Leave No Trace.

( Here )

Image ©2014 Neil Girling

Burning Man started as a renegade gathering of friends, 25 years ago. Friends for whom doing this crazy thing was only possible, because of parents and childhood scouting that had instilled into each, critical ethics & DIY tools for civilized humans co-existing in harmony with nature. In its first ~11 years Burning Man grew to a population of 10,000, all the while standing firm in its renegade roots — but also eeking-into the territory of playing-well with the authorities, in the interest of its own survival. Which of course, has led all anarchic/utopian societies through the years, into an eventual structure of bonafide governance. Which isn’t so anarchic, but as many utopian societies have (admirably) worked hard towards proving, can potentially still be “renegade.”

Today’s incarnation of Burning Man is a heavily-managed & permitted temporary city of 70,000 people. Inclusive of that, are at least two multi-story wooden sculptures that burn in a symbolic nod to the spiritual and ephemeral, multiple smaller wooden effigies set ablaze in the same spirit, dozens of propane and generator powered pieces of huge artwork, ~1,900 portapotties that each day for 9 days get serviced and filled anew with their 50-gallon chemical pools, scores of art-cars covered with materials and decoration that finds itself in landfills months after the event… you get the idea. They do have an Environmental Statement on their website — which is just that, a statement. Admittedly, the website is very difficult to navigate, and upon deeper digging I was able to figure-out that in 2009 the BORG (Burning Man’s organizers) did start composting its own food scraps — and that those efforts counted for 7% of all refuse the BORG transported off the Playa. Cool, a gold star.

Nonetheless, the ratio of environmental fanfare “noise” relative to the tactical stewardship-centric owning of the waste created by the event “signal”, has been a subject many have been discussing more and more often in recent years. This past week especially, with the alarming (because it was daytime & thus unusually visible) burn of the multi-story, $266,000.00 sculpture Embrace.

“Leave No Trace” is a principle I learned in Girl Scouts. It’s purpose is to enable humans bound to civilization, to explore the natural world in such a way that leaves natural landscapes free of trace from industrialized footprints — no toilet paper or poop left unburied, no ashes from campfires left un-scattered, no trash left anywhere. Pack it in, pack it out. And that works very well, in facilitating groups of self-organized folks to escape the trappings of our industrialized cages, to dive deep into the woodlands, deserts, beaches, and mountains, that touch something in each of us that’s sorely lacking in industrialized civilization. It also fosters an ethic of personal responsibility, that few other rituals can.

A temporary city of 70,000 people — or hell, even 10,000 people — complete with BLM permits, a year-round production staff, and a seasonal staff of hundreds divvied up into crews of builders, electricians, cooks, site-managers, etc… plus air-conditioned temporary housing for seasonal staff, shower trailers, and trucked-in water for all (staff), is today’s reality of the world’s largest self-proclaimed Leave No Trace event.

Much as I adore how Burning Man has radically (and I mean, RADICALLY) imprinted the value of Leave No Trace into the psyches of all who attend — I think it is time for the organization to evolve its evangelism of Leave No Trace to include radical responsibility.

Radical responsibility, meaning: own the waste created by the festival — at the management level, w/o depending on community participation — and own the task of radical responsibility for recycling, reusing, and reclaiming the waste created by the festival. A festival that truly is, a temporary city. Own and get radical with the “spirit of invention-by-necessity” that the festival directors proudly speak of in TED talks, blog posts, at conferences, etc… but not just for the fun things. For waste management, too.

At 70,000 attendees, it is on the shoulders of the BORG to innovate and put into action, methods of radical re-use, recycling, and disposing. For all the things all participants create and transform into refuse for the party, after the party is over. Where tools and methods don’t exist, invent them. As the festival has grown and will continue to grow, it’s just plain irresponsible to not. The festival is nothing, without the tens of thousands of blinky, furry, crazy-assed participants. At some point, there needs to be more ownership of that & its impact.

