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  July/August 2008
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Burned Out on Burning Man
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Sierra Magazine
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Burned Out on Burning Man
Can the artistic free-for-all go green?
By Matthew Taylor
July/August 2008

POWERED BY 2,000 GALLONS OF PROPANE and 900 gallons of jet fuel, the mushroom cloud thundered across Nevada's Black Rock Desert, incinerating a 99-foot-tall wooden oil derrick and deluging thousands of art- and party-loving spectators with a 2.4-gigawatt blast of heat and light. Loudspeakers blared a dark, off-key rendition of "The Star-Spangled Banner." Eight towering, humanlike metal sculptures representing the world's religions bowed in worship before the flaming spectacle, said to symbolize the impending crash of our fossil-fuel-addicted civilization.

The Burning Man festival is notorious for such grandiose displays. Volunteer coordinator Kachina Katrina Zavalney was not amused.

"It made an obscene mess," she said, the frustration in her voice echoing a growing philosophical rift.

For years "burners" have been trying to draw lines of ethical behavior in the desert sand. As last summer's Crude Awakening performance broiled the night sky with petrochemical flames, some confronted a question whose relevance resonates far beyond the annual encampment: With life on Earth now clearly at risk, how much waste, pollution, and hypocrisy can we humans justify in our pursuit of art, education, freedom, and--yes--fun?

NORTH AMERICA'S BEST-KNOWN COUNTERCULTURAL gathering, Burning Man attracts more than 40,000 participants annually. For eight days ending each Labor Day weekend, a flat, white, dusty badland becomes an off-kilter outpost of civilization: Black Rock City. Attempting to explain the event is like describing Disneyland to a Martian. It's an odd mixture of yoga and body painting, fire spinning and skydiving, throbbing rave music, mazes, profligate drug use, and, at least once, an enormous bar carved into the innards of a three-story-tall wooden structure in the shape of a rubber duck.

Devotees band together to create themed campsites organized around common interests such as raw vegan food, Dr. Seuss storytelling, pedicure parties, and massage. Money is banned and bartering discouraged. At last year's event, college-age kids pedaled around handing out homegrown apples, their contribution to the festival's freewheeling "gift economy."

The burning started in 1986, when artists Larry Harvey and Jerry James built and spontaneously torched an eight-foot-tall wooden statue of a man at San Francisco's Baker Beach to honor the summer solstice. The fire attracted a crowd, and the artists turned the moment into an annual ritual. Within a few years, hundreds were gathering to immolate "the Man," who had grown to 40 feet tall. When park police declared the fires too dangerous, the artists moved their event to the Black Rock Desert, a prehistoric lakebed northeast of Reno. Isolated and off the grid, the desert turned out to be a fine canvas for radical self-expression, a bureaucracy-free zone where people could revel in almost unlimited freedom. Anything was possible--gunslingers pulverized stuffed animals at a drive-by shooting range, and oddly decorated "art cars" careened across the desert.

As the event grew, organizers created a road system and banned firearms. While some protested the demise of anarchy, others commended Burning Man's attempts to regulate the creative chaos. Environmental concerns got caught in the tug-of-war. Event organizers had long promoted a "leave no trace" ethic and ensured that volunteers scrub the desert of the last cigarette, but a chorus of demands for increased environmental responsibility helped motivate last year's eco-theme: Green Man.

Burning Man environmental manager Tom Price is proud of the strides made by participants and organizers and has little patience for what he considers the puritanical navel-gazing that has infiltrated the artistic free-for-all. Sporting a perpetual five o'clock shadow and the aesthetics of Indiana Jones, Price kicked back at the 2007 event in a comfy, dust-encrusted green chair perched atop the media-only observation platform.

"It's ridiculous to even consider eliminating [this type of] art from our lives," he said, surveying a sea of revelers. "I mean, should we recycle the Eiffel Tower? We don't really need the view, right?"

It was in 1997 that a Wired magazine story drew Price to the event for the first time, and he hasn't missed one since. As a college student, he waded into the University of Utah's antiapartheid struggle, winning a precedent-setting free-speech lawsuit. He spent almost a decade working with a variety of conservation groups in Washington, D.C., notably on preserving Utah wilderness, before striking out as a freelance environmental journalist. He reported on the island nation of Tuvalu's losing battle with global warming for the July/August 2003 Sierra.

"The idea of building a sustainable, temporary city in the middle of nowhere is preposterous on its face," Price said. "What we've been able to accomplish is extraordinary. Because we build the city from the ground up, we're able to change whatever we want to on a dime. We've looked at transportation, solid waste, materials, energy, art, media--everything, all aspects of the event."

Price knows the event has a long way to go. Generators still power most of the city's camps and art installations. But burners are searching for solutions, he said. Last year, for example, several camps added biodiesel from local sources to the energy mix. Organizers also took a first step toward clean and renewable energy by installing a 30-kilowatt solar photovoltaic system to power the central art pavilion that surrounds the Burning Man statue. The output didn't make up for the expenditure of fossil fuels required to truck it out to the desert, but for Price that's beside the point.

"If one person sees a solar array for the first time, understands how it works, and then goes home and installs one, then we've succeeded," he said, staring at the sprawling solar array volunteers had arranged in the shape of the Pueblo people's sacred sun symbol.

And in the spirit of the gift economy, the festival's Black Rock Solar nonprofit plans to build solar arrays that could produce 500 kilowatts of power for Nevada communities.

Elsewhere at the 2007 Burning Man, thanks to experimental-technology enthusiasts, participants could check out an algae bioreactor or admire a $98,000 all-electric Tesla Roadster (strategically covered in black cloth to adhere to the event's anti-advertising ethos).

Berkeley, California, tech artist Jim Mason's gasified art vehicle, the Mechabolic, also debuted on the desert. A green geek's dream, the Mechabolic is powered by walnut shells, coffee grounds, and the like. Burned at a high temperature with limited oxygen, the garbage becomes energy--and fertilizer. Although the Mechabolic rarely worked--Mason spent most of the week applying wrenches to its innards--participants did gather around to discuss alternatives to petroleum-based transportation.

Nearby, at Camp Hook-Up, folks who said their credentials included Leadership in Energy and Environmental Design (LEED) training taught workshops on green building practices. Lance Polingyouma of the Hopi tribe said he had come to Burning Man to learn how to make his boss's Arizona resort friendlier to birds and butterflies. He was impressed with the density of expertise at Camp Hook-Up.

"The yahoo in the chicken suit is a lawyer," Polingyouma said. "The crazies running around naked are all architects."

At the centrally located Green Pavilion, art installations focused on such issues as genetically engineered corn and the impact of the enormous floating plastic garbage patch that's strangling Pacific Ocean life. For Price, the sum of all this eco-activity reflected "a fundamental expansion of awareness."

"If we want to address environmental issues," he said, "we have to get everyone involved. If the criteria are so extreme that most people won't participate, then those very few true believers will drown with their chins held high--along with the rest of us--because their perfectionism will have precluded the involvement of the mass of people we need."

Critics have it exactly wrong, Price said. The wild desert party is not Nero fiddling while Rome burns but a chance to motivate people to try out environmentally friendly ways of living. "It turns out that one of the more interesting and useful places to take action and learn is in the middle of absolute nowhere," he said.


Photo courtesy Lori Eanes; used with permission.

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