Burning Man Project’s Year Two Progress on 2030 Sustainability Goals

Burning Man Project
Jul 22 · 20 min read
Walking the Labyrinth at Fly Ranch, 2021 (Photo by Will Roger)

TABLE OF CONTENTS:

  1. Introduction
  2. The Three Goals
  3. How’s It Going?
  4. Pathways to the Goals
  5. A Future Vision
  6. Conclusion

For those who prefer audio/visual media, you can also watch our year-two report, which was recorded live on July 16, 2021. By clicking through to the video description you can find timecode links to each section:

1) Introduction

Two years ago this week, Burning Man Project shared a 10-year Environmental Sustainability Roadmap collaboratively written by 55 people. Our goals are to sustainably manage waste, be ecologically regenerative, and be carbon negative by 2030. Our goals are ambitious. Yet the changes we aim to make are in line with what we all need to do to ensure that Earth continues to be a viable ecosystem. The climate emergency impacts everything we value as humans and as members of the global Burning Man community. Climate disasters like floods, wildfires, heat waves, droughts, cold waves, polluted air, food shortages, and undrinkable water will continue to increase in frequency, duration, and severity. Infrastructure, supply chains, and other social, economic, and civic structures will continue to erode. These crises are poised to cause millions more to become climate refugees. The climate emergency isn’t a future problem. It’s happening.

But why Burning Man & Sustainability? As we continue towards our 2030 goals and enroll more of the global community, we are often asked this question. Three types of change are elemental to our goals: Technological Change, Systems Change, and Culture Change.

Technological Change: Much of the necessary technology required to rewire our relationship with the environment already exists or is poised to emerge. We’ll need to scale, implement, and distribute these technologies efficiently. A temporary city such as Black Rock City is an ideal space to iterate, conceptualize, and test these technologies.

Systems Change: The extractive economic global economy that is the current default structure is by far the largest contributor to our planetary problems. Two thirds of all industrial carbon emissions come from just 90 institutions, according to the Climate Accountability Institute. Several institutions have emitted more carbon than most countries. Their emissions dwarf the impacts of our individual day-to-day consumption. The problem needs a much deeper systemic change. Institutions with a long-term focus on legislative and systemic change are better suited to focus on the policy changes we need on local and global levels.

Cultural Change is the place where the Burning Man community and our skills are most aptly suited. We require a radically new narrative on how humans exist on the planet and our role in planetary stewardship. The culture that has sprouted from Black Rock City and the global Burning Man community is vibrant and expansive. Our network and culture can drive significant change. We hope you see the cultural nuance layered throughout this report. This work is an open-source project and we welcome your thoughts and feedback.

2) The Three Goals

In the roadmap we outlined three goals we aim to achieve by 2030. We’ve created separate, specific mini-roadmaps for each of the three goals (see: no matter out of place, be regenerative & be carbon negative). These roadmaps outline specific, actionable steps. Here is how they break down:

A) 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 | Roadmap

Context. In order to make the most measurable impact, we are prioritizing the management of organic waste. We know that food waste represents 21.1% of waste generated in the US. More than half of food waste in this country ends up in landfills, which produce methane. It is estimated that every pound of food thrown away results in about 4 pounds of greenhouse gas emissions. The EPA states, “Pound for pound, the comparative impact of methane is 25 times greater than CO2 over a 100-year period.” This is largely due to methane’s excellent capability in trapping radiation. Landfills are the third leading emitter of methane in the US, at 15%.

Additionally, we operate with constraints at a societal level. The United States is one of the only developed countries in the world without a law that requires product producers to be fiscally responsible for collecting, managing, and recycling or composting products after consumer use, as observers have noted. Such a law is under consideration. As is, most hard plastics #3 — #7 cannot be recycled due to lack of a market; in fact, less than 10 percent of plastic has ever been recycled. We may need to discontinue the use of items that are made of or packaged in these materials in addition to other non-recyclable items.

