Burning Man is well known as the best party on the planet. What's equally true but less well known is that it is the largest Leave No Trace event on the planet as well. The theme of the event this year is "The Green Man", highlighting ecologically sustainable technologies, design, and art.
Everyone who's heard of Burning Man knows it for its techno-folk-art, its wild and iconoclastic community, and the general mind-blowing idea of creating a city of 35,000 people in the middle of a desert for a week, then disappearing. For the last decade the event has had themes to inspire the art, and this year the theme is "The Green Man". Much of the funded art deals with green themes, and at least one (the Mechabolic) is also a research project in alternative fuels. Much of the power for the city services will be provided by solar panels this year, and the rest will come from biodiesel-powered generators; participants are encouraged to switch their camps to solar, wind or bio-fuels as well. Most significantly, the entire nearby town of Gerlach will be taken off the grid to run on solar power--permanently, all year round.
If you think the Burning Man organization is jumping on the green-is-hip bandwagon, you're wrong. A large public initiative to green the burn started over a year and a half ago; last year carbon offsets were bought by Camp Katrina to make the entire event carbon-neutral; the organization experimented with using biodiesel in its generators three years ago; the Burning Man website has hosted a ride-share board for countless years. Camps like the Earth Guardians (who educate participants on leave No trace and give nature tours of the area), Recycle Camp (whose purpose should be obvious) and the Alternative Energy Zone (ditto) have existed for enough years that I don't remember the playa without them. Initiatives don't stop at the event, either--in 2005, hurricane Katrina hit New Orleans while Burning Man was under way, and as participants left they donated over $35,000 and thousands of pounds of food and water to relief efforts. Some Burners even went out to the gulf coast to do reconstruction themselves, and were one of the most effective groups per person, despite never having done reconstruction work before. (These people have since semi-formalized themselves as the organization Burners Without Borders, though spokesman Tom Price says that any Burner who takes the initiative to go help people somewhere is one of them.) In Detroit, Burners of the Detroit Dream project are working with artist David Best and local youth to build a temple out of discarded car parts.
Even without these specific camps and initiatives, Burners in general show exceptional civic responsibility and public-spiritedness, especially for the level of partying there. I've done my share of large festivals, and have been going to Burning Man for eleven years, so I've gathered plenty of anecdotal data. Although the night of the burn inevitably leaves some bottles and other forgotten detritus scattered around the playa, it's a tiny fraction of what you would see at other events, and nearly all of it is gone by morning, picked up by other partiers who are a bit more sober and together. By comparison, when I went to Las Fallas in Spain (another giant raucous week-long festival involving fire, which I highly recommend), after the burns the entire city was trashed--it looked like a dumpster had been upended on every block, with bottles, wrappers and bags, food, and all manner of other garbage strewn around.
Burning Man was originally total anarchy--Freaks Gone Wild, if you will. But after a while that gets old, so you either stop going or you go deeper--those that stayed involved with the event and kept making it happen gradually decided the event had some purpose. It is an experimental utopia. Utopia is a natural extension of a party--basically deepening and lengthening the extent to which everyone is having a good time. Larry Harvey has an excellent speech from 2002 describing the utopian vision of Burning Man and how the organization has pursued it. Part of the vision is the gift economy, other parts are "radical self-expression", "radical inclusion", and "radical self-reliance". It is a post-scarcity society optimized to build social capital instead of material or financial capital. And as the culture of the event evolves, it goes further in this utopian direction every year. Environmental sustainability has been an important part of it.
Granted, there is something fundamentally polluting and wasteful about 40,000 people driving to the middle of the desert and burning things. It will never be a sustainable event in the purist sense. But it is an amazingly useful exercise to teach sustainability--a city that people build by themselves, unconnected to any outside infrastructure, where participants must bring or make all of their own power, shelter, food, and water, then carry away their garbage with them. And every year it gets built again, differently, and is taken apart again. People quickly learn what their core needs are, giving them a more quantified and visceral sense of the resources they consume. Furthermore, people experiment with different ways to meet their needs, giving them experience trying alternatives to the status quo back home, and making them think up new solutions to try next year. Finally, people do this in groups, often coordinating power, construction, food and water for a camp of dozens (sometimes over a hundred); this gives people experience working with others to make things happen, building both social capital and logistical skills. (This is why Burners Without Borders was so effective in a hurricane zone--they knew how to live self-sufficiently and build things even in the most unsuitable of conditions.)
Taking lessons learned on the playa and bringing them back to the rest of people's lives is also part of the theme this year--the Burning Man organization's summer newsletter essay is titled "The Default World" and is all about people taking the community and volunteerism that is everywhere on the playa and bringing it back to the rest of their lives. When Jim Mason, the artist behind the Mechabolic, describes the reason for his foray into alternative fuels and invention of a new kind of gasifier, he says his goal is to build a community for people who tinker with alternative fuels. He wants to create a culture of energy-hackers along the lines of programming hackers, which could hopefully bring about the same sorts of benefits for the energy industry that open-source programming has brought to the software world. The most controversial aspect of Burning Man this year is that there will be a pavilion of product companies there, showing off their green technologies. Great pains have been taken to prevent it from being an advertising opportunity, since that would violate one of the core principles of the Burner flavor of utopia--non-commercialism--but the whole idea of the pavilion is that participants can see green products that they might be able to incorporate into their "normal" lives back home.
Perhaps most importantly, people do all this trial and error in self-sufficiency, all this building, and all this learning for fun, not because of guilt. If sustainability is going to endure and enmesh itself in everyday culture, it has to be something that people can get excited about. Personally, I think Burning Man is a great venue for sustainable projects because it is a collection of experiments in utopia, and all of us who are trying to build a bright green future are, in the end, pursuing utopias.
[See also columnist Micki Krimmel's August 21 take on the greening of Burning Man. -- Ed.]