Burning Man’s Green Complexion

A week ago, the renowned Burning Man festival raged in the Black Rock desert of Nevada. More than 50,000 people from all over the world gathered as a community and built a city for a week.

The prevailing spirit of the event is self-reliance, civic responsibility, creativity and a purposeful absence of commerce. The very premise of a temporary city that ‘leaves no trace’ is environmentally sustainable. The event has become a laboratory and a platform for sustainability.

“Burning Man models how we will manage our future, a future in which resources are scarce and people have to come together to find solutions. We haven’t issued any green manifesto, but the Burning Man is increasingly attached to sustainability,” explains Marion Goodell, Director of Business and Communications.

Four years ago, Larry Harvey, a co-founder of Burning Man, wanted to see the event tie into what was going on in the world. Historically, the organizers had adopted a whimsical art theme. In 2007, it was ‘The Green Man.’ A more conscious sustainability effort was seeded.

“We still burned our man (it’s “Burning Man” after all, not “Composting Dude”), but we started to pay closer attention to the materials used on the sculpture, our organization, the entirety of Black Rock City to improve our approach and lessen our impact,” explained James Hanusa, a longtime Burner who is now working on the New Initiatives team.

The 2007 pavilion showcase spawned an array of notable green ventures. People came forth to share green innovations. Elon Musk brought an unbranded tunnel model of his Tesla. Jim Mason brought an early iteration of his biomass gasification technology. Black Rock Solar supplied energy to the event, and continued on to provide solar installations in under-served communities.

“From then on, green become a greater part of the ethic for organizers and participants,” said Goodell.

Four years ago, an energy audit identified the hotspot in their carbon footprint: getting people to the desert. For Burning Man 2011, ridesharing and local storage options were widely available. The organizers are buying storage space so that Burners don’t have to haul trailers of stuff up and back each year. “We’ve also taken recycling to the next level,” says Burner Tom Price. “We worked with shop owners in the local town. Now we recycle bikes and batteries, as well as beer cans.”

The biggest impact on the green movement goes beyond these inventions, ventures, and program initiatives. “The event changes people,” Price states plainly. “The ‘leave no trace’ ethos is profound, and makes people think about their choices and their impact. People may not have had a second thought about burning a couch in 1997. Now that’s unthinkable.”

“In a city without garbage cans, we are not just an incubator for creativity, we are a catalyst for behavior change.” And that’s exactly what the green movement needs most.

Heather King

Heather is President of kingconsulting, a leading strategy consulting practice focused on sustainability, clean tech, and green tech. Heather has over 30 years experience working with pioneering technology, consumer, B2B companies and international non-profits - including Apple, Microsoft, Disney. Oracle, Ogilvy, Waste Management, Stanford Center for Social Innovation, Day in the Life, and multiple start ups. She serves on the boards of Trust for Conservation Innovation, a fiscal sponsor and incubator for over two dozen environmental non-profits, and the Presidio Graduate School, the leading MBA/MPA program focused on sustainability.