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

(page 2 of 2)

A FEW DAYS BEFORE heading to Burning Man last summer to celebrate her 27th birthday, Zavalney--friends call her "Pinball"--sat with her laptop in the yard of her Oakland, California, home, an ecologically oriented cooperative complete

Between blasting communiques to green team members and answering frantic phone calls from burners about to pass beyond the reach of civilization and cell phones, she crafted seed balls as gifts for her compatriots to plant.

As chickens clucked in the co-op garden, Zavalney recalled that she first voyaged to the desert party in 2002. It was the year she left home for college. Seeking transformation, she hooked up with the Egyptian-themed Earth Tribe camp and painted an enormous phoenix. Then she and her brother burned it to celebrate moving into a new phase of life.

Ethics and Indulgences

For 2007 Burning Man participants who felt guilty about how they've been treating the planet, a "priest" from the Dominican University of California set up an eco-confessional booth.

"If, in your heart, you feel like you're doing the right thing," the confessor cooed, "then you have not been eco-sinning."

That's not the position I took at the festival's carbon-offset debate, at which I opposed the idea that people and companies can make up for the fossil fuels they burn by giving money to someone who'll do something to cut an equal amount of greenhouse-gas emissions elsewhere.

David Shearer, a Toyota Prius designer and the brains behind Burning Man's carbon-offset plan, defended the practice. If everyone attending the festival invested in about one ton of carbon offsets--average cost $12--for wind turbines or methane-gas electricity generators, he said, "we'd be the first carbon-neutral city on the planet."

I advocated for environmental journalist George Monbiot's indictment of carbon offsets as the modern-day equivalent of medieval priests selling indulgences.

"By selling us a clean conscience, the offset companies are ... telling us that we don't need to be citizens; we need only be better consumers," Monbiot wrote in the Guardian newspaper. His point: To achieve the overwhelmingly large cuts in greenhouse gases necessary to prevent global warming from crossing the apocalypse threshold, we must build wind turbines and stop flying. "Thinking like ethical people," Monbiot says, "makes not a damn of difference unless we also behave like ethical people."

The debate concluded prematurely when a dust storm roared through, scattering the audience in a strong but ambiguous sign from above. —Matthew Taylor

Zavalney's camp won a leave-no-trace award for its cleanup efforts. In future encampments she continued to be environmentally responsible but found herself increasingly uncomfortable.

"I was walking around feeling unhappy," she said. "Like, gosh, people think this place is so progressive, but it smells so bad from all the generators, and it's so loud."

So Zavalney, who earns her living "mapping the ecology of the sustainability movement" for a San Francisco Bay Area nonprofit, worked with several like-minded burners to convince festival organizers to shoulder more environmental responsibility. Every year, for example, most burners haul in 15 or so plastic water bottles each--hundreds of thousands total. Aside from the energy that goes into making, filling, and transporting them, most end up in landfills, leaching poisons into the groundwater, or get recycled in ways that don't reuse much of the plastic.

Taking a break from the heat at last year's festival, Zavalney drank deeply from a big jug of water while chilling in a tent with her friend and Entheon Village campmate Matthew "Hitch" McDermid. His take: Large camps should band together to truck in water, or Burning Man could centralize water distribution and build the cost into the $200-plus ticket prices. This, McDermid said, would push the event away from self-reliance to an ethos of community interdependence.

For her part, Zavalney thinks it's time for celebrations to focus people on feeding, sheltering, and clothing themselves with substances that can be produced year after year--permaculture--as opposed to big explosions.

Plenty of attendees thought Burning Man's efforts to go green were frivolous, what one termed "a colossal joke." Some of Zavalney's friends, including 12-time burner Ray Cirino, are planning to pack their ideas for Burning Man into a new festival.

"Instead of building a city and tearing it down or destroying it, we're going to keep the city and build a cultural and learning center," said Cirino. "I'm hoping to hold the event at a depressed property that needs help, preferably on indigenous land, and resuscitate a watershed. We'll be building a food forest as well."

The new festival will feature unplugged music, encourage children and families to attend, and discourage drug use. Cirino says he hopes to hold the festival in California sometime in spring 2009.

Zavalney can't wait. "Let's build systems where people get together and renew and restore our dying planet, rather than burn things to prove a point," she said. She's particularly fond of the event's name: Water Woman.

AS GREEN MAN DREW TO A CLOSE and thousands of idling, carbon-emitting cars lined up for miles and hours on the sole one-lane road back to the rest of the world, a curious drama unfolded in a forgotten corner of a partially dismantled Black Rock City. On the back of a big truck, a dozen yards from the charred wreckage of the Crude Awakening oil derrick, a 50-foot-tall nursery-grown, potted, living redwood tree waited to make a surprise grand entrance. It was not to be.

The Crude Awakening artists had intended to raise the tree in place of the incinerated oil derrick as the object being prayed to by the reverent metallic figures. It would have symbolized humanity's turn toward nature after the fossil-fuel crash. But Burning Man organizers, worried about needle litter, asked Bureau of Land Management officials to enforce the festival's no-plants policy (most vegetation dies in the desert) and ban the tree. So the largest living organism to visit the desert in 10,000 years never made it off the truck bed.

Matthew Taylor is a Peace and Conflict Studies major at the University of California at Berkeley and the coeditor of PeacePower magazine.

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