How green was my Burning Man?

The takeway from Black Rock City: abundant irony amid good intentions

SOMEWHERE UNDER THE RAINBOW<br>Burning Man drew 45,000 people to sandstormy Northern Nevada—in around 20,000 vehicles.

Burning Man drew 45,000 people to sandstormy Northern Nevada—in around 20,000 vehicles.

Photo By Kris Vagner

A 35-word history:
The Burning Man Festival began on San Francisco’s Baker Beach in 1986, when Larry Harvey and Jerry James burned an 8-foot effigy. The event moved to the Black Rock Desert 110 miles north of Reno in 1990.

About the author:
D. Brian Burghart is editor of the Reno News & Review. He wrote this story specifically for the CN&R. To read more about Burning Man, click here or pick up a copy of the RN&R in the CN&R office.

Burning Man 2007 stands as a great metaphor for the new environmental movement that has grown because of the threat of global warming and environmental catastrophe. For every pro-planet change at this year’s green-themed event, there were many examples of same old, same old environmental degradation. Still, some Burners hope that a viral infection for ecologic reform was transmitted throughout Black Rock City.

Black Rock City is the name of the temporary town in Northern Nevada where a 40-foot wood-and-neon figure—called “The Man"—is burned on Labor Day weekend. Nine months of the year, there are no signs of roads, humanity or even cityscape on this barren bit of dried lakebed, but over the course of a few weeks, roads are laid, infrastructure (like portable toilets) is imported, and hordes invade the canvas.

The city, for about a week (this year, Aug. 27-Sept. 3), becomes home to some 45,000 artists, participants and curiosity seekers from around the planet.

The Burning Man Project announces a new theme each year; for 2007, it was “The Green Man.” Artists can choose whether to participate in the theme, but Burning Man Project grants—the organizers dole out funds each year—are related to theme participation. In past years, themes have had such names as “The Seven Ages,” “Psyche” and “The Future.”

The success or failure of the theme was a topic of constant discussion at the event, and it was widely agreed that “The Green Man” worked as an artistic theme—a launching point or muse—for many of the artists. It was also widely regarded as having failed as a theme for the event itself.

HYBRID ART<br>Peter Hudson’s “Homouroboros” (shown in more detail lower) used solar and human power to fuel its movement.

Photo By Kris Vagner

The simple act of transporting the people, their accoutrements and their creature comforts to the desert requires enormous resources. There were more full-sized recreational vehicles with their gas generators for air conditioning. There also appeared to be more “art” cars and motorized vehicles whose only relationship to the theme was the color of fantasy fur attached with duct tape. There were even motorcycles, golf carts and four-wheelers cruising the “streets” and “playa,” as the desert is called, without so much as a glow-stick to prove their artiness.

The simple fact is, while Burning Man leaders have been adept at convincing Burners to transport their garbage away from the site, few household items that stand out in a playa windstorm will return to living rooms—most will end up in landfills back home, wherever home might be.

And while the festival claims “gifting” as one of the 10 principles that guide its communities, “gifting” is just another form of consumerism. The trinkets—necklaces, bracelets, beads, objets d’art, poems, ice cream cups—may be given away on the playa, but parts are manufactured and purchased in other communities, and the resulting “gift” will likely be thrown away with all the sentimentality of a toy mined from a box of Cocoa Puffs.

Photo By Kris Vagner

If Burning Man has a carbon footprint, it resembles nothing so much as the one belonging to the elusive Sasquatch. In other words, it’s giant.

As a hot wind blew outside, the scent of java was thick in Center Camp. A folksy trio was singing on the stage about losing their condoms; a naked, blond-pubed but gray-haired man offered an eye-averting yoga lesson; and conversation knots laced themselves among groups of urban spiritualists, technologists and primitives. There was an express lane for coffee for those who brought their own reusable cups—green, get it?

A young dreaded woman named Ann Marie from Chico discussed Burning Man’s green theme. She came to Black Rock City with a group of visual and theater artists. She’s been to many environmental events in Northern California, and she said the major thing lacking from Burning Man 2007 was knowledge she could take home with her.

“If they’d really wanted it to be green, there would have been more workshops on permaculture, recycling and solar,” she said, setting aside the stenographer pad on which she was penning her thoughts and some doodles. “If it were there, then I would have gone, and it would have had more people thinking what it means to be ‘green.’ “

The artist caught herself, though, not wanting to be pessimistic, and she told the story of how her camp was destroyed by a windstorm. The community came together to rebuild the camp, including her kitchen, and when it was finished it was better, stronger than the first version.

SO MUCH FOR ARBOR DAY …<br>Sean Orlando’s metal sculpture “Steampunk Treehouse” evoked a world without trees.

