Burning Man: The Green and Black from Black Rock City


If the world started to cook, plants and animals died, and the earth became parched and lifeless, it would feel a lot like the Black Rock Desert in Nevada, where Burning Man spring up each year. The Black Rock Desert becomes Black Rock City, a fully functional mini-metropolis based around self-reliance, free expression, and pyromania. The desert is about as unaccommodating a place as you could ever hope for, which makes it the perfect canvas for 40,000 people to be as outlandishly creative as they can muster.From an ecological point of view, Burning Man is a knot of contradictions, melding earth consciousness, self-sustainability, and social harmony with flames, debauchery, and disposable resources. Black Rock City is a place of radical self-reliance where people bring with them what they need to survive and pack it out again when they leave (there are no garbage cans at Burning Man). The light and resistant living structures that spring up are so impressive that the military has been known to conduct research on the dusty playa (see Design Like You Give a Damn). Burning Man is also commerce-free. Only ice, tea, and coffee are purchasable. There are no vendors, no souvenir stands, no corn dog guys. Exchanges are on a gifting or bartering system only. It is also bicycle heaven. The flat, hard, alkaline surface of the wasteland is an ideal application for the bike, in whatever alien permutation it takes here. This year also saw a drastic increase in the use of vegetable oil and biodiesel fuels to where you'd think people had been using it all their lives.

On the flip side, Burning Man isn't quite greenie paradise either. To prepare for the week-long excursion into beauty, survival, sexuality, and celebration, most people engage in a now almost ritual raiding of Wal-Mart for cheap camping gear, $50 mountain bikes, canned Indian food, and whatever other flavorful impulse buys the Reno area has to offer. Although very little of the waste stays out in the desert (the collection of moop, or desert detritus, is surprisingly vigilant) it all ends up somewhere, much of it unsorted and in the trash. Also, despite the spike in veggie and solar power, Burning Man is fossil-fueled, with most camps running on generators or car batteries. And, of course, the incineration of untold amounts of wood, fuels, explosives, and other incendiaries represents a significant carbon and pollution release. A project called Cooling Man has attempted to calculate and offset the emissions from the festival and let individuals determine their own footprint, but the sheer volume of burned material can be hard to stomach. This year, a structure dubbed the "Waffle House" (seen above), a temple fifty feet high and constructed of uniform pieces of virgin pine was burned the night after the Man himself was consumed. Spectacular, yes. But still a large sacrifice of resources in a place that strives to represent a desirable future.

Next year's theme? The Green Man, humanity's relationship with nature.
(Image credit: uchronia)

CORRECTION: We have been informed that the wood used/burned in the Waffle house was scrap wood "destined for the dump," which is, of course, much preferable. I apologize for the false information, and thanks, LadyBee, for the correction.