Burning Man Has A Big Carbon Footprint (Unsurprisingly)

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Surely, I’m not the only one who thinks people flying from all over the world to hang out in the desert and burn things while getting drunk and telling themselves how “green” and “radical” they are is ridiculous, am I?

Granted, people partying en masse, and burning lots of fossil fuels while doing so, is nothing new — but then people partying during Super Bowl Sunday, or the Fourth of July, don’t make a point of loudly proclaiming how “green” they are, do they? Or how much they care about the “environment” or animal rights?

Therein lies the rub for me — listening to people who talk endlessly about the issues of climate change, carbon emissions, pollution, etc, but never actually change the way they personally live.

At the very least, it seems like those who claim to care about such things would chose to simply put together a similar, smaller-scale event in their own immediate area/region — rather then jetting halfway across the world or country to go to a better known one (that you can later name drop or post selfies from).

On that note… with an estimated 70,000 people heading to Black Rock City this year, I figured it might be worth posting some information on the carbon footprint involved.

Via Grist:

So, just how much carbon does Burning Man burn? Hard to know exactly, but last year LA Weekly unearthed a 2007 website called Cooling Man, where concerned Burners calculated the carbon footprint of the event. According to Cooling Man:

“Burning Man 2006 generated an estimated 27,000 tons of greenhouse gas (GHG) emissions. This figure includes emissions from participant and staff travel to and from Black Rock City, as well as on-Playa power generation, art cars, fire art and, of course, burning the man. Dividing ~27,000 tons by ~40,000 people yields an estimated ~0.7 tons per Burning Man participant.”

LA Weekly reported that 0.7 tons is actually double the weekly national average per person. And if we assume that the yield per Burner hasn’t changed enormously since 2006 (although it probably has now that Mark Zuckerberg and his buddies get helicoptered in) and update the numbers to reflect the 2015 crowd estimates, this year’s event will spew a minimum of 49,000 tons of greenhouse gases. How much is that? About the same that the nation of Swaziland (population 1.2 million) produces in a week. I mean, it’s not the Olympics or a presidential race or anything, but it does seems like a lot just to get naked in the desert and talk about your chakras.


As noted in that coverage, as well, these are often people getting naked in the desert while talking about how much they care about the environment. Here’s a taste of the attitude I’m talking about straight from the event’s website:

Leaving No Trace is arguably Burning Man’s most important principle. If we don’t uphold that one, no more Black Rock City. But Leaving No Trace is not just about the playa; it’s our ethic about the whole planet. Burners are environmentalists. It’s just our nature.

That’s the whole issue with the climate change “movement” to date, though, isn’t it? For most people, the rhetoric is one thing, and actions are another.

Going by actions alone, I can’t actually tell the difference between those of my acquaintances that are “believers” or “deniers.” The only thing that seems to vary most of the time is the rhetoric. Do “environmentalists” really need to jet across the world/country just to burn things in the desert?

Image Credit: Aaron Logan, via Wikipedia

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James Ayre

James Ayre's background is predominantly in geopolitics and history, but he has an obsessive interest in pretty much everything. After an early life spent in the Imperial Free City of Dortmund, James followed the river Ruhr to Cofbuokheim, where he attended the University of Astnide. And where he also briefly considered entering the coal mining business. He currently writes for a living, on a broad variety of subjects, ranging from science, to politics, to military history, to renewable energy.

James Ayre has 4830 posts and counting. See all posts by James Ayre

30 thoughts on “Burning Man Has A Big Carbon Footprint (Unsurprisingly)

  • It would be interesting to compare with events like Glastonbury, even formula e car racing.

    • The delta is that those events don’t brag about being green or caring about the environment…nor do the participants live there for the week while they’re doing their thing.

  • What a ridiculous article. 27,000 tons of CO2 emissions? The US generates 5.4 Gigatons annually, meaning Burning Man = 0.0005%
    Burning Man or No Burning Man means literally next to nothing for the climate crisis. And many of the people that attend for the week are also the ones out there the other 51 weeks of their lives trying to make a difference.

    • You could say that about literally any single event/business/change/solution. Why install solar panels on my roof? That’s literally only .000000001% of our total emissions? Why drive an electric car? Why worry if my power comes from coal, natural gas or wind? Why even question these things because they’re all too small to make a difference?

