A Sustainable Burn: Burning Man's Positive Impact

The scoop on one of the largest sustainable events in Black Rock Desert, Nevada.

Love at sunset.
Love at sunset. Photo Credit: Trey Ratcliff.

While the exact carbon footprint of Black Rock City might not be what the purest would call green, you’d be hard pressed to find an event where participants experience true sustainability and the essence of what it means to live in this closed loop system system called planet earth.

Building a massive sculpture just to blow it up, flaming pianotrebuchet #1, flaming piano trebuchet #2, flaming piano trebuchet #3, propane trucks that shoot fire and generators burning silly amounts of fuel to run walls of speakers. While this is all super fun, it just screams carbon footprint. But when you take a real look at what is going on you'll find the most sustainable and positive event for the earth I have ever encountered.

How is this possible?

The answer is quite simple. Systems.

Burning Man teaches you to understand that everything, every single thing you touch, see or interact with, someone had to bring there, will take back, pick up, clean up or move. At Burning Man, there are no trash bins or garbage service. You can’t throw something away because in reality there is no away. If you want to bring a lamp with you, great. But first you need to ask yourself a few questions. What are you going to plug it into? Unless you bring a generator, you have no outlets. Sure, you could use solar panels, but what if you want power at night?

You’d have to bring a bunch of deep cycle batteries, and then you’d need to understand how to set up a grid system that powers the batteries during the sunlight hours so that you can power your lamp at night. What if you leave the lamp on when you go out dancing? And when you get back and there is no power, what can you do? Nothing. There is no power company; you are the power company.

You will, for possibly the first time, understand that when you leave the lights on you are only hurting yourself. You'll start to realize how much of a miracle it is that you have power when you flick a switch at home. You’ll start to understand that that simple little light switch is connected to a grid system, built by someone, that creates power for a million people. Woah. Once you realize what it takes raise  a city out of the dust in a mere few days, then you can start to realize that the cities and towns we live in function in the same way.

They use the same resources, and it’s only up to you to decide how to responsibly consume these resources.

And that's just the lights! What about water? Would you like to shower? Simple enough of a demand. That is until you think about what happens to the water when you’re done with it. That’s a whole new can of worms. What happens to the water after it goes down the drain? Does it go away? But there is no away. You’ve got to collect your dirty shower water, and figure out how to either A) evaporate it, or B) bring it back with you somewhere after Burning Man to properly dispose of it. This doesn’t sound like an opulent dessert rave!

But this is all part of the experience. If you bring something in, anything at all, you’ve got to take it out with you. This is why 70,000 "burners" who come together to build Black Rock City every year for the last 30 years treat this planet better once they leave Burning Man. An experience like this opens your eyes, forces you to be mindful, makes you witness first hand the results and consequences of every single decision you make.

The education system in the United States lacks any type of curriculum on closed loop systems and systems thinking in general. An experience like Burning Man where you have to bring and leave with everything that you use, where you literally build a city, do far more than camping to help participants understand what it takes to make these human settlements that we call towns and cities. Once you understand what it takes to make water come out of a pipe or down a drain, to have the lights turn on when you flip a switch, have heat blow out of vents, to make cars move or speakers thump, you start to understand about our finite resources.

It takes a lot of work to make these seemingly simple daily life occurrences happen. Once you have actually had to do it all yourself, without the support of any infrastructure, you can then understand and truly appreciate what people have created with what our planet supplies.

Burning Man is also a prototyping lab for renewable energyalternate housing, urban planning innovation and disaster relief. My favorite project was group testing drone delivery of resources for disaster relief and 3D printing at the same time. They would take a picture of your face then give you an RFID tag. In a few hours, the RFID tag would vibrate and when you looked up a drone would drop a 3D-printed mini sculpture of your face. Sounds silly, but this helped them prove the technology that is now helping people get food and medical supplies in hard to reach locations during crisis situations.

The Burning Man Project, a 501c3 non-profit that hosts the event we all know of as Black Rock City, isn’t an event production company, but rather a culture and values based organization. Everything is designed to further the impact of the 10 Principles (to really understand Burning Man give them a read). Plus they have a massive commitment to lowering their carbon footprint, have spawned another nonprofit called Black Rock Solar, and are a completely leave no trace organization!

The organization's efforts are only compounded by the 70,000 attendees who will leave Black Rock City and make a positive impact in their respective communities. With some of the most influential people in technology, innovation and the world attending for 20+ years, the ripple effects that this ‘education’ is already affecting millions around the globe. So while some might criticize Burning Man, they miss the point. It is the impact on the people and the actions of those people that truly makes sustainable change possible.

While a few explosions of C02 aren’t necessarily good for the planet, in the context of the bigger picture, the long term impact will create a positive impact that will significantly outweigh a few generators and small fires. Unfortunately, we still don’t posses the tools to measure the positive impact.

Sometimes, it takes the promise of the best party in the world to trick people into learning about resource usage, water disposal and sustainable systems. But hey, I’m more into the ends than the means and sometimes you’ve got a dance your face off and maybe blow something up after you just finished building a city to get there.

True sustainability runs much, much deeper than a few tons of carbon. It just depends the time frame within which you view the world. I’m in it for the long haul, so come find me at Black Rock City next year. I’ll be the dusty one.