How green was Burning Man?

Was the counterculture festival's eco-friendly theme a success, or just a mirage? Maybe both.

Elsa Wenzel
10 min read

The majority of the nearly 50,000 celebrants at the Burning Man counter-culture event have been re-adjusting for two weeks to the real world of running water, cubicles and commutes. With the week-long party in the Nevada desert in the rearview mirror, how green was the burn?

Supporters and critics of the festival of radical self-expression anticipated that this year's Green Man theme would set the ephemeral city apart from those of the past. Many hoped that Burning Man would clean up its act, show off promising clean technologies and set a fresh example for eco-friendly events. Others accused festival planners of hypocrisy, pandering to the green chic trend and corporate interests by inviting green tech companies to participate.

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As a first-time Burner, I've finally shaken the playa dust from my shoes and mind to conclude that it was perhaps the most and the least eco-friendly mega-event I've attended. Tom Price, Burning Man's environmental director and one of four staff members charged with greening Black Rock City, acknowledged some of the contradictions.

"The idea of making a temporary city in the middle of nowhere is inherently unsustainable," he said. "That said, if we start from the assumption that the thing is inherently wasteful and consumptive, then it's that much more of a success when we're actually able to mitigate the impact."

Trash to treasure
Burning Man is a sand painting writ large, its map a mandala of controlled chaos. Any look at sustainability starts with its standing as the world's largest "leave no trace" event. No garbage cans are provided. Participants must remove from the premises any matter out of place, known as "MOOP," whether cigarette butts, boa feathers or even substances otherwise considered natural. I recall someone shouting a sunrise wake-up call from a megaphone that bodily fluids, too, should be considered MOOP.

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Burning Man officials have been prowling the playa with GPS devices to identify camps that neglected their trash, ready to make public maps of shame. They'll be wiping the slate clean until mid-October. Before 1998, revelers simply bulldozed the trash into a pile, set it afire and left.

Anecdotal evidence from Price and veteran burners suggests that there was less MOOP left over this year than in prior years, despite record attendance. Figures detailing the use of water and other natural resources are expected to be compiled in the coming months.

This year recycling efforts expanded. Recycle Camp continued to collect cans, and the city took two trucks of bottles and cans to recycling centers in Reno. Burning Man donated 56 bundles of lumber to Habitat for Humanity in Reno, Nev., the largest donation received there, and up from 42 bundles in 2006.

Organizers also instituted composting. The staff commissary used cornstarch-based tableware and utensils. The San Francisco Department of the Environment provided 65 green curbside composting receptacles. All of that, along with teabags and coffee grounds from the center camp cafe, filled a 30-cubic-yard dumpster delivered to a facility in Reno that creates garden fertilizer. Last year, that material would have gone to a landfill.

Albertson's grocery store in Reno volunteered to accept recycling on Labor Day, when most trash facilities are closed, and pledged to use its recycling earnings to help schools pay for maintenance on solar arrays donated by festival participants.

Cooling the burn
Even if the trace of tens of thousands of pairs of footprints has disappeared from the Black Rock desert, how can something that climaxes with manmade fires lighting up the desert sky possibly be gentle to the earth?

Fire artists used thousands of gallons of propane. Most conspicuous, an exploding oil rig blasted a mushroom cloud 300 feet high into the sky. However, only 1 percent of the event's carbon footprint comes from all the burning and explosions, according to Price.

Some attendees suggested lighting the archetypal neon-laced, centerpiece Green Man sculpture with solar-powered LEDs or even soy-based candles, rather than burning it. Instead, "The Man" burned twice this year after a San Francisco performance artist set it on fire days early. Black Rock City took some heat for rebuilding the figure rather than leaving its ashes be.

"I mean, it was just some two by fours and plywood," said Price, countering such objections. "Come on. It visually looks substantive but there's not that much to it."

