Burning Man goes green

Pub date January 30, 2007

Burning Man founder Larry Harvey chooses the theme for each year’s event — such as 2002’s the Floating World and last year’s Hope and Fear — but it usually doesn’t have much impact on the basic character of the event. This year’s theme, Green Man, is different.

"It’s the first theme that has any kind of practical, political character," Harvey told the Guardian, noting that Green Man has sparked big changes in how the event will be staged, a campaign to improve burners’ environmental practices, and a new way of reutf8g to the outside world.

"We’re looking at every aspect of the event: solid waste, energy, and materials," said Tom Price, who has filled the newly created full-time position of environmental director, which was a natural offshoot from his previous work as Burning Man’s lobbyist and the founder of Burners Without Borders, which formed to do Gulf Coast cleanup after Hurricane Katrina hit (see "From Here to Katrina," 2/22/06).

Harvey said it was the good that burners did in Mississippi that started him thinking about the green theme and the idea that Burning Man needed to start turning its energies outward at a time when global warming and other environmental problems are growing public concerns.

"We’re working our way back into the world. Maybe not the mainstream but certainly onto Main Street," Harvey said. "There’s a lot out there that needs reform. The time of the reformer is at hand, I believe."

Among the projects Price is now working on are expanding the already large recycling effort at the event, finding ways to use more solar panels and fewer generators, coordinating theme camps to share power sources, using the purchase of emissions credits to offset the greenhouse gases created by Burning Man, and creating incentives for art projects to use alternative fuels.

"The whole process is being driven by the community," Price said.

Ramping up Burning Man’s environmental activism and commitment has been the goal of several movements within the larger event, such as Cooling Man (www.coolingman.net) and Greening the Burn (tribes.tribe.net/greeningtheburn), as well as being a priority for many Burning Man employees, such as technology dominatrix Heather Gallagher, a.k.a. Camera Girl, and facilities manager Paul Schreer, a.k.a. Mr. Blue.

"We’ve been hippie busybodies pushing for this on the inside," Gallagher told us. "And when [Harvey] announced the theme, I was, like, ‘Yesss!’ "

"What’s exciting about the Green Man theme and this year’s event is it’s a perfect illustration of the power of community," Price said, noting that networking and experimentation have always been hallmarks of the event. "Going back 10 years, Burning Man has been a place for early adopters who are on the cutting edges of a lot of disciplines."

That makes it a good place to experiment with new technologies and evangelize those that work well.

"I’ve always believed Burning Man would eventually partner in some way with the environmental movement," Harvey said. "It’s almost a historic inevitability."

Since the theme was announced, the organization has been overwhelmed with offers from individuals and groups that want to help green the event, from someone who donated $350,000 worth of solar panels to power the eponymous man and surrounding activities this year to artists such as Jim Mason, who has developed a gasification system he wants to use to turn center camp coffee grounds and other waste into fuel that would in turn power his machine (and probably shoot fire as well).

"So I’m proposing drag racing to a more responsible environmental future. As usual, the ravers are not going to save the world. But at least they can power their indulgent disasters with the fuel the local gearheads turned reluctant environmentalists have made for them," Mason, the controversial artist who helped spearhead the Borg2 revolt a couple years ago, wrote by e-mail to the Guardian.

Price said he’s excited by the implications of Mason’s project, noting that it simultaneously addresses energy issues and waste disposal.

"If he can do this, he will have solved two problems," Price said. "Our relationship to nature on the playa is very intimate. Just being at the event, we’ve learned in a way those in the city haven’t what it means to deal with your garbage and to provide your energy."

Harvey sees this year’s theme as a turning point.

"In some ways, we hope this year will be an environmental and alternative energy expo," he said, although he expects it to resonate on an even deeper level that participants will carry back into their communities. "It’s a much broader thing than environmental politics. It’s about our relationship to nature." (STJ)