The festival scene: a review of Burning Man

Preparing to Burn

“What the hell are we going to do about this!?” In disbelief, I kicked a super size McDonald’s cup back toward the junk pile beneath the overflowing trash bin. How ironic. The one time in my life when my eco-despair – about litter, of all things! – was so overwhelming that I had to pull over on the highway.

Driving home from an electronic music festival, my partner and I had stopped on the crest of a hill to sit with our sorrow about the sea of trash on the forest floor discovered with the rising sun in its wake. It was just one of three festivals over the summer that had smashed my assumption that the gatherings in this environmentally-minded corner of the world were getting greener. If we couldn’t even figure out how to celebrate together without leaving behind an embarrassing mess, how were we supposed to tackle the really daunting environmental problems?

“Are we turning into frivolous festival junkies?” I agonized, worried that my activist self had finally been substantively surpassed by my inner pleasure-seeker. Worried because we would soon be on our way to Burning Man, the holy grail of grandiosity and hedonism – a journey with a giant ecological footprint. Marc, too, was distraught at the consumption and waste we had found ourselves complicit in that summer. Though we had long desired to experience Burning Man, now that the time had finally come, so had the guilt.

“We should set an intention,” he proposed. That way, we would have a way to channel our feelings into positive action. As we resumed our journey home, we agreed that we would participate in Burning Man in a way that was not wasteful and consumerist, but helpful. Our unspoken hope was that this would give Burning Man a meaning that redeemed the venture – and ourselves – in our critical eyes.

I quickly learned that our intention was easier said than done. I soon began stocking up on all sorts of gear: utility belts, dust masks, canvas tent, giant tarps, blinky LED lights, dust-proof rubbermaids, prepackaged dinners, more liquor than I had ever bought in a single purchase, and thirty gallons of my arch-nemesis: bottled water. I lost track of the number of thrift store trips for furry coats, hot pink cowboy boots, purple tutus, outrageous hats from bygone eras, and anything leopard print.

A few days before we set out for the Black Rock Desert, I met a young American couple in a workshop on sustainable living skills. They were ecstatic to hear I would soon be making my first foray to the burn. I interrupted a tirade on their favourite memories on the playa to ask their opinion of the environmental footprint of the event.

“Oh, it’s horribly unsustainable!” she bellowed. It would be their fourth burn. This, I would find, was a common story. If Burning Man was so wasteful, what exactly was it that kept conscious folks returning year after year?

Black Rock City

The moment we entered Black Rock City, I began to understand. “Welcome home!” the greeter shouted, pressing fat pocket-sized books into our hands. We opened them up. Tiny blue writing revealed the hundreds of events to choose from on any given day. Yep, hundreds. Camps with names like Rancho Sparkle Pony and Dr. Scrote’s Circumcision Wagon and Calamari Hut offered their talents and gifts, expecting nothing in return. I couldn’t help but wonder how much energy went into the naked bacon cook-offs and the cupcake decorating parties. But for every offering of a pickle cocktail or a root beer float, there were five offerings of a healing herbal infusion or an electrolyte-replenishing bowl of miso soup. We could have come completely unprepared and relied on the playa to provide.   All we really needed was our bikes: in the rich bike culture of Burning Man, transportation looked like cruisers dripping in neon fun fur, and carriage-style tricycles pedaled by men in silken vests and top hats. The bike-friendly layout centred on village hubs with dedicated gathering places to encourage interaction. Whenever a flat tire or a dust-riddled chain slowed us down, around the corner there was always a community cruiser to borrow, or a bike repair camp where grizzled veteran burners patiently revived them. If all cities were designed like this,I thought, we’d be miles ahead in sustainable transportation.