Outlook. We’ve considered ways to sustainably manage waste in Black Rock City and in and around Gerlach. We have a plan to conduct a comprehensive waste characterization in order to create a baseline to measure our success and let us know when we have accomplished our goals of diversion and education. We’ve reviewed and collaborated on a proposal to handle food waste on playa. We have developed plans for and prototyped composting projects. Green Tree, a new Nevada-based entity owned by Burning Man Project and created to foster inclusive and sustainable growth in Northern Nevada, is supporting this project. We prefer systems that have multiple co-benefits, such as waste diversion with food production. DA’s MOOPATHON is a strong example of a project with co-benefits. He picked up waste along 85 miles of the road to Black Rock City and raised $31,000 for Burning Man Project. That money will be put towards a plan to power the Man’s lighting with solar power. Black Rock Power, an organizational solar initiative ,will help manage this new project.

B) 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 | Roadmap

Context. As sustainability leader Erin Meezan has noted: “We need business goals that are bigger than doing less harm or emitting less carbon. The goal has to be what the planet needs: a climate fit for life. And we need optimism and courage to get there — maybe more than we need science or data.” Most of all, this goal represents our aspiration towards optimism and courage.

Outlook. In some ways, the path to being regenerative is clear: focus on the grassroots disaster-relief support, community initiatives, and ecosystem projects that Burners Without Borders (BWB) does, and integrate that work into our daily lives. This goal appears reasonably likely to succeed if Burning Man Regional groups, BWB chapters, and Burners around the world adopt ecological regeneration into the foundation of Burning Man’s 10 Principles.

Green theme camps. This year we sparked conversations that are growing participation outwards. We supported the formation of the Green Theme Camp Community (GTCC) as the focus of the Burners Without Borders Fall Summit 2020. We chose this community knowing that most of the infrastructure in Black Rock City comes from the participants themselves. To hit our goals, we need to activate, grow, and collaborate with this community now.

Some GTCC highlights from the last year include:

Ecosystem activation. We hosted an Ecosystem Activation call on “Getting Dirty with Regenerative Networks” showcasing the Permaculture Action Network, MakeSoil, and Ecosystem Restoration Camps. Our goal was to encourage Burners everywhere to get involved in their kitchens, gardens, events, and infrastructure. Hundreds of people joined the call and thousands watched the live stream.

Renewable energy. In the past year we’ve acquired mobile solar arrays that we’ve used at our properties in Gerlach, and at Fly Ranch with biofiltration toilets.

Solar trailers and biofiltration toilets at Fly Ranch (Photo by Joe Childs)

We outlined a pilot solar project in section 3.3 of our roadmap and shared a feasibility study written by Black Rock Labs for Black Rock City (BRC). We’d probably need ~20 megawatts (MW) on ~75 acres for Black Rock City. We could also use wind or geothermal power to power BRC. We intend to increase our regenerative infrastructure and begin to build microgrids and an open-source model for theme camps, our properties, and nearby communities. Black Rock Solar started this work years ago.

School field trip and arrowhead solar array at the Pyramid Lake Museum & Visitor Center courtesy of Black Rock Solar

LAGI 2020 Fly Ranch. The Fly Ranch design challenge seeks to address the need for humans to transform our relationships with the land. With this transformation in mind, we received 185 proposals, with more than 500 people on those teams. Proposals focused on food, power, water, waste, and shelter. 300 technical advisors and jurors left 2,000 comments to help inform the judges and shape the final results. A 50-person committee picked the 52 shortlisted projects. 33 jurors decided on the top 10. All of this reflects over 10,000 hours of work — and we haven’t even started building yet. Ultimately, we want to build as many of the LAGI projects as we can. We have the resources to start with 10 prototypes, and that’s what we plan to do. These projects could have significant, measurable (and unmeasurable) impacts and create universal models for how to live in unison with nature. As Forbes noted, Fly Ranch is the “perfect context…to tackle the hard problem of net-zero sustainable infrastructure with circular design thinking.” Similarly, Interesting Engineering noted about the Solar Mountain project: “…It could enable civil engineers and artists to reimagine the way we generate power for communities around the world, in an unprecedented wave of nature-oriented collaboration.” These projects will each require significant and costly infrastructure, staff, and maintenance to achieve their goals to be instructive of a possible future. This indicates the need for a parallel creation of an economy beyond philanthropy to provide support. We aim to continue to scale our economic model by starting these 10 LAGI prototypes this year.

Scroll through these images for a sample and watch our LAGI video to learn more.