Photo By Kris Vagner

If Burners can get together to survive a natural disaster, perhaps Burners can help the world weather an unnatural disaster, like global warming.

One especially community-oriented and green piece of art was the “Homouroboros,” a sculpture of monkeys swinging from trees, by Peter Hudson. It was an excellent example of the success of the green theme in the art. The catch with this one was it was in part human-powered, in part solar-powered.

It was a beautiful static piece, and according to many reports, it was fantastic when working its kinetic magic at night. But like Burning Man’s own display of green technology and concepts in the pavilion beneath The Man, many came, but few were able to see the green power in action. (The Pavilion was often unavailable because of the reconstruction of The Man after some idiot tried to burn him prematurely.) And the “Homouroboros” often wouldn’t work … for some reason.

When it did work, it was a series of monkeys that, through the magic of strobed lighting, appeared to swing from a tree as a snake offered it an apple. The power to start it was supposed to be generated by humans on stationary bicycles, although several times the bikes were fully staffed and furiously pumped, but the monkeys didn’t swing.

There were too many fine examples of ecology-inspired art to go very deeply into it.

The “Steampunk Treehouse,” by Sean Orlando, called to mind an artist’s rendition of a tree after all trees have gone—like something sprung out of the game Myst.

MULTICOLORED DISPLAY OF GREEN<br>An archway of recycled bicycles served as a gateway to Center Camp.

Photo By Kris Vagner

The “Big Rig Jig,” by Mike Ross, had two semi-rigs dancing (or mating) like giant insects, calling to mind the self-perpetuating nature of our world’s petroleum addiction.

“Crude Awakening,” by Dan Das Mann and Karen Cusolito, an enormous oil derrick being worshipped by a giant-size human sculpture, pretty much laid it right there on the line: We humans worship oil.

If there was a camp that symbolized the “green” theme with more than the color of its money, it was Silicon Village. Some two dozen camps like Silicon Village, through their demonstration of green principles, got listed on the Black Rock City map as green. By contrast, there were some 650 total camps.

Lovejoy—"They call me LoveToy,” he said as he bequeathed a hug at introduction—was frustrated by the camp’s efforts to use biodiesel for power. If the group’s efforts had worked, they would have decreased the camp’s carbon emissions by 4.5 tons, just by running 100 percent biodiesel.

POINT COUNTERPOINT<br>Many Burners enjoyed the camp’s covered plaza, which contrasted in form and function with the “art cars” motoring through the playa (such as the one below).

Photo By Kris Vagner

He was plainly ticked, but it was a little difficult to nail down exactly who made his green life more difficult. It appears that a company called Kohler promised generators that would run on 100 percent biodiesel, but they really wouldn’t—filters clogged up. Cushman’s of Reno provided generators that worked, but at a lower percentage of biodiesel than hoped.

“If you get one thing out in this article,” he said, “make sure you say that the people who manufacture the engines have to get behind biodiesel.”

He was more sanguine about the success of the theme: “I think the people who go to Burning Man are basically green. They already know about moop [matter out of place] and ‘leave no trace.’ We have a good shot at reaching them.”

Sending a good message at the Silicon Village camp were representatives of PlayaTech and HexaYurt.

HexaYurt is nothing short of fantastic. It is a small home, maybe 5 feet by 8 feet, made of reflective insulation board and joined with 6-inch biodirectional tape, common items that can be purchased at Home Depot. It’s an open-source project available on the Web at

Inside the HexaYurt it was at least 20 degrees cooler than outside, and no generator-run air conditioner was farting up the neighborhood. The U.S. Department of Defense is actually looking at the design for housing in cases of natural disaster—like the one wrought by Hurricane Katrina on New Orleans.

Photo By Kris Vagner is an open-source style of slotted plywood furniture. It’s made from wood from managed, sustainable forests. The pieces are basically three-dimensional furniture puzzles, sturdy and utilitarian.

PlayaTech’s Black Rock representative goes by the handle “Sunshine,” but his default name is Arthur Zwern. There are more than 30 designs on the site, for everything from coffee tables to couches to futons. Zwern claims an entire household can be constructed for less than $500, and it will all fit in a minivan when it’s time to move.

“As far as a theme, I think ‘The Green Man’ worked,” Zwern said. “All you can do is do things a little greener than you did yesterday. It’s little things. And little things are going to have an impact.

“When you push the edge, things don’t go perfectly, but it’s progress, and progress is what matters.”

CODEPENDENT LOVE<br>The “Big Rig Jig” statue by Mike Ross made a strong statement about self-perpetuating petroleum addiction.

Photo By Kris Vagner