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Burn On, Burners!

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

It's Burning Man time again. I'm not going, again. I'm going to say something critical about it, again. And will be mostly ignored and/or vilified, again.

But here goes, anyway.

When I first wrote in 2011 that Burning Man was a serious eco-hazard, it was as if I'd bombed somebody's church. How dare I be such a party pooper?

Many Burners react to any negative input about the event as if BM is and should be above critique. But I'm not against BM itself - there's great art there, the torching of the temple is a wondrous ritual, and there's nothing wrong with plain old fun. Some of my best friends are “Burners” — seriously! In the past few years there has been much other criticism, most of it about the lost soul of BM as Hollywood/techie/yuppie crowds make it their own version of a corporate ego retreat. That sounds like a bummer to me too but that's not my concern. My worry is about our planet, life on it, even, yes, our children.

Eco-denial runs deep, even among good people who otherwise think of themselves at least partly “green.” Some denial arises from the threat just being to huge to contemplate. Then there's greed, religious;y-motivated inability to admit that "God" and/or humanity could be so self-destructive, and more. But in the case of BM, I think it's mostly a case of "No, it's our party and we don't care." (OK, and greed on the part of those who actually profit from BM, but that's a relatively small - and secretive - number of people), and another story).

For context, let's agree, unless we are in denial about this too, that the future, climate-wise, is looking grim. Scientific consensus tells us so, and just plain observation, in much of the world, confirms it.

Scientific consensus is also that human activity is “at least 95% likely” a major cause of climate change, including mostly warming. Many are still trying to spin that away for their own reasons, profitable and/or ideological, but they are a shrinking fringe minority as reality overwhelms the holdouts and corporate greed and inertia. We're in deep doo-doo already, and it's going to get worse and worse without some very serious curtailment of our emissions.

How about Burning Man? It's proudly "green" and "leave no trace" and so on and on, but what does that really mean, besides some fastidious efforts to keep litter off the "playa"? The biggest problem - things that might not otherwise occur (Burners would be eating snd drinking and excreting even if not at BM, presumably - would seem to be all the driving and flying to get there, followed by emissions from generators and well, burns, and mass use of plastic bottles. Lot of used bikes and such tend to get left behind too but that's a lesser concern in the big climate picture.

When I last wrote about the BM eco-issue, I was not aware that in 2007 some eco-conscious Burners had made an effort of calculating the BM carbon footprint, and nicely named their project "coolingman." Last year, journalist Keith Plocek covered it nicely for the Los Angeles Weekly, and his calculations and conclusion bear reprint here:

All told, Burning Man 2006 pumped out 27,492 tons of greenhouse gases.

Eighty-seven percent of that was from travel to and from Black Rock City, while the actual burning man was responsible for 112 tons.

There were 40,000 participants that year, but now they allow 28,000 more people, so let's update the math. Being generous and assuming the staff and infrastructure will have the same impact at 1,776 tons, we can figure those additional 28,000 participants will produce the same amount of carbon dioxide as the others, and raise this year's overall total to 45,493 tons of greenhouse gases. So what does that mean? Just how much is 45,493 tons? You can think about it this way: The average American is responsible for 17.6 tons of greenhouse gases each year, or 0.33 tons per week. The average Burner will produce 0.67 tons next week, or double the national average. There's nothing green about doubling the national average, especially when you consider the average Californian only spits out 0.17 tons per week, and even the average Texan only belches out 0.49 tons. If your community's environmental impact is worse than the Lone Star State's, you are not doing a very good job with that whole civic responsibility thing.

Burners are less "green" than Texans? That's harsh. One can quibble, endlessly, about such calculations, but given the undeniably huge number of miles driven at a minimum, it's hard to argue with Plocek's conclusion: "The environment gets worse every year because of Burning Man."

Now, BM officials have said they are trying to ameliorate such impacts, by advocating carpooling and such, but such proposals are just bandaids. In fact, BM could not really mediate the impact of all that driving and flying and burning of fuel and wood, no matter what other practices occur at the event. And as for Coolingman, it seems to have died off that year, for lack of interest, most likely. Real eco-action usually just ain't that much fun.

BM prides itself on being “an alternative to mass culture and consumer society,” and we sure need more of that, and not just for ecological reasons. BM also preaches “radical” self-reliance, expression, inclusion, transparency, and the like, but mostly that seems to only apply when it's fun. But the modern world requires of us some self-sacrifice, and not just crapping in a box and hauling it out. If BM, and the newer techworthy attendees, are truly going to practice what they often preach, they'll try to find away to make BM honestly green.

That's going to be tough, but tough times call for it. I can only repeat my (updated) call for change here: BM should go “carbon-neutral” — in total, not just at the event. But given that the biggest impact by far comes from travel to and from BM, there is really only one option at this time, and until it can otherwise be fixed: Cancel BM next year, in the name of a real commitment to true, radical, eco-consciousness.

But don't leave it at that: Urge all would-be attendees to take the money they would have spent on tickets and supplies and give that to the charities of their choice, environmental or otherwise - what a huge positive impact that could have. And enlist the many good Burning minds, with technological, environmental, engineering, ethical and other expertise in a concerted effort to bring Burning Man into this century for real - as at least a non-negative impact event, but even more hopefully, a force for ecological good. Instead of the giant party on the playa this time next year, how about a big report back on all the ideas for moving in this green direction, with plans to fund action?

Now that would be truly “radical.”


  1. Nate Collins August 27, 2015

    Right On Steve!!!!!!!!

  2. Jeff Costello August 27, 2015

    I’ll never be going to BM for two reasons. First, I just drove about 1500 miles through the southern desert with temps around 110 degrees F. Second, I have no need or wish to be where “the action is,” where thousands of people gather for reasons that are not clear to them. By the same token I won’t be at any big sports stadium for either sports or a mega-rock concert.

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