Water protection. Water has a spiritual and practical relationship with life, the land, and ecology. Unfortunately this relationship hasn’t always been understood or respected. Derby Dam was built in 1905 to divert most of the Truckee River. The dam lowers the water level in Pyramid Lake by around a foot a year. The dam dried up Winnemucca Lake and caused the cui-ui fish to nearly go extinct. The Pyramid Lake Paiute Tribe brought the fish back. Fast forward to 2018, when Blockchains LLC purchased 67,000 acres of land right beside Derby Dam. Earlier this year, the company bought $35 million of water rights near Fly Ranch. The previous owners of those water rights had applied to build a pipeline to move water from the Hualapai Valley to Fernley. That application was denied in 2007 after being opposed by the Gerlach General Improvement District, Washoe County, Bright Holland Corporation (the previous owners of Fly Ranch), the Department of Interior, the Bureau of Land Management, Jackson Family Partnership (our neighbors at Fly Ranch), Toiyabe Chapter of Sierra Club, the Pyramid Lake Paiute Tribe, and the Great Basin Water Network. We hope to work with these groups and others to continue to protect nature and prevent a pipeline. The State Water Engineer can refuse a proposed use if water extraction impacts a project with public benefits. Fly Ranch and Black Rock City have demonstrated public benefits that we will highlight in this process.

Agency collaboration. We hope and plan to further a positive feedback loop between Burning Man Project and agencies like the Federal Emergency Management Agency (FEMA) and the Red Cross to refine and deploy regenerative approaches to meet energy, water and sanitation needs by 2030. This is a particularly important goal. More than 10 million people around the world were displaced by climate change from September 2020 to February 2021 alone. By 2050 1.2 billion people could be displaced by the climate emergency. Some will only spend a short time in a temporary community. For many others, it will be months or years. How might we imagine a greater cyclical flow of inspiration in operations and technology between Black Rock City and other temporary municipalities like refugee and disaster camps? Read more about our philosophical approach in The Long Disaster.

C) Be carbon negative. Remove more carbon from the environment than we put into it.

Key Department: Fly Ranch | Lead: Matt Sundquist | Roadmap

Context. Estimates are that we — the global we — need to remove 900,000,000,000 tons of carbon from the atmosphere in order to avoid the disastrous ecological consequences of reaching 2°C (3.6˚F) of warming. Carbon dioxide removal projects have great potential as well as questionable trends. It will require strange bedfellows and unusual alliances to help solve these problems. If successful, that drawdown effort will likely be the largest collective human undertaking of all time. Thankfully we are not alone in our negative emissions commitment. Stripe, Microsoft, Apple, Shopify, and others have made similar commitments. Our own estimates for Black Rock City emissions have just been completed, and the final results will be released soon. We measured greenhouse gas emissions from travel to and from Black Rock City, and on-site activities including vehicles, generator use, and burning art. This is the baseline we’ll use for charting our work in the coming years. Look for a detailed article about our methodology and results in the coming weeks. The criteria we’ve identified for our own negative emissions approach are as follows:

Legitimate. Must be permanent, surplus (additional), and enforceable.

Co-benefits. For example, reforestation involves carbon, habitat, and water.

Scalable. Offsets can be scaled to meet demand.

Impactful. Offsets influence other offset providers to be more innovative.

Outlook. We’ve had conversations with carbon dioxide removal projects we like:

  • Climeworks. A proven method with an initial market. We can purchase credits.
  • Project Vesta. As-yet-unproven, low energy needs. We can partner and purchase.
  • Carbon Engineering. Technological breakthrough. We’d like to join a pilot plant.
  • XPrize. We’ve invited organizers to prototype at Fly.
  • Mechanical Trees. Great potential, small footprint. We’ve invited them to prototype.
Image from the 2021 Green Theme Camp Symposium brainstorming board

3) How’s It Going?

What we said we’d do: In section 3.2 of our 2030 roadmap, we outlined our priorities for our first two years. We planned to spend the first two years laying the groundwork. Specifically, we planned to:

☑️ Complete an emissions inventory

☑️ Create a framework for negative emissions

☑️ Work with staff, camps, and partners on a waste management plan

☑️ Host a series of sustainability gatherings

☑️ Support decentralized efforts of green camps

☑️ Orient the Fly Ranch design challenge around the sustainability goals.

