Burning Man gets in touch with its environmental side

[27 August 2007]

By David Watts Barton

McClatchy Newspapers (MCT)

SACRAMENTO, Calif.—“Green” is not the first word one might choose to describe Black Rock City, the home of the counterculture adventure known as Burning Man.

Black Rock City, which officially exists for just one week a year, lies in the vast Black Rock Desert of northern Nevada. That desert—known to its many admirers as the playa—is roughly 1,000 square miles of nothing; nothing very green, anyway. Just endless miles of a powder-fine dust.

But one week a year, during Burning Man, which starts on Sunday at midnight and runs through Labor Day, the empty playa explodes with light and sound. Burning Man’s credo of “radical self-expression” leads its citizens (39,100 last year, more expected this year) to extravagant displays of wanton creativity; it culminates in the equally wanton destruction of much of that art—by fire.

The requirements of surviving for a week in a vast wasteland led “Burners” to develop efficient ways to use water, food and energy. But in most respects, Burning Man is vastly, riotously profligate. From the high costs of getting there (people come from around the world) and making a comfortable (and preferably, wildly thematic) camp, to creating extravagant costumes, fire-breathing art cars, and other outrageous works of art and feats of engineering, Burning Man isn’t conservative in any sense of the word.

Which is why this year’s theme—“The Green Man”—caught some off guard.

“I’ve heard people say, `It’s Burning Man, not Composting Dude,’” admits Tom Price, an environmental journalist and 11-year Burner who is the environmental manager for this year’s event. And this year, the environment is the focus of the event, from the theme art to the many efforts at conservation and recycling that are being undertaken to compensate for what is estimated to be the event’s 27,000-ton “carbon footprint”—an estimate of the amount of carbon dioxide put into the atmosphere through fuel consumption in its many forms.

(By comparison, the carbon footprint of the 2006 Berlin World Cup soccerfinals was estimated to have been 100,000 metric tons. According to the United Nations’ latest figures from 2002, the average person in the developed world emits 9.7 metric tons of carbon per year. A metric ton is 10 percent larger than a U.S. standard ton).

Price says Burning Man’s greatest carbon impact is actually not in blowing things up and burning art, but in participants flying and driving from all over the country to the desert.

Price can tick off dozens of changes being made this year in the pursuit of reducing the event’s environmental impact: creation of a new fleet of 1,000 free community bikes (once there, most Burners travel the expansive city on bikes); the changeover of all city generators from diesel to biodiesel; efforts to recycle wood used in building the city (last year six tractor-trailers full of recycled lumber went to Reno’s Habitat for Humanity); an arrangement with the Albertsons grocery chain to provide seven 24-hour recycling centers for Burners leaving the playa.

Albertsons? Habitat for Humanity? What do those organizations, from what Burners half-jokingly refer to as “the default world,” have to do with Burning Man? A lot, says Price. Especially this year.

“It’s a very different kind of Burning Man,” he says. “It has an outward focus; it’s the first theme that’s had real-world implications.”

In the past, Burning Man’s annual themes have been designed by founder Larry Harvey to evoke a wide variety of creative responses. For instance, 2002’s “The Floating World” theme brought forth everything from schools of electric jellyfish (on bikes) to the 40-foot-long, self-propelled, two-masted wooden Spanish galleon, La Contessa. Other recent themes include “Psyche” and “Beyond Belief.”

But Burning Man’s dominant aesthetic, if it has one, is a hard-core, “Mad Max”-style anarchy, where art burns, explosions go off for their own sake, and hundreds of fire dancers spin flaming poi, leaving vast clouds of smoke in their wake.

So how does Burning Man go “green”? And why?

“Burning Man is a microcosm of the world with all of the hidden costs revealed,” says Price. “If you generate garbage, it’s at your feet. You burn something, you see the smoke. We can’t hide from our impact there—so what better place to figure out ways to deal with it?”

Because of that, one of Burning Man’s most familiar principles is “Leave No Trace”—it even is emblazoned on the event tickets. It’s a practical as well as an aesthetic principle, being key to the event’s continued existence: The federal Bureau of Land Management, which oversees the playa, is very particular about its post-Burn condition.

So, leaving no trace is not a new idea to Burners. Even so, some weren’t entirely sure about the whole “Green Man” theme. It sounded, says David Rajter, a freelance TV writer-producer in Hollywood, “sort of rustic.”

Rajter, an eight-year Burner known by the “playa name” Astronaughty, leans more to pink fur and metallic hot pants—not rustic. But he says that, aside from not going at all—the ultimate “green” gesture—he is making an extra effort to do what he can. He is camping for the first time without a gas-powered generator for his lights and music. Instead, he’s going solar.

It’s not a perfect solution, he admits, and his Burn will still impact the environment.

“I do a lot of fake fur costumes, and that’s made from petroleum,” he says. “But I think that’s part of what they want to do with the theme, make people aware. Every single person I know who is going has mentioned it being greener. They may not be doing anything greener, but at least they’re thinking about it.”