Instead of spending tens of thousands of dollars each year sending leadership to visit regional Burns & to speak at conferences around the world, skip a couple of years and spend the money on pioneering transformative conservation. Really.

Don’t send festival attendees home with bags of un-sorted garbage & trashed playa-bikes they’ll just dump in Reno (or with the many volunteer collection trucks in Gerlach). Don’t facilitate the burning of multiple effigies from new, milled lumber (a non-renewable resource that requires hundreds of gallons of water over decades to cultivate, which then consumes more resources to be finished & sold), only to then huck the ashes, the construction debris and the Burn Scar Platforms, all into a dumpster-bin with the rest of the festival’s construction debris, abandoned fun-fur, wind-mangled shade poles, rotting food, etc…. that‘s then sent to a landfill for other people to deal with. Out of sight, out of mind.

Its unrealistic and un-ethical to ask artists, attendees, and volunteers, to please do all this on their own — because among 70,000 attendees, enough will be too tired to do this all responsibly — and the subsequent detriment, is too much. Own it. Yes, it is work: but isn’t anything worth doing, work?

Today’s Black Rock City through a lens of conservation, has evolved more parallel to Abstinence Only communities abound with teen pregnancy, than it has to all the virtues of “Green” and conscientious-living it extols of itself and welcomes media praise for.

Ok, whining is easy. Solutions are harder. So let’s cut to the chase of some solution opportunities the Burning Man Project can embrace, while also innovating many more conservation-centric practices on its own.

1. Get Radical With Recycling

Recycling Camp is, yes, a thing. It’s a thing run by the BMORG. And for what it could be, it‘s evolved as much as any micro-org with minimum-viable support from a parent organization, can. In the two years I attended Burning Man, more widely evangelized and made far easier for me to contribute to, was the donation of drugs or beer to Burning Man’s Department of Public Works (DPW). So much so, that the DPW even did city-wide drive-throughs with a DPW member personally asking EACH CAMP in the city of 50,000 (what it was when I last attended in 2011) for donations of inebriants. WTF?!?!!

That was 2011, and yes today it is today 2014. Recycling efforts have picked-up, but still nowhere near anything possibly characterized as radical.

Some ideas…

  1. Provide recycling pick-up on Friday afternoons, and make very well known that Recycling Dropoff for all attendees does exist at the exit gate. Evangelize the shit outta that program: viral videos online before the event, brochures at the gate upon arrival, etc. Own It. What to recycle?
  2. Recycle more than just what’s obvious, and prepare participants in advance. Things that Burning Man uniquely uses in excess: step-up to the innovation plate, and take on the task of developing that technology.
    + Wind ravaged shade or tent poles (steel, and/or Aluminum). All the little random metal things, too.
    + Wind ravaged tarps Yes, those can be fixed. Own it, and gather some DPW “sewing circles” together with gromments, duct-tape, industrial sewing machines, fix ‘em and use ‘em. Yes, do the work to find ways to use them or to give them away to folks who would love to have them.
    + Fun Fur It’s all acrylic, and once loaded with playa dust it’s often thrown away if no re-use is anticipated. Especially by overseas attendees who fly-in from far away and don’t have local storage. Figure-out how to recycle it. At a minimum, it can be collected and sent to a fabric recycler, to be ground-up and used in insulation (or some other similar purpose)
    + Bicycles for those who know they want to dump theirs and not re-use them. I’ve broken-down bikes by the palette, for recycling. With the right tools, it can take less than 3 minutes per bike. The trucks in Gerlach offering $10 per bike to relieve exiting Burners the burden of dealing with their playa bikes, break the cycle of responsible stewardship. And are skeezy. And favor those with the money, to pay other people to clean-up their messes. They can totally be glorified as “Our Community In Action!” or owned for what they are: passing the buck and opportunistic commerce exploiting the weary, already broke masses.
    + EL Wire & its accompanying 9V batteries. I doubt there are methods that exist to recycle EL wire. Great, develop those methods! Own it. The thousands of dead batteries that leave the playa each year? Own their responsible disposal — that’s easy peezy.
    + Paper products Paper parasols, lanterns, etc. Make videos demonstrating how folks can make it easier by taking things apart to separate the paper from the wire, plastic, metal, etc.
    + Costumes Yes, create a dumpster for collecting costumes folks don’t plan to wear again. Launder them for lice and de-playa-ing, and make nice ones available for donation to Goodwill for Halloween, the less nice ones at DeCompression and at the following year’s pre-burn events.
    + COMPOST! More on that, later — but, yes — get radical with all the food scraps, burn ash, and THE POOP!! Yes, I love all things poop. ☺

