Sustainability at Burning Man: the Next Chapter

Right before the gates opened in Black Rock City for the 2015 event, a petition was published on asking our organization to redouble its efforts to make Burning Man environmentally sustainable. The petition aptly says Burning Man could do more to lead our community toward better environmental stewardship.

We appreciate the petition’s author and the folks who signed it. This blog post is the first in a series that will share the organization’s work on this issue so far and collaboratively explore where to go from here.

We should start by clearing up one point. The petition incorrectly claimed that Cooling Man (2007) was the last time an emissions analysis was done for Burning Man. Burning Man is held on federal land managed by the Bureau of Land Management (BLM), and the BLM is required to adhere to NEPA (National Environmental Policy Act) guidelines. Whenever a permit applicant requests to use public lands for a project that may significantly affect the environment, the BLM is required to conduct an Environmental Assessment (EA). The 2012-2016 Burning Man EA, which considers a BRC population of 58,000-70,000 participants, conducted a thorough analysis of air quality emissions. You can read it here. It’s a public document. When the BLM conducts another EA for Burning Man 2017 and beyond, air emissions will again be evaluated.

In the 2012-2016 Burning Man EA, it was determined that the scale of emissions resulting from our event would not have a significantly impact on the global climate; while three greenhouse gas emissions were analyzed under different event population sizes, an extensive quantitative analysis was deemed unnecessary and not conducted. Going forward, this analysis may be necessary. Currently, our friends at Black Rock Solar are reviewing our 2012-2016 EA documents to calculate a carbon footprint from the model that the NEPA engineers developed. Once we have this data, we’ll understand the scope of the problem. Then it’ll be time to find solutions, which is what Burners do best.

One thing we know for sure is this: there’s a lot the Burning Man organization can do to help, but all of us have to work together to address this problem. Our informed estimates suggest that the majority of Black Rock City’s emissions are caused by transportation to and from the event. That means we all have some innovation to do!

It’s not easy to live lightly in a rugged, harsh and dusty environment that’s actively trying to kill you. We have a culture of bringing a lot of stuff for our own survival and to gift to others in the community. But could we do it while still staying carbon light? There are choices to make about how we burn, and how we get to and from Black Rock City that will determine our future carbon footprint.

So what happens now? Black Rock Solar and Burning Man staff are exploring ways we can help our organization and our participants learn about and invest in both decarbonized or carbon-neutral power solutions and meaningful offsets for carbon emissions we cannot reduce.

We look forward to working together with participants on this important issue. Stay tuned for more to come.

Top photo by Ari Fararooy

About the author: Burning Man Project

Burning Man Project

The official voice of the Burning Man organization, managed by Burning Man Project's Communications Team.

33 Comments on “Sustainability at Burning Man: the Next Chapter

  • Joshua says:

    One things for sure…

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  • Virgil Truck says:

    Why not offer an HOV lane for people who come in hybrid/alternate fuel vehicles so they can get in quicker? Or a guaranteed car pass? Full cars?

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    • Brent says:

      Great idea! Would be great to include buses as well. Perhaps you can also use the lane if you’re bringing solar panels, wind power, or other renewable power generation equipment.

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      • Dave says:

        I like the idea of a very high occupancy lane – like busses only, at least 10 people. The suggestion for a hybrid vehicle lane sounds like it was coming from someone with a hybrid vehicle :)

        Also, def need to put limits on or ban rv gennies. Its wasteful AND super annoying.

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  • Meghan says:

    I would suggest wood gasification systems, set up linked to generators for power. The enclosed system ensures almost NO carbon emission, can be used just burning trash with no smoke. There are also systems that can be built into trucks so that literally you are driving on wood, again enclosed, again no carbon.

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  • 3D says:

    50% reduction in vehicle passes over the next 5 years. Vehicle passed are free, but randomly distributed to ticket holders and are not transferable. Make it so you have to work with strangers to get to the burn.

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  • Massimo says:

    hi, I would like to get involved with the discussion. My tribe and I are already working at some ideas to facilitate many factors including transportation, waste management, food/water supply and energy. I am willing to embrace a commitment but I need inclusion on your discussions too if we want to work together. Please let me know how we can interface. Thank you!