      Because we all need to own our part of this global crisis. Because each change DOES make a difference. Because change starts with education and it’s possible that this very article will spark the change in someone going to burning man next time to go there in an EV, to run their week / event / party on solar instead of a generator. Because there are alternatives and if we can run BM on half…a quarter or a tenth of that, we should and that’s worth doing. Because we are the problem and we have to be the solution. We can’t just blame the cows and move on with our life, having dinner at Outback steak house.

      At least that’s how I try to look at it…

      • Check out But Will the Planet Notice? by Gernot Wagner sometime.

        • Building on that…I’m also setting an example and using my lifestyle and my changes to advertise the benefits and positive impact “we” can make vs just me. So it stretches beyond just my impact and scales….the challenge is how to make that scale further, larger

          • The economics simply don’t work. It’s a nice idea, and I agree with you. It makes us feel good that “reduction” or “conservation” actually means something, but the reality of modern society is that these measures don’t mean much to the planet.

          • “Dear reader, stop giving a shit, it’s too hard.”

          • Every step counts period.

    • Thats like saying “I go to AA during the week so on Saturday nights I can turn up twice as hard”

      • Compared to someone drinking every day, doing so only on Saturdays, even twice as much, still results in far less liquid ingested overall.

        Also, attempting to infer average consumption by extrapolating from a single day (a bit like the author is doing here) will lead to completely bogus results in that second case.

    • This comment is just plain entitled ignorance, and the epitome of the problem.

      “Why should I stop doing _____. its .00000001% of all emissions, so what difference does my choice make.”

      My choice to conserve energy, of course, alone, does nothing in the scheme of things…it’s the collective choices of Millions together that can make a difference.

      • Let’s be real: you and I are just as much of hypocrites as the average Burner. If we had a functioning democracy and economic system that put the planet and well-being of humans first over GDP and profit… we would’ve been on the track to a decarbonized society 20 years ago (at least).

        Yes, individual actions matter only because they have the potential to spawn a collective mass-movement to demand accountability from elected officials… but in the grand carbon pie chart, they are unfortunately meaningless, and what’s scary is how many billions of people are ready and willing to fill the carbon footprint of the person giving it up (based purely on quality of life). The climate crisis, if it can be solved at all, must be solved on the governmental/corporate level.

        • Again, arguing that “because other people litter it doesn’t matter if we do” is literally the reason we are in this situation to begin with. Change can only happen if people try to make it happen. Just throwing your hands up and saying “Fuck it, who cares anyways!” is defeatist and down right damaging.

    • Next article will be about how you should not eat lots of calories. And that you should not shower to conserve water. Or go to the gym and play basketball.

  • Sure, and Al Gore flying around the world talking about environmentalism has an enormous carbon footprint… ironic, no? Actually, no.

    You have to look at second order effects.

    Yes, this one week people spend twice the average individual’s carbon budget. OMG. The other 51 weeks a year, they really *do* advocate for environmentalism (statistically speaking), reduce their own carbon footprint, create local events that spread the word as well, etc., etc.

    And have you stopped to imagine how amazing it is that they are able to do what they are doing and *only* double their carbon footprint for that week? That takes huge amounts of dedication that spreads out into many people’s daily lives.

    This is like the old saying that if you’re an environmentalist you should kill yourself, or not have kids, because that’s the most environmentally friendly thing you can do… and that’s true until you realize what the world would look like if everyone that cared about the environment killed themselves and/or failed to reproduce.

    • What kind of ‘second order effects’ does Burning Man generate?

      That a minor celebrity flying around the world to give lectures on climate change can have a positive impact on global carbon emissions is fairly obvious. How a random festival does the same is, well, les obvious.

      If BM marketed itself as just another festival, with all the associated carbon emissions, there wouldn’t be anything to complain about. But even after reading Armistead Maupin’s latest novel, which is basically a declaration of love for Burning Man, I still don’t get what makes BM so unique or deserving of the epithet ‘green’.

    • >> The other 51 weeks a year, they really *do* advocate for environmentalism (statistically speaking)

      Can you really back that statement – that on average Burning Man attendees have significantly smaller carbon footprints in their daily lives?

      B/c most of the people I know that have been to burning man are more liberal, and maybe more likely to own a Prius and some solar panels — but otherwise all live normal American, energy-consuming lives…and are also large travelers that do a ton of driving and flying.

