun symbol. The array powered the pedestal underneath the iconic man statue and the surrounding Green Pavilion. (Such an array could power approximately 10 to 20 San Francisco homes). Batteries stored extra energy during the day so the man could glow green all night.
The array came in handy when the man burned unexpectedly early during the Tuesday lunar eclipse: the array powered the tools needed to rebuild the man.
In the spirit of Burning Man's "gift economy" -- where playa-goers are encouraged to give without expectation of return -- a wealthy burner named Matt Cheney, who runs a green-technology venture capital firm, fronted the funds necessary to help the LLC gift the array to the city of Gerlach, Nev., to power a school. By November, the LLC plans to donate 120 kilowatts worth of solar arrays to Gerlach and 60 KW to Lovelock.
Cheney only has to front the money for the panels; most of the cost will be refunded by the state of Nevada, which offers sizable incentives for solar PV (nearly double California's). Burners Without Borders signed up to provide the necessary labor to install the array.
Several theme camps also deployed solar PV, such as the Snow Koan Solar Camp which offered refreshing snow cones to burners as well as free electricity.
William Korthof, a solar installer for Snow Koan, recognized that solar PV is out of reach for most theme camps, because few if any companies rent solar arrays. "The panels are expensive and the best way to make them cheaper is to keep them in permanent use," said Korthof.
Of course, while the solar arrays might generate clean power on the playa and relieve noise pollution, they'll never make up for the expenditure of fossil fuels required to transport them to the desert.
Phil "Peef" Sadow, a Berkeley engineer who helped to install the LLC's solar array, observed that the festival has made strides but still has a long way to go.
"Center Camp [which is run by the LLC] uses old, incandescent lights ... and a lot of the lights use 500 watts a pop. It's not very efficient. They are slowly investing in better lighting technologies. It's expensive and it takes time," said Peef.
Aliza Wasserman, founder of Green Guerillas Against Greenwash, was disappointed to observe few electric vehicles on the playa. She places blame back in the real world at the doorstep of a San Ramon, Calif. oil company.
"Chevron bought the patent for a new type of battery for electric cars and shut down the battery company and did not allow the patents to be used by anyone because it was a huge threat to oil profits," said Wasserman.
Indeed, while electricity has been stymied in the auto sector, a new source of transportation power is gathering momentum at home and on the playa: biofuels.
Fueling Ecocide ...
While burner activists may agree that fossil fuel extraction and consumption is destructive and unsustainable, nothing like a broad agreement yet exists in the burner community on what should replace fossil fuels. Some see biofuels as a next step.
About 85 percent of the LLC's generators were powered by biodiesel this year. According to Price, "We took [out] 11,000 gallons [of petroleum] that were coming from human rights hotspots like Saudi Arabia and Nigeria and instead we're running it off french fry juice from Reno -- thanks, Reno!"
While most environmentalists have no objection to reclaimed veggie oil, large-scale biofuel cultivation is controversial due to evidence of deforestation, species loss, and human rights violations caused by large biofuel plantations, as well as their reliance on genetic engineering.
Prof. Ignacio Chapela, one of U.C .Berkeley's most outspoken critics of biofuels, objected to the LLC's promotion of the term.
"Even the use of the term biofuels has enormous propaganda value for the movement toward biofuels ... They're playing with fire -- propaganda fire -- which is the worst kind of fire you can have around art," said Chapela.
The Sustainable Living Road Show encampment proudly proclaimed that its busses run on biofuels. Its members disagree with the notion that such language helps the biofuels industry.
"As we're promoting biofuels, we're talking about ethical, sustainable biofuels, because not all biofuels are ethical or sustainable," said Road Show member Jonathan Youtt of San Francisco.
...or Fueling Hope?
Two experimental biofuel technologies were rolled out at Black Rock City: algae bioreactors and gasification. While neither played a role in greening the event, they served as previews of what the future might (or might not) hold.
Situated underneath the Green Pavilion, the Chlorophyll Collective displayed a truck-size "bioreactor" with algae in plastic tubes furiously munching away on carbon dioxide emissions from a generator. A sign characterized the technology as "The Single-Cell Solution for Global Warming: greenhouse-gas eating algae."
According to Bayview resident Meg "Algae Girl" Bracken, director of the Chlorophyll Collective, "Algae can solve many of the problems of our industrial society. They can produce much more food, fertilizer, and/or biofuels per acre than any other crop, and they can be grown on wastewater or salt water, on marginal land, or even on the surface of bodies of water. Algae can clean water and air, and build soil. Many algae are packed full of vitamins, minerals, and other key nutrients (such as omega-3 fatty acids) and make excellent additions to the diets of people and animals."
