Burning Man Table of Contents

Burning Man has grown

It's interesting to read the many articles about this year's theme and the decisions made by the organizers concerning going green. Being green is horribly expensive. Living off the grid is out of the reach of many people who live in towns and cities. Only those who are truly beyond the reach of modern electricity can afford solar and wind power, having no alternatives. Edison truly succeeded: he made electric lamps so cheap only the rich can afford to live by candlelight.

Brian Dougherty's February 2000, article in Reason: Burning Man Grows Up
Chris Taylor's July 1, 2007, Business 2.0 article: Burning Man Grows Up
Dougherty's follow-up in July 12, 2007, Reason: Generation Dobler

People always object to change. In 1995, I read Web pages written by people who had stopped going to Burning Man because the event had gotten too big. Too big in 1995. The passion of those who object to change is, in my opinion, a reflection of the passion those persons have put into their vision of Burning Man, a vision astutely aided by Larry Harvey's refusal to put a meaning on the Burn, a refusal that lets each of us vest the event with personal meaning beyond any meaning imposed by, say, corporate America on its consumers. In my humble opinion, this is the reason for the success of the event.

However, the other side of the coin is that because each of us vests the Burn with our personal feeling, even our personal being, not anyone of us, not even Larry and Marian, control the event. It is tribal, a collective of individuals who share certain values. And the tribe has grown. From a few hundreds of people, to a few thousands, to many tens of thousands, the event has grown in numbers, and this has caused a growth in other ways as well.

I think Larry Harvey has embraced the growth in all its shapes, an embrace that has, in my opinion, resulted in continued growth instead of in stagnation. Imagine that those people from the early 90s had had their way and stopped the growth in numbers. How long would Burning Man have continued if only a few hundred select persons had been allowed to attend? I have confidence that Burning Man would not have lasted beyond the mid-nineties. But because the organizers embraced growth and change, the event has continued, some might say succeeded, some may say succumbed.

Grow, growth, grown are words that have a variety of connotations. One of the problems is that the meanings may disguise reality. Children speak of grown ups as if growth has stopped. When I was in grade school I remember being surprised that my grandmother said she continued to learn and grow every day. I thought she was grown up and had nothing left to learn. To say that I am a grown up does not mean that I have ceased to grow, mature, and learn. If Burning Man ceases to grow, mature, and learn, then it will cease to exist.

I must also say that the phrase "Burning Man has grown" is also a problem. "Burning Man" is being anthropomorphized, which leads to misunderstanding. Although the number of attendees (participants, in the preferred lingo) has "grown," the Man himself is just an avatar, an icon, a figure of wood and neon. "Burning Man" as an event in the Black Rock Desert does not itself mature or learn. Growth, I think, is properly ascribed to the people who organize and put on the event and to a lesser extent the people who participate. The organizers put the infrastructure out there in the desert, and the people who go populate the infrastructure in with their meanings. It takes a special genius and creativity, and it takes incredible effort and stamina to get this infrastructure out there year after year, and the organizers will never get their full credit for the work they do and have done for decades.

It is the people who are the organizers that continue to grow, mature, and learn. They continue to create and experiment in providing the infrastructure for all of us who attend and who vest the event with its varied personal meanings. If the organizers stopped growing, the event would cease to exist.

By challenging the participants in 2007 with the real costs of going green, the organizers have presented us with a dose of reality in the fantasies that many create for the week at Burning Man. In my opinion, Larry Harvey is giving participants this year the opportunity to take the fantasy home with them. As I said earlier though, going green has a price. My hope is that while we're at Burning Man, some of the very smart people will see what the present offers in terms of being green, realize the costs and shortcomings, and invent a better, greener future. As Maid Marian said, the demographics at Burning Man are "a dream." The creativity at that location for that week is stunning; the genius is fantastic. If the demographics are a dream, who better to turn the dream into reality?

I would rather someone invent a cheap solar panel or wind turbine and make billions off it than have another Bill Gates making billions from ensuring Windows does not have a level playing field. On the one hand, we might have a chance to end consumption of fossil fuels; on the other, we'd have more Windows. (And my speculation is that we are more likely to have a Burner license the technology under the GPL than tie it up in patents for a monopoly, but that's just a guess.)

Let the Burn proceed. Take the change in stride and go with it or ignore it. But please don't impose stagnation on the rest of us.

Messiness in going green

The Wall Street Journal of July 12, 2007, had two separate articles pointing out the separate sides of the issues of going green. On page A1, the headline was "Inside Messy Reality Of Cutting CO2 Output." In summary, on the industry side of greening America, it will cost billions of dollars to cut CO2 emissions, electric utilities are not sure they'll be able to raise rates enough to recover the costs of new technologies, and it will take 20 to 30 years to implement the technologies. Even then, the reduction in emissions of carbon dioxide will be effected by capturing it from the exhaust. Current thinking is to pump the captured CO2 into deep wells bored into the earth, then capping the wells. (Someone will start a pool taking bets on the first leak.)

The article also states that converting generating capacity into nuclear (increasing nuclear generating capacity by 60%) and solar- and wind-powered generation will still require decades to come online and will reduce CO2 emissions only to 1990 levels.

On the consumer side, an article on page B5 points out that homeowners trying to go green face restrictive covenants and neighbors' objections. The article points out that Al Gore got permits to install solar panels on his mansion only after appealing his initial denial of the permit, repeated redesigns, and a property inspection. It took eight months to get an approval. Another person wanted to install energy- efficient windows in his house but the local historic preservation commission denied his request, as the new windows would not blend in with the historic character of the house. His winter heating bills are $5,000 for the season, and he's stuck with them. Few of us have Al Gore's money and clout, and few of us have as big a point to prove as he does.

Going green is hard, expensive, and time-consuming, even if you're Al Gore. It's expensive even if you don't have to fight neighborhood associations and historic districts. Solar panels are much less efficient than coal-burning plants, cost the consumer more in advance, and the panels are eco-friendly neither in manufacture nor in recycling. Wind turbines are even more unsightly in neighorhoods because of their tower, and they're noisy. Both solar panels and wind turbines require either that the electric company buy back "excess power" or that the homeowner have banks of batteries to store unused power for later use in darkness or in calm. Batteries, of course, bring their own penalty in lead and acid.

Again, I can think of no better group of people to dump all these problems on than Burners - people who excel at unfettered thought.

On the other hand ...

Brendan O'Neill spikes the whole "save the planet" movement as based on fear and emotion rather than fact; it is, in fact, "an emotional spasm, a twitch of guilt and angst" which may have no staying power.

Jack Hudson compares greenists to Fifties consumers who tobacco companies manipulated into finding meaning and identity through their cigarettes, with environmentalism a currently fashionable position to take a puff of but with no future prospects.

Dan Brigman at Forbes Magazine compares environmentalism to the new plastics ("The Graduate," for those too young to get the reference), asking "what's a fad and what's real?"

Copyright © 2007 The Civilized Explorer. All rights reserved.