AFTERBURN REPORT 2005
For the first time, an article dedicated to the environmental activities of the Burning Man organization is part of the AfterBurn Report. A review will recap some of the history of the event and its relationship to the environment. From the very beginnings of the burn on Baker Beach, and especially since the to move to the Black Rock Desert in 1990, no one could deny the awareness of the surroundings and overwhelming sense of and respect of place that has accompanied the event.
Each year since, a growing number of individuals have witnessed the awe-inspiring landscape of the Black Rock Desert, enjoyed the hot springs, frolicked in ancestors (aka dust devils) and experienced a magnificent something in a vast sea of nothingness. Many lessons have been learned regarding survival and responsible use of the desert, and these lessons have been shared with others. As early as 1991, when representatives of the Bureau of Land Management (BLM) first inspected the playa after completion of the burn, within 1 week, they found no traces of the art that was burned, or the campsite. This track record of environmental stewardship has continued ever since, until in 2003, the BLM declared Burning Man the largest Leave No Trace (LNT) event in the world. As more and more people experience the unique and compelling environment of the Black Rock Desert, the community has demonstrated an ever-growing desire to affect the glorious landscape beyond the event boundaries and out into the rest of the world.
In 1997, a participant group started Recycle Camp in Black Rock City. This important function was formalized as a community service in 1998. In addition to providing awareness, education, and an important service of removing recyclable cans, Recycle Camp has donated hundreds of thousands of cans to the local high school to help fund student activities.
Volunteers formed the Earth Guardians in 1998 to assist in education and conservation efforts. Since the group's formation, it has worked throughout the years to assist the BLM and other desert users, leading to national recognition in 2001 for restoration projects in Black Rock/High Rock National Conservation Area. In 2002, the Earth Guardians began hosting a Leave No Trace Tour of Black Rock City during the event and identifying camps that exemplified the LNT ethic. For many years, they have guided Leave No Trace backpacking trips over weekends in the summer, worked on restoration projects at nearby spots such as Frog Pond, guided nature walks for participants, held educational programs, helped to manage community burn platforms, and demonstrated ecologically responsible camping techniques during the event.
Leaving no trace, recycling, restoration, and education are a good start, but a city of over 35,000 citizens can have a myriad of impacts on the physical world, even if the city exists for only 1 week, and especially when those 35,000 take what they learn from their experiences back to their communities around the world.
In 2004, several members of Burning Man's staff and a few volunteers collaborated on some additional steps to help the organization reduce the event's environmental impact. This group orchestrated a series of experiments to bring alternative fuels into the city infrastructure and art, and facilitated the use of environmentally friendly products in infrastructure operations. Many of these efforts have paid off and systems are still in place, while some are still being tested and explored.
For several years, hesitation and resistance by the event's power vendor met calls to use alternative fuels in the generator fleet, due to some previous challenging experiences utilizing biodiesel for events and transitioning the same generators back to regular diesel for other events. Planning confronted the unknowns of using biodiesel for long periods of time in the harsh environment of the playa. In 2004, the Department of Public Works (DPW) managed to negotiate a separate contract for a single generator which ran for 15 days straight on 100% biodiesel fuel to provide power for the Greeters Station. A great deal of research and discussion was conducted with sustainable event producers, generator mechanics, and biodiesel experts, leading to expectations that most generators should run fine on biodiesel, despite a need to change the fuel filters more frequently since biodiesel is highly solvent and causes a flushing out of carbon deposits that build up in the fuel tank, fuel lines, and fuel delivery system of the engine. This effect occurs when running an engine on any blend of biodiesel in an engine that had been previously run on petroleum diesel. The generator was lovingly tended by members of the DPW fuel team and mechanical experts with experience in running engines on biodiesel. The generator worked fine before, during, and after the event, the fuel filters stayed clean and clear and didn't require a single change the entire 15 days. Just as the whole experiment seemed a success, the generator rental company reported that the oil in the crankcase had polymerized, or turned to jelly. The generator required a complete teardown and rebuild. Possibly, the problem could have been prevented through more thorough post-event maintenance by the vendor. Experiments could not continue in 2005 due to a changeover in vendor management and their unsatisfactory experience with the 100% biodiesel test the previous year. Generators seem to run successfully on biodiesel in the harsh environment of the Black Rock Desert, however only a limited number of companies will rent a generator fleet for use in the remote and inhospitable desert environment, and at this time none are interested in allowing alternative fuels in their generators. Add to this difficulty the increased costs of alternative fuels such as biodiesel. In 2006, planners hope to continue experiments with biodiesel fuel. If a contractor will agree to run at least a blend of biodiesel, such as B20, combined with an even more closely managed maintenance plan, the change will at least reduce the amount of bad emissions into the air above Black Rock City. Some also talk about a Chicago-based company that is interested in helping to bring wind turbines to the playa to generate power in 2006.
