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It’s Our Party and You’ll Fry if We Want To

Wake up! The world is on fire! — Lawrence Ferlinghetti

Another Burning Man gathering has come and gone, supposedly “leaving no trace” as one of their primary credos has it. But can that really be true? Far from it, alas.

First, a disclaimer: I’m not anti-Burning Man. Some of my best friends — seriously! — are, or were while alive, committed “Burners.” They have had a great time at the annual bash on the “Playa” in the high Nevada desert. Much of the art and constructed “temples” and so forth are fantastic (to see some, and hear an interview with one of the temples’ founding visionary artists, search “David Best, The New School at Commonweal”).

But Burning Man (BM) should not be above critique. When I first raised concerns in “print”, including here in the AVA, about BM’s carbon footprint a decade ago, some readers reacted as if I had thrown a bomb at their church and I got more negative blowback than when writing about abortion, the right to die, war, or other heated topics. Denial runs deep, even, maybe especially, among good people who otherwise likely think of themselves as “green.” But now I feel it’s time to repeat and update the critique, as the need to reexamine the impacts of our “lifestyles” is bigger than ever.

There should be no need to summarize climate science here, as it’s now an overwhelming consensus that human impact, mainly via carbon emissions, is helping to cook us and all other species who live on this globe. Even oil companies and the highest levels of financiers recognize the imperative to clean up their acts, or eventually be forced to do so. And that even so, it could be, likely is, too late to prevent much disruption and suffering due to various cataclysms. 

So what of BM — an event with much high-sounding rhetoric, including “green,” about what they do — and their environmental aspect? That could be said to be everybody’s business. I don’t care much about the smoke from the actual burning of temples and “The Man.” That’s relatively inconsequential. It’s the fuel burned and carbon emitted by everybody getting to and from the “Playa” that’s an issue. Up to 80,000 people now attend. They come from around the world. The traffic jams are legendary. BM “prides itself on being eco-friendly” and does have an “environmental statement.” It’s proudly a “Leave No Trace” event, which is cool enough, even though they’d likely not have a permit or event without such a goal. But just cleaning up after oneself and encouraging greener practices while there is far from enough (and the garbage, including thousands of junked bikes, left in nearby towns and along the roads out afterwards have become a real problem too). At a minimum, the “carbon footprint” of BM would seem to be substantial. The number of plastic water bottles — a big green no-no — used there is unknown but must be huge. And so on. 

Photos of the gridlock exodus from BM this year prompted renowned writer Rebecca Solnit to call it a “Carbon Potlach.” Others have said much nastier things. I suspect what most, er, burns many BM critics is the apparent hypocrisy of the whole thing.

BM prides itself on being “an alternative to mass culture and consumer society,” and we sure need more alternatives to that. They also preach “radical” self-reliance, expression, inclusion, and the like, and “decommodification”, although as many have lamented, corporate interests and presence has increased each year and the San Francisco Chronicle noted years ago that “it has become a place where CEOs, venture capitalists and startuppers (sic) can network,” thus making BM “a little bit like a corporate retreat.” That entails private jets galore. Paris Hilton — remember her? — has become a regular. In other words, BM is “evolving” towards something very different from what it was in the early years, and in fact the small group of “owners” have taken the trouble to state they are certainly “not anti-capitalist.” With many of the new power elite attending, BM has a big opportunity to provide an example of real “socially conscious capitalism.” After all, such goals are often stated by our new “techie” business folks — Google’s “Don’t Be Evil” being a prime example — but rarely put into practice yet, as too many sad stories have revealed.

What is done to mediate the impacts? Not enough. But in fact, BM could not really be a no-impact event, considering all that driving and flying and burning of fuel, no matter what practices occur at the event.

Given their stated high ideals, though, BM should at least truly attempt to go “carbon-neutral” — in total, not just at the event. That would likely be hugely difficult, and costly, but it’s way past time, if the event is to approach some sort of positive “consciousness” in this troubled transitional time for our economy and planet. Solar power, mass transport to/from BM, carbon offsets/credits, and much more might be a good start. There are plenty of people who could help BM do this, many of whom probably have attended or still attend BM nowadays — but it would take real commitment, of a truly radical kind.

Nowadays lots of money flows in to BM coffers — more than ever now that the permitted attendance has been increased to 80,000, and even BM founder Larry Harvey once admitted that BM’s honchos have long operated behind “a veil of secrecy” with intimations of a few making lots of money — capitalism at its grooviest, perhaps, hiding behind lots of performative paganism. This might well be nobody else’s business if it weren’t for all their expressed high ideals and the fact that the “trace” they leave isn’t limited to the Playa — it’s in the air, impacting us all, and not in a good way.

It’s far too late for Business As Usual. So, here’s my proposal to BM: Cancel it next year, and urge all would-be attendees to take the money they would have spent on tickets and supplies and gas and flights and give that to the charities of their choice. And as for all that fine energy that would have been expended on the playa that week, what if all the constructive effort, literal and otherwise, went towards building homes for Habit for Humanity, volunteering in food banks, and the like? Such good karma! And what if BM’s leaders/owners used that year to figure out how to be truly ecologically and socially responsible — at a minimum buying massive amounts of “carbon offsets” to help balance things out at least somewhat — and then actually did that?

Now that would be truly “radical,” and much closer to leaving no trace.

(PS: “It’s My Party and I’ll Cry If I Want To” was a pathetic #1 hit tune in 1963 sung by Lesley Gore and written by John Gluck, Wally Gold, and Herb Wiener).

2 Comments

  1. izzy September 19, 2022

    Hollow virtue signaling has become a way of life.
    That giant traffic jam in the desert says it all.
    We’re going green alright, but it’s around the gills.

  2. Nathan Duffy September 19, 2022

    “Performative paganism”, wow what a great expression.
    What happens when you purposely marry the ideals of inclusion, radical self-expression WITH mass commodification, consumption and mass culture???
    Seems like we are there.
    BM is just edgy enough to be safe for the status quo and honestly probably has hijacked a great deal of energy and effort that Steve states could easily be used for making the world a better place instead of a cheap copout and an escape.

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