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  • Manuel darosa says:

    Need me two tickets and parking please keep me informed✌

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  • dr4gn says:

    This is going to sound radical at first, but hear me out:

    Ban Gasoline (not counting transportation to/from, which i understand is a major issue).

    If you had to run gennys and everything else on solar, nat gas or…., it would drive innovation in transportation, power, and, well, life in general.

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  • Yoda says:

    Last year was my first burn and I took the Burner Express from SF. If there was some way to incentive getting to the playa by bus, we could reduce the number of cars coming to BRC by tenfold. Burner Express for Life!

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  • roissy says:

    There are train tracks running along the edge of the Playa. Build a siding and run some “car trains” from the Bay Area, that way you avoid 447 completely…
    Most likely 5,000 to 10,000 vehicles could be removed and possibly a few semis for some of the art projects…
    I understand there may be some passenger rail cars more conducive to carrying large amounts of luggage, so eliminating a few busses with their luggage restrictions may be possible as well…

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    • roissy says:

      Update: Amtrak calls them Auto Train.
      (excerpt from Amtrak)
      “The best way to drive I-95? Don’t. Load your stuff in your car, load your car on the Auto Train and let the train take the strain. Say goodbye to the congestion and stress of the interstate, unwind, relax and actually enjoy your journey. “

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    • Rebecca says:

      This has been my idea for years. A temporary train depot could unload mutant vehicles, storage containers full of essential infrastructure, and participants from the Bay Area (or another staging area where vehicles are stored). I know it seems insane but so it repaving the 447 every year. Trains are a lost resource that could use our support.

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    • Karl Banks says:

      Discussed with the Org 10 years ago. Cost for that infrastructure is in the tens of millions, even IF you could get the owners of the railroad to agree. It IS a good idea, but is very unlikely to actually happen.

      Auto train along I-95 corridor is very popular, profitable and utilized 365 days a year.

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      • roissy says:

        That seems to be a bit high, but not beyond the realm of possibility, back in the 70’s they build a temporary on/off ramps for the US festival… It is more realistic for this than the expansion of 447… Doing what was once considered impossible is what we do…

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      • Nomad says:

        I suppose coming up with a temporary rail siding is thinking too much out of the box for this crowd. Too bad, Since rail is just about the most energy efficient and lowest carbon footprint means of transportation, innovation in this area would be very valuable to the environment. Could set a wonderful precedent.

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    • Blaze, Airport Village Mayor says:

      Airport staff has been digging deep into the rail scene, there are many obstacles. Amtrack will rent you a car, but it is very expensive. You can have your own car pulled, wanna buy one? The lines through Black Rock are freight lines, getting them to pull passengers is very .. problematic. There is a lot of effort in this direction by sincere peeps but so far not possible.

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  • Stephany says:

    Many years. Many ways. When I visit the big burn in the desert, it’s in lieu of another vacation. Maybe that makes me a terrible person, but I have to escape reality once a year. I do as much as I can before and after to see friends on the west coast. Once I get there (always by sharing a cramped ride), I stop using energy. Solar and natural everything. My carbon footprint shrinks for a week. Sure, Burning Man can do something… But isn’t it more reasonable for this to be a call to action amongst burners?

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  • zoe says:

    Like LIB and other smaller gatherings a lot could be achieved if BM limited RV passes. Less AC and power being used for sure. And we’d get less rich tourists and spectators and lazy virgins. Radical survival is harder when you don’t have all the comforts of the default.

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  • sarah says:

    gas/transportation/power is a huge sustainability-issue for BM, but so is the gigantic amount of waste generated. yes it’s leave-no-trace but the shear amount of waste (trash and recyclables) is pretty mind-boggling for just a week. waste redux really needs to be brought into the discussion too!

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  • bug says:

    I atended the festival only once in 2009 and I loved Loved LOVED it. I still think about it all the time. I picked that year because of the Evolution theme, and we actually published an article in Nature about it called “A Creative Celebration of Evolution.”