Again, in recent years, the BORG has gotten MUCH better about donating and re-using usable board-lengths of non-burned wood. And Commisary & The Cafe have also begun to compost. But it’s so very little, respective to the Landfill containers, as the 2013 Afterburn report outlines.

2. Waste Grinding + Composting

The non-reclaimable wood sent to landfills each year is still significant, between discarded shipping palettes, unburned stock from sculptures, wood filled with nails and staples, wood covered in petrol or paint, construction materials for large camps— you name it. Because BORG has had the “Leave No Trace” policy, much of this is packed-out and not accounted for by the BORG, in a holistic environmental impact overview. Out of sight, out of mind.

Bandit 2680.

Get a big-assed grinder/chipper, and shred all things wood that are unusable in building purposes, for reuse as other things. A bad boy perhaps, like this one! Invite locals to shred their refuse with it year-round from The BMORG Ranch, too.

  1. Really, make that investment. Currently, a massive pile of wood-things accumulates on the Esplanade after the Temple Burn, and DPW burn those things once everyone has left. Yay, more carbon, but with no ceremonial value (beyond drunk DPW folks having fun)! From that pile, it all goes to landfill. I asked someone recently why it wasn’t composted, and the person cited mixed-in construction debris. Wayl, this bad-boy has that one covered! It has a magnetic exit-chute thingbob to capture nails and other construction waste mixed-in, and multiple shred-settings generate finer dust-particles to be reused into municipal bio-waste (what sludge from water treatment plants is called), or bigger chunks to be used in the manufacture of particle board, shingles, or other building products.
  2. Use the grinder to process all the wood/charcoal waste from the Big Burns. The Temple, The Man, all of it. Stuff that’s clearly powder ash? Compost it. Grade B or C compost. Most industrial shredders have that magnet-thing on ‘em to separate-out the metal stuff that compost can’t handle. DIY alternatives include Bobcat-compatible or hand-held electro-magnetic thingys to use for manual sorting among the shreds.
  3. Make the grinder/chipper available for processing everyone’s waste. Of course, don’t use it while attendees are still present, but do have a collection place setup in the same way the burn-pile is setup, today. Invite individual attendees, Theme Camps, and artists, to all contribute their shredables to it. How much wood is burned or dumped in landfils from small camp shower structures, alone? That wood, is so NOT reusable.

3. Wet Composting

Food scraps are what we typically think of when “composting” is mentioned. And yes, at the BORG Commisary, there are plenty of them. As there are at the large theme camps, and the executive camps. BORG needs to own the collection of it all, for Grade A Compost creation.

In recent years, per the article that I also linked-to above, the BORG has gotten a lot better with composting from the Cafe & the Commisary. I don’t think it’s common knowledge that this gets done, though. And it should be — beyond a wider effort being made to do more of it, with more of the theme camps & attendees.

Along with end-of-event collection of recyclables (ahem, if DPW can coordinate their collection of drugs & beer, they can darn well train a crew to do the same for recyclables), end-of-event compost collection can happen right alongside. Sorry, yes: that DPW tradition abreast lacking environmental stewardship, is a pretty fierce bug up my bonnet.

