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COOP: Putting carbon back in its place

COOP: Putting carbon back in its place

ShutterstockKevin Sutton
Bicyclers in a dust storm at Burning Man.

As a newcomer to Burning Man last year, I was astonished that this annual gathering of some 80,000 souls took place trash-free, without trashcans or recycle bin in sight.

That’s because at Burning Man, trash doesn’t exist. Instead, the Leave No Trace ethic is codified in a lovely and actionable way through its framing as MOOP — Matter Out of Place. Burning Man defines MOOP as "a convenient way of referring to anything that is not originally of the land on which our event takes place."

Our climate change problem is one of Carbon Out of Place — COOP. Carbon (as in fossil-fuel-derived carbon dioxide) is not inherently bad, but it can be lethal when it accumulates in the wrong place — namely, the upper atmosphere, where it traps heat and changes the climate, or in the ocean, where it causes acidification.

The wisdom of Burning Man can help guide how we solve it. Two ways stood out.

First, Burning Man has created an obsessively thorough means of ensuring that MOOP isn’t left when the gathering is over and that each "camp," which is how people organize themselves while there, has done its part in leaving no trace.

Part of the brilliance in the Burning Man approach to trash lies in the airtight feedback loop they’ve created. After the event takes place, several hundred people voluntarily stay in the desert for several weeks to inspect and clean every inch of 156 million square feet, down to each micro-MOOP speck of bauble or beads.

This hardy crew creates a MOOP Map of "High-Resolution Environmental Accountability." The color-coded map shows how close each camp came to achieving a MOOP-free exit. And there are consequences: If you aren’t fastidious enough, your camp can’t come back.  

When it comes to carbon, we have similar "High-Resolution Environmental Accountability" COOP maps, not only for each national "camp" but mapped across cities and states, industries and companies. We know who is accountable, who needs to own their COOP or risk losing their license to operate (never mind their insurability).

Yet the ones who generated COOP may not be the ones to get it out of where it doesn’t belong. Like the tireless MOOP-minders at Burning Man, collective action is needed. Disruptors will lead the charge, such as carbon innovators who are developing and selling game-changing carbon-uptake products and services.

Virtuous, not vicious

Second, I found that MOOP is also a mindset. On a personal level, I could feel my reaction to trash changing when I thought of it as MOOP. Trash in all its recyclable, compostable or destined-for-landfill forms still exists at Burning Man, but picking it up and stashing it to process at home did not feel as repugnant. It wasn’t a spoiling avocado peel; it was simply Matter Out of Place that required a rearrangement to be properly on its, ideally circular, way. I could even feel a bit of the "Kami," Shinto spirits that underlie the Marie Kondo method, present in someone’s else beer can.

Similarly, we can make COOP virtuous, not vicious, if we respect the carbon cycle. If it’s no longer in the ground where it belongs, capturing, repurposing and sequestering it are profitable strategies to get it out of our hair and our future. More than anything, addressing COOP is a giant design challenge that has to speed forward as if we only had a weekend to hack out the solution.

Of course, putting something "back in its place" means it could end up in another person’s backyard, literally or by extension. Trouble is brewing with Burning Man’s permission to grow, or even continue, even with its laudable approach to trash on-site.

Burning Man’s existential crisis is a microcosm of what it means for humanity as a whole to try to live well and live within the limits of the planet. There is much to learn from their positive experience as well as the negative. Embracing COOP-consciousness in our practices and attitudes, the way Burning Man has done with MOOP, can lead us towards social, political and business-driven solutions to COOP.