We are on track and have achieved these goals.

What we’re planning: This year we will scale our projects and take on new challenges. We’ve outlined a range of projects for the year ahead in our goal-specific roadmaps (see: waste, regenerative & carbon).

There are many areas where we are putting our energy. Most notably we plan to:

  • Expand our solar systems on our properties in Northern Nevada.
  • Prototype conventional and food waste recycling in our operations and properties.
  • Develop our properties in Gerlach as a resource for sustainable activities for Burners.
  • Start building 10 prototypes from the Fly Ranch Design Challenge, LAGI 2020.
  • Offer carbon dioxide removal credits to Black Rock City participants.
  • Support and highlight the Green Theme Camp Community’s efforts.
  • Scale our process and draft website.
  • Protect water and ecology in the Hualapai Basin from a pipeline — see more in this section.

Gerlach. Gerlach is a remote, rural Northern Nevada town and is the gateway to the National Conservation Area and Black Rock City. Burning Man Project manages property and operates an office there. Two of our Co-founders and several Burning Man Project staff live there year-round. We are working to be good community members and support economic development. We have an opportunity to prototype sustainable systems and design ideas. We’ve started with clean power and exploration of how we manage waste. These projects can scale into a model for regenerative rural communities and small towns. These systems and technologies can then scale into Black Rock City, and eventually other communities around the world.

Burning Man Hive and Sustainability Lab. We plan to expand our social-learning platform, Burning Man Hive, to Burning Man theme camps and the Regional network. We have designed an engagement and collaboration process called Sustainability Lab, which will be a year-round engagement space where participants learn, teach, and collaborate with one another on sustainability projects. We invite you to join us on Burning Man Hive.

Exploring potential new focus areas: In order to make this work even more impactful and create measurable change on a global scale, we are considering several new goals for 2030 including:

  1. We will have a positive feedback loop with government agencies and impacted communities as we collectively adapt to the climate emergency and address energy, water, waste and sanitation needs.
  2. Fly Ranch will have 10 fully built LAGI prototypes from the Fly Ranch Design Challenge, and will influence global conversations and actions around sustainability.
  3. The work we are doing in Gerlach will influence a network of other rural communities around the world.
  4. Black Rock City’s approaches to energy, water, and waste inspire leaders of other events, gatherings, communities and even cities to embrace elements of those approaches, adapted to the specifics of each situation.

4) Pathways to the Goals

Our work could happen in a few ways. Burning Man Project’s budget has been affected by the cancellation of Black Rock City the past two years. Philanthropy can help, but sustainability needs to be economically viable. We consider the following three approaches drawn from appendix i of our roadmap.

A) Traditional sustainability approach. A centralized approach planned and administered by Burning Man Project is not economically sustainable. Initial costs would exceed $35 million, with an additional $15 million required to purchase carbon dioxide removal credits and rent facilities each year. All told, Burning Man could put to work $100 million worth of investment over 10 years implementing these changes. The actual net costs will depend on variables including the long run cost savings (e.g., fuel, transportation, waste handling), in kind contributions, and grants. There is also possible future revenue associated with things like carbon capture operations on Burning Man’s properties.

  • Carbon dioxide removal. We can purchase credits from one of the projects listed above, which would cost millions of dollars.
  • Renewable power. This costs about $1 million/MW, and we need at least 20MW, which would total $20 million or more.
  • Waste-to-energy facility. We’ve had conversations with Sierra Energy about a facility that would cost $10 million to implement.
  • Biofiltration toilets. 800 biofiltration units at BRC around $5,000 per two-seat unit would be $4 million.
  • Gray water filtration. A building unit can cost around $450,000 (and we’d need a few).
  • Water purification. We were quoted $500,000 to build a facility at Fly Ranch.
  • Composting. Facilities and services would cost hundreds of thousands of dollars.