Brooklyn-based artist Mike Ross is one of the thousands of artists who will be exhibiting at Burning Man, but his piece is already one of the most-talked-about. Pursuing the Green Man theme, Ross conceived Big Rig Jig: a 45-foot-tall tower consisting of two “recycled” oil tankers, standing on end, one climbing over the other like mating caterpillars. Now being built in Oakland, the Big Rig Jig looks to be a work that combines all of the best elements of Burning Man art: layers of meaning, a sense of the absurd, a desire to create the improbable, and real-world engineering skills.

“I was thinking of issues of power, awe and fear,” he says. “In my imagination, if you’re standing under a big-rig truck that’s up in the air, that will give you a sense of unease. Climbing through it, you’ll be in a maze of (fabric) plant life, and underneath it, you’ll literally feel the weight of it.”

Creative engineering has long been an aspect of Burner art, but this year that aspect is being emphasized. The pavilion that stands at the center of the city and traditionally supports the Man (the 72-foot-tall effigy made of lumber and neon) will be bigger than ever this year—30,000 square feet—and it will house not just the traditional art, but about 30 different art works and inventions, most of which deal with alternative energy generation.

The most novel aspect of the pavilion is the $1.5 million, 270-kilowatt solar energy array donated by a venture capital firm that specializes in alternative energy. The array will be removed before the Man is burned on the night of Sept. 1, divided into two sections and installed in the local high school in Gerlach, the tiny mining town eight miles from Black Rock City, and a hospital in Lovelock, two hours away.

“We’re marrying venture capital with social capital to give poor communities a seat at the renewable energy table,” says Price. “We’re giving it to some of the poorest communities in the country. It’s the idea of a gift economy (another of Burning Man’s governing principles): You give because it’s the right thing to do.”

Some are not convinced that inviting venture capitalists to Burning Man is the right thing to do. On maintaining the gifting principle, the Burning Man ticket is clear: Commercial vending is prohibited. This has been broadly interpreted by Burners, many of whom even cover up corporate logos on their rented RVs and trucks.

So inviting venture capitalists and companies, no matter how cutting-edge or well-meaning, has made it look, at least to some, like the Man is suddenly doing business with “the Man.”

Steve “Fat Sam” Mattos, a Burner from Portland, Ore., has launched a protest against the “commodification” of this year’s pavilion, dubbing it Project Jericho. At 3 p.m. every day of Burn week, he will lead a group of whoever shows up—or go by himself, if need be—in a march around the Green Man Pavilion. On Sept. 1, he and his fellow protesters will circle the pavilion and, much as the Israelites did at the biblical Jericho, they will shout and blow whistles and bullhorns in one final protest.

Mattos’ problem with the invitation to profit-making companies is that it treats participants as though they were a target market. He doesn’t deny that they are—he notes the growth in such popular Burning Man accoutrements as electroluminescent wire and UtiliKilts as examples—but he finds the “branding” of Burning Man cynical.

“The people who make Burning Man happen, the participants, are being referred to as a marketable commodity, a thing with buying power,” he says. “For sure, Burning Man fuels all kinds of businesses each year, but I think that boiling it down and selling that buying power is nasty. Even for a good cause.”

Mattos has not found a lot of support for his idea, even among notoriously contrarian Burners—“It’s as if I’m against the environment or something,” he says—but he’ll go on regardless.

In defense of the pavilion, environmental manager Price estimates that only 10 percent to 20 percent of the groups in the pavilion will represent formal companies, rather than individual inventors. And the Burning Man organization, from founder Harvey on down, has gone out of its way to reassure people that Burning Man is not selling out.

“Those companies are participating on our terms,” says Price. “No logos, no branding, no marketing, no as-seen-at-Burning Man advertising. Burners will demonstrate the technologies as we see fit. We invited them to participate in this world’s fair of ideas because we want ideas to triumph on their merit, not their marketing.”

As large as it looms at this year’s Burn, the Green Man Pavilion is the relatively small center of the vast, swirling circus that is Burning Man itself.

Even the earnest “Green Man” theme will be subject to the typically sardonic Burning Man approach to virtually anything. One example is the camp of the Pigmalions, who “bring bacon and Bloody Marys to the masses every morning at 11 a.m.” According to camp member Karl Soehnlein, a San Francisco-based novelist, the Pigmalions’ twist on the eco-theme puts it in playa perspective, playing off the name of the environmental group Earth First.

“Our theme for the Green Man Burn,” writes Soehnlein in an e-mail: “`Pigmalions: Earth Second. Bacon First’.”

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ART PROPOSALS

Burning Man is known primarily as an arts festival, but the creativity extends to every aspect of the city and its residents. Still, this year’s “Green Man” theme has drawn an extraordinary number of art proposals—40 percent more than last year—and hundreds of projects are under construction. For detailed descriptions and links to the artists’ Web sites, visit www.burningman.com, click on “Art of Burning Man,” then click on “honorarium art installations.”

Published at: http://www.popmatters.com/pm/article/burning-man-gets-in-touch-with-its-environmental-side/