Dumpster/Fire: Traces of Burning Man

Dumpster fire

With guiding principles like self-reliance and self-expression, and a focus on an inclusive community of free exchange (decommodified gift economy), the event and culture of Burning Man is a great example of the phenomenon referred to as “contemporary spirituality.” Much of my research is concerned with relationships between religious communities/traditions and the ecological systems with which they interact. Insofar as it involves a massive amount of people (upwards of 80,000) converging on a desert ecosystem (Nevada’s Black Rock Desert) and turning it into a city oriented around the values of contemporary spirituality, the Burning Man event is a good example of the kind of phenomena I study. Basically, I want to understand the environmental ethics of contemporary spirituality, and Burning Man seems like a good case to study.

Several years ago, I wrote a little bit about Burning Man (here), mostly criticizing the festival’s adherence to an approach to environmental ethics called “Leave No Trace,” which means that there should be no trace of Burning Man in the desert after the festival is over. No trash, no waste, no feather boas left behind. I also joked a little bit about the blatant hypocrisy of buying/selling tickets to participate in a gift economy, but it’s really the environmental ethics that interest me. Recently, Burning Man has started to supplement the Leave No Trace ethic with an effort to leave beneficial traces (i.e., regenerative and carbon negative impacts), but it seems like there’s a lot of confusion and inconsistency about how exactly to do that and how to balance the injunction to leave good traces with the injunction to leave no traces.

Leave No Trace perpetuates a human/nature dichotomy for which human action sets for itself an ideal of non-interference: total dissociation from material conditions, without a trace. Of course, that kind of dissociation is strictu sensu impossible. At the very least, as long as it’s been held in Black Rock Desert, the festival has left traces of carbon dioxide emitted by travel to and from the event, not to mention the emissions of the titular burning art installations. Traces of CO2 weren’t considered traces, presumably because they went up and “away.” Similarly, the traces left by everyone’s trash were not considered traces, as long as the trash was disposed of somewhere “away” from Black Rock Desert. The commodities I purchase to attend the event obviously have traces that they’ve left on the environment, but since those purchases happen “away” from the location of the event, those traces don’t count. LNT doesn’t result in people leaving no trace. It doesn’t eliminate traces. It just externalizes them. It results in people sweeping their traces under the rug of “away.”

Burners have noted the inadequacy of LNT. Particularly in light of growing concerns about the climate emergency, it is increasingly obvious that an ethical relationship to the desert should be regenerative and carbon negative. Neutrality is impossible, but even if it were possible, it’s nonetheless true that a beneficial relationship to the environment is preferable to a neutral (i.e., “hands-off”) relationship. So, Burning Man has launched an initiative that promises to make the organization sustainable and regenerative by the year 2030. LNT still applies to personal waste management (pack up any trash that you generated, and take it home with you instead of dumping it in or around the desert), and in addition to LNT there will be several measures to leave beneficial traces.

The details are rather vague, including platitudes like this: “We can’t just alter our current system; we need to create a new one. Over the next few years we’ll build capacity, leverage the resources of our community, and attempt to create a paradigm shift.” The idea that we can’t alter the current system but need a new system is an idea produced by the current system. It sounds profound, maybe, but it’s a form of defeatism. If our current system does not allow us to create solutions to environmental problems, there’s no way our current system could possibly allow us to create a new system.

Aside from platitudes about changing the system and changing the paradigm, there are unusually simplistic sentiments like “Infrastructure uses bad materials.” What are bad materials? Materials behaving badly? The more specific kinds of measures that will be taken for the 2030 initiative involve things like carbon offsets, tree plantings, subsidies for renewable energy, and subsidies for regenerative agriculture (agroecology). The mention of geothermal energy without any mention of the costs of geothermal development makes all of this seem like lip service or, at best, pie in the sky idealism. Will the festival itself be regenerative by 2030? No. It will still have a destructive impact on the desert, but that destructive impact will be offset by funding regenerative projects elsewhere. Of course, a truly regenerative relationship to land is not a matter of being destructive in one place and being regenerative in another place. How about not being destructive in the first place?

