Burning Man 2023 Is a Climate-Crisis Parable
A parable about the perils of ignoring climate activists has just played out in the Nevada desert. As Burning Man 2023 began on Aug. 27th, protesters temporarily stopped traffic heading to the arts festival by parking a 28-feet (8.5 meter) trailer across the road. Then, just a few days later, proceedings were halted by torrential rainfall. Black Rock City, the name of the temporary civilization that appears every year in the usually hot and dusty playa, was inundated with more than two months worth of rain in about 24 hours. The ancient lakebed turned to mud. Driving around the site was banned. People were told to take shelter and to ration food, fuel and water. The burning of the man, the annual climax of the festival in which an effigy is sent up in flames, was postponed for a day. DJ Diplo and comedian Chris Rock decided to hike five miles out of the ephemeral city. Triops, sometimes nicknamed dinosaur shrimp, emerged from the bog to join the chaos. By Monday, the ground had recovered enough to allow the mass exodus to begin. While attendees escaped mostly unscathed there was sadly one death at the festival this year, but it was deemed unrelated to the weather theres still a sense of irony about festival-goers raging at environmental protesters just before getting mired in a climate-induced crisis. Much of the public focus centers on the contradictions inherent in an event which stands for decommodification (no money is exchanged at the festival, only gifts), community and leave no trace principles, yet has become a polluting mecca for the ultra-wealthy. Recent attendees include Ray Dalio, Mark Zuckerberg and Elon Musk. One headline about the weekends incident reads: Did Gaia punish Burning Man for ignoring climate protests? If that was how our planet worked, then the poorest and least responsible nations wouldnt be bearing the brunt of the climate crisis. But the author can be forgiven for suggesting Mother Earth may have taken revenge: The festival is a big polluter. Burning Man Project, a San Francisco-based non-profit organization that runs the annual event, estimated that more than 54,200 metric tons of CO2 was released by the festival in 2019, the equivalent of burning 27,215 metric tons of coal. Black Rock Labs, a non-profit tech incubator, puts the figure at 100,000 tons. Some 91% of that is from transporting 80,000 people and equipment into and out of the desert. Thats largely cars and recreational vehicles, but its also planes. Attendees visit from more than 5,500 cities across the world and the event sets up its own airport, so tech and finance bros can swing by on private jets. On-site emissions are inflated by the air-conditioned tents and RVs providing respite from the oppressive desert heat often felt in normal years. Even before this years event, those involved with Burning Man were raising concerns about climate change. Just a few months ago, Matt Sundquist, director of Fly Ranch a year-round rural incubator for Burning Man culture wrote in a blog entitled Climate Change is an Existential Threat to Black Rock City that we will soon see multiple days in Black Rock City with extreme dust, substantial storms, 120F+, and 200+ AQI ( Air Quality Index). How right he was. The festival organizers have committed to being carbon negative by 2030 and progress has been made, particularly through solar power pilot projects. Some 590 theme camps, organized groups hosting anywhere from three to 400 people at the gathering, expressed a clear commitment to working towards the Burning Man sustainability goals, and 730 camps used solar power. But theres a lot of room for improvement: Out of around 800 motorized art pieces, known as mutant vehicles, about 40 were electric or human-powered in 2022. Just under half of the camps havent yet committed to the 2030 sustainability roadmap. Part of the challenge is, unlike other festivals, Burning Man is constructed by attendees. In the events sustainability roadmap, its noted that this is a communal effort: The organization is not dictating something; we are setting the vision and inviting the community to help. By contrast, the UKs iconic Glastonbury Festival, which hosts 200,000 people a year, has minimized its climate footprint with measures such as encouraging sustainable modes of transport, introducing a plastic ban and recycling half of the waste produced. Compost toilets and a lack of showers help reduce water use. Crucially, ahead of the festival weekend in June this year, organizers said it would be powered entirely by renewable energy and biofuel. Setting up an entire metropolis in the middle of the desert will always have an environmental cost, but Burning Man can do better. The Seven Circles Alliance, a coalition of organizations including Extinction Rebellion and Scientist Rebellion that was responsible for the first days protests, had some good ideas: Ban private jets, single-use plastics, unnecessary propane burning, and unlimited generator use per capita. If Burning Man stands for radical inclusion and radical self-expression, the weekends deluge ought to inspire the community to take on some radical climate action and perhaps start listening to those who are raising the alarm. More From Bloomberg Opinion: Mother Nature Is Staging a Climate Intervention: Timothy OBrien Mauis Wildfire Disaster Demands a National Reckoning: Editorial Our Fossil Fuel Addiction Is Killing Baby Penguins: F.D. Flam This column does not necessarily reflect the opinion of the editorial board or Bloomberg LP and its owners. Lara Williams is a Bloomberg Opinion columnist covering climate change. More stories like this are available on bloomberg.com/opinion 2023 Bloomberg L.P.