Kneecap That Impact

Haters are gonna hate, and Burning Man haters are gonna hate on Burners’ environmental hypocrisy. And you know what? They’re not entirely wrong.

This post is part of the Consider Your Impact series

I’m here to come clean and admit it. It’s true: while we preach Leaving No Trace and all the environmental consciousness hoodie-ha (and we’re legit working towards a sustainable future), Black Rock City participants generate a LOT of waste and pollution. Whether it’s getting to the playa, doing crazy shit in Black Rock City, or heading home, not only do we use a lot of stuff, we burn fossil fuels up the wazoo, and generally subject the environment to a not-insignificant amount of carbon emissions.

Now, to be fair, the argument could be made (and I’ll make it) that we don’t use, waste or pollute that much more than if we were staycationing™ at home, or vacationing wherever we’d otherwise drive or fly to over the Labor Day weekend. This isn’t a zero-sum game we’re talking about here. But let’s be real: we’re not burning towering effigies in our backyards, or blowing off massive fireballs in the cul-de-sac for kicks (or hey, maybe you are — you do you), and that stuff costs.

Harkening the blah-dee-blah of the 10 Principles again, this is a question of Civic Responsibility as much as it is Leaving No Trace. A wise (non-Larry) person once said “with great power [or privilege] comes great responsibility.” In other words, if we’re privileged enough to be able to participate in Burning Man (and let’s face it: it’s a privilege), we owe it to our fellow humans to do so without screwing up everything around us in the process. I mean c’mon, it’s the least we can do.

So we do what we can, right? We carpool, take the Burner Express bus, drive a hybrid, reuse, repurpose and recycle, buy in bulk, use green energy when we can. All that stuff. And that’s great, and good on ya for trying, but sorry, it’s not enough. Not at the scale we’re talking about, across 70,000+ people every year. We need to be closer to perfect. Way closer.

This is your impact, and what it takes to offset it. (Screenshot from carbonfund.org)

The good news is that on top of those noble efforts, we have the golden opportunity to quickly and easily kneecap (or offset, in more delicate parlance) the impacts of our Burning Man “activities” simply by purchasing carbon offsets.

Yep, a number of websites out there like coolingman.org (which Burning Man used to calculate the overall impact of the Burn back in 2007, which was about 3/4 a ton of CO2.) and carbonfund.org have handy carbon offset calculators, so you can plug in all the stupid shit you’re about to do (or did), determine how many tons of carbon that generates, and offset it by supporting “third-party validated renewable energy, energy efficiency and reforestation projects globally that reduce carbon dioxide emissions and the threat of climate change.” (The gold standard offset right now is in Iceland, where they’re using geothermal energy to directly suck carbon out of the air and turn it into a rock. Crazy cool.)

It’s stupid easy to calculate your carbon usage! (Screenshot from carbonfund.org)

CQuest Capital has calculated that “the average carbon footprint of an individual Burner is 1,400Ibs of carbon dioxide emissions (CO2), and 80% of that is from transportation to and from the event.” So just doing vehicle and flight offsets will pick up the vast majority of what we’re laying down. Guess how much that costs to offset? $3.80/person. That’s it.

It’s even easier to offset your carbon output. (Screenshot from carbonfund.org)

So what’s stopping you? Purchasing carbon offsets literally takes less time and money than getting your morning coffee. That’s right, thanks to the miracles of modernity, with just a few mouse-clicks, you can negate the environmental impacts of your Burn, and go forth with a clean conscience (pun intended). Now that’s using your power responsibly.

If you have other ideas of how we can offset our impact, share ‘em in the comments!

[Hat tip to the great Tom Price for his invaluable contributions to this post. (Not EPA Secretary Tom Price, mind you … that probably goes without saying.)]


This post is part of our ‘Consider Your Impact’ series, where we’re telling stories that explore our community’s known and lesser-known effects on not just the Black Rock Desert itself, but the world around us as well. We hope it will raise awareness and inspire you to, well, consider your impact. Hence the name.

Top photo: Yes, we do stuff like this for fun … don’t judge. “Dance Dance Immolation” by Interpretive Arson. (Photo  courtesy of Interpretive Arson)

About the author: Will Chase

Will Chase

Will Chase is Burning Man's former Minister of Propaganda, working on global communications strategy. He was the editor-in-chief for the Jackrabbit Speaks newsletter and the Burning Man Journal, and content manager for Burning Man’s web properties. He also oversaw the ePlaya BBS and Burning Man’s social media presence. Will first attended Burning Man in 2001. He volunteered as the Operations Manager for the ARTery (Black Rock City’s art HQ) and was on the Burning Man Art Council from 2003-2008. He was Web Team Project Manager and Webmaster from 2004 until he transitioned to the Communications Department in 2009.

