Burning Man Project 2020 Environmental Sustainability Report

Burning Man Project
Jul 20, 2020 · 11 min read

Year 1 Progress on 2030 Sustainability Goals

Table of Contents:

  1. What we said we’d do
  2. What we’ve done
  3. What we’re planning
  4. Conclusion

For those who prefer audio/visual media, you can also watch our year-one report, which was recorded live on July, 17th 2020. By clicking through to the video description you can find timecode links to each section:

1) Summary

  1. No Matter Out of Place. Handle waste ecologically.
  2. Be Regenerative. Create net positive ecological and environmental impact.
  3. Be Carbon Negative. Remove more carbon from the environment than we put into it.

We committed to these goals because we need to prioritize the health of the planet. With the event on pause we have a rare opportunity to accelerate our roadmap. It’s given us more time to reflect on where we’re going. Read on for specifics on what we’ve accomplished thus far. We’ve done what we said we’d do — and a bit more.

Summary. Our goal in this 2020 report and in general is to be transparent, get feedback, inspire action, and offer a connection point for others doing similar work. As we wrote in the roadmap (see sec. 5):

“This won’t work as a centrally-planned, slow, or closed project. We need to work quickly, openly, and from the inside out and outside in. This will be an open-source project that anyone can contribute to and replicate.”

For our waste goal, we’ve made progress on an emissions inventory and put together teams to manage the work. For our regenerative goal, we’ve hosted digital and in-person events (e.g., a permaculture project, an ecosystem restoration, and a sustainability summit). For our carbon goal, we’ve placed focus on carbon capture in the LAGI Fly Ranch design challenge and have reviewed proposals that could let us pay to be carbon negative. A community solar project will likely be the first scaled Burning Man sustainability undertaking.

Now more than ever we face deep social problems that suggest prioritizing sustainability. We are considering broader perspectives on the realities of climate change. We consider this globally and locally. To heal our relationship to land means acknowledging and addressing history. We can consider this in general in our lives and specifically in our relationship to the Numu (Northern Paiute) land we visit for Black Rock City (BRC).

The path forward is becoming slightly more clear. At some point we’ll likely need to have full-time staff facilitating this complex endeavor. Without the annual BRC ticket revenue to source funding for these projects, the largest current overall obstacle is our financial forecast.

The Fly Ranch gatherings were successful in elevating the conversation around sustainability and beginning to create frameworks for the work we have in front of us. Below see one of the frameworks that came from the EcoSprint during the BWB Fly Ranch summit which is a good representation of how we’re thinking. Namely, we want to think in terms of systems and focus on bringing the community in on the goals (see para. 4, sec. 2 of the roadmap).

If you too want to get involved, you can submit ideas.

2) What we said we’d do

“Measure and Reduce Impacts, Consider Offsets, Test Pilot Projects (1–2 years)

Emissions inventory. Black Rock Labs will be leading an emissions inventory over the next year. We will need to be very clear about how we use sustainability metrics and possible offsets, as there are numerous weak and misguided emissions and offset inventories in the world. The framework for quantifying negative emissions will be key. For example: how will we count planting trees towards carbon sequestration? How about selling solar to a community that would otherwise use a natural gas peaker plant? How about subsidizing the use of regenerative agricultural practices that avoid the use of synthetic fertilizer?”

Interconnected goals & emissions inventory. Each of the goals has dependencies upon one another. To succeed they must evolve alongside one another. The project where interconnection is most obvious so far is our emissions inventory. A team of people from the BRC Department of Public Works, BRC Operations, and Black Rock Labs are collaborating on this. They’ve established an approach for an emissions inventory. They are defining metrics to measure success well beyond the emoji dashboard above. As an example of what an emissions inventory could look like, here’s a look at BRC emissions in 2007.

“Laying the groundwork. We will begin to work with staff, artists, camps, participants, outside service providers, and infrastructure vendors to sustainably manage our waste, pollution, and resources. We will host a series of sustainability gatherings to kick this off with the community in Black Rock City, at Fly Ranch, and elsewhere. We will orient the Fly Ranch design challenge around these goals. We will support decentralized teams and the efforts of green camps and projects.”

Organizational support. We’ve formed sustainability teams to evaluate proposals, support projects, and implement programs around BRC initiatives, solar power, waste streams, education, and eco-sprints. Everyone is invited to submit a proposal to sustainability@burningman.org. Each proposal will be evaluated, given feedback, and decided upon. If necessary we’ll form a team to make it so. If you don’t have a full proposal, feel free to make suggestions through our web form.

3) What we’ve done

1) Sustainably manage all waste. Our goal is to eliminate all non-sustainable waste streams from Burning Man events and operations.
Key Department: BRC Event Operations
Lead: Laura Day, aka ‘Good Day’

Outlook. Though in-person gatherings have become more challenging, virtual gatherings have taught us a few lessons. We’ve seen how we can minimize waste, reduce the need for travel, and lower our footprint in terms of office space, operations, and emissions. Overall the groundwork has been laid and solutions are emerging (see appx. 1 in the roadmap for an overview of what we’re exploring). Our goal is for the next iteration of BRC to return in a way that feels much more like a regenerative city. It will be different, but no less amazing. We might even venture to say…more so.

Overview. In general, it seems possible we could achieve this goal by scaling some of what we’re already doing. For example, last year BRC had 130 Ecozoic biofiltration toilets and we recently had a MOOPathon. We have internal waste sorting processes in place to expand upon. We also plan to end disposable cup use at Center Camp (COVID-19 allowing). We’ve assembled a group to analyze our waste stream, accounting for culture, philosophy, operations, and finances.

