Waste or wonderland?

Burning Man struggles to be greener without changing its lifestyle.

Though some make attempts at sustainability at Burning Man, it’s hard to call the festival “green.”

Though some make attempts at sustainability at Burning Man, it’s hard to call the festival “green.”

Photo By Kat Kerlin

On Saturday night at Burning Man, a young woman climbs along the vine-like limbs of the art installation “Mutopia.” Its petals are belching flames. She reaches for them, stretching. Someone pulls her down before she burns herself. But in that moment, she’s not thinking about emissions or carbon footprints. She is here for the fire, for the lights and the rapture. No matter how “green” Burning Man is or tries to be, she is here for the burn.

Burning Man, for many, is life-changing and addictive, a chance to create and let loose in a way society discourages. For all that, there’s a devil-may-care mentality that leaves a sky full of emissions and a playa surface littered with glow sticks, beer cans, urine and cigarette butts.

Last year’s theme, Green Man, focused on environmental sustainability. It forced the issue upon itself: Can Burning Man, a fire-centric festival set in a temporary city in the desert, ever seriously consider itself green? Efforts were made with recycled art, alternative energy, environmental theme camps, and carbon offsetting. But once the Green Man burned and a new theme took its place—the American Dream for 2008—did Burning Man forget its environmental aspirations? Pretty much.

That may not be fair to groups like Burners Without Borders, who recycled 56 bundles of lumber to give to Habitat for Humanity last year; or Black Rock Solar, who’ve installed 188 kilowatts of renewable energy for schools and hospitals; or the Earth Guardians, who scour the playa for litter during and after Burning Man. Many burners pick up after themselves. Some use renewable energy for theme camps and art cars, and carbon offset their transportation to the Black Rock Desert.

At $1.1 million, Burning Man holds the largest permit signed off by the Bureau of Land Management. Its approval hinges on the playa being left much the way it was found. Still, there were 33,250 estimated tons of greenhouse gas emissions generated by Burning Man in 2007, according to CoolingMan.org. About 60 percent of those were from road travel alone. Another 6,000 burners fly in from around the country and world.

While most people camp in tents, many veteran burners escape the heat, wind and dust by hooking up their RVs to generators and blasting the A/C.

Sand-like playa conditions this year discourged some bicyclists, resulting in packed art cars, which become an attractive form of transportation, though one typically requiring more fossil fuels.

Other signs of waste abound: Countless chemical-filled, glow sticks and thousands of small, plastic water bottles. Then, of course, there’s the burning—of the Man, of the Temple, of other art installations that explode impressively into the night sky, releasing tons of unrecoverable emissions.

Black Rock City is built to be torn down. It’s at once a sand painting and a colossal use of resources. Despite its otherworldliness, it’s not unlike other cities of its size in some respects: It’s trying to be greener without changing its lifestyle. Some residents embrace sustainability; others just don’t care.

There are reasons people love Burning Man: the art, the sense of freedom, community and pure fun. And yet, when a 40-foot wooden man burns in a jaw-dropping explosion under a sky sprinkled with fireworks, it’s hard to say this is a “green” event.