B) Community owned & operated. The global network of Burning Man communities, Regional groups, and theme camps could work collectively to achieve the goals. We could lease the 360-acre property that Burning Man Project owns in Gerlach to a community partner to build a solar array and provide 20MW of power for BRC. Teams of Burners and event staff could handle Leave No Trace and landfill diversion projects before, during, and after the Black Rock City event on-site and on local highways. Carbon dioxide removal costs could be supported by an emissions fee added to tickets, vehicle passes, and generator use at the event. Camps could manage landfill diversion and compost efforts. BMP could do carbon dioxide removal on our properties and generate co-benefits: be carbon negative, focus on sustainable development, and sell offsets. We anticipate this path would cost $1–3 million annually for Burning Man Project to allocate additional staff and resources to coordinate and support these projects.

C) Earthshot. One of the goals of the LAGI 2020 Fly Ranch Design Challenge is to allow for solutions to emerge that we couldn’t ever plan. We could invest a few million dollars into future design challenges focused on sustainability across these projects. This might enable us to achieve our sustainability goals in novel ways on a faster timeline. This model could be genuinely built by everyone.

We anticipate we will use a blended model and draw on each of these approaches. As you read this document, we invite your feedback on a few questions: Do these ideas seem like logical extensions of our existing efforts or more like truly new endeavors? Where might your networks and expertise help us sharpen our thinking, expose pitfalls, or open up new possibilities for audacious goals or partnerships? And, critically, are these the kind of ideas that excite you and that you think could attract sufficient support in our community to execute at scale?

5) A Future Vision

Mapping a Destination. We’ve created operational goals and a direction. What we haven’t done is create an artistic and cultural vision. Until now. Read on for our fan fiction.

The Journey to Black Rock City. Let’s imagine you’re on the way to Black Rock City in 2030. Your bus winds from Interstate 80 along Highway 447. You notice that the roadside is free of debris. There is an increase in native flora. You notice vibrant food gardens and ecological restoration projects. You pass properties in Gerlach where regeneratively-designed events are held year-round. The Burning Man Project-owned 360-acre property in Gerlach hosts energy infrastructure that powers Black Rock City and local communities. Surrounding space is used to build regenerative infrastructure and transition mutant vehicles from gas to electric power. The cultural and economic development benefits the local community and ecology. Around the world, a network of rural communities partners with local Burners, Regional groups, and Burners Without Borders chapters to adapt the “Gerlach Model” to their unique location and culture.

Black Rock City. You arrive at Black Rock City. You notice a new audioscape that lacks the incessant hum of generators. There are no fumes or exhaust from fuel. Instead, the city runs on solar arrays, other renewables, and shared micro-grids. Water is distributed from reusable drums and containers. There are no single-use plastic cups or bottles. Biofiltration composting toilets replace the blue box porta-potties. Gray water is handled in ecologically-minded loops. Blackwater is managed through compost projects, biofiltration, treatment ponds, and land applications. Mutant vehicles, Burning Man Project fleet vehicles, heavy equipment, and participant vehicles are primarily electric. Most structures and art are created from repurposed and upcycled materials. Camps coordinate resources, civic projects, and municipal needs. The city is just as vibrant, weird, and wild as always. It is now supported by sustainable infrastructure.

Leaving BRC. On the way home, there is no evidence of dumping or disposal of trash. The disposal loop is closed. Waste does not go to landfills. A zero-waste model is in place. Camps store and work on their camp infrastructure locally at facilities in Gerlach. Transportation emissions have been significantly reduced and there is a system in place to measure and remove what carbon impacts are generated by travel to and from Gerlach. You begin to plan your return visit.

Hualapai Valley. At Fly Ranch and Black Rock Station, food waste is composted to grow new food, and greenhouse and farm projects supply food for events and locals. Fly Ranch is a year-round regenerative center developed through design challenges, eco-sprints, tree plantings, and year-round sustainable events that financially support staffing and property maintenance. More carbon dioxide is removed from the atmosphere than is emitted through legitimate carbon dioxide removal projects. Fly Ranch has become a global destination for community planners, business leaders, artists and writers who want to learn from the 10 (or more) fully-functional projects stemming from the Land Art Generator Initiative’s Fly Ranch Design Challenge that have been built on the property (see: LAGI 2020). Fly Ranch has become a global cultural source of inspiration focused on sustainable living, healing, and connection.

