Burning Man in a burning world

Every year, an unlikely mix of Patagonia-wearing, Silicon Valley-residing ‘tech bros’ and countercultural celebrants put their differences aside and make an annual pilgrimage to Black Rock Valley where they can escape the woes of capitalism — albeit just for a few days. It is here, in Rural Nevada, where this unlikely alliance will engage in the collective construction of a temporary residence known as Black Rock City.

This temporary establishment is where Coachella’s weird uncle, also known as Burning Man, commences. 

Burning Man is unlike any other festival. It is underpinned by 10 guiding principles: radical inclusion, gifting, decommodification, radical self-reliance, radical self-expression, communal effort, civic responsibility, leaving no trace, participation and immediacy. 

The ‘decommodification’ is perhaps the most well-known principle, characterized by the absence of monetary transactions, with exchanges occurring only through bartering and giving. This sets it apart from "conventional" festivals like Coachella or Bonnaroo that capitalize on corporate sponsorships, over-priced avocado toast and branded merchandise. Additionally, Burning Man doesn't feature headliners or scheduled musical performances. Instead, festival attendees themselves decide what programming will take place.

The festival marks its end with the symbolic burning of "The Man:" a large anthropomorphic art installation spanning several stories in height. Once the man has burned and the festival has concluded, Black Rock City disbands just as quickly as it was assembled, restoring the desolate desert landscape to its original form, devoid of any signs of human inhabitants or presence. This sudden deconstruction possibly alludes to some grander message about the impermanence of life or maybe brushing up against nihilism — something silly like that, who knows.

Despite its countercultural origins in recent years, Burning Man has seen a shift in its attendee demographics. "Radical self-reliance" now translates to luxury, pre-set accommodation with private chefs or private jets dropping attendees at the festival's doorstep. Considering the fact that the festival draws something near 70,000 attendees, its size, scale and impact are nothing to be scoffed at. 

It is this sizable impact from which protests and criticism have emerged. The festival generates an estimated 10,000 tons of CO2 emissions, roughly the same impact as the yearly electricity generation of 19,000 homes or 22,000 gas-powered cars, providing sturdy enough grounds for such criticism. Aside from the emissions issue, there is also some concern about whether or not the festival disrupts the natural ecosystem processes, or whether the “leave no trace” principle is actually executed. 

I do want to point out that although I am making note of the negative implications of the festival, it is hard for myself, or anyone for that matter, to take a trip, have a vacation or go to a festival — big or small — without leaving some sort of impact. But I do believe that we must keep events like Burning Man in check and accountable for their impact, encouraging them to strive for better. 

In opposition to the aforementioned environmental implications, climate protesters took to the two-way highway and temporarily blocked all traffic from entering the festival. And then, through an act of cosmic-level irony, the festival became blocked yet again, this time not from people, but from inches of thick, impassable mud.

As you can imagine, anticipatory festival goers were not pleased to be greeted with blocked traffic due to a few climate protesters after spending numerous hours car-bound. The demands of the protesters were nothing extreme: the banning of private jets, single-use plastics and eliminating unnecessary propane burning and unlimited gas-powered generator use. Pretty reasonable, right? 

Before starting at Duke, I thought I had an adequate understanding of the challenges and complexities of the clean energy transition. However, after being fresh off my second week of classes at the Nicholas School, it is clear to me that the picture is a whole lot murkier than I had made it out to be. 

Obviously, Burning Man is not immune to these challenges, if it were easy, everyone would be doing it! There is one cohort of “Burners” who run their entire camp off a 48-kilowatt solar microgrid, an effort that entails hours of labor-intensive work in the desert, and just a few hundred thousand dollars. The protesters were not demanding that every camp replicate this type of setup but rather that they cut down inefficiencies and excess in the current fossil-fuel-derived power generation.

It’s a little hard for me to see how Burning Man will reach its sustainability goal of being carbon-negative by 2023 without addressing these bottom-line agenda items, unless, of course, they are doing so by means of carbon offsets —a whole other issue that I don’t have the bandwidth to delve into.

For an event that leans so heavily into self-reliant living on the land, you would think that the protesters' demands would be the minimum baseline. Wouldn't they want to ensure the protection and longevity of the very land they have the privilege of operating on? 

Whether you’re a protest sympathizer or not, you can’t talk about the protests without acknowledging the irony of how the week's events unfolded. In the span of 24 hours, the Black Rock Desert was hit with 0.8 inches of rain. This may seem inconsequential, except for the fact that this amount would normally accumulate over two to three months. This time the extreme rainfall is due, in part, to a changing climate. The result of this freak event? 70,000 people stranded in, surrounded by, mud. Although a little soggy soil might not seem like a total party pooper, the abnormality of this rain event caused the ground to be closer to quick-sand than sand-sand. Many tried to get past the seemingly impassable, resulting in either sunken cars or clogged bike wheels. 

Now that the mud has dried and the festival is over, a deconstructed Black Rock City has again returned the valley back to its arid landscape. Although the water has evaporated and the people have gone, the events of the week should not be forgotten. It is within these conversations, experiences and protests that the seeds of action begin to sprout. I believe that in the aftermath of a personal encounter with a changing climate, individuals will gradually recognize that climate change is no longer an impending, distant threat that might or might not materialize. Instead, it is a tangible menace on the brink of engulfing us entirely. It is my hope that after experiencing such a disruptive event, these very people are now more attuned to how their votes influence climate policies and think twice about purchasing a new gas-powered car instead of a hybrid. And, it is through these minor actions, replicated by the masses, that genuine mitigation efforts take root and bring about substantial change.

Morgan Foster is a first-year graduate student at the Nicholas School of the Environment. Her column typically runs on alternate Fridays.


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