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Tuesday, 04 December 2007

How Green was the Green Man?

Written by Matthew Alan Taylor
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Burning Man Goes Eco – On the Playa and at Home


Green ManCan 45,000 people journey vast distances to a lifeless desert and participate in an environmentally sustainable festival devoted to burning stuff? This year, Burning Man attempted to do just that: go green.

With this year’s theme – “The Green Man” – the annual hedonistic festival catapulted itself onto an enormous global stage shared by Al Gore and British Petroleum, permaculturists and PG&E. That is to say, Burning Man has joined the burgeoning “green” social movement. The question remains: is this a movement toward genuine ecological sustainability, or the appearance of such for the sake of public relations and increased revenues?

A certain segment of the Burning Man community has always made respect for the environment a high priority. For years, event organizers have promoted a "leave no trace" ethic and encouraged all participants to scour campsites down to the tiniest scraps. The under-appreciated Earth Guardians work year-round to keep the playa in tidy shape, and ensure that “burn scars” don't deface the desert. Burners without Borders, a group of volunteers with a “bring it home” ethic, journeyed to the Hurricane Katrina destruction zone in 2005 to provide an estimated one million dollars worth of free home demolitions to help property owners clear away wreckage from the disaster. Last year, the same group salvaged five semi trucks full of reclaimed wood from the festival and donated it to Habitat for Humanity; this year there were three trucks. In the past few years, participants have demanded a much higher level of environmental responsibility. Just keeping the desert free from ‘moop‘ (matter out of place) was not enough.

According to Kachina Katrina Zavalney, volunteer coordinator for Burning Man’s Green Team at last year’s burn, “I was walking around feeling unhappy – not like I had a chip on my shoulder, but more like, ‘Gosh, people think this place is so progressive, but yet it smells so bad from all the generators, it’s so loud, there’s not a lot that people can say about the environmental efforts or what’s being done out here.”

An alliance of like-minded volunteers converged around the Green Theme for 2007. The task was daunting.

“The idea of building a sustainable, temporary city in the middle of nowhere on its face is preposterous. There’s no frame against which our work here can be compared except ourselves…because no one else does what we do. Given that, I think what we’ve been able to accomplish is extraordinary,” said Tom Price, environmental manager for the Green Man theme.

“Because we build the city from the ground up we’re able to look at everything and change whatever we want to on a dime. So, we’ve looked at transportation, solid waste, materials, energy, art, media, everything, all aspects of the event,” Price added.

Tom PriceGreen Man environmental manager Tom Price took a break to reflect on the green campaign

Electrifying the Playa

This year, Burning Man LLC (the “BORG”) worked with a team of Berkeley engineers from The Shipyard to install a 30-kilowatt solar photovoltaic (PV) array in the shape of the Native, sacred Zia Sun symbol. The array powered the pedestal underneath the iconic man statue and the surrounding Green Pavilion. (Such an array could power approximately 10 to 20 San Francisco homes). Batteries stored extra energy during the day so the man could glow green all night.

The array came in handy when the man burned unexpectedly early during the Tuesday lunar eclipse: the array powered the tools needed to rebuild the man.

In the spirit of Burning Man’s “gift economy” – where playa-goers are encouraged to give without expectation of return - a wealthy burner named Matt Cheney, who runs a green technology venture capital firm, fronted the funds necessary to help the BORG gift the array to the city of Gerlach, Nev., to power a school. Over the next few years, the BORG hopes to donate 120 killowatts worth of solar arrays to Gerlach and 60 KW to Lovelock.

Cheney only has to front the money for the panels – most of the cost will be refunded by the state of Nevada, which offers enormous incentives for solar PV (nearly double California’s). Burners without Borders signed up to take care of labor.

Snow Koan SolarSeveral theme camps also deployed solar PV, such as the Snow Koan Solar Camp that offered icy snow cones to burners as well as free electricity.

William Korthof, a solar installer for Snow Koan, recognizes that solar PV is out of reach for most theme camps, because few if any companies rent solar arrays.

“The panels are expensive and the best way to make them cheaper is to keep them in permanent use,” said Korthof.



Of course, while the solar arrays might generate clean power on the playa and relieve noise pollution, they’ll never make up for the expenditure of fossil fuels that are required to transport them to the desert.

