Burn Out

Burning Man needs to get serious about 'leaving no trace'

It’s Burning Man time again. I’m not going, again. I’m not against Burning Man itself. There’s great art there, the torching of the temple is a wondrous ritual, and there’s nothing wrong with plain old fun. Some of my best friends are “burners”—seriously! In recent years, there has been much grumbling about the lost soul of Burning Man as Hollywood/techie/yuppie crowds make it their own version of a corporate retreat. That sounds like a bummer to me too, but that’s not my concern. My worry is about our planet and life on it.

The future, climate-wise, is looking grim. We’re in deep doodoo already, and it’s going to get much worse without very serious curtailment of our emissions.

Burning Man vows to “leave no trace,” but what does that really mean, besides some fastidious efforts to keep litter off the “playa”?

Last year, the Los Angeles Weekly explored BM’s eco-impact, and the calculations and conclusion were not encouraging: “The average American is responsible for 17.6 tons of greenhouse gases each year, or 0.33 tons per week. The average Burner will produce 0.67 tons next week, or double the national average. . . . Eighty-seven percent of that was from travel to and from Black Rock City.” One can quibble about such calculations, but given the undeniably huge number of miles driven at a minimum, it’s hard to argue with the conclusion: “The environment gets worse every year because of Burning Man.”

Burning Man officials have said they are trying to ameliorate such impacts, through carpooling and such, but those are just Band-Aids. So here’s my call for radical action: BM should go “carbon-neutral”—in total, not just at the event. But given that the biggest impact comes from travel to and from the event, there is really only one truly “green” option at this time: cancel next year’s event, in the name of a real commitment to true, radical, eco-consciousness. Enlist the many good burning minds to bring Burning Man into this century for real, at least as a non–negative impact event, but even more hopefully, as a force for ecological good. Instead of the giant party on the playa this time next year, how about a report back on ideas for moving in this green direction, with plans to fund action?

Now that would be truly radical.

Steve Heilig is an epidemiologist, editor and environmentalist in Marin County.

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