20 Comments on “Kneecap That Impact

  • SK says:

    what are the vetted and recommended sites for purchasing carbon offsets?

    as the NRDC and Stanford report, it is not trivial to chose wisely

    https://www.nrdc.org/stories/should-you-buy-carbon-offsets
    https://news.stanford.edu/2017/08/14/carbon-offsets-wide-ranging-environmental-benefits/

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  • Trilo Byte says:

    Good post. I am partial to the program that the Ideate folks cooked up (pun might be intended) with the CQuest capital guys. Planting trees seems easy, but oh-so-many variables and most programs suffer from a lack of greatness. Ideate’s thing gets high efficiency cookstoves into the hands of African villages, which not only reduces the carbon going into the atmosphere, but helps people improve their lives at the same time.

    https://cquestcapital.com/offsets-index#going-to-burningman

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  • JV says:

    “Now, to be fair, the argument could be made (and I’ll make it) that we don’t use, waste or pollute that much more than if we were staycationing™ at home, or vacationing wherever we’d otherwise drive or fly to over the Labor Day weekend. ”

    The sentence above is all that needs to be said. I don’t drive a car for a full week when I’m on the playa, that alone probably LESSENS my impact than if I was at home going about my normal routine. We also turn off our AC at the house while we’re gone. I’m all for being as green and sustainable as possible, but on a personal level, my week at BRC is already pretty damn green.

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    • Starsee says:

      Yea sure…but you can probably still afford $4 to offset your transportation emissions and have a negative net impact…if you truly believe that your participation in the event has little to no environmental impact once you’re there.

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  • Fred says:

    This seems really expensive. Is there a cheaper way of relieving my carbon guilt?

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  • Jana McKinny says:

    Bummed you skipped over the most viable option of just consuming less. Carbon offsets is not a reduction, they do nothing nothing to address the root cause – its just the first world solution to alleviate guilt……

    Stop burning art, reducing & reusing infrastructure. Making the silicon valley elite come in on buses/trains instead of private jets (gasp!).

    What is burning man other than another place to display your social economic excess and party?

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    • Will Chase says:

      This implicitly covered the “use less” part of the equation which, of course, is an entire post of its own: “So we do what we can, right? We carpool, take the Burner Express bus, drive a hybrid, reuse, repurpose and recycle, buy in bulk, use green energy when we can. All that stuff. And that’s great, and good on ya for trying, but sorry, it’s not enough.”

      And I’ll argue that Burning Man has just a tiiiiny bit more to offer than simply flouting one’s socioeconomic excess and partying. If that’s what you’re looking for, there are FAR easier ways to go about it than going to Burning Man.

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  • Matt eggers says:

    I love Burning Man. And I love you too, Will. But carbon credits are a joke. I’ve worked in cleantech as an entrepreneur and investor for 15 years so I have a little to say about this. Carbon credits are like paying your friend to not cheat on his partner to make up for you cheating on yours. Run that by your partner and see if it really offsets anything.

    What you do for a week at Burning Man really doesn’t matter. What does matter is where you live, how much you drive and what vehicle, what you eat, and whether you have solar and an efficient home. Making year around positive changes in any of those areas will dwarf what happens on playa and triple dwarf any carbon offset bought. And of course by far the most important thing you can do is to push your elected officials at all levels to implement stringent environmental policies like a carbon tax. A few carbon credits and recycling while on playa compared to the scale of global emissions is like, well, dust in the wind.

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    • Will Chase says:

      Love ya too, Matt … miss yer face, and always appreciate your perspective.

      So I sorta take your analogy about cheating on one’s partner, but let’s be real here (to continue the metaphor, NOT literal): we’re all cheating on our partners, and will continue to do so, one way or another, until we become worm food (sorry, environment, we’re humans and we suck). And that being the case, doing as much as we can, including reducing our impact and offsetting what we can’t, is still worth doing.

      No argument with doing more in our day-to-day lives and influencing elected officials, and dwarfs (?). But since my responsibility in this moment is to help reduce people’s impact at/around Burning Man, Imma say we’re talking about a both/and situation here. :-)

      Hope to see you around the bend soon, my friend.

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      • Matt says:

        a “yes and” is cool. But only so long as people dont think that carbon credits actually negate their emissions. That belief may reduce their motivation to do something impactful like buy an EV.

        Keep up the good work, man!

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  • BobC says:

    Staycationing usually doesn’t include driving tens of thousands of shitbox RVs getting 6 miles to the gallon, driving a few thousand trucks carrying infrastructure for the city, plug-n-play camps and water, hundreds of large and inefficient drivable construction equipment and stupid-ass shit like towing chopped up 747s and other large art items.