BUT, most importantly: THE POOP!

In 2013's Afterburn Financials, $970,836.00 is cited as the final expense of waste management. Not sure if that includes grey-water disposal, the 16-wheeler showers, or just porta-potties. But like, a million dollars. More or less. The Sanitation section of the Report, does mention the blue-goo used in each 50-gallon refil for each portapotty, but fails to mention the quantity of portapotties used throughout the event. Which bums me out… BUT: Let’s just move-on and kill the damn porta-potties? :D

Clivus Multrum composting-tanks, below the Bronx Zoo’s bathroom.

Clivus Multrum is an industrial-solutions consultancy & manufacturer of composting toilets, holding tanks, and everything in between. They’re behind the Bronx Zoo’s badass system, and I think for $1 Million bucks, they could build something fantastic for Burning Man. Put the tanks on the Playa floor, build elevated & tent-covered structures for the stalls — on one side, have a urinal trough and on the other side, have poop-stalls. No daily “servicing” by a truck means less playa dust, and fully biodegradable by-product. Mix-in the food scraps at the end, and let the tanks ‘bake’ in the direct sun of the playa during event clean-up to help evaporate excess moisture… and with the added fire-ash and wood-chips, there’s a few tons of compost ready for a good month+ bake. A few tons (or ideally more) of crap not going to a landfill. AND, most of the things currently needing to be fished-out of the portapotties to spare the mechancal extraction equipment, could likely remain & simply be composted with everything else.

The most important factor to me personally though, is that use of composting toilets on the Playa will evangelize composting toilet technology to attendees. In the face of an unprecidented water crises, this I feel has a stewardship value that defies monetary quantification. If The BORG wants to take an extra step, it can finance & build the dozen or so of the above described structures required to sustain Black Rock City — and for a fee, provide the structures & personnel, to bring composting toilets to Coachella, Bumbershoot, and Golden Gate Park.

4. Build Smaller + Fewer Burnables

Image ©2003 Dale Larson

My friend Dale poses with one of 2 wooden faces of The Man’s head, mid-build, in 2003. Back then The Man was this small. This year, that same form equivocates one of many “button” like windows on The 2014 Man’s torso. His head? It’s about 20' tall and weighs 3,400lbs (with neon and other internal accoutrements), and sits on a 20' spine many stories high up in the air. In total, 2014's Man is about 150' tall. Granted, there was no burn platform this year — unlike past years — but burn platforms can be made with ramshackle found materials. The Man this year just sparkled with a glorious aesthetic of polish & finesse, which as an object to be burned, was what I found so bothersome.

The spine, shoulders, and upper-torso of 2014's Man. Image ©2014 John Curley
The Clocktower, by Liam Macnamara. 2005

In 2005, my friend (and very talented artist) Liam Mcnamara built the above sculpture. At its apex, is a fully-functional pendulum-powered clock, made almost entirely of wood. All of the gears were wood, and cut on a CNC router. The pictures of the clock’s internals are incredible. To witness the fully-functional clock in person, I’m told was more incredible. Most of the sculpture’s materials are reclaimed, and the person-hours involved to create the intricately detailed structure, were pretty nutty. So, when it burned as an exercise of ephemerality… it really was intense. As an exercise in ephemerality, it hit a high mark that has since faded as a measure for any of the involved artwork to hit, in order to seemingly validate the inevitable waste of new materials and resulting refuse. The hours it took to craft the beautiful piece, far outweighed its total expense — the value of its new materials, or the expense/energy spent on transporation.

2011's Temple of Transition (not by David Best).

The first of David Best’s extraordinary temples (2001), was created out of 85% scrap material, from a wooden dinosaur toy factory. Mr. Best continued utilizing such industrial scrap and turning its otherwise purposeless weird forms into spindly filigree-esque decoration for what have since become one of the most symbolism-rich and emotionally wrought fixtures of each festival.