    But I was literally appalled by the massive consumption of fossil fuels in the event, from massive RVs to stinky generators to -the time that I literally thought I was staring at armageddon- an art piece on the playa that let visitors push a button and then fossil fuel flames would burst out into the sky. The line of people wanting to push the button was unending. I thought I was staring into the abyss of humanity.

    It really matters little to me what the total emissions of that art piece was – I thought it was a terrible idea. BM should literally not allow stuff like that.

    I admit that I was bothered by all the burning that I saw, but I understood the symbolic nature of the man and the temple burn (the latter was particularly beautiful), and burning on smaller scales like poi was definitely part of the event. But if only for the outwardly apparent commitment to sustainability, I think the BM org should consider reigning in the art pieces that are all about burning fuels every night all night for a week straight.


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  • Danielle says:

    Any serious effort at a carbon footprint needs to consider waste created by the event, given the incredible amount of trash generated and left on the way out of BRC. The sheer volume of plastic and non-renewable/reusable goods is astonishing and arguably a primary negative environmental impact of the event. Solutions would include recycling and composting resources to avoid waste going into the landfill, as well as encouraging those to employ the good old three R’s – reduce, reuse, recycle or even consider an internal price on every bag of garbage generated…

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  • Rachel says:

    How about generous funding and special perks for mutant vehicles, art installations, camps, tranpsort…etc that is run fosel fuel free? Incentivize through creativity and making the event more affordable and accessible for people bringing these solutions and innovations.

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  • Punzy says:

    Limited RV passes. The footprint from however many thousands there are has got to be pretty damn terrible…

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  • SweatyBetty says:

    The number of available tickets could be reduced. Significantly. We’re entering an era where Travel; flying and driving and taking cruise ships needs to be limited. We all gotta get grounded, get to work, and make paradise where we live. Or free tickets if you ride your fucking bike there!

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  • Jason says:

    This discussion and the comments above are all admirable in their intentions but largely ignore the realities of modern life.

    People travel in the first world. We fly on planes. We drive cars. We do these things a lot. Burning Man has a tiny carbon footprint compared to any other vacation destination. Take a place like Disneyland or the Grand Canyon and compare their emissions. They take in millions of visitors a year. Their emissions dwarf ours.

    And we’re building a city here. Consider the waste and emissions of a 70,000 person city for a week. Given that the typical city has buildings that demand heat, cooling, ventilation, lighting and plug load, I would venture to guess that even with all our travel Black Rock City is comparable to a city of similar size in terms of GHG emissions, waste, etc.

    The two reasons we catch flack for our impact are first that we advocate LNT and second that in an empty landscape our impact is so much more visible than it is in a permanently built environment. LNT was never intended to encompass all sustainability goals, it was developed to help protect the host site. And the visibility of our impacts, while painful to see for people who have never considered what we’re doing to the planet before, is generally a good thing. By being so incredibly transparent, we have a better chance of being aware of our impacts and working to reduce them.

    We should make every effort to improve. But it’s folly to suggest that burning man can or should try to be a zero impact city. No city in the world is zero impact, and we’re not going to do what legions of highly trained full time urban policy makers and planners have been unable to do. Perhaps our biggest contributions to sustainability can be using our impacts to educate people about the huge impacts that all cities have so that out in the default world we can build meaningful support for the kind of systemic changes that will be needed for black rock city to be sustainable in the future.

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    • Robin says:

      Ah, thank you for posting exactly what I was thinking. It is due to the fact BM is so transparent, a very temporary city built in the middle of the desert, that people are taking a much larger notice of the carbon footprint.
      The world puts on many huge county fairs with, I gander, a larger footprint each year. Huge fairs, all around the world. Disneyland and Disneyworld and all the other play lands and amusement parks around the world, running year round. BM is one week.
      The BM carbon footprint has been investigated, and proven to be very small. The suggestions to lower the amount are all intelligent and mind opening, and perhaps some are achievable in the future if small steps are taken, one year at a time. But I hope it isn’t all taken too far. Actually, for those who claim 70,000 people is just too many, if you take out all gas powered generators, burning, and all things that leave a carbon footprint, that would be one way to chisel those numbers way, way down until BM exists no more. Some of us are just too old to go without a cold place to keep meds, a real bed to lay a crippled body, and a near toilet for medical reasons, but we still have much to offer with open hearts, wise minds and shared knowledge. I simply think BM has grown with is founders and with BM’s age has come modern conveniences, just when some of us need them! Small, carefully thought out steps.
      Just my thoughts running away.