Bracken believes that if certain cost and technical barriers can be surmounted, algae has the potential to be a much more efficient source of biofuel than any other. "The amount of oil that we can harvest from algae is already much, much higher than the amount we can harvest from traditional oilseeds," she remarked.
Bracken asserted that algae ethanol would potentially be a non-emitting, "closed loop" system: "The high amounts of CO2 produced in the process of fermenting alcohol or ethanol can be fed directly to algae which then grows profusely and can be harvested to make ethanol." She promoted algae as a potential salve to global greenhouse gas emissions.
But U.C. Berkeley Professor of Geoengineering Tad Patzek characterized the Chlorophyll Collective's ambitions as wholly unrealistic. "Algae indeed are very useful at cleaning up sewage streams and can be converted into fertilizer, but that's on a relatively small scale and has very little to do with saving the planet from global CO2 emissions. In order to absorb the emissions of a coal-fired power plant, you'd have to put a million of these bioreactors side-by-side. It's simply not scalable."
"People are ready to believe anything. Their deep wishful thinking has been confronted by reality in the case of corn and palm oil biofuels. People automatically reach for the next imaginary solution, and since algae hasn't been thoroughly tested yet, it's the next candidate," added Patzek.
Can Garbage Save the World?
Gasification was the next entrant into Black Rock City's green science fair. Jim Mason, owner of Berkeley's The Shipyard art studio, showcased an art vehicle known as The Mechabolic, a "trash-to-fuel land speed racer slug." The stupendous creaky machine was overflowing with gadgetry, a green-tech geek's wet dream.
Powering Mechabolic is a technology that's as old as human societies: gasification. Gasification is a process by which organic material is smoldered in a low-oxygen, high-temperature environment. In the case of Mechabolic, the resultant hydrogen is used to directly power an unmodified internal combustion engine. What's left at the end is a clump of carbon that can be plowed into the ground as a potent fertilizer. Tom Price says that pre-Columbian Indians used to cut down organic matter in the Amazon basin, gasify it into ash, and fertilize the soil.
Thus, with gasification, a vehicle can run on almost any organic material, such as walnut shells or coffee grounds. Price sees gasification as the world's best hope to stop global warming and envisions a future when humans strip-mine landfills for fuel. Mason has made all of his gasification tinkering available to the world for free -- open source -- which befuddles the investment community.
According to Price, "In May, we took [San Francisco mayoral candidate Chicken John Rinaldi's gasified truck] to the Clean Tech conference in San JosÃƒÂ© - hundreds and hundreds of V.C.s and C.T.O.s and all their multi-million dollar projects. And we pull up out front and Chicken stands in the back in a jumpsuit that says 'CafÃƒÂ© Racer Crew' on it and he's like, 'We're making open source, carbon-negative renewable energy running on garbage in your parking lot, and we did it with junk we found in our shop in two days. What have you guys got?' And they went crazy, and they kept asking him, 'What's your business model, what's your business model?' He said, 'It's not a business model it's art.' And they're like, 'What's the point of the art?' And he said, 'What's the point of politics? Politics is to divide people. What's the point of art? Art is to bring people together. You and I, we've been brought together by this art. Congratulations, I win, thank you, next customer.'"
On the playa, Mechabolic offered burners the unique opportunity to shove waste into a tank and watch, see, and learn how this both powered the machine and produced a potent fertilizer.
Mason reflected on his experience with Mechabolic: "I demonstrated how to make a carbon-negative flamethrower by combining a trash-to-fuel gasification system with charcoal-based agriculture. Yes, it is odd, but there is a way to 'burn things' that is better for the total carbon cycle than to do nothing. Whether this is meaningful or not has nothing to do the absolute carbon count of the project on the playa, of course."
Patzek is as skeptical about the future of gasification as he is about algae. "If we are running a car on a little bit of biomass to do the absolute minimum amount of driving, I'm all for it. Otherwise, it's another symptom of not understanding the scale involved." Patzek believes that the U.S. and world must radically reduce energy consumption and move toward zero-waste communities that live in harmony with nature's cycles. He says the truly green way for burners to get to the playa is not gasified cars, but cycling.