Peef recognizes that the festival has made strides but still has a long way to go. “Center Camp [which is run by the BORG] uses old, incandescent lights…and a lot of the lights use 500 watts a pop. It’s not very efficient. They are slowly investing in better lighting technologies. It’s expensive and it takes time,” said Peef.

Aliza Wasserman, founder of Green Guerillas Against Greenwash, was disappointed to observe few electric vehicles on the playa. She places blame back in the real world at the doorstep of a San Ramon oil company.

“Chevron bought the patent for a new type of battery for electric cars and shut down the battery company and did not allow the patents to be used by anyone because it was a huge threat to oil profits,” said Wasserman. Indeed, while few electric vehicles could be found on the playa, quite a few trumpeted the promise of biofuels.

Fueling Ecocide or Fueling Hope?

While burner activists agree that fossil fuel extraction and consumption is destructive and unsustainable, a broad agreement has yet to exist in the burner community on what should replace fossil fuels. Some see biofuels as a next step.

About 85 percent of the BORG’s generators were powered by biodiesel this year. According to Price, “We took [out] 11,000 gallons [of petroleum] that were coming from human rights hotspots like Saudi Arabia and Nigeria and instead we’re running it off french fry juice from Reno – thanks, Reno!”

While most environmentalists have no objection to reclaimed veggie oil, large-scale biofuel cultivation is controversial due to evidence of deforestation, species loss, and human rights violations caused by large biofuel plantations.

Prof. Ignacio Chapela, one of UC Berkeley’s most outspoken critics of biofuels, objected to the BORG’s promotion of the term.

“Even the use of the term biofuels has enormous propaganda value for the movement toward biofuels… They’re playing with fire – propaganda fire – which is the worst kind of fire you can have around art,” said Chapela.



The Sustainable Living Road Show encampment proudly proclaimed that its busses run on biofuels. Its members disagree with the notion that such language helps the biofuels industry.


Sustainable Living Road ShowThe Sustainable Living Road Show crew is proud to promote biofuels, which critics charge is propaganda for corporate-driven, unethical practices.



“As we’re promoting biofuels, we’re talking about ethical, sustainable biofuels, because not all biofuels are ethical or sustainable,” said Road Show member Jonathan Youtt of San Francisco.

Two experimental biofuel technologies were rolled out at Black Rock City: algae bioreactors and gasification. While neither played a role in greening the event, they served as previews of what the future might (or might not) hold.

Situated underneath the Green Pavilion, the Chlorophyll Collective displayed a truck-size “bioreactor” with algae in plastic tubes furiously munching away on CO2 emissions from a generator. A sign characterized the technology as “The Single-Cell Solution for Global Warming: greenhouse-gas eating algae.”Algae

According to Bayview resident Meg “Algae Girl” Bracken, director of the Chlorophyll Collective, “Algae can solve many of the problems of our industrial society. They can produce much more food, fertilizer, and/or biofuels per acre than any other crop, and they can be grown on wastewater or salt water, on marginal land, or even on the surface of bodies of water. Algae can clean water and air, and build soil. Many algae are packed full of vitamins, minerals, and other key nutrients (such as omega-3 fatty acids) and make excellent additions to the diets of people and animals.”

Bracken states that if certain cost and technical barriers can be surmounted, algae has the potential to be a much more efficient source of biofuel than any other. “The amount of oil that we can harvest from algae is already much, much higher than the amount we can harvest from traditional oilseeds,” she states.

Bracken says algae ethanol would be a non-emitting, “closed loop” system: “The high amounts of CO2 produced in the process of fermenting alcohol or ethanol can be fed directly to algae which then grows profusely and can be harvested to make ethanol.” She sees algae as a potential salve to global greenhouse gas emissions.

But UC Berkeley Professor of Geoengineering Tad Patzek sees the Chlorophyll Collective’s ambitions as wholly unrealistic.

“Algae indeed are very useful at cleaning up sewage streams and can be converted into fertilizer, but that’s on a relatively small scale and has very little to do with saving the planet from global CO2 emissions. In order to absorb the emissions of a coal-fired power plant, you’d have to put a million of these bioreactors side-by-side. It’s simply not scalable.”

