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Let's Be Real: Burning Man Is Bad for the Environment

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By Keith Plocek

This week, 68,000 revelers will descend on Nevada's remote Black Rock Desert. (That is, assuming the rain lets up.)

They will travel from Los Angeles, London, Melbourne, Mexico City, and places you've never heard of. They will take part in the temporary city that is Burning Man and will light a giant wooden man aflame.

Despite it all, Burning Man somehow has gotten a reputation as a "green" event. But that is simply not the case. Make no mistake: Burning Man is bad for the environment.

There's certainly a lot of talk about the environment surrounding the festival. It's long been touted as a leave-no-trace event. Participants throw around terms such as MOOP (matter out of place) to acknowledge they, like good Boy and Girl Scouts, do their best to leave their campsites cleaner than before they arrived.

Burners are shunned for wearing feather boas, lest an errant wisp float away onto the playa. And glitter is also a big no-no, even though it's a mainstay with the EDM fans who meet the neo-hippies and post-apocalyptic cosplayers in the middle of Black Rock City's Venn diagram.

And while that's all great, let's not forget about the thousands of cars driving hundreds of miles, the hundreds of planes flying thousands of miles, and the gigantic burning dude -- that's a lot of smoke being spit into the air. No matter how clean the desert looks when the party is done, no matter how diligent the organizers are about shaming those who leave behind MOOP, the environment gets worse every year because of Burning Man.

Seven years ago, Burners created a website and calculated the overall carbon footprint of the prior year's event. All told, Burning Man 2006 pumped out 27,492 tons of greenhouse gases. Eighty-seven percent of that was from travel to and from Black Rock City, while the actual burning man was responsible for 112 tons.

There were 40,000 participants that year, but now they allow 28,000 more people, so let's update the math. Being generous and assuming the staff and infrastructure will have the same impact at 1,776 tons, we can figure those additional 28,000 participants will produce the same amount of carbon dioxide as the others, and raise this year's overall total to 45,493 tons of greenhouse gases.

So what does that mean? Just how much is 45,493 tons?

You can think about it this way: The average American is responsible for 17.6 tons of greenhouse gases each year, or 0.33 tons per week. The average Burner will produce 0.67 tons next week, or double the national average. There's nothing green about doubling the national average, especially when you consider the average Californian only spits out 0.17 tons per week, and even the average Texan only belches out 0.49 tons.

If your community's environmental impact is worse than the Lone Star State's, you are not doing a very good job with that whole civic responsibility thing.

Burning Man's organizers are aware of the effects of all that pollution, and they are taking some steps to mitigate the damage. LA Weekly exchanged a few emails with spokesman Jim Graham, who says they give participants an incentive to carpool wherever possible.

"We've also had a program going into its third year where we're offering to deliver potable water to camps that use large amounts (250 gallons or more) throughout the week," he says. "This year we are also testing a fuel depot for mutant vehicles as a test to determine whether we can reduce the amount of emissions from individual camps hauling in additional fuel for art cars."

These measures are well-intentioned, but they are drops of oil in a dirty bucket. Greenhouse gases are MOOP too, and those gases have a far larger effect on all of us than a few flecks of glitter fluttering off someone's face into the dust.

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