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Green Man 2007 – Can Burning Man Ever Be Green?

Green ManBurning Man, the annual arts festival that takes place in the remote Black Rock Desert, attracts approximately 40,000 participants, and is Nevada’s tenth largest city, for one week. As a 4th year Burner, I returned to Burning Man after a hiatus of 3 years, with high hopes that Burning Man was finally evolving out of its flamboyant and hedonistic paradigm into a model of eco-conscious social engagement, embodied by its 2007 theme “Green Man.”

I must say that, while I had a blast, I was disappointed by the Green-ness of Green Man. But, having arrived at Black Rock Desert in a gas guzzling RV with 4 other friends, I will be the first to admit it ain’t easy making Burning Man Green.

Comparing notes with other eco-conscious Burners, it seemed that the Green element seemed to be somewhat weak.

Green Pavillion

The 30,000 square foot Green Pavilion showcased emerging Green technologies in a manner much like a high school science project, rather than a “World Fair” of clean technologies. Artistic models and interactive displays were explained by billboards that most were too hung-over or ADD in the highly distracting Burning Man environment to read.


An alternative solution to greenhouse gases – use bags of bubbling CO2 absorbing liquid algae.

Gas guzzling art cars tore around the Playa much like any year. Art installations that required enormous resources to haul out to Black Rock Desert and assemble were symbolically torched, emitting clouds of toxins into the atmosphere.

Eco-camps were few and far between – it appeared that most camps consumed and threw away mounds of plastic bottles, cups, utensils, and other refuse much like any other year. Camp art, sofas, carpets, dome cushions and junk costumes received their final applause on the Playa before making their inevitable journey to eternal rest in landfills. Face it, who wants to spend hours washing Playa dust off junk or pay to store it for next year?

Battery-operated lights on your bike are cool and create less garbage.

Environmentally unsustainable, single-use, disposable glow sticks were as de rigeur as ever. I found myself using plenty of these, as it was important to me to find my bike in the dark and not be run over by art cars at night.

Overall, the carbon footprint of Burning Man seemed to be no different than any other year. According to Cooling Man, the event is estimated to give off 28,000 tons of carbon emissions.

Leave No Trace

Burning Man’s motto, for years, has been to “Leave No Trace“. Burners are told to pack all out all their waste and refrain from wearing feather boas and glittery things that easily shed. Camps that use large quantities of water, such as Astral Headwash, are asked to evaporate their runoff in large, shallow, evaporation pans lined with sheets of black plastic rather than forcing the arid Playa to absorb unnaturally large quantities of water. For weeks after the Burn, the Black Rock City clean up crew comb the desert for detritus that might have blown away.

I’ve often thought that “Leave No Trace”, while truly commendable, still falls short of minimal environmental impact to the desert. Face it, burning giant structures of metal, plastic, and fluorescent lights can’t possibly be good for the environment.

2007 Green Initiatives at Burning Man

In 2006, Burning Man took a Green step forward by issuing an official environmental statement.

In 2007, that intention evolved into the following initiatives, such as:

A festival-wide composting program will manage food waste from the Café, Commissary and 50-100 theme camps. The organizers have also instituted composing in the San Francisco Burning Man office. All plastic utensils are also being replaced by corn-based products.

A comprehensive recycling program including drive-thru recycling in neighboring cities for burners to dispose of recyclables on the ride home. Proceeds raised from the recyclables will be donated to support environmental initiatives and education through the Gerlach High School.

87% of the main festival generators will be run on B100 biodiesel (11,000 gallons) and the remaining generators (not including festival participants) will run on B10.

Over 50 theme camps are using biodiesel because Burning Man negotiated with local vendors to lower entry barriers for biodiesel use.

A Burning Man sponsored installation of a 120 kW solar array in Gerlach, Nevada and a 60 kW solar array in Lovelock, Nevada. A 30 kW solar array will be used to help power the festival and will be gifted to Gerlach after the event. This project will generate $3 million of electricity over the next 20 years at no cost to Gerlach/Lovelock residents.

A Burning Man sponsored a CFL project in Gerlach (the closest town to the festival, population 500) updating all town light bulbs from incandescent to compact fluorescents.

1000 shared yellow bikes (funded by a generous burner) painted green with red flames. This gift will help create the highest per capita municipal bike use in the United States (1 bike per 35 people).

Burning Man 2007’s Green Footprint Baby Step

While efforts to reduce Burning Man’s environmental impact has been steadily growing, in 2007, Burning Man broke new records in its Green initiatives:

The wood recycling set a new record: 56 units of lumber loaded down 4 flatbeds, all donated to Habitat For Humanity in Reno.

The composting project with the City of San Francisco loaning out their curbside green bins was a huge hit–we loaded out an entire 30 yard dumpster of gooey wet green waste, and sent it off to Full Circle Compost down in Minden.

Also Cooling Man set a new record – 600 tons of carbon emissions offset in 2007

Finally, according to the Burn Clean Project, Burning Man 2007 collectively replaced 8,000 gallons of petroleum with biodiesel.

How Can Burning Man Get Greener

According to Dr. Jonathan L. Gelbard, Ph.D. conservation biologist, sustainability expert, and Burner, Burning Man has a long way to go before it can be considered a “bright green event.” His recommendations are:

Improve Greener Transport and Power

1. Energize Black Rock City via the power of sun and wind! If a few pilot solar and wind-power stations can be set up to help start powering RV’s and sound systems so they don’t need to burn gas for generators, it would be a huge coup.

2. Or, use biofuel-powered vehicles and generators.

Reduce, Re-Use and Recycle More

Burning Man’s organizers can more actively discourage waste, and encourage the use of re-usable water jugs, bottles, cups, and cutlery, as well as biodegradable plastics. Paper used by the festival should be a high percentage of post-consumer recycled content, including toilet paper in the porta-potties.

Use Sustainably Harvested Wood

A lot of wood is used at Burning Man, including to build The Man, himself. Burning Man (1) should absolutely set a good example by using sustainably-harvested FSC certified wood, and (2) can provide resources on its web site to help connect burners with sources of sustainably harvested wood – as well as sustainable products in general.

Keep Building Awareness About Sustainability

Burning Man can and should maintain and improve upon 2007’s Green Man-type sustainability component. Perhaps fun contests can reward the greenest burners, creating financial incentives that encourage sustainability. Burning Man has been the seed for many a good idea, and the event’s coordinators can and should continue to do their part to actively lead the way towards a more sustainable future.

[tags]burning man 2007, green man 2007, burning man green initiatives, leave no trace, Jonathan L. Gelbard, lorna li[/tags]

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