Global Community. The global network of Burning Man communities, Regional groups, theme camps, and others have adopted, adapted, and improved upon the goals from our roadmap, as appropriate. The Green Theme Camp Community has created a Thrival Guide with blueprints for mobile deployable regenerative infrastructure used at Burn events and in disaster relief and humanitarian efforts. The LAGI Design Challenge has inspired land projects across the world. As a community, we’ve started to iterate on our original designs. Burning Man Regional Events, alongside Black Rock City, are a recognized model for participatory art and regenerative capabilities, partnering with Ecosystem Restoration Camps for long-term impact and sharing of infrastructure.

Open-source Approach. Everyone is able to learn and participate. Precise means are used to evaluate metrics and track our progress. It is clear when goals have been met. The methods, technology, and techniques for building a sustainable city, ranch, and rural center are open-source. Virtual platforms connect and harness the collective power of Burners and the Burner-curious. There are many opportunities to teach, learn, and collaborate with one another. Lessons are easily shared that allow the global community to find and implement solutions worldwide. This model is spread freely worldwide and massively expands Burning Man’s vision, culture, and impact.

Recognition & Impact. While Black Rock City only fully functions for one week of the year, its approach to energy, water, waste, and community engagement is emulated by other events and is seen as a resource by civic leaders from around the world. Individuals and institutions respected for their work on sustainable development, such as the UN, value Black Rock City as a living laboratory that provides inspiration and opportunities for learning and partnering. The culture scales and proliferates. Burners Without Borders Chapters support climate refugees around the world.

Supporting Indigenous Communities. The organization and community recognizes the Numu (Northern Paiute), Nuwu (Southern Paiute), Newe (Western Shoshone) and Washeshu (Washoe) stewardship of the land. The guidance of Professor Kyle Whyte has been incorporated into our vision: “One can’t claim to be an ally if one’s agenda is to prevent his or her own future dystopias through actions that also preserve today’s Indigenous dystopias.” The Indigenous names of places are used. There is strong support for land and water protectors who’ve preserved Thacker Pass and the water in the Hualapai Basin in relationships of reciprocity, kinship, respect, and mutual aid. Numu land and community projects are actively supported: to the Northwest of the playa for the Kidütökadö (Yellow-bellied marmot Eaters / Fort Bidwell Indian Community); to the Northeast for the Aga’ipañinadökadö (Fish Lake Eaters / Summit Lake Paiute Tribe); to the South for the Taboose-ddukaka (Grass-nut eaters / Yerington Paiute Tribe); and further South for the Kooyooe Tukadu (Cui-ui Eaters / Pyramid Lake Paiute Tribe).

This section is drawn from appendix i. of the roadmap.

6) Conclusion

Hope & possibility. The climate emergency is an existential problem. Until humanity honors nature, we will continue to abuse its resources. Our default approach has become human dominance over nature. Life in the universe on this planet is a miracle, yet we’re trained to take it for granted. We need a paradigm shift in our relationship to the planet. We believe the global Burning Man community has a pivotal role to play. We may fail, but we think it’s important to try.

To quote R.O. Kwon: “I want to live on a planet that can hold us. I believe we can all still help it, us, do so. If nothing else, why not try? Why not hope, and then act as if? This is our one wild, lone home; what other choice do we have?”

Creating a Regenerative Culture. Black Rock City is not a utopia, and that’s not the point. Many of the projects proposed for Fly Ranch and our properties in Gerlach will be a proving ground for developing closed loop, regenerative systems that we can implement in Black Rock City, and also for communities everywhere, a sandbox to create ecologically sustainable events and cities beyond the Black Rock Desert.

The projects submitted to the LAGI Design Challenge demonstrate how much of what is needed to solve the climate crisis IS within reach. We already have much of the data and many of the tools. What we really need is a culture shift.

Thanks to our amazing community of environmentally aware dreamers & doers, we all happen to be experts in creating environments that make culture shifts possible.

Burners Without Borders Spring Summit at Fly Ranch, 2021 (All photos by Satya Kamdar)

Beyond Burning Man

Dispatches on impact and innovation from Black Rock City and beyond.

Beyond Burning Man

Dispatches on impact and innovation from Black Rock City and beyond.

Burning Man Project

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The nonprofit Burning Man Project facilitates and extends a global cultural movement united in the pursuit of a more creative and connected world.

Beyond Burning Man

Dispatches on impact and innovation from Black Rock City and beyond.