He emphasized that Forest Stewardship Council certified wood was used--and less than last year--decorated with paint containing low or no volatile organic compounds. The amount of power used to light the main pavilion was halved thanks to LEDs and compact fluorescent bulbs.

Although builders tried to find mercury-free neon, in the end they decided the toxicant was necessary, ironically, for the desired hue of green. Fireworks also continued as planned.

Perhaps even more dazzling than such manmade displays of light and heat were those created by nature that week, including a lunar eclipse and a luminous double rainbow.

Hoping to counter the "masculine energy" of Burning Man's heat and flames, a woman circulating center camp passed out fliers for Water Woman Festival, location yet unplanned.

Getting there and beyond
Reflecting the world beyond Black Rock, most people trekked there in gasoline-fueled cars. Transportation to and from Burning Man accounted for 87 percent of its greenhouse gas emissions, said Price. That includes air travel by individuals from far-flung locales as well as some 140 small airplanes landing on the city's temporary airstrip.

Mammoth RVs idling to run air conditioning were the most obvious, un-green sight, although I admittedly enjoyed the comfort of one on a stiflingly hot afternoon. Yet, there was also a fair share of hybrid sedans and veggie oil Mercedes station wagons. Ride-sharing posts were well-trafficked on Craigslist and Burning Man's Web site. A biodiesel-powered schoolbus escorted Burners to and from Reno.

And although fossil fuels powered most transportation from afar, most people pedaled pollution-free bicycles around Black Rock City. The city also provided 700 bikes, falling short of the goal of 1,000 because recovering from the Green Man's arson took so much time, said Price.

Power to the people
Black Rock City services used 11,000 gallons of fuel from a carbon-neutral, waste food-based biodiesel company in Minden, Nev., shifting 90 percent of the generating capacity away from fossil fuels. In addition, large theme camps like Opulent Temple networked and shared 150-kilowatt generators with other camps rather than using less efficient, smaller generators.

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The Alternative Energy Zone accounted for nearly 500 campers in 81 camps, continuing its tradition of promoting the use of renewable sources of energy.

However, most burners with electricity used gasoline for generators. To ensure that our dance party would last all Thursday night, for instance, my camp of almost 40 people required us each to bring at least five gallons.

The blazing desert sun and winds at 60 miles per hour provided obvious potential sources of energy and challenges for dozens of novel art exhibits large and small. Art cars, teepees, the Man, a flying saucer and countless exhibits were powered by solar panels.

With the grand Big Rig Jig sculpture of trucks welded together, the petroleum theme seemed poised to cartwheel across the desert. Unfortunately, most people missed the highly anticipated Mechabolic, a giant garbage-eating slug machine and demonstration of gasification that was still being built a few days before the weekend burn.

However, a big highlight was Peter Hudson's massive Homouroboros zoetrope, which combined solar panels and stationary bicycles to create an optical illusion of life-size monkeys swinging from branches. From a distance, it looks like a mushroom cloud. Hudson, who dreamed up the idea the before the Green Man theme was announced last year, explained the theme of his piece.

"The technology has gone so fast in the last 100 years, but we still make the same mistakes we've made for thousands of years," he said.

Closed to business
Before the event, controversy raged that Burning Man was selling out by inviting corporate participants to exhibit products. Such murmurs were largely silent on location. Placards at the Green Man pavilion were decidedly low key and text heavy, with some spelling out the ABCs of wind power, the promise of algae for biofuel, and so on--not quite the clean tech "world's fair" that some anticipated.

The Green Man pavilion ran into more than a few speed bumps. Displays were removed for several days after the man's premature burning. Blinding dust storms interrupted this writer's two trips there. The sight of dust-covered friends huddling beneath a clean technology booth, hair made into instant dredlocks from whipping winds (with goggles and masks little help) would have perfectly fit some warning poster about global warming.

About a dozen companies exhibited, a number that event officials would not confirm. Many companies invited to participate reportedly declined because they had to agree not to display logos or discuss business.