“People are ready to believe anything. Their deep wishful thinking has been confronted by reality in the case of corn and palm oil biofuels. People automatically reach for the next imaginary solution, and since algae hasn’t been thoroughly tested yet, it’s the next candidate,” added Patzek

Can Garbage Save the World?

Gasification was the next entrant into Black Rock City’s green science fair. Jim Mason, owner of Berkeley’s The Shipyard art studio, showcased an art vehicle known as The Mechabolic, a “trash-to-fuel land speed racer slug.” The enormous creaky machine was overflowing with gadgetry, a green-tech geek’s wet dream.

Powering Mechabolic is a technology that’s as old as human societies: gasification. Gasification is a process by which organic material is smoldered in a low-oxygen, high-temperature environment. In the case of Mechabolic, the resultant hydrogen is used to directly power an unmodified internal combustion engine. What’s left at the end is a clump of carbon that can be plowed into the ground as a potent fertilizer. Tom Price says that pre-Columbian Indians used to cut down organic matter in the Amazon basin, gasify it into ash, and fertilize the soil.

Thus, with gasification, a vehicle can run on almost any organic material, such as walnut shells or coffee grounds. Price sees gasification as the world’s best hope to stop global warming and envisions a future when humans strip-mine landfills for fuel. Mason has made all of his gasification tinkering available to the world for free - open source - which befuddles the investment community.

According to Price, “In May, we took [San Francisco mayoral candidate] Chicken John’s gasified truck to the Clean Tech conference in San José - hundreds and hundreds of V.C.s and C.T.O.s and all their multi-million dollar projects. And we pull up out front and Chicken stands in the back in a jumpsuit that says ‘Café Racer Crew’ on it and he’s like, ‘We’re making open source, carbon-negative renewable energy running on garbage in your parking lot, and we did it with junk we found in our shop in two days. What have you guys got?’ And they went crazy, and they kept asking him, ‘What’s your business model, what’s your business model?’ He said, ‘It’s not a business model, it’s art.’ And they’re like, ‘What’s the point of the art?’ And he said, ‘What’s the point of politics? Politics is to divide people. What’s the point of art? Art is to bring people together. You and I, we’ve been brought together by this art. Congratulations, I win, thank you, next customer.’”

On the playa, Mechabolic offered burners the unique opportunity to shove waste into a tank and watch, see, and learn how this both powered the machine and produced a potent fertilizer.

Mason reflected on his experience with Mechabolic: “I demonstrated how to make a carbon negative flamethrower by combining a trash-to-fuel gasification system with charcoal based agriculture. Yes, it is odd, but there is a way to ‘burn things’ that is better for the total carbon cycle than to do nothing. Whether this is meaningful or not has nothing to do with the absolute carbon count of the project on the playa, of course.”

Patzek is as skeptical about the future of gasification as he is about algae. “If we are running a car on a little bit of biomass to do the absolute minimum amount of driving, I’m all for it. Otherwise, it’s another symptom of not understanding the scale involved.” Patzek believes that the U.S. and world must radically reduce energy consumption and move toward zero-waste communities that live in harmony with nature’s cycles. He says the truly green way for burners to get to the playa is not gasified cars, but cycling.



Chicken John, on the other hand, thinks gasification is the medicine for the Earth’s woes. Virgin founder and billionaire Richard Branson has offered a $25 million reward to anyone who can devise a scheme to remove a billion tons of CO2 annually from the atmosphere. Chicken says Branson owes Mechabolic creator Jim Mason a call.

Whether algae or gasification plays any substantial future role in saving the planet – or greening Black Rock City – remains to be seen.

Drowning in a Sea of Plastic

On the parched playa, water is perhaps the scarcest and most crucial resource. Every year, several hundred burners collapse from dehydration and end up in medics’ tents on IV drips. “Drink before you’re thirsty” is the official survival guide’s most prominent guideline for intrepid burners.

Burners haul hundreds of thousands of plastic water bottles to the playa - everyone is responsible for their own hydration. But is this particular manifestation of “radical self-reliance” (a stated core ethos of the event) compatible with Burning Man’s efforts to go green?