Chicken John, on the other hand, thinks gasification is the medicine for the Earth's woes. Virgin founder and billionaire Richard Branson has offered a $25 million reward to anyone who can devise a scheme to remove a billion tons of CO2 annually from the atmosphere. Chicken says Branson owes Mechabolic creator Jim Mason a call. "Where's Mason's $25 million, bitch?" Chicken cackled.
Whether algae or gasification plays any substantial future role in saving the planet - or greening Black Rock City - remains to be seen.
Drowning in a Sea of Plastic
On the parched playa, water is perhaps the scarcest and most crucial resource. Every year, several hundred burners collapse from dehydration and end up in medics' tents on IV drips. "Drink before you're thirsty" is the official survival guide's most prominent guideline for intrepid burners.
Every year, burners haul hundreds of thousands of plastic water bottles to the playa -- everyone is responsible for his or her own hydration. However, is this particular manifestation of "radical self-reliance" (a stated core tenet of the event) compatible with Burning Man's efforts to go green?
Not according to the Green Pavilion's own commentary on the threat of plastic waste. An installation entitled "How does our use of plastic water bottles contribute to the decline of the albatross?" proclaimed the threat to avian life posed by the ubiquitous bottles that all too often blow or wash into oceans from urban areas. Plastic debris has created a floating garbage patch in the Pacific Ocean that's twice the size of Texas.
In a recent San Francisco Chronicle op-ed, Jared Blumenfeld of the City's Department of the Environment and Susan Leal of the Public Utilities Commission articulated numerous critiques of water bottles: they can leach toxins into the water, are transported from all over the world (using enormous amounts of fossil fuels), and often contain water that's of lower quality than municipal water sources. Plastic recycling is inefficient and polluting at best, and one billion bottles end up in California landfill every year. Ironically, plastic bottles leak toxins into the groundwater, harming the public water supply.
Can anything be done to green Burning Man's water consumption?
Burner Matthew "Hitch" McDermid of San Francisco believes so. He proposes that large theme camps could band together to purchase 500 or 1000-gallon containers and truck in fresh water from springs and aquifers in Lake Tahoe area or similar sources. Alternatively, he thinks that the LLC could build the cost into ticket prices and fully centralize water distribution. After all, the LLC already takes collective responsibility for ice sales, coffee sales, and excrement disposal on the playa via the Johnny-on-the-Spot latrines.
"Campers would only need one reusable water bottle...instead of disposing of upwards of 20 or 30 water bottles at the end of the burn," said Hitch.
Price thinks Hitch's proposal would take Burning Man too far away from the ethos of self-reliance. "We could electrify the entire city, provide water, hand out blinky lights at the gate, we could do everything for people - have stacks of costumes and so forth. What does someone learn by doing that? Do you want to give them fish or teach them to fish?" Price asked rhetorically.
Hitch believes Burning Man needs to evolve from its current emphasis on individual self-reliance to an increased ethos of community self-reliance. "If there were a cultural shift in that direction, we could decrease our ecological footprint every year when we throw the event and increase awareness for people to live in a greener way throughout the year."
"What I'd like to see is a re-emergence of community: community that would create efficiencies in transportation, in food distribution, in the consumption of water, and other things that are going to reduce the impact on the environment, and would support the individual on a number of levels they need from an emotional, cultural, and spiritual standpoint," added Hitch.
Price didn't see it that way, at least as far as water bottles are concerned. He talked up Burning Man's efforts to persuade area supermarkets to stock large-size water bottles as opposed to the smaller single-serve sizes, and notes that burners who want to could bring their own large, refillable water drums as Price himself has done. "It's not our job to be nannies or babysitters... I don't accept the premise that people can't be responsible for themselves," said Price.
Global warming is front and center of any environmental discussion these days. So what is an effective way for burners to tackle their contribution to global warming? The Cooling Man project is an independent effort initiated by environmental scientists and economists David Shearer and Jeff Cole of San Francisco to persuade burners to purchase "carbon offsets" to cancel out their playa-related greenhouse gas emissions. As many frequent flyers know, carbon offsets are offered by various companies as a way to make up for the global warming-related impact of personal transportation and other activities.
For instance, Native Energy offers to offset the two tons of carbon that a traveler emits by flying round-trip from New York to Reno (the closest major airport to Black Rock City) for $36. The purchaser has the option to channel the funds into projects such as a wind turbine farm on Sioux land in South Dakota, or a rural Pennsylvania family farm methane-capture system that will generate electricity from manure.