      • The perfect is the enemy of the good.

        Even if your characterization is accurate, even if all you do is own a Prius or some solar panels, your decreased carbon footprint from 51 weeks of those things will more than compensate for one week with double the average carbon footprint.

        • So why not own the Prius and the solar panels and then NOT undo some of the carbon benefits of that by flying across the world to attend Burning Man?

          The point of the article is that BM portrays itself officially as a green event, and it’s simply not. Attendees should seriously take that into consideration before deciding to go if they have any care for reducing CO2.

          • Because people don’t do things just because.

            Why does Al Gore fly around giving lectures and burning carbon? Not because the event itself is ecologically sound, but because it gets people to change their behaviors. And yet his tours are widely considered “environmentalist events”.

            Burning Man gets people to change their behaviors. It’s very simplistic to look at only what happens there.

          • I’ve said this before and you ignored it: I can see how an Al Gore lecture on climate change might have changed a few minds back when he still had currency, so a positive effect on carbon emissions is likely.

            How does Burning Man achieve the same goal? Last time I checked, it didn’t. And its absurd choice to choose a location that drives up carbon emissions by default (remote and in a desert) adds insult to injury.

          • My intent in this comment is not to try to explain Burning Man. I could write a whole book about it, but better people than I have tried this, and honestly if you haven’t attended the event, it’s pretty much impossible anyway. It’s like trying to “explain” the Grand Canyon with just words.

            My intent is to point out that, just like with Al Gore, you can’t just look at the carbon footprint of an activity, by itself, in isolation, to decide if it’s environmentally beneficial or not. That’s basically a useless way to assess it.

            Environmentalists of all people should understand this. Things are systems. The second order effects are often much larger than the direct impact. Hidden costs and benefits are legion.

            Looking at Burning Man simplistically, like anything else, is not going to tell you the full story.

          • You are never going to get them to see it.

  • I think that the distinction is that burning man is a massive annual art project. art is all about using resources, sometimes large amounts of them, for a totally non-utilitarian end, to provoke thought, to entertain, and to create culture. I think the same cultural values that cherish environmentalism and charity/social services tend to cherish the arts, despite the arts arguably wasteful use of resources. This dichotomy has always seemed weird, but an event on the scale of burning man really throws it into relief.

    At the end of the day, I think burning man is just like the super bowl for different tastes – big resource intensive cultural revelries. And that’s ok – we shouldn’t stop doing either one – but a concerned burner should look at the other 360 days of the year to see if their time and money support the sort of systemic progress that will allow a wonderful wasteful art project like burning man to be going on in a century.

  • I took the photograph in this post. You didn’t ask my permission to use it. Please remove it immediately and never use any of my images on your website ever again. Thanks.

  • I’m all for burning energy and having a good time. Screw conserving it. Just make it renewable energy.

  • They have seen the light!!
    They are changing the name from “Burning Man” to “Stupid Man”. About time!!

  • Bring on the flexible PV fabric! Even if the efficiency were low, a PV tent roof could likely power a burning man campsite + art installation. With batteries and LED lighting the art could stay on all night.
    For greater symbolic value, give the man a wind turbine halo. The playa can get breezy.

  • I note that 87% of Burning Man’s spew is travel.
    So, do /you/ have a favourite travel destination? /What’s your/ carbon footprint for your trip, eh?
    Also, how do you know what type of vehicles the participants used? Did you ask them – or was the travel pollution *estimated* from a table somewhere?
    Is it possible that we puny citizens are embedded in a system that forces certain choices (which you seem to eschew)? How did you expect them to travel several thousand miles, walk?
    Have you noticed that most of the electric cars from major automakers get about 75 miles range and have about a 25KWH pack? Why?
    How about spending some time advocating for changing the CAFE standards so electric cars can have bigger battery packs and thereby better range – at a slight loss of efficiency (mileage). It’d be nice to see an electric vehicle from a major player (other than Tesla) that does not have the hallmarks of a sacrificial “CAFE” car so a few more *expensive* guzzlers can be built.
    Gasoline dispensing nozzles and pumps are regulated as to many facets of their structure and performance. Why are charging systems not hewing to a common standard as well?
    Hey, I know, why not do a carbon footprint comparison between the RNC and DNC and Burning Man! That should be interesting…

Comments are closed.