Not according to the Green Pavilion’s own commentary on the threat of plastic waste. An installation entitled “How does our use of plastic water bottles contribute to the decline of the albatross?” explained the threat to avian life posed by the ubiquitous bottles that all too often blow or wash into oceans from urban areas. Plastic debris has created a floating garbage patch in the Pacific Ocean that’s twice the size of Texas.

In a recent SF Chronicle op-ed, Jared Blumenthal of the City’s Department of the Environment and Susan Leal of the Public Utilities Commission articulated numerous critiques of water bottles: they can leach toxins into the water, are transported from all over the world (using enormous amounts of fossil fuels), and often contain water that’s of lower quality than municipal water sources. Plastic recycling is inefficient and polluting at best, and one billion bottles end up in California landfill every year. Ironically, plastic bottles leak toxins into the groundwater, harming the public water supply.

Can anything be done to green Burning Man’s water consumption?

Matthew “Hitch” McDermidBurner Matthew “Hitch” McDermid of San Francisco believes so. He proposes that large theme camps could band together to purchase 500 or 1000-gallon containers and truck in fresh water from springs and aquifers in Lake Tahoe area or similar sources. Alternatively, he thinks that the BORG could build the cost into ticket prices and fully centralize water distribution. After all, the BORG already takes collective responsibility for ice sales, coffee sales, and excrement disposal on the playa via the Johnny On-the-Spot latrines.

“Campers would only need one reusable water bottle…instead of disposing of upwards of 20 or 30 water bottles at the end of the burn,” said Hitch.

Price thinks Hitch’s proposal would take Burning Man too far away from the ethos of self-reliance. “We could electrify the entire city, provide water, hand out blinky lights at the gate, we could do everything for people – have stacks of costumes and so forth. What does someone learn by doing that? Do you want to give them fish or teach them to fish?” asks Price rhetorically.



Hitch believes Burning Man needs to evolve from its current emphasis on individual self-reliance to an increased ethos of community self-reliance.

“If there were a cultural shift in that direction, we could decrease our ecological footprint every year when we throw the event and increase awareness for people to live in a greener way throughout the year.”


waterMiss Rosie drinks deeply out of a disposable water bottle in front of a display warning of the environmental dangers posed by such objects.



“What I’d like to see is a re-emergence of community: community that would create efficiencies in transportation, in food distribution, in the consumption of water, and other things that are going to reduce the impact on the environment, and would support the individual on a number of levels they need from an emotional, cultural, and spiritual standpoint,” added Hitch.

Price doesn’t see it the same way, at least as far as water bottles are concerned. He talks up Burning Man’s efforts to persuade area supermarkets to stock large-size water bottles as opposed to the smaller single-serve sizes, and notes that burners who want to could bring their own large, refillable water drums as Price himself has done. “It’s not our job to be nannies or babysitters… I don’t accept the premise that people can’t be responsible for themselves,” said Price.

Offsetting Apocalypse?

Global warming is front and center of any environmental discussion these days. So what is an effective way for burners to tackle their contribution to global warming? The Cooling Man project is an independent effort initiated by environmental scientists and economists David Shearer and Jeff Cole of San Francisco to persuade burners to purchase “carbon offsets” to cancel out their playa-related greenhouse gas emissions. As many frequent flyers know, carbon offsets are offered by various companies as a way to make up for the global warming-related impact of personal transportation and other activities. For instance, Native Energy offers to offset the two tons of carbon that a traveler emits by flying round-trip from New York to Reno (the closest major airport to Black Rock City) for $36. The purchaser has the option to channel the funds into projects such as a wind turbine farm on Sioux land in South Dakota, or a rural Pennsylvania family farm methane-capture system that will generate electricity from manure.

“The opportunity is to be strategic and fact-based in how you use the offsets…. If every burner invested in .7 tons of carbon offsets, we’d be the first carbon-neutral city on the planet. If every burner invested in one ton, we’d be carbon negative,” Shearer claims. Cooling Man reports that it helped to offset 780 out of the 33,250 estimated tons of greenhouse gas emissions generated by Burning Man 2007.

But even if Cooling Man could build the offset fee into ticket prices next year as Shearer hopes, are carbon offsets a legitimate way to stop global warming? According to Guardian UK columnist George Monbiot (author of Heat: How to Stop the Planet from Burning), no way.