Among the logo-free products displayed was the prototype of an off-grid, solar-powered carport harnessing enough energy to power a home. Parked underneath was a model of a Tesla electric car.

"Burning Man would not be Burning Man if companies were allowed to market their services and products and use their brand," said Bob Noble, CEO of Envision Solar, maker of the Lifeport. "It would be a terrible distraction from the freedom and art and the noncommercial character."

Although he met people from several other renewable energy companies, Noble said he didn't even remember their names or collect business cards. "We didn't talk business. It was more technology, because that's what interests us."

Too many trinkets
Gifting is a core component of Burning Man culture. Many gifts fit the green bill, like natural fiber necklaces and organic lip gloss. I gave away vintage embroidered handkerchiefs spritzed with rosewater, pat on my self-righteous back. But the many plastic keychains, theme camp-branded cups, toxic glowsticks and even the odd USB drive felt more like MOOP.

Perhaps the most ecologically offensive "gift" at Burning Man were trinkets dropped into the porta potties, playing "Happy Birthday" MIDI tunes. Somebody had dropped musical geegaws, maybe birthday cards, into many commodes, thinking it funny that hapless facilities workers would have to later retrieve them.

Outside of Black Rock
It may be a never-never land where adults shed their everyday skins and, clad or not, flaunt their inner freaks, but Burning Man is not insulated from the outside world. Many participants aimed for people to take the greening theme to heart. Three eco-themed film festivals were held in addition to talks and workshops about sustainability that were too numerous to be counted on the official agenda. Onsite, the Earth Guardians group educated visitors about the Black Rock ecosystem. Offsite, some of Burning Man's 25 staff members have advised organizers of Coachella and other music festivals on waste-reduction strategies.

Black Rock City's donation consisted of enough solar arrays to supply nearby Gerlach and Lovelock, Nev., with the equivalent of several million dollars of electricity for the next couple of decades.

A loose collection of Burners without Borders has expanded notably in Chicago and Austin, Texas, volunteering to help low-income residents build and fix up homes. They have already helped to rebuild communities in regions devastated by Hurricane Katrina as well as by the 2004 tsunami in Thailand.

And Google's Burning Man Earth brings interactive exhibits of the playa to PCs around the planet.

Carbon neutral zone?
The Cooling Man project aims to make Black Rock a carbon-neutral city through encouraging individuals to buy offset credits that fund clean energy projects. About 650 tons have been donated so far--a pittance against the estimated 27,000 tons of carbon spewed by burners, but still more than double last year's 250 tons' worth. For example, the CoolingMan calculator estimated that I contributed about a quarter ton of greenhouse gases by showing up in a gasoline sedan.

David Shearer, the Burning Man science adviser who helped initiate Cooling Man, hopes that people will offset 1,500 tons of carbon this year. He is optimistic that in the next few years, the festival will begin building the cost of carbon offsets into the price of the ticket, adding another $10 to the minimum $185 cost.

With or without carbon offsets, every person is MOOP in the delicate Black Rock Desert. As others have said, the best way for Burning Man to leave no ecological impact would be for it not to take place.

Nevertheless, as far as events of its size go, Burning Man is a relatively solid citizen. How many real cities in which we live year-round leave such a slight footprint on any ecosystem?

Burning Man is a dystopia as much as a utopia. Cage matches inside the Thunderdome underscore its Mad Max undertones. Maybe there's no better place for the reality of the world's widening deserts and shrinking supplies of fresh water to hit home for office-dwelling urbanites. That tiny taste of resource deprivation made me unusually grateful for mundane creature comforts.

On the way home, I first saw green ground a few hours out of Gerlach, Nev., in a patch of sod outside of a Starbucks--normally something to scoff at. But I knelt to the ground and ran dry fingers through the damp grass, bliss for fingertips chapped by dust from the dead lake bed of the playa. That turf, like the experience of the "Burn," was out of place in the desert, yet so green.