"The opportunity is to be strategic and fact-based in how you use the offsets. ... If every burner invested in .7 tons of carbon offsets, we'd be the first carbon-neutral city on the planet. If every burner invested in one ton, we'd be carbon negative," Shearer claimed. Cooling Man reports that it helped to offset 780 out of the 33,250 estimated tons of greenhouse gas emissions generated by Burning Man 2007.
But even if Cooling Man could build the offset fee into ticket prices next year as Shearer hopes, are carbon offsets a legitimate way to stop global warming? According to Guardian UK columnist George Monbiot (author of Heat: How to Stop the Planet from Burning), no way.
Take, for instance, airplane travel: every year, over 6,000 burners fly across the country and the world to attend the event, billowing out tons of greenhouse gases. Monbiot reports that airplane travel is the single most offensive and unredeemable sector of the economy.
Unlike automobiles, there isn't even a glimmer of a green techno-fix: as the Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change stated, "There would not appear to be any practical alternatives to kerosene-based fuels for commercial jet aircraft for the next several decades." The only apparent option would be to switch from jets to Zeppelins (hot air balloon ships).
Thus, according to Monbiot, to achieve the necessary 90% emission cut to stop runaway global warming we must both build wind turbines and stop flying. To do only one and not the other is to consign future generations (and perhaps ourselves) to a future that will make Katrina look like a minor weather event.
"Ultimately what it's going to take is not waiting for the will of the people, but legislating what the people will and must do," said Colette "Happy" Divine on the question of airplane travel. "Slavery is a perfect example: was everybody on board with getting rid of slavery? Absolutely not!"
Monbiot argues that the danger of carbon offsets is that they could serve as a modern "indulgence," invoking the 15th-century church scams wherein priests sold a clean conscience to sinning parishioners for a few ducats.
Revealingly, playa life imitated metaphor at the Green Man Pavilion's F.I.R.E. (Future Impact Reduction and Education) nexus. Established by students, alumni, and faculty of Dominican University's Green M.B.A. program, the learning center prominently featured an "Eco-confessional booth" which implored burners to "confess your eco-signs and be forgiven."
The author of this story stepped behind the curtain and begged faux-Father John Stayton of Dominican to forgive sins such as flying halfway around the globe for a brother's wedding in South Africa, and collecting unlimited numbers of toys. The Father's prescriptions generally focused on taking positive steps in other areas of life, but balked at challenging the idea of runaway consumption.
"It's a playful way of helping people to recognize that a lot of us who've had our awareness raised then carry around a sense of guilt of our own impacts. We want people to become aware of their ecological impacts and process those feelings - but do it in a lighthearted way," said Stayton.
Monbiot's calculations postulate that if we are to achieve the necessary 90 percent cut, every person on the planet must be allocated a greenhouse gas emissions budget of 1.33 tons annually. According to Cooling Man's estimates, the average burner emits .64 tons of greenhouse gas emissions traveling to and from and participating in the event. Thus, Burning Man participants blow nearly six months' worth of emissions in one week. (As a frame of reference, one cross-country round trip flight more than exceeds the entire budget.)
"Any scheme that persuades us we can carry on polluting delays the point at which we grasp the nettle of climate change and accept that our lives have to change," says Monbiot - a commentary as applicable to Black Rock City as any city.
Green Living 101?
Much could be said about how the LLC and many theme camps made valiant efforts to bring other environmentally conscious practices to the playa: solar cooking, solar hot water, wind turbines, greywater systems, composting, recycling, and a community bicycle program. However, these initiatives appeared to be confined to certain corners of Black Rock City; for most burners, it was (wasteful) playa-life-as-usual. Many burners said that the green theme made little to no impact on their experience.
In truth, Burning Man is not and (for the foreseeable future) cannot be green: percent of the event's reported ecological footprint is due to the enormous fossil fuel expenditure required to transport 45,000 people to a far-flung region that is not convenient to public transportation.
Even the man himself -- though he glowed green at night -- was less than environmentally friendly. Tom Price states that despite vigorous efforts, the LLC was unable to obtain an effective green neon glow material that did not contain mercury, a toxin with a reputation for inducing brain damage. (Price says that the amount was small enough not to pose a hazard.) Ironically, blue would have been a greener choice.
Most burners I spoke with -- including Burning Man founder Larry Harvey -- argued that the real value in the green effort was not in how it altered life on the playa, but how it might educate and influence people to change their lives and take action back home. Harvey conceived the theme as an exploration of "humanity's relationship to nature." One burner I met at Camp Hook-up's green building workshop said his boss had paid for his Burning Man ticket in order for him to learn how to make a resort chain in Arizona more environmentally sustainable. Solar PV engineer Peef reported several inquiries on how to install solar panels back home.