Experiments or tests such as these will bring about positive change in Black Rock City. By educating current vendors, who are essentially participants that provide a vital service for a budgeted price, and meeting new potential vendors in the alternative energy arena, solutions emerge.
In 2004, the organization first outsourced the operation of the staff commissary to an event catering company. The organization made the use of ecologically friendly products a major factor in the vendor selection process and contract negotiations. A volunteer from the Burning Man community helped to source and obtain "eco-groovy" products for both the staff commissary and the Center Camp Café. It was huge fun to inform staff members that they were eating from plates made of sugar cane, and using other non-paper or responsibly harvested materials. The only small, and rather funny impact, was that extreme temperatures would soften the cornstarch utensils and they would sometimes bend into very odd shapes, particularly when trying to scoop up hot chili. The commissary vendor continues to use ecologically friendly products, though in 2005 the decision was made to purchase a large quantity of low-cost flatware that could be washed and used over and over again.
Even more progress came in 2004 when the Nevada Health Department gave permission for participants to bring their own mugs to the café for coffee and other beverages. Washing stations were not feasible for participant cups, so in previous years the request had been denied due to concerns for the health of the city. Collaboration and education combined to inform and encourage citizens to "Bring Your Own (Clean) Cup" in order to reduce waste.
Off the playa in 2004, restoration activities were taking place at the event's staging facility, Black Rock Station. As part of permit requirements from Washoe County, a 1-acre park was created with newly planted trees and plants. This area has grown into a green oasis in the desert and is only part of the major site renovation, clean-up, renewal, and investment at that property. In addition, both solar and wind power are a part of the system that runs the work ranch.
In addition to the infrastructure of Black Rock City, each year more artists are experimenting with alternative fuels in their art, based on the desire to produce more environmentally friendly flame effects and due to the special burn characteristics of each fuel type. In recent years, artist Jack Schroll used methanol in El Diablo, and Karen Cusolito and Dan Das Mann followed suit in The Passage. An increasing number of playa art installations use solar power collected during the day to support light effects at night.
Back in the default world, environmentally friendly, green products have reached into the San Francisco headquarters. It is hardly just a coincidence that more green products starting showing up around the same time that the Recycle Camp manager joined the office staff as Facilities Coordinator.
The Burning Man organization constantly responds to individuals and groups with ideas for sustainability and implementing a permaculture approach to the operation of the event. The intention of this report, and future reports on environmental activities undertaken by the organization, is for members of the community to learn about our commitment to improving the event and organization in an effort to minimize impact on the environment and the world. Progress is coming in that area. Challenges continue related to obtaining and transporting the best resources, working with vendors to provide essential services, and keeping costs to a minimum (since ticket sales are really the only source of revenue). This effort continues in the face of the realities of building and orchestrating a city of 35,000+ in the middle of nowhere in a uniquely harsh setting.
The Burning Man Project cannot instantly manifest every change that planners, and other environmentally minded groups within the community, would like to achieve in the building and operation of Black Rock City. Efforts continue, however, to provide a context for the members of the community with like intentions and ecological resources to come together. This network of action-oriented participants continues to grow in strength, numbers, and expertise. Community-service camps such as the Earth Guardians and Recycle Camp, along with theme camps like the Alternative Energy Zone, are well-established within the community and combine fun with information, education, outreach, and action. Collaboration is underway between the Bureau of Land Management, the Friends of the Black Rock, and other external groups dedicated to preservation of land and resources. In addition, new connections and collaborations are continually forming, with additional groups planning elaborate, environmentally minded theme camps and even "how-to" educational series in San Francisco and other cities.
The event's 2006 Art Theme explores hope and fear for the future. The community seems likely to express and inform each other, and subsequently the rest of the world, about the potential impacts of individual actions on the world around us. The result can only be more actions, solutions, and education for all.
Heather (CameraGirl) Gallagher, Paul (Blue) Shreer and Dave X