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Featured image: A view of the Burning Man event from the International Space Station. Image by NASA ISS (Public Domain).

Climate Change

Did Gaia Punish Burning Man For Ignoring Climate Protests?

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Climate protesters blockaded the road to Burning Man prior to the festival’s kickoff a week ago. Their objections have merit — Burning Man is pretty damn polluting. The festival, which happens in Pershing County, Nevada, every year in late summer, celebrates art and community living. The concept is great — there’s no money, everything is given away, and there’s a “leave no trace” principle.

In recent years, however, people have been leaving traces. Lots of them. The organization that runs Burning Man was appalled last year at the amount of what is called “MOOP” (miscellaneous objects on the playa … the playa being what Burners call the sandy location of the Burn) left behind after the festival. I believe the organizers of the Burn do care about the environment. Nature is often celebrated in art, and so much of the education and initiation for Burners revolves around being kind, doing the right thing, and caring for all.

But it’s not the trash alone, of course, it’s the … everything. How do you build a city in the middle of the desert, and then take it all down and leave no trace? Lots, and lots, and lots … of fossil fuels. People traveling to and from — and getting all that equipment, gear, and infrastructure to the playa from the nearest city (Reno) — according to Burning Man’s sustainability report, constitutes the grand, grand majority of emissions attributed to the event. According to their chart of emissions, 63% of total festival emissions come from vehicle travel (people driving RVs from all over, then sitting and waiting in traffic for hours to get in the gates, then waiting in traffic for sometimes up to 8 hours in order to get out), while 27% come from people flying in/out, and only 10% comes from activities on the playa. The total? 100,000 tons of CO2. For a festival of one week.

A view of the Burning Man event from the International Space Station. Image by NASA ISS (Public Domain).

Climate protestors suggested that … you know … if the organizers of the Burn were serious about their climate goals, maybe they could ban private jets coming and going (yes, the Burn has an airport that they put together for just that week). The protesters were physically removed and many were arrested, and an officer purportedly drove through their barricade to open the lanes for festival-goers to continue on their way.

Add to this that Burning Man’s organizers joined what appears to be a NIMBY anti-clean energy consortium to help fight geothermal energy development in the area, and are instead trying to buy carbon capture as a way to get to net zero, and you start to wonder where the organization’s priorities are. (Author’s note: I appreciate that they’re trying. I really do. I just hope it’s a real commitment, because as we know, carbon capture is not exactly … you know ….)

The Wrath of Gaia?

Last year’s Burn featured some of the worst dust storms the event has ever seen. There have always been dust storms at Burning Man — it’s part of the adventure. But last year was downright terrible, with most days getting bad storms, according to a couple of friends who went.

This year, though, Gaia might have upped the ante.

Average precipitation in Pershing County is 0.2 inches in August and 0.2 again in September. This week, however, the place has been inundated. Friday night, heavy rains (more than half an inch, about 3× the normal monthly total) fell and flooded the playa. According to the New York Times, Burners were told Saturday that they might be stuck for a bit, so conserve food, water, and other critical supplies.

I have friends who are there, and I have not heard from them. That’s not abnormal, given the lack of cell service there, and I’m not worried, yet, but I also have no idea how long it’ll take for 3× the normal monthly precipitation to dry out, let alone if it will leave the desert dangerous for cars and cause even bigger delays in exiting the festival grounds.

I don’t know about you all, but I think Gaia is pissed. And I don’t blame her.

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Scott Cooney (twitter: scottcooney) is a serial eco-entrepreneur focused on making the world a better place for all its residents. Scott is the founder of CleanTechnica and was just smart enough to hire someone smarter than him to run it. He then started Pono Home, a service that greens homes, which has performed efficiency retrofits on more than 16,000 homes and small businesses, reducing carbon pollution by more than 27 million pounds a year and saving customers more than $6.3 million a year on their utilities. In a previous life, Scott was an adjunct professor of Sustainability in the MBA program at the University of Hawai'i, and author of Build a Green Small Business: Profitable Ways to Become an Ecopreneur (McGraw-Hill) , and Green Living Ideas.


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