The Green Pavilion was closed for more than half the festival due to the premature immolation and Burning Man's prioritization of rebuilding the man. When the pavilion was accessible, kiosks and art displays offered a variety of educational resources: from descriptions of environmental crises, such as the unsustainable harvesting of hardwoods, to proposed solutions such as kite-powered cargo ships.
"This has been an opportunity to have a public conversation. More people are talking about this issue than I've ever heard before, and that might even offset [Burning Man's] impact," said LLC spokesperson Andie Grace. "I don't think we're in such dire circumstances that art has become irrelevant."
Mechabolic creator Jim Mason reflected on the Green Theme, "I find trying to run a green experiment in the midst of the most highly consumptive collection of creators to be a rich contradiction. Green gestures are so often tinged with ludditism, human loathing, and general defeatism. It is usually a narrative of 'do less, be less.' What happens if the people who are about 'do more, be more,' with a major theme of burning things, want to also be green? That's a mess. It's much more truthful to our situation. Thus why the theme was so rich."
Life After Burning Man
Other long-time burners say they've had it up to here with Burning Man. Kachina Katrina commented after the burn, "I saw a lot of participants not contributing to the whole green movement. I don't think that there was a lot of care and consideration given by the organization."
Kachina Katrina believed the LLC could have done a lot more, despite inherent limitations. "We all know it's not an event that can be 100 percent greened, but judging by the participants' take on it, it's got a long way to go."
Price was taken aback by Kachina Katrina's criticisms. "There were four full-time employees -- 15 percent of the total Burning Man staff -- working on [greening the burn]. Of course there's more that can be done, but I think we did substantive, far-reaching work."
For Kachina Katrina and other disaffected burners, it's off to ... well ... greener pastures. "Some friends and fellow colleagues in the greening Burning Man movement are starting a new festival called Water Woman -- where they'll take all of these ideas and values we proposed to green Burning Man and incorporate them into a festival-like atmosphere. This isn't the only festival that is going to be more ecological -- others such as Future Now, Entheon Villagers, and Symbiosis are creating eco-gatherings."
Kachina Katrina is pleased to have experienced some new eco-practices this year on the playa - she's planning to bring her updated greywater know-how to the kitchen at Symbiosis.
Water Woman founder and creator Ray Cirino, a twelve-time burner, talks about how different his baby will be from life on the playa. "Instead of building a city and tearing it down or destroying it, we're going to keep the city. Burning Man says leave no trace -- every single drop of 'trace' we're going to be recycling or composting."
Cirino says the festival will be goddess-focused, "very yin oriented as opposed to the yang energy of Burning Man. And the primary goal is for people to be self-reliant with sustainable practices, particularly permaculture. Permaculture is our base, our core. Water Woman will set up Burning Man in a beautiful way - ours will be in spring, for growth, before the fall and the burning. We'll be building a food forest as well." Cirino reports that he's been flooded with volunteers and he hopes to hold the festival in Northern California as soon as late spring 2008, after Memorial Day.
Cirino says the Water Woman city will include a cultural and learning center, and be built on a depressed property that needs help. Cirino is especially looking for indigenous land and to resuscitate a watershed.
"People's ticket money will be an investment in their education, and also, they'll be able to come back during the course of the year to learn as much as they can," said Cirino. The festival will encourage children and family participation, will be promoted as totally substance-free, and all music will be unplugged. He hopes that after a five-year cycle, Water Woman will move to resuscitate other ecologically distressed properties.
Kachina Katrina, who recently moved into an eco-focused co-operative community in Oakland, concludes, "I think Burning Man is such a huge distraction to people in their lives, it's an enormously wasteful party. I'm so thrilled to be back to my life - no more Burning Man. It's time to think about what's really going on on this planet. Bring it back home, to your home."
At its core, Burning Man remains an event conducted largely without reference to the sustainable capacities of Mother Earth. Of course, the same could be said of Western Civilization.
Will Burning Man be remembered as one of the U.S. Empire's more profligate vomitoria, or as a transformative, radical community experience where the roots of an ecologically vibrant world improbably grew amidst the wreckage of modernity? If we are blessed, it will be both.
A more in-depth version of this story as well as an exploration of Burning Man's most prominent art installation of 2007, Crude Awakening, appears on his website: matthewtaylor.net.