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  • El Tigre en Fuego says:

    Many good comments here. In thinking about waste/emissions it’s a good point to think “compared to what”. What does a 70K population US city or Costa Rican city (for a presumably less-consumerist example) put out in a week? Beat that and then work to improve from there.

    If it wasn’t for the difficulty of my monkey hut, tent, coolers and other gear I’d be taking To Flame (same has kept me from Afrika Burn so far). In any event, I collaborate with a camp to share items and share the ride. Something like 2 vehicle passes for every 8 tickets would encourage more Radical Collaboration. That’d give you a box truck rental and a mini-van. I’d want to keep it at a level where you don’t need a commercial driver’s license.

    I’ve been working out what food I can bring that doesn’t require cooling. I’d like to eliminate the cooler entirely. For some, however, it seems the point for them is to show how “well” they can live in the desert with grills and fridges and a/c. I think they have a place at BM too, as BM is inclusive. I like suggestions/guidelines, not rules for this. How-to videos on YouTube, but do what you can. We know you’ll get better.

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  • BGV says:

    I love the ideas I see kicking around here. The Auto Train siding is something I’ll bet we could get it done if we set our minds to it. But… I have to gripe a bit here. Been saying this since the Green Man year;
    1. I’m all for increasing sustainability wherever possible. Lets not forget the great strides this event has already taken. We are WAY out in front of other events of this size and we deserve credit for that. Not further, possibly unreachable expectations.
    2. Burningman was NOT created as a green event. It originated as a place for a bunch of misfits to build outrageous art, burn shit and blow things up. The fact that we as a community, have a conscience and work to mitigate our footprint is something to be proud of but let’s not loose our perspective here. Eco friendly… Yes. Carbon neutral… Don’t think so. Never intended to be.
    We are an amazingly creative group of people with a great track record for innovating, solving problems and overcoming challenges. This is the beauty of Burner culture.
    You want an environmental utopia? Try the Rainbow Gathering.

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  • Nomad says:

    There are two distinct issues: the carbon/ecotoxins footprint of the event, and what creativity the event can inspire.

    As long as you stay with the event footprint approach, you can quibble with numbers and the only creativity will be in the accounting. After all, as this post notes, the only ecological accounting is already required by the BLM of ANY event on BLM land. Can’t say that complying with the law is anything to brag about.

    Instead, the focus should be on how to tap burner creativity to solve this global problem.

    As a start, BRC planning could have a “no-fossil-fuel district,” where gensets or any significant use of fossil fuels would not be allowed. Camps could apply to be in this district showing how they would achieve this goal. The size of the district could be adjusted to accommodate the camps that apply to be there.

    In later years, this could develop into a “no-carbon-footprint district,” requiring much more complicated qualification and management.

    This would let the NV burn contribute to the global dialog, instead of just saying “we are no worse than anyone else.”

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  • Allan Badiner says:

    The ‘greening of the burn’ is underway! This is more impressive than the Paris meetings in terms of evidence for our having reached a transition point. The previous ritual migration of gas and propane chugging vehicles from all corners (the cumulative effect being a huge insult to the local ecology, adding to climate chaos)—Is drawing to a close. BM will take full advantage of meeting in a sunny desert— the perfect environment for the generation of solar power. While BM stands for personal freedom and self-responsibility, on the ground it all works because there are rules for the common good, and people follow them. Rather than expect all burners to bring their own solar collectors, it seems obvious BMO should re-invest some of the money it earns into building a big solar collection and power distribution system, the elements of which could be stored in Gerlach the rest of the year. The burner community has more than enough technical competency and inspiring creativity to manifest this. BMO could recoup its investment with power fees, and charge double or more for ticket prices to those who do not power their rigs sustainably- and ultimately ban them. BMO could even develop their proprietary solar system into a year around power generation company that designs and installs similar systems for small festival, and other nomadic communities all over the southern hemisphere.

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