In 2007 Mr. Best initiated a long-overdue break, and handed the reigns to various groups of other artists, through 2013. Pictured above, and magnificently ablaze below, is 2011's Temple of Transition. As witnessed & photographed by yours truly.

I gotta admit — witnessing this Temple Burn WAS spectacular. And moving. And inspiring. And ok, transformative. And experienced by a few thousand other people whom all walked away with similar impressions. The silence of the crowds as they walked away, was beautiful. In the week prior to burning, it was packed on all 3 stories with effigies and Sharpie-marker’d notes to loved ones. Honestly? Yeah, I’ll say it, it really, truly was worth it. Thousands of other Burners have attested the same for Temples of the past — and many continue to look to each year’s Temple as a much needed space for healing and atonement for lost loved ones, broken relationships/experiences, and many other things.

For perspective: this temple used well over 1,000 sheets of 1/2" plywood to construct, at a cost in excess of $50,ooo (which is all I’ve been able to account for, between the IndieGoGo, Kickstarter, and BMORG grant). 300 volunteers pre-event were required, with 140 at the event. Oh, and 1,500ft of rigging cable. Which each of the other Big Sculptures require, too.

I’ve worked on a lot of big art, and I do also gotta say: big art building is a cathartic, community-building thing unlike anything else. It is a VERY GOOD THING, that I do believe our culture needs more of. And I do appreciate Burning Man — all of my hippie jabs aside — for making so much of this possible for so many.

What I do feel needs to be asked however, is: do we gotta do this with SO MANY wooden structures? And, does The Man (aka Larry Harvey’s ego) really need to exist in such competition with The Temple, for Massiveness Of A Thing To Burn? Memorableness of a spectacle? A validation of the festival’s name, perhaps?

The Temple of Grace, 2014. Image ©2014 Neil Girling / The Blight

David Best did return this year, as The Temple’s director & builder. The plywood forms this year, intricately cut with lasers. The “stuff” in the middle, all efigies left for lost loved ones, by attendees.

In Parting

As I prepare to leave the cafe from where I’ve been rambling this all off, immediately to mind comes a flood of criticism that my above expressed opinions heed, when I’ve discussed these things with folks in the past.

  1. Wow, you’re really a bitch! No, I’m just offering (what I hope to be an articulate) POV to what I’ve experienced a lot of people discuss among small circles of friends, but I’ve not really seen thrown into public discourse a whole lot.
  2. Oh COME ON, look at how wasteful the Default World is! Look at the pollution forest fires cause! This is NOTHING relative to what a coal plant does, and look at the wealth of inspirational good that comes from it. Forest fires are usually not preventable, and they do serve to clear waste from the forest. The virgin timber has also not been subject to waste-making manufacturing processes.

I don’t really mind being called a bitch, for being blunt or simply honest. What I do mind, is seeing an organization on one hand functioning as the Baptist Preacher riding-into town its wave of The 10 Principals, but then failing to respond with swift urgency to some major conservation and constituency concerns about how the BORG itself fails at living-up to it’s own evengelized values. Either because they just don’t want to, or because their Consensus Process makes it impossible for them to act either swiftly or decisively. They preach ephemerality and “be here now,” yet iterate their own processes and practices slower than molasses.

It’s the same reason I can’t get behind organized religion. But I live at the center of this religion, in San Francisco — and it’s hard to see year after year, without getting worked-up about. It’s also impossible not seeing striking parallels, between my Born Again Christian family in Oklahoma, and the hardcore Burners community. A hypocrisy that’s brash, and very different from expecting harbingers of principle to be perfect.

Burning Man is at its heart, an organization of principles and stewardship. So yes, while I think it’s silly to expect them to be perfect, I do expect them to do better. A lot better. And, to just be more humble, honest, and swift where they can be, about making that change happen.

Be radically responsible. Not just radically fabulous.

Show your support

Clapping shows how much you appreciated nina alter’s story.