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The more we saw, the more we marveled at the civic responsibility that greased the wheels of this temporary city – a healthy, optimally functioning organism. The closest I have come to describing Black Rock City is that it is like being inside a Salvador Dali painting with sixty thousand other people. I couldn’t believe how many people traveled such great distances just to give free buzzcuts, tango lessons, deluxe foot massages, and Jewish motherly advice to strangers. Workshops for lovers to improve their relationships, healing circles for victims of abuse, and support groups for burners with addictions and mental illnesses hinted that a genuinely caring community existed on the playa. Speaker series, conferences, film festivals, and even educators’ consortiums provided spaces to share ideas on activism, ecology, community, spirituality, and philosophy. Burning Man even had its own newspaper and community radio station. VegCamp hosted enviro films and the Ask-A-Vegan booth, while Recycle Camp collected the empties. Workshops on constructing solar ovens, growing medicinal mushrooms, and building alternative energy and water systems abounded. All week, my garbage goggles were on. But I could hardly find any MOOP – Matter Out of Place – litter and wayward objects were snatched up too quickly.

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What genuinely troubled me, though, was an unbelievable amount of energy and resources used up for fleeting entertainment purposes. Hundreds of mutant vehicles and art cars packed with partiers wandered the playa day and night, blaring psy-trance and Frank Sinatra. A metal octopus several stories high shot gigantic balls of fire endlessly into a glowing sky criss-crossed with laser beams. Amateur conductors composed orchestras of fire using motion detectors. Hundreds of thousands of LED lights and throwaway glowsticks blinked across the playa. Dozens of brightly lit outdoor stages rattled with heavy bass. Beginning midway through the burn, colossal wooden art projects that had involved months of preparation went up in flames. It was Burning Man, after all.

We stumbled one night onto “Super Street Fire,” an installation modeled on a video game. Marc and I overheard the host boast to the crowd, “We’re going to burn five hundred pounds of propane tonight, ladies and gentlemen!” Sickened by the thought, we cycled back to camp for a reprieve from the madness.   We were just in time for an annual playa art walk with our campmates from Victoria. We bundled up in our fuzziest garb and struck out in a plodding mass of strange shapes in the cold desert darkness.

burningman

Time slipped away as we wandered amongst the endless art projects scattered through deep playa. We scaled giant preying mantises, lost ourselves in sparkling spiral mazes, and jammed on skeleton percussion sets. One by one, as tour mates were drawn away by the wonders of the night, our group shrunk and we began to get to know our fellow regional burners. Our tour guide was Lovely, a crude talking ringleader in a cherry Bo-Peep dress with blond pigtail braids and a shepherd’s crook bedazzled in glowing blue. This annual art walk was her gift to the community. Swimming in puffy pink bunny suits, Gano and Jen had braved the harsh desert several days early to set up the camp. Every day, they organized our camp’s festivities and offered up smooth, funky beats for everyone’s enjoyment. And of course there was Oz, a lanky black-caped creature and a longtime friend who had invited us to the camp, helping us navigate the complex planning process integral to the Burning Man trek.

Hours later, we found ourselves at the trash fence. At the far reaches of deep playa, the orange snow fence was intended to snag any stray MOOP that had blown away in dust storms. There was zero trash to be seen. At that moment, one tiny plastic wrapper blew up in the wind.

“Grab it!!” Oz and the others yelped simultaneously. I grinned, plucking it out of the air.

Our troupe collapsed together in a dusty cuddle puddle. Looking back across the three-mile expanse of Black Rock City, it was quiet for the first time in days.

“Congratulations,” barked Lovely, “You’ve made it to the beginning of the art walk.”

Shaking in laughter with the rest of the pack, I felt then as though I really had come home. Surrounded by old friends and new who all had something to share with me, I wanted to contribute back to the community that had welcomed me unconditionally. There was no doubt that Burning Man, despite its best intentions, was full of consumption and waste. But in reality, the impact of a day at Burning Man was really no different than a normal city day in the Default World. And there was a lot that the world could learn from the culture of Burning Man, built on community and a gift economy – something unheard of in our capitalist system. I wondered what would happen if, like Burning Man, festivals in my world truly worked to build a Leave No Trace culture. What kind of change could be possible if we actually brought home the core principles of Burning Man – radical self-reliance, self-expression and creativity, participation and collaboration – to our own lives? I thought back to the intention that Marc and I had set before embarking on our journey. At that moment, I finally knew how I could give back.

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