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Burning Man’s climate protesters have a point

Building a temporary city of 80,000 people in the desert is actually bad for the planet.

A fire at the Burning Man festival
The weeklong festival in the Black Rock Desert produces about 100,000 tons of carbon dioxide.
Jordan England-Nelson/MediaNews Group/Orange County Register via Getty Images
Adam Clark Estes is a senior technology correspondent at Vox. He’s spent 15 years covering the intersection of technology, culture, and politics at places like Gizmodo, Vice, and the Atlantic.

Update, September 3, 8:45 am ET: This story was originally published on August 30 and has been updated to include the following new information. After a series of storms rolled through the Black Rock Desert Friday and Saturday evening, approximately 70,000 Burning Man attendees have been left stranded as conditions in and around the festival have deteriorated, turning the dry lake bed into thick mud. Organizers have asked festival-goers to shelter in place, and the Washoe County Sheriff’s Office said on X, formerly Twitter, that “the Bureau of Land Management and the Pershing County Sheriff’s Office officials have closed the entrance to Burning Man for the remainder of the event.” There were also reports of a death at the festival which is under investigation; as of this update, no cause of death has been released.

Sunday was not a fun day for the thousands of people on their way to Burning Man. In the days leading up to the bacchanal, traffic is typically a nightmare on the two-lane highway that leads to the barren former lake bed in the Black Rock Desert, a national conservation area that, for a week every year, becomes known as Black Rock City, population 80,000.

But this year, a small group of climate protesters parked a 28-foot trailer across the road, causing miles of gridlock. Seven Circles, a coalition of organizations that includes Extinction Rebellion and Rave Revolution, made some simple demands of the Burning Man Organization, which hosts the annual desert party: “Ban private jets, single-use plastics, unnecessary propane burning, and unlimited generator use per capita at the nine day event in Black Rock City, Nevada.” There were also calls for the organization to mobilize its members “to initiate systemic change.” But the ban on private jets — that seems pretty straightforward.

“Burning Man should aim to have the same type of political impact that Woodstock had on counterculture,” Mun Chong, an organizer with Extinction Rebellion, said in a statement. “If we are honest about system change, it needs to start at ‘home.’ Ban the lowest-hanging fruit immediately: private jets.”

The protesters, it deserves to be said, had a point: Burning Man is famously bad for the planet.

The many tens of thousands of people the event attracts must travel through some of the most remote parts of the country to a destination where there are few natural resources, where everything gets trucked in, and where vast structures are lit ablaze on the last night of the festival, pumping carbon-filled smoke into the atmosphere. But over 90 percent of the event’s carbon footprint comes not from the fires themselves but from travel to and from Black Rock City, according to a 2020 environmental sustainability report from the Burning Man Organization. Another 5 percent comes from gas- and diesel-burning generators that keep lights and air conditioners on during the festival.

All things told, each Burning Man generates about 100,000 tons of carbon dioxide. That’s more than about 22,000 gas-powered cars produce in a year.

But while the protesters had the moral high ground, the protest did not go well. After an hour-long standoff, trucks from the Pyramid Lake Ranger Station, a tribal law enforcement agency, showed up and promptly drove through the barricade. The officer who destroyed the barricade then yelled over a loudspeaker, “I’m going to take all of you out, you better move,” before exiting the vehicle, drawing his weapon, and then handcuffing protesters who said they were not armed. At least one protester left with a bleeding head.

After it was all done, Burning Man attendees, also known as Burners, got back in their cars and RVs, stepped on the gas, and headed to the festival gate.

“Non-violent climate protesters are ordinary people exercising a basic democratic right, in an attempt to protect us all from catastrophe,” said Margaret Klein Salamon, executive director for the Climate Emergency Fund, which has funded some of the groups involved in the Burning Man protest. “They deserve our respect and support, but instead, they were met with violence and repression.”

At a time when climate protests are becoming increasingly stunt-based and even aggressive, this one feels a little different. Groups like Extinction Rebellion are known for unexpected protests, like gluing themselves to famous paintings, planes, or historic buildings. This action, however, set out to disrupt what was once a mecca of progressive art and creativity. You might even argue that the typical Burner — say, someone from the Bay Area who works in tech and enjoys feeling free spirited — would be quick to stand up for climate change in normal circumstances. But these days, Burning Man couldn’t be further from normal.

The explosive growth and popularity of the festival in the past three decades mirrors an entire history of humans favoring their own version of progress over the consequences it produces. What started out as a gathering on a beach in San Francisco has grown into a destination for celebrities and the ultra rich, especially tech billionaires. That’s why private jets have become an issue. There are now fancy camps, meals prepared by private chefs, and VIP parties. Bear in mind, all of this is built just for the weeklong festival at the end of the summer, and it all has to be disassembled and taken away after. One of the founding principles of Burning Man is “leave no trace,” but even the event’s organizers were stunned by how much trash got left behind in the desert last year.

Burning Man 2022 was also a telling reminder of how our warming world is changing. The weekend of the event, a string of wildfires burned just north of Black Rock City. Meanwhile, in the desert, temperatures veered into the triple digits, causing Burners to retreat to air conditioned tents and RVs powered by gas-burning generators. Solar setups could be found sporadically in different parts of the festival, and at least one — but maybe only one — camp was completely run on solar power.

The Burning Man Organization has committed to becoming carbon negative by 2030, but it’s very unclear how this can happen without completely rethinking the concept. That solar-powered camp required $200,000 worth of equipment to keep the lights on. And because the event takes place about three hours from a major city, all of this infrastructure needs to be hauled in by gas-powered trucks. Even if electric trucks were available, there would be no way for them to charge up for the drive back.

“Despite all the green technology being discussed, Burning Man will get dirtier before it gets cleaner — and will miss its own goal of being net negative on emissions by 2030 — unless the Org makes big changes,” Alden Wicker reported last year in Wired, referring to the Burning Man Organization.

So you can see how the climate protesters arrived at their list of demands. For Burning Man to exist in its current form and radically reduce its carbon footprint, major changes need to happen, and it’s not clear if or how the event’s organizers will meet their own environmental sustainability goals. And again, the protest itself did not go well for anyone. Thousands of cars idling in the middle of the desert didn’t exactly improve the greenhouse gas emissions situation. People got hurt. But the festival did go on, and those air conditioners and their generators will keep rumbling until September 4, when they burn it all down again.

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