It seems like Burning Man’s principles of self-reliance and self-expression allow individuals to be destructive if it’s part of their personal journey. The 2030 initiative includes a recognition that those individualistic principles are at odds with the kind of communal effort needed for regenerative actions. Ultimately, the very idea of setting fire to art is part of the problem, but because it is part of self-expression it is seen as some non-negotiable necessity. We must burn art! The commitment to the practice of burning art objects reminds me of the commitment in some religious communities to ancient practices of burnt animal sacrifice. Burnt offerings do not have to be done. It’s not necessary, and any claim otherwise is fundamentalist or deterministic. I think of the transition from the Vedas to the Upanishads in Hinduism, with the former texts containing injunctions for burnt sacrifice, and the latter texts advocating for an internalization of the sacrifice: generate internal fire through meditation. Find the light/fire (agni) within.

Leaving carbon emissions and renewable energy behind for now, what’s most interesting to me about all of this is the fact that Burning Man never really did a good job of practicing LNT for trash. Whether you are leaving no trace or leaving a beneficial trace, you definitely do not want to leave waste in the desert before you come home. The problem isn’t only nonbiodegradable waste (plastic, Styrofoam). Even biodegradable waste has a negative impact on an ecosystem. Toilet paper and compostable paper cups can harm habitat and life forms. Even leaving behind a dead sunflower means that you are contributing to the release of greenhouse gases in the desert, as the decomposing sunflower releases methane.

A massive Environmental Impact Statement was completed this year by the Bureau of Land Management to assess the impacts of Burning Man on Black Rock Desert and surrounding areas. It turns out that Burners leave a significant amount of trash in the desert, and the trash that more conscientious people keep to themselves often finds its way into nearby towns. The desert gets trashed, and nearby towns get trashed or at least get their waste disposal infrastructure overburdened. So, what do you think the Bureau of Land Management recommends? Are they threatening to withhold the permit that would allow Burning Man to happen? No. BLM is saying that they will provide dumpsters to help people manage their apparently unmanageable trash. Dumpsters. That’s easy, right? Burners can’t eliminate their waste stream, and they can’t keep it to themselves, so let’s put some trash cans around so that we can keep the desert clean.

Like the fire that consumes the burning man, isn’t a dumpster a symbol of the transformative power of destruction? It’s a structure that holds space for the transition whereby all things become waste – dust and ashes. And yet, the official position from Burning Man is that the dumpsters are not wanted. Burning Man officials objected to the recommended dumpsters, and BLM’s response was that the festival has one year (this year, 2019) to literally clean up their act, and if sufficient changes are made to waste management in contrast to previous years, Burning Man will be allowed to stay dumpster free.

What kind of Not-In-My-Backyard ethics is this? Do Burners practice NIMBYism locally, such that they can’t help but take it with them to the desert? Why are Burners so offended by the prospect of being in proximity to receptacles for their own waste? If they don’t like the destination of dumpster contents (i.e., landfills), why is leaving trash in the desert or in the dumpsters of nearby towns any better? What aesthetic deodorizer or antiseptic morality maintains that waste management should be rendered invisible? How attached are Burners to the fantasy of “away”? Why is a dumpster not considered as art? If Duchamp can see art in a urinal, why can’t Burners see it in a dumpster? If Burners can see art in and as fire, we can’t they see it in a dumpster?

Is there a way to stop pretending there is “away”? Can Burners figure out a way to find the fires of creativity, expressiveness, and community in the dumpster and not only in the burning of art? Ironically, if they can’t find a way to affirm the alchemical fires of the dumpster, they’ll keep trashing the desert, and the initiative of Burning Man to become regenerative by 2030 will increasingly look poorly planned and horribly handled, like a complete catastrophe—a dumpster fire.

For people disappointed by dumpsters, maybe it’s advisable to recall the response that Heraclitus gave when visitors in search of his wisdom were disappointed to find him doing something so common as sitting in front of his stove and warming himself. Einai gar kai entautha theous. Here, too, there are gods.

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