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Wake Up, Burners!

A view from Burning Man, August 29th, 2013. Courtesy, DVS Ross, via Flickr.
A view from Burning Man. Courtesy DVS Ross via Flickr.

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

The giant Burning Man structure went up in flames on Labor Day weekend as usual, and I watched it — online. It looked very dramatic and impressive. As the tens of thousands of “BM” attendees gathered around to watch and cheer in person as the smoke and fireworks rose to the sky, it also reminded me of the main reason I don't go up there to witness it all in person.

First, a disclaimer: Some of my best friends are “Burners” — seriously! They have a great time at the annual Burning Man festival in the Nevada desert, and so be it. Much of the art and constructed “temples” and so forth are fantastic. But BM, even if it is unto a faith for many people, should not be above critique. When I wrote critically of BM a couple years ago, many readers reacted as if I had thrown a bomb at their church. Denial runs deep, even, maybe especially, among good people who otherwise likely think of themselves as “green.”

My problems with BM are three: It is environmentally irresponsible, presents a missed opportunity for truly doing good despite all its high-minded rhetoric, and is financially fishy. I'll leave the last issue out here, other than to note that lots of money flows in to BM coffers — more than ever now that the permitted attendance has been increased by 15,000 people to 68,000 — and even BM founder Larry Harvey has admitted that BM's honchos have long operated behind “a veil of secrecy” — especially in recent years as an attempt by those with legal ownership of the event to “monitize” and cash out appears to be underway. None of my business, I guess.

But what of the environmental aspect? That could be said to be everybody's business. First, some new context: The latest five-year report of the International Panel on Climate Change was leaked to the New York Times just this month, and the scientific consensus is more dire than ever. Temperatures and sea levels are predicted to rise even more than previously predicted, and human activity is “at least 95% likely” the major cause. The National Atmospheric and Oceanic Administration reported similar predictions last year. We're in deep doo-doo already, and it's going to get worse and worse without some very serious curtailment of our emissions.

Burning Man “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. As noted, it is now a scientific consensus that human activity contributes to climate change — that's been true for years, actually. The time to ignore that consensus and threat is long past.

At a minimum, the “carbon footprint” of BM would seem to be substantial, if not huge: tens of thousands of vehicles show up, most from hundreds if not thousands of miles away, with much-lamented traffic jams to get in and out adding to the exhaust and fuel consumption (there are now many airplanes and jets as well). Once there, generators hum and spew 24/7. This makes the slogan of “radical self-reliance” something of a joke, as the whole thing relies upon the oil and coal industries, as well as supermarkets. What is done to mediate that impact? In fact, BM could not really mediate the impact of all that driving and flying and burning of fuel, no matter what practices occur at the event. How much BM cash goes to efforts and other groups to make up for all the spew, at least in part? From their own statements, not much, it seems, in relative or absolute terms.

BM prides itself on being “an alternative to mass culture and consumer society,” and we sure need more of that. They also preach “radical” self-reliance, expression, inclusion, and the like, and “decommodification” (sic) — even though, as noted recently (in the “Style” section, of course) by the San Francisco Chronicle, corporate interests and presence has increased each year and “it has become a place where CEOs, venture capitalists and startuppers (sic) can network,” thus making BM “a little bit like a corporate retreat.” 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.

Given their stated high ideals, BM should go “carbon-neutral” — in total, not just at the event. That would be hugely difficult, and costly, but it's time, if the event is to approach true 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 attend BM nowadays — but it would take real commitment, of a radical kind.

So, here's my proposal to BM: Cancel it next year. 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. 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? And what if BM's “leaders” used that year to figure out how to be truly ecologically and socially responsible — and then actually did it?


Now that would be truly “radical.”


  1. Diane Campbell September 5, 2013

    Very good point(s) you make. I’ve wondered how the millions of water bottles don’t figure in the “footprint.”

  2. Marianne September 7, 2013

    The critique of BM is valid, the suggestion that donating money to charity or volunteering in a food bank is “radical” or “socially responsible” is not. Charities and non-profits are a deeply important part of sustaining capitalism, and most of them have carbon footprints every bit as heinous as any corporation.

  3. Steve September 18, 2013

    Marianne – Thanks, but – you mean to say that Planned Parenthood, The Food Bank, the Free Clinic, the AIDS Foundation, and Amnesty International – to name just a few I have worked with and for – are as “heinous” as, say, Exxon? If so, I think you might benefit from visiting one more – the psychiatric clinic.

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