Take, for instance, airplane travel: every year, over 6,000 burners fly across the country and the world to attend the event, billowing out tons of greenhouse gases. Monbiot reports that airplane travel is the single most offensive and unredeemable sector of the economy. Unlike automobiles, there isn’t even a glimmer of a green techno-fix: as the Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change stated, “There would not appear to be any practical alternatives to kerosene-based fuels for commercial jet aircraft for the next several decades.” The only apparent option would be to switch from jets to Zeppelins (hot air balloon ships).



Thus, according to Monbiot, to achieve the necessary 90% emission cut to stop runaway global warming we must both build wind turbines and stop flying. To do only one and not the other is to consign future generations (and perhaps ourselves) to a future that will make Katrina look like a minor weather event. Monbiot argues that the danger of carbon offsets is that they could serve as a modern “indulgence,” invoking the 15th-century church scams wherein priests sold a clean conscience to sinning parishioners for a few ducats.

Revealingly, playa life imitated metaphor at the Green Man Pavilion’s F.I.R.E. (Future Impact Reduction and Education) nexus. Established by students, alums, and faculty of Dominican University’s Green M.B.A. program, the learning center prominently featured an “Eco-confessional booth” which implored burners to “confess your eco-sins and be forgiven.”Eco-confessional

The author of this story stepped behind the curtain and begged faux-Father John Stayton of Dominican to forgive sins such as flying halfway around the globe for a brother’s wedding in South Africa, and collecting unlimited numbers of toys. The Father’s prescriptions generally focused on taking positive steps in other areas of life, but balked at challenging the idea of runaway consumption.

“It’s a playful way of helping people to recognize that a lot of us who’ve had our awareness raised then carry around a sense of guilt of our own impacts. We want people to become aware of their ecological impacts and process those feelings – but do it in a lighthearted way,” said Stayton.

Monbiot’s calculations postulate that if we are to achieve the necessary 90% cut, every person on the planet must be allocated a greenhouse gas emissions budget of 1.33 tons annually. According to Cooling Man’s estimates, the average burner emits .64 tons of greenhouse gas emissions traveling to and from and participating in the event. Thus, Burning Man participants blow nearly six months’ worth of emissions in one week. (As a frame of reference, one cross-country round trip flight more than exceeds the entire budget.)

“Any scheme that persuades us we can carry on polluting delays the point at which we grasp the nettle of climate change and accept that our lives have to change,” says Monbiot – a commentary as applicable to Black Rock City as any city.

Green Living 101?

Much could be said about how the BORG and many theme camps made valiant efforts to bring other environmentally-conscious practices to the playa: solar cooking, solar hot water, wind turbines, greywater systems, composting, recycling, and a community bicycle program. But these efforts appeared to be confined to certain corners of Black Rock City; for most burners, it was (wasteful) playa-life-as-usual. Many burners said that the green theme made little to no impact on their experience.

In truth, Burning Man is not and (for the foreseeable future) cannot be green: 90% of the event’s reported ecological footprint is due to the enormous fossil fuel expenditure required to transport 45,000 people to a far-flung region that is not convenient to public transportation.



Ironically, even the man himself – though he glowed green at night – was less than environmentally friendly. Tom Price states that despite vigorous efforts, the BORG was unable to obtain an effective green neon glow material that did not contain mercury, a toxin with a reputation for inducing brain damage. (Price says that the amount was small enough not to pose a hazard).

Most burners I spoke with – including Burning Man founder Larry Harvey – argued that the real value in the green effort was not in how it altered life on the playa, but how it might educate and influence people to change their lives and take action back home. Harvey conceived the theme as an exploration of “humanity’s relationship to nature.” One burner I met at Camp Hook-up’s green building workshop said his boss had paid for his Burning Man ticket in order for him to learn how to make a resort chain in Arizona more environmentally sustainable. Solar PV engineer Peef reported several inquiries on how to install solar panels back home.

At the Green Pavilion – which was closed for more than half the festival due to the premature immolation – kiosks and art displays offered a variety of educational resources: from descriptions of environmental crises such as unsustainable harvesting of hardwoods, to proposed eco-innovations like kite-powered cargo ships.

