With the world heating up, who needs an event such as Burning Man?

With the world heating up, who needs an event such as Burning Man?

A Burning Man scene at night
FlickrTrey Ratcliff
A Burning Man scene at night.

Despite being the largest "leave no trace" event in the world, one of the largest gatherings of sustainability minded people on earth, and a proving ground for new experiments and technologies in areas such as shelter, water preservation and off-grid living, Burning Man has had a "will they/won't they" relationship with the sustainability movement for over a decade. 

Deeply committed environmentalists will go to Black Rock City, Burning Man's premier event in the Nevada desert, and have an astonishingly good time while complaining that it shouldn't exist because it's a waste of resources. Are they right?

The question became overt in 2007, when the event's annual theme was "Green Man," and San Francisco Bay Area environmental activists were brought in to showcase new technologies and approaches to local sustainability — only to be completely overshadowed by what can perhaps be termed "art and philosophy drama." Since then, the drum beat to admit that bringing 70,000 people to a remote corner of desert is an absurd exercise in unsustainable excess — no matter what else it is — has grown louder, even as the Burning Man Project (the non-profit which runs that event) has taken concrete steps to limit its environmental footprint. Steps such as creating a bus service, limiting car passes and creating opportunities to purchase carbon offsets.

Indeed, last month the Burning Man Project released a 10-year sustainability directive, its first, in which it sets the ambitious goal of turning Black Rock City into a carbon negative event, and also ecologically regenerative, by 2030. Its goals include the elimination of all non-sustainable waste streams, prototyping new models to turn urban environments into regenerative influences on the environment, and to use emerging models of carbon offsets that will have a greater net impact. 

It would be a huge boon for the sustainability movement if Burning Man can succeed — a demonstration of what is possible.

But even so, is there actually any benefit to doing Burning Man at all? Isn't it fair to say that, even if you make the net impact negative, the world would be environmentally better off if tens of thousands of people just didn't take this optional trip, and build this optional city, every year?

It's a fair question, but it also fundamentally misunderstands the nature of what Burning Man actually is. Not "an event," but a cultural movement. One whose ethos and practices, including the principle of "Leaving No Trace" that has made it the largest environmentally conscious event in the world, are best spread through direct experience and in-person contact.

"Black Rock City" — an entire city built by the participants — is an event, but "Burning Man" is the culture out of which Black Rock City, and so much more, emerges. As I wrote in my recent book "The Scene that Became Cities: What Burning Man philosophy can teach us about building better communities":

This is also what differentiates an event like Burning Man's Black Rock City from a festival like Coachella and even from the legion of "transformational" festivals that were inspired by Burning Man but now clog up the calendar like a rainbow-colored smoker's lung. (We're so sorry about that. You have no idea.) The premise of festivals like Woodstock and Coachella is that "you had to be there to experience it!" The premise of Burning Man is: "I can do this myself!"

Indeed, the point of Burning Man, as a culture, is not to create Black Rock City, but for people to do Burning Man wherever they are. This includes its principles of Leaving No Trace, Radical Self-Reliance and Decommodification — principles that, if internalized, get people thinking about how they can make their own lives and communities more sustainable and less dependent on disposable goods and a consumerist mentality.

Not — and this is so crucial — because they're "supposed" to. Not because it's a burden and an obligation that they need to take on like eating their vegetables and doing their homework. But because they want to. Because they have discovered, in experiencing what a cultural space based on these principles can be, that this is a way they'd rather live. It's more meaningful. It's more fun. Burning Man, and the experiences people have at Black Rock City, recontextualizes the entire sustainability movement, from a crisis we have to address if you want to be a good person to a choice we want to make because it's a viscerally more engaging, more pleasurable, more meaningful way to live. 

You see this in the number of sustainability projects that "Burners" take on across the world — everything from beach cleanups in Texas to community gardens planted in Los Angeles, to the development of civic spaces in South Africa and Taiwan. You see this in the number of new sustainability-minded technologies developed at Black Rock City and then brought to market around the world. You see it in non-profits, such as Communitere, that emerge out of Burning Man to help victims of disasters in places such as Haiti, Nepal, and the Philippines, rebuild into sustainable communities.  

Black Rock City energizes the sustainability movement because when people participate in Burning Man culture, many discover that they like living in sustainable communities much more than they do disposable ones. From that insight they develop the skills and networks they need to bring that change to the places they live and work. 

That personal impact, far more than any particular goal or metric, is the value Burning Man brings to the sustainability of our planet, and our future. 

It also means that, if successful, there may very well come a time when Black Rock City, that epic event in the desert, does outlive its usefulness. That Burning Man's culture and philosophy will have spread so far and wide that it is simply no longer necessary for people to go to Black Rock City to have the experience of what a major city built on these principles feels like, and what a community that lives by them offers. At that point — and the effort is underway — we can reasonably ask ourselves if its worth the gas people burn to get there. 

But right now (especially as Burning Man works to make Black Rock City carbon negative) getting people to have that experience, and decide for themselves if it is a way they want to live and a culture they want to take back home, is a game changer for sustainability, and the biggest contribution a cultural movement such as Burning Man can make.

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