    I think you are vastly underestimating the size of the overall carbon footprint in your weak comparison to a staycation and not amount of tree planting is going to make up for all that…or for the kids with asthma that live downwind from the event.

    You truly are a minister of propaganda and would fit great in the current white house administration.

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    • GreenBabe says:

      ^^^^^^ T H I S ^^^^^^^^^

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    • Will Chase says:

      Yep, you’re right, Bob. It’s a serious impact for sure … I’m just saying (and said) that it’s not a zero sum game. I will disagree with your assertion that “no amount of tree planting is going to make up for all that,” if only because the science and math doesn’t support your position. We can and should purchase enough carbon offsets (and do other things that reduce our carbon footprint) to offset these activities, if not more.

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  • john felch says:

    I think you are trying to imply that people attending Burning man (And the folks who build/burn the art and those running the Borg ) are doing their best already to limit their environmental impact.
    Looking at the abandoned bicycles littering the city , the beer cans tossed into the porta potties, and the burns, pyrotechnics, and deafening sound permeating every corner of the city day and night it is hard to buy that argument. As others have pointed out, gas guzzling Rv’s( and I have seen quite a few at gate with only 1 or 2 occupants), private planes, and even jets and the infrastructure necessary to accommodate them are not helping with our carbon footprint. Spending many thousands of dollars to build a large playa installation and then burning it. What a waste of time and resources. And for what?
    So a few hundred or thousands of people can mill around the burn and watch all that effort and artistic inspiration go up in flames. I wonder if the French men and women who just witnessed the fiery destruction of one of the world’s great cathedrals thought the spectacle was worth it.
    I was told by someone involved in one of these projects that they wanted to burn it because otherwise they would have to take it home with them. I wonder if the money and time they spent couldn’t have been put to better use that providing someone with a bonfire.
    If Burning Man really wants to be eco friendly there needs to be some serious changes made.
    Education of burners needs to be increased tenfold. . There need to be consequences for bad behavior.
    Since it is a certainty that only a percentage of burners will purchase carbon offsets on their own, include them in the price of a ticket. Adding $10 or $20 to the ticket price to will not affect how many people go to the event. It sells out instantly already. Adding a $100 surcharge for every RV over 25 ft. , $500 for every propeller plane and $10,000 for every jet using the airport will probably not stop the one percenters from coming out and partying with us but it might make them think twice about bringing the jet or the land yacht.
    The Piute Indian tribe that is our neighbor has people who don’t have food security while we collectively discard mountains of trash every year. I propose that the Borg partner with them to provide some services like recycling some of our unwanted stuff and selling it back to the next year’s attendees. If done properly, the tribe could benefit greatly from our presence and help us with our Environmental impact.
    There are lots of things we as a community can do to be good Earth citizens. Buying carbon offsets is one thing but only a small thing. What is really needed is a collective attitude adjustment.

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    • Hiya on the Playa says:

      Just FYI, I recently found this:

      Comfort & Joy camp will take “unopened perishables and non perishables in support of our food drive for the Pyramid Lake Paiute Tribe. Food will be collected and boxed in our commissary Sunday and Monday… Please, no alcohol or bottled water donations”
      In the center of Nixon, drop donations at Bunny’s Taco Stand–look for Comfort & Joy’s orange and yellow flags. If you have any questions, ask for Fabien/Biscuits at Comfort & Joy. Please, no alcohol or bottled water donations. Comfort and Joy is at 7:30 & D (in 2019). “Just look for the giant carrot top, or the day glow flags.”

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      • Will Chase says:

        Hiya, yes there is that and a WHOLE lot more going on that is likely under the average participant’s radar. One of my upcoming blog posts will be highlighting some of the positive impacts Burners have had (because impacts go both ways), including C&J’s food drive.

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    • Will Chase says:

      John, if I thought Burners were consistently doing their absolute best with all this, I certainly wouldn’t be writing this blog series. While I believe our community deserves credit for what we have done and continue to do, and our track record supports that, at the same time we absolutely can and should do a LOT better. This series is an effort to raise people’s awareness and inspire them to do exactly that.

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  • Mudgrrl says:

    I recommend the AEZ 11am daily tour to learn how to green your week (we even make ice from the sun)

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  • Daniel Dal Corso says:

    Sacred Cow on the Playa? I didn’t notice anyone suggest NOT burning the man, or burning a tiny little man, or some other more daringly creative gesture might be a timely METAMORPHOSIS in this age of climate crisis. How about next year we have a new centralized ritual to celebrate taking our collective survival seriously as we dance around Cooling Man! That would be waaay awesome, IMHO.

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