May 7, 2007 4:00 AM PDT

Burning Man takes on green tech

If you head to Burning Man this summer and see an 80-foot slug belching plumes of fire as it inches across the desert, don't worry: it's not an environmental disaster.

It's quite the opposite. The slug, named Mechabolic, will be converting the festival's garbage into clean energy as people walk around inside it to see the process in action. Artist Jim Mason's Mechabolic is a centerpiece of this year's Burning Man theme, "Green Man," which celebrates clean energy, green technology and environmental responsibility. The theme also provides an opportunity for organizers to show they are serious about using the festival to help make the world a better place.

"It felt to me that the time had come to do the first overtly political theme" in Burning Man's 22-year history, said founder and director Larry Harvey. "Not political as in party or ideology, but something that would inspire people to do in the world what they do at Burning Man."

For years, Burning Man organizers have espoused a mission to "leave no trace." And many participants say that goal has, in fact, made their conscientiousness about cleaning up after themselves continue after returning from northern Nevada's Black Rock Desert, where Burning Man is held late each summer.

Even as that philosophy has spread to the more than 80 Burning Man-esque regional events around the country and the world, however, the event has been seen by some as a poster child for hypocrisy. Creating hundreds of pieces of fire art that spew smoke and ashes into the desert air, and bringing millions of dollars worth of food and drink in non-recyclable packaging, participants have hardly been leaving no trace.

Last year, however, a group calling itself Cooling Man, decided to raise the money to buy carbon offsets for the environmental impact of the burning of "The Man," the wooden effigy that serves as Burning Man's central art piece and is immolated near the end of the event each year.

This year, Cooling Man is taking that goal a step further by trying to raise money to buy enough offsets to compensate for the event's entire carbon emissions, according to Tom Price, coordinator of Burning Man's green efforts. Price said it will cost an estimated $7 per participant to achieve that goal, which he admitted was ambitious.

When Burning Man attendees arrive in the desert this summer, they will find no shortage of art pieces and installations focused on the green theme. The most visible of all of these will be the so-called green pavilion, on top of which the Man will be installed.

According to Price, the pavilion will be tantamount to a world's fair of green technology, brought to the desert by companies doing some of the most advanced work in the field.

Burning Man goes green

Yet, in keeping with Burning Man's anticommercial ethos--there is no buying or selling of anything at the event except for coffee and ice--the companies who install their technology in the pavilion will not be allowed to display their brands or logos.

A related installation is a clean technology conversation dome, organized by Melody Haller, a Burning Man veteran and president of San Francisco public relations firm Antenna Group. The project will bring together many other Antenna clients for public discussions, lectures, films, demonstrations, donations of green technology and clean energy, and opportunities to meet and talk to some of the world's most accomplished scientists.

"I encouraged my clients to do this with the idea that this setting, in the middle of the desert, is a situation that makes you very aware of the real cost of your lifestyle," Haller said. "Things you take for granted when you walk in a room and flip on a switch, you don't take for granted when you're in the Black Rock Desert."

One of Haller's participating clients is B.J. Stanbery, CEO of Austin, Texas-based solar energy firm HelioVolt. For Stanbery, who has never been to Burning Man, being part of Haller's project is something he couldn't pass up.

"I personally see it as an opportunity to build a bridge between artists and technology," Stanbery said. "When I put on my corporate hat, I realize that there may be some risk. I also recognize that as an entrepreneur, it's unreasonable to expect reward without risk."

Price is also excited about some of this year's less artistic projects involving clean technology, including the donation of a solar array to power the lights on the Man throughout festival. After the event, Price explained, all the solar equipment, donated by San Francisco-based MMA Renewable Ventures, will be given to the town of Gerlach, which borders the Black Rock desert.

CONTINUED: Conservation, then innovation…
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7 comments

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I guess it's a start.
Now, if they can just do something about the half-million plus gallons of fuel needed by people and trucks to Get to the event each year...
Posted by Marcus Westrup (630 comments )
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It's trickle up
The amount of harmfull fuel for transportation to the event will evolve into less fuel and cleaner fuel by the green theme of the event and the altruism of the events participants. So yes they are doing something about the harmfull/wasteful fuels that it costs to even gather people of like minds who are activly doing something about the process.
Posted by thebumboys (53 comments )
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better places to start
At least we're working on it.

Meanwhile, how many gallons of petroleum are consumed traveling to Disney, or even just your local movie houses?

Also, turns out the Burners who left the event and went directly to the Gulf Coast after hearing the news about Katrina were very effective contributors to the disaster response. Seems that something about surviving in unstructured anarchy translated well to the hurricane aftermath. Maybe we should just consider it a better training investment than FEMA's budget!

Check out &lt;<a class="jive-link-external" href="http://www.burnerswithoutborders.org/global-action/worldwide/notes-from-the-field/katrina-disaster-relief-effort/" target="_newWindow">http://www.burnerswithoutborders.org/global-action/worldwide/notes-from-the-field/katrina-disaster-relief-effort/</a>&gt; for more about the Katrina relief project...
Posted by OldTimeFlamer (4 comments )
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What about reducing Marijuana smoke emissions?
Not likely at this festival of techno-bohemian bacchanalia.
Posted by felgercarbnaysay (49 comments )
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What about the trees they burned?
Exactly what point are they trying to make when they burned all the trees. My guess is they used petroleum to start the fires. I really don't get how they can point the finger at everyone else when they are contributing to pollution and excessive use of natural resources themselves.
Posted by wiley14 (39 comments )
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I think Burning Man is probably able to coordinate a more systematic analysis of the environmental costs and benefits, in and outside of the event (coolingman.org is a start). A lot of smart people attend; if greater awareness (along with communal enjoyment) is one of the event's objectives, then this should be prioritized. Can't the event be a leader in coordinating responsibility (and accountability) for its impact - both positive and negative? I think it could.
Posted by stiltboybob (1 comment )
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