After returning from her trip to Mongolia, our Next Great Travel Writer contest winner Suzanne Roberts donned leopard pants and headed out to the annual Burning Man festival. Here, she sends us a dispatch about how the huge party in the desert has been working to become a sustainable event.
Every year during the week leading up to Labor Day, Black Rock City, a fully functioning metropolis, complete with a post office, radio station, airport, recycling center, bars, boutiques, and night clubs, is erected in the Black Rock Desert in northern Nevada as part of the annual Burning Man Festival, then disappears, virtually without a trace. Although many would call it the “biggest party in the world,” Burning Man is also the largest “Leave No Trace” event in the world, restoring the dry lake bed, aka "the playa," to the condition in which it was found before the 50,000 or so people arrived.
Burning Man began in 1986 on Baker Beach in San Francisco when an 8-foot-tall wooden man was burned by Larry Harvey and his friend Jerry James. The event moved to the dry lake bed in the Black Rock Desert in 1990. Since then, the event has grown from a few hundred participants to a record 49,599 in 2008. People who haven't been to Burning Man may think of it as a hedonistic free for all, but those who attend know that it is about radical self-expression, self-reliance, and gifting. These tenants create an artistic community, known as Black Rock City, but they also contribute to an environmental ethic. In 2006, Burning Man adopted its Environmental Statement, and was praised by Al Gore in 2007 for its “Green Man” theme and dedication to the environment. Here are some of the innovative ways in which the festival incorporates its "green" theme.
Give of Yourself: The society runs on a gift economy, which means that no money is exchanged (except for at the center café, which sells coffee and ice - passing proceeds along to charities) and that everyone comes prepared to give something of him or herself, whether it be an art installation, volunteer work, yoga instruction, solar recharging stations, dance clubs and bars, or performances that range from ballet and cabaret to fire dancing, flaming skydivers, and even geology and native plant courses taught by PhDs. From this creativity and gifting community have come ingenious ideas regarding ways in which to “green” Burning Man, as well as take the gift-giving off the playa in order to make positive contributions to the greater world.
Watch Out for ‘MOOP’: According to Roger Farschon, an ecologist with the Bureau of Land Management, the amount of debris created at the festival has consistently come in far short of their quota; the majority of the mostly wood matter left behind is roughly the size of a dime. Burning Man participants call this sort of debris “Moop” or “Matter Out Of Place,” and are instructed never to “let it hit the ground.” There is not a single garbage can on the playa, so participants must be self-reliant and “pack it out.” Also, a huge clean-up effort takes place during and after the event. Farschon calls Burning Man “a valid use of public lands,” and says, “to date, there has never been any major problems with the way they have left the playa.”