“This has been an opportunity to have a public conversation. More people are talking about this issue than I’ve ever heard before, and that might even offset [Burning Man’s] impact,” said BORG spokesperson Andie Grace. “I don’t think we’re in such dire circumstances that art has become irrelevant.”

Mechabolic creator Jim Mason reflected on the Green Theme, “I find trying to run a green experiment in the midst of the most highly consumptive collection of creators to be a rich contradiction. Green gestures are so often tinged with ludditism, human loathing, and general defeatism. It is usually a narrative of ‘do less, be less.’ What happens if the people who are about ‘do more, be more,’ with a major theme of burning things, want to also be green? That's a mess. It’s much more truthful to our situation. Thus why the theme was so rich.”

Life After Burning Man

But other long-time burners say they’ve had it up to here with Burning Man. Kachina Katrina commented after the burn, “I saw a lot of participants not contributing to the whole green movement. I don’t think that there was a lot of care and consideration given by the organization.”


Kachina KatrinaKachina Katrina frantically coordinated final details before the burn.


Kachina Katrina says the BORG could have done a lot more, despite inherent limitations. “We all know it’s not an event that can be 100% greened, but judging by the participants’ take on it, it’s got a long way to go.”

For Kachina Katrina and other disaffected burners, it’s off to…well… greener pastures. “Some friends and fellow colleagues in the greening Burning Man movement are starting a new festival called Water Woman – where they’ll take all of these ideas and values we proposed to green Burning Man and incorporate them into a festival-like atmosphere. This isn’t the only festival that is going to be more ecological – others such as Future Now, Entheon Villagers, and Symbiosis are creating eco-gatherings.”

Kachina Katrina is pleased to have experienced some new eco-practices this year on the playa – she’s planning to bring her updated greywater know-how to the kitchen at Symbiosis.

Water Woman founder and creator Ray Cirino, a twelve-time burner, talks about how different his baby will be from life on the playa. “Instead of building a city and tearing it down or destroying it, we’re going to keep the city. Burning Man says leave no trace – every single drop of ‘trace’ we’re going to be recycling or composting.”



Cirino says the festival will be goddess-focused, “very yin oriented as opposed to the yang energy of Burning Man. And the primary goal is for people to be self-reliant with sustainable practices, particularly permaculture. Permaculture is our base, our core. Water Woman will set up Burning Man in a beautiful way – ours will be in Spring, for growth, before the Fall and the burning. We’ll be building a food forest as well.” Cirino reports that he’s been flooded with volunteers and he plans to hold the festival in Northern California sometime in late Spring 2008, after Memorial Day.


Happy and VelocityHappy and Velocity believe the government must force people to take the steps necessary to stop global warming.


Cirino says the Water Woman city will include a cultural and learning center, and be built on a depressed property that needs help. Cirino is especially looking for indigenous land and to resuscitate a watershed.

“People’s ticket money will be an investment in their education, and also, they’ll be able to come back during the course of the year to learn as much as they can,” said Cirino. The festival will encourage children and family participation, will be promoted as totally substance-free, and all music will be unplugged. He hopes that after a five-year cycle, Water Woman will move to resuscitate other ecologically distressed properties.

Kachina Katrina, who recently moved into an eco-focused co-operative community in Oakland, concludes, “I think Burning Man is such a huge distraction to people in their lives, it’s an enormously wasteful party. I’m so thrilled to be back to my life – no more Burning Man. It’s time to think about what’s really happening on this planet. Bring it back home, to your home.”

© Matthew Alan Taylor

Known to burners as “goodthinkful,” Matthew Alan Taylor is a UC Berkeley peace and conflict studies student who has installed solar photovoltaic panels on his roof and indefinitely renounced jet aviation. He can be contacted via his web site:

On the Web:


Burning Man:

Water Woman:


Global Warming and Carbon Offsets:

Cooling Man:

George Monbiot:

Activists and Media:

Burners without Borders:

Green Guerillas Against Greenwash:

Biofuel Watch:

Eco Sutra documentary:

Experimental Technology:

Chlorophyll Collective:


Last modified on Sunday, 16 December 2012