Education is Everything: Better Behavior Through Learning

[This post is part of the 10 Principles blog series, an ongoing exploration of the history, philosophy and dynamics of Burning Man’s 10 Principles in Black Rock City and around the world. We welcome your voice in the conversation.]

Here’s what I remember being surprised by the most during my first visit to Black Rock City, in 1998: No garbage cans.

I had come utterly unprepared, and had little idea what going to Burning Man meant. Traveling separately from my only other friend who was going, I grabbed a spot on the Green Tortoise, packed a couple of bags, and made my way to the playa.

Danger Ranger, Burning Man Cultural Ambassador, 2013 (photo by Mark Hammon)
Danger Ranger, Burning Man Cultural Ambassador, 2013 (photo by Mark Hammon)

Even today, I frequently recall wandering the Esplanade during Burning Man 1998, a wad of garbage in my hand, and simply not grokking why there was no place to throw my trash. Having failed to read the Survival Guide, that just didn’t make any sense to me. Not that I was the kind of person to blithely toss crap on the ground, but I had no idea what to do. Eventually, I found a nook in some wooden structure crammed with others’ refuse, and jammed mine in alongside.

That was more than 15 years ago. But just a few weeks ago, I was walking through my local farmer’s market with some trash in my hand and no obvious place to put it. I spotted a cigarette butt in a small bin underneath the leg of a merchant’s Easy-Up, and mistakenly thought I was in luck. The merchant was not amused, harshly letting me know the bin was no garbage can: it was a weight holding down the Easy-Up.

If you’re a longtime Burner, you can imagine my shame. Red-faced, I apologized, grabbed my garbage, and wandered away, shocked that I would make such a mistake.

Leave No Trace cups from HappyLand, 2003
Leave No Trace cups from HappyLand, 2003

What made it particularly embarrassing was that since that 1998 moment when I’d thought I had no option but to stick my garbage in the nook in someone’s structure on the Esplanade, I had learned so much about Burning Man’s guiding philosophies. Mainly, I’d come to understand our Pack it in-Pack it out and Leave no Trace ethos, and how to avoid leaving MOOP behind at all costs. My camp works hard every year to earn our green spot on the official MOOP map, and I vividly recall my last moments of the playa in 1999 when, with my campmates urging me to hop in our damn RV so we could leave, I angrily insisted they hold their horses until I was done with my inch by inch walk of the site, looking for any last traces still to find.

Later, as a Greeter, I discovered one of the most wonderful, but confounding elements of our community: That while our members often arrive ignorant of key Burning Man principles, we mean well, and once informed of them, we do our best to follow them. The Greeters were usually the front lines for spreading awareness of any given year’s most important messages. And it worked: Over the course of the week, we’d see the city’s behavior improve, as the new arrivals would absorb the information (the toilets are really bad this year, please don’t put anything foreign in them; the police are being hard-core, please be smart; there’s going to be heavy wind, please batten down the hatches).

Earth Guardians puppet show, 2011 (photo by Karina O'Connor)
Earth Guardians puppet show, 2011 (photo by Karina O’Connor)

Education is everything. Few people want to harm their environment, but many don’t know any better. I’ve often been struck in my far-flung travels by just how poorly some communities treat their own land. To me, as a longtime Burner, that’s nuts. Since that first trip to the playa in 1998, I’d become almost religious about putting trash in the proper place, or taking it with me if there wasn’t one. And I’m pretty sure most veteran Burners feel the same.

All of this was brought to mind recently when I read a story in the New York Times about the challenges of preserving the ancient Navajo developments in the American southwest. Over the last century, the author wrote, many of the most important sites have been gradually destroyed by tourists who carelessly and ignorantly take artifacts, mistreat petroglyphs, and otherwise damage priceless historic formations. “In the early decades of the 20th century,” wrote David Roberts in the Times, “ranchers and locals made a sport of using the petroglyphs for target practice. Their bullet scars are as indelible as the surreal humanoids carved so long ago into the sandstone.”

But there is hope. As one commenter in the Times story put it, “There are two kinds of people who endanger our heritage: in the minority are those who deliberately loot and vandalize; these are criminals who should be caught and punished. The majority are simply curious and interested, but uneducated as to proper behavior at archaeological sites. With education and guidance the latter group can become champions of heritage rather than its destroyers.”

Thankfully, this sentiment is often true in Black Rock City. And those who absorb it at Burning Man, especially after multiple visits, are the same ones who bring it back with them to their own communities, making them better places, and, hopefully, increasing the odds that their non-Burner neighbors will also begin to understand what it means to leave no trace.

About the author: Dan Terdiman

Daniel Terdiman (Greeter Dan) is a 15-year Burner, and a senior reporter at CNET News. He lives in the San Francisco Bay Area.

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