Aloha. I’m writing this post high above the Pacific Ocean on my way to Hawaii. I’m thinking about how I’m increasing my carbon footprint this month with so much travelling. And I’m also thinking about the carbon footprint of Burning Man. This will be my final Burning Man post for the year, and hopefully it will be a good one. (I didn’t go to bed last night, so we’ll see what comes through my index finger as I Swype the screen on my Android phone.)
Burning Man is all about burning carbon. During the week, people erect beautiful wooden sculptures that they’ve spent all year constructing…
only to burn them a few days later. Even the most intense conversations stopped abruptly when a giant Russian satellite burst into flames right across the road from where we were sitting.
The culmination of the event, of course, is the burning of The Man.
At the appropriate moment on Saturday night, surrounded by excited, expectant throngs, he raises his arms to the heavens.
What looks like hundreds of fire dancers whirl at his feet, entranced by the power in their hands, surrounded by the neon colors of art cars and structures ringing the playa.
The dancing gives way to showers of fireworks. The spaceship pedestal appears to lift off for the sky.
And suddenly, almost quietly, the burning begins… just a tiny flame along one leg…
that explodes into an inferno in the blink of an eye. Literally. I blinked and almost missed it. The explosion, I mean. Not the inferno. That raged on for what seemed like hours…
it felt that way to those of us downwind from the burn because we had bits of fire literally raining down upon us…
and funnel clouds like demons coming for us…
It was awesome and terrifying. So much so that they had to move the art car we were sitting on so as not to allow it to become part of the show.
But before that, as I sat on that car and looked out at the scene… that joyous, wild, frenzy… I thought, what if Burning Man were not just a celebration of consumption but an actual celebration of the power of the sun?
See, what’s conspicuous in these pictures is the burning of carbon. But it’s wood… new carbon, geologically speaking. What you don’t see is all the old carbon being burned… all the fossil fuels used to run generators to power the city… the dance clubs that pump music across the playa 24 hours a day, the radio stations, the individual camps themselves, as well as all the vehicles that bring the people and art and buildings to the playa in the first place.
But there are green camps that are making an effort to draw their energy directly from the sun. Earth Guardian Karen took some of us on a bike tour to visit some of these camps.
We saw camps run entirely on solar power.
A car powered by the sun.
And a few solar ovens.
We saw schemes for saving water and for using the power of the wind to evaporate gray water to keep it from muddying the playa.
Food waste was dried in the sun to make it lighter to carry home and compost.
I had attempted to do my part by bringing my solar cell phone charger. Unfortunately, it doesn’t work without the little connector thingy that lets you plug the phone into it. (Note to self: remember little connector thingy next time.)
The green camp tour had taken place a few days before, so I had these thoughts in my head as I watched the man begin to burn on Saturday night and voiced them to Earth Guardian and Leave No Trace expert Mike Bilbo.
The burning of wood, while not exactly eco-friendly, touches something very primal in us. It’s exciting and scary and makes us reflect on the temporal nature of life. But what if we could combine this celebration of consumption with a celebration of the life-giving power of direct (or as direct as we can come, not being able to actually photosynthesize as humans) sunlight? Wouldn’t that be something?
Burning Man’s non-profit Black Rock Solar project funds solar installations on and off the playa and encourages energy independence. I’d love to see a concerted effort to inspire all participants to explore alternative ways of powering their camps — starting with the Burning Man organization’s own infrastructure. Alternatives like sun, but also wind (there’s lots of it), maybe methane capture from compost, human power (like those of us riding bikes or the pedal-powered metal can recycler at Recycle Camp),
and most important of all, conservation. Reducing plastics, which are made from fossil fuels. Using energy-efficient lights or minimal lighting inside camps at night…
This was only my second year at Burning Man. There’s a lot more I want to learn about what people and the organization are doing to make this event as environmentally sustainable as possible. I hope I can continue to be part of that positive movement.
P.S. I know there are those deep thinkers in the crowd (you know who you are) who will point out that astronomically speaking, our sun is slowly consuming itself and will burn out eventually, just as surely as trees are consumed by the fire we make. I don’t worry about that because there’s nothing I can do about it. I can try to mitigate my carbon footprint. Yes, I’m still up here in the clouds… with my reusable bottle… trying to outrun the sun.