2) Be Regenerative. By the end of the next decade, we aim for it to be better for the ecology of Earth for Burning Man to exist than to not exist.
Key Department: Burners Without Borders
Lead: Christopher Breedlove

Outlook. In some ways, the path to being regenerative is clear: do a lot more of what BWB is doing and integrate it into our default worlds. This goal appears reasonably likely to succeed if Regionals, BWB chapters, and the Burnerverse adopt ecological regeneration into the foundation of the 10 Principles.

Overview. In 2019, BWB showed how to do it: a Permaculture Action Day in Oakland, CA, a Pyramid Lake ecosystem restoration, and a Fly sustainability summit. BWB has partnered with a variety of regenerative projects (e.g., Footprint Project on solar, Ecosystem Restoration Camps, The Permaculture Action Network, and the Global Coralition). We are planning a virtual green theme camp summit and have created a regenerative roadmap draft. Below, see one of the 17 ideas that came from the BWB Fall Summit at Fly Ranch on how to bring the community together around these goals. If you’re working on global regenerative initiatives of your own, we’d love to know in this survey.

3) Be carbon negative. Remove more carbon from the environment than we put into it.
Key Department: Fly Ranch
Lead: Matt Sundquist, aka ‘Open Source’

Outlook. The technology for carbon capture and storage emissions is complex and new. Capturing and storing 100K tons of C02 will be challenging. There are options if we want to buy our way into this goal. For example, we received a proposal to become entirely carbon negative. Though this could be a bridge, buying our way out in the long-term does not address the deeper problem. This goal appears most challenging to achieve given current technology.

Overview. We have created a plan for being carbon negative and considered how this could relate to the Fly Ranch design challenge, LAGI 2020. Another option for carbon capture is the 360 acres that Burning Man manages near Gerlach (see our Facebook Live to learn more). Part of achieving this goal will mean connecting with the land at a deep level. Ideally we’ll have a balance of ecological and technical approaches that are appropriate to the local landscape. For example, we’re evaluating a proposal to plant a grove of trees at Fly Ranch. In support of our goal of connecting with land, we’ve partnered with the Gerlach K-12 school, Boy Scouts, and the Pyramid Lake Paiute Tribe on walks and field trips. We’ve partnered with Friends of the Black Rock High Rock to host hundreds of nature walks over the past few years as well as a virtual nature walk.

4) What we’re planning

As with all our work, our discussion around a solar project is evolving project and could take a number of forms in terms of affiliation and implementation. See the text from the roadmap below to get a sense of what’s in the works. Stay tuned for more details.

“Pilot solar project. As a first test we could produce solar power for Gerlach, Black Rock City, and for our properties. Not only does it address the need in the global carbon cycle to keep carbon in the slow pool, it shows that Burning Man Project is demonstrating its dedication to the environment by finding our own ways to offset our carbon use. Black Rock Labs has developed a feasibility study that provides a useful frame of reference. We’d probably need ~20 MW on ~75 acres for Black Rock City. We could sell power and eliminate the emissions of non-renewable power plants and count that in our offsets. For example, NV Energy is seeking RFPs for buying 330 MW of renewable energy. We will create a plan that provides direction for replicating the model for a theme camp, an event, or for a home.”

5) Conclusion

Land history. Pyramid Lake Paiute Tribal Council Member Maurice Eban explained, “Since time immemorial, we Indian People have had a respect for the land that we walk upon.” The region has an 11,000+ year history that includes the Numu (Northern Paiute), as well as the Nuwu (Southern Paiute) and Newe (Western Shoshone). They are still here, and it remains their home. The Numu bands generally from and in the region near Fly Ranch and where BRC is built are shown in the table below. There are a number of Numu dialects and historical perspectives; here we rely on a few common spellings, translations, and geographic interpretations, noting that there are others and we have more to learn.

The Numu lived off the land, stewarded nature, and until the mid-1800s lived freely in the area we now call ‘Home’. At Fly Ranch we’ve seen lithic scatter including arrowheads and other stone tools, a campfire site, and an area seemingly used for flint knapping that speak to their connection to the place. Questions that we’re considering include: Given the relationship between climate justice and racial justice, and the disproportionate impact that climate change has on Black, Indigenous and People Of Color, how might we better include and defer to those communities? How can their voices be heard and needs be addressed through future work of sustainability on these lands? What can we do to engage with and empower those communities to be at the table for envisioning a better future and decision-making?

An ethical, cultural revolution. As we consider these questions, and where we are as a planet, we should remain keenly aware that we have a short window to make drastic changes to our way of life. Now is the time to both ask philosophical questions and act definitively and comprehensively to create a new normal. Mass intentional gatherings can be transformative, and the same is true of the mass collective trauma that we’re going through as a society. We currently find ourselves between these folds. It’s possible that humans could address climate change if every city, organization, and land project established and followed the three goals we’re using. We aim for our model to be open-source and useful for local communities, governments, events, and households.

We’ll close with a quote from Larry Harvey: “It seems to me that, given the problems we’re facing on every front — economical, environmental, political — what’s needed is a kind of ethical, cultural revolution.” Amen to that. Thank you, Larry.

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Appendix 1: 2019 BWB Fall Sustainability & Regenerative Culture Summit @ Fly Ranch

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