I have had a number of people recommend that I go to Burning Man over the past few years, especially now that I’m on the left side of the country. I never have gone, and I don’t intend to. Why? Because it’s not worth the environmental impact.
A significant number of Burners would probably describe themselves as environmentalists. The 2007 theme of the event was “Green Man”. And the Burning Man website has an entire section dedicated to environmental awareness. There’s also Cooling Man, which is all about carbon emissions.
And you know what? It’s all greenwashing. Carbon offsets are greenwashing. Claiming Burning Man is a “leave no footprint’ event is greenwashing. Here’s why:
–You have fifty thousand people–50,000, not 5,000–converging on one place, almost all traveling in some form that releases carbon into the air. Cars, buses, motor homes, planes, all these are releasing unnecessary amounts of greenhouse gases into the air.
–You have 50,000 people all walking, driving, biking and otherwise traveling over the same piece of playa year after year. That can’t NOT cause significant soil compaction. Soil compaction, even in a desert area, can have devastating effects on the environment. Plants find it harder to put down roots, and animals can have much more difficulty burrowing. Plus if a place does not have a lot of underground earthmovers such as earthworms, then the compaction can last for many years after the last person leaves.
–In addition to compaction, the ground is also affected by the raising of dust. This affects both air quality, and also damages topsoil (what of it is there in the desert).
–The wanton waste exhibited by certain “art” installations is appalling from a variety of levels. In addition to the carbon emissions of the Burning Man itself, you have things like a catapult hurling a flaming piano. What good does that do anyone? Air pollution? Minute particulate matter left on the playa despite “cleaning” efforts? And what of the waste of the piano itself? Surely there are low-income children with little to no access to musical instruments who could have benefited if that piano had been fixed up and donated to a needy school instead of being destroyed in the name of “art”.
–All that garbage has to go somewhere. Just because it’s no longer on the playa doesn’t mean it just disappeared. “Oh, but things get recycled!” Yes, if people remember to recycle them. And if they don’t end up in a landfill anyway. Bottled water, for example, since people have to bring water in with them. In addition to all the ethical and legal issues surrounding the privatization of water, there’s the issue of the bottles themselves.
No, I am not the perfect environmentalist. I am writing this up in Seattle, over a hundred miles away from Portland, where my partner and I have traveled for the weekend on a business trip. And no, I didn’t offset my carbon to make myself feel better with a greenwashed “solution”, because there’s no way to take back the carbon my car released, which is the main issue at hand. I vend at festivals, and I travel otherwise. I am a supporter of the concept of the green metropolis, and am a happy urban dweller.
But I don’t support the convergence of FIFTY THOUSAND PEOPLE–an entire city–to be constructed and taken apart every year at huge environmental expense. I don’t care how nifty the art installations are or how sincere the platitudes about the experience.
As far as I can tell, it’s not worth it. I don’t need to go there to verify that.