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What the Hell Happened: Burning Man’s Sustainability Controversy

The Man begins burning at Burning Man in 2014.
The Man begins burning at Burning Man in 2014. By Courtesy of torroid
By Forest Moua, Contributing Writer

When Larry Harvey first wrote the “10 Principles” in 2004 for the original Burning Man, the concept of the artistically-immersive, week-long desert event was established to embody an experience of transformative change, personal participation, and artistic self-expression in a collaborative community. Built within the span of a week, the annual Burning Man event spawns a five-square-mile city of passionate painters, bustling bands of mellow musicians, and eccentric engineers in run-down RVs, makeshift bicycles, and moving party buses of all psychedelic colors and shapes. And every year, at the conclusion of the event the wooden exoskeleton is drenched in kerosene and bacon-grease and lit on fire as a cacophony of spirited bodies dance around the “burning man.” Now, nearly twenty years later, the recent events surrounding Burning Man’s unexpected growth has led some to question whether or not the event continues to honor Harvey’s original “10 Principles.”

This year’s Burning Man inspired much controversy before it even began, as a protest blockade shut out entrance to the famous playa — flat, dried-up desert basin — where the event is held in Nevada’s Black Rock Desert. Before the Pyramid Lake tribal police dispersed the crowd, Seven Circles and Rave Revolution — the primary climate activist groups involved in the protest – stood in protest against the rise in Silicon Valley tech billionaires in attendance and the Burning Man Project’s unhealthy impact on the environment. Having gone from a population of 35,000 people in 2004 to 80,000 “Burners” in 2023, the increase in transportation and vehicle traffic has led to heightened carbon emissions. In fact, Burning Man generates roughly 100,000 tons of carbon dioxide annually. Elaborate displays requiring immense resources have also been the topic of controversy. For instance, in 2007, 2,000 gallons of propane and 900 gallons of jet fuel were used to create a mushroom cloud over the desert to represent the inevitable doom of fossil-fuel focused society. Recently, the event has attracted worldwide celebrities and modern aristocrats, namely Silicon Valley CEOs like Mark Zuckerberg, Elon Musk, and Larry Page. With technological tycoons flocking to the event each year, their use of private jet planes and its environmental impact have been under scrutiny by various climate activist groups. As the event grows and demographics shift, the validity of Burning Man’s key principle of “Leaving No Trace” is questioned.

Despite the claims that Burning Man has become a negative influence on its environment, the Burning Man Project’s overseeing environmental restoration manager, Dominic Tinio, asserted in a GQ interview that Burning Man has consistently passed the Bureau of Land Management inspection held after every event ends. To pass the inspection, no greater than 0.002% of the land can be covered in debris, which is roughly one square foot of debris for every acre of playa. Participants this year faced especially adverse weather conditions, with heavy rainstorms resulting in the many extended stays. With the playa turning into a muddy marsh for the remainder of the extended week, Burners stuck together and collaboratively worked to clean up the sloppy aftermath, some using DIY trash-bag waders and suspenders constructed with duct tape to trot through the mud.

When the first Burning Man was assembled in 1986, twelve friends came together spontaneously to erect a human effigy and burn it on a San Francisco beach. The experience was a striking moment of pure human community formed from the cacophonous freedom of creation — genuine artistic expression for the purpose of expression. Nearly forty years later, as the Burning Man grew in popularity and size, its essence has fundamentally changed. Burning Man has always toed the line between large-scale artistic creativity and environmental impact, and it is expected that by the year 2030, Burning Man will reach a net negative on emissions. In the presence of rapidly increasing numbers of Burners, coupled with growing gentrification by the elite, Burning Man’s impact on the world and on society is one that faces a plethora of questions and a future of constant reconsideration. While the cultural impact of the festival will remain large, Burners of all social classes have a responsibility to use that impact sustainably. Burning Man continues to face an inextinguishable question: To what extent can we justify artistic freedom at the expense of the environment?

There is no doubt Burning Man has cultivated a burning, intense culture of creative expression that continues to challenge human innovation and transformation; however, there is a time when one must take a step back from the flames and realize that the singeing embers are starting to blow too far away from the pit.

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