In just a few days in the barren desert land of Northwestern Nevada, tens of thousands of people will congregate on a dry lake bed known as the Playa to create Black Rock City and celebrate the weeklong art festival known as Burning Man. Some people come for the music, some people come for the drugs, some people come for the naked women – but everyone experiences a massive social and environmental experiment that puts cute notions of sustainability to the test.
Burning Man takes place in one of the harshest climates on the planet. Temperatures soar over 100 degrees during the day, a sweat-fest that is often accompanied by brutal dust storms that require goggles and masks. At night, the temperatures drop low and require multiple layers to keep warm.
There is nothing to buy at Burning Man, except for two human essentials: ice and coffee. This foray outside of consumer society is enough to make anyone question their spending habits, and it forces everyone to think creatively about reducing, reusing and recycling – and you better hope that you’ve figured it out long before you reach the Playa.
Burning Man is without a doubt one of the most incredible experience on the planet, and the lessons that I learned out there in the desert will last even longer than the Playa dust embedded in the floorboards of my car.
1. There is hope for the future of humanity. Watch the news or stroll your social media feeds, and you might decide that we are all going straight to hell in a hand basket, with shootings and war and even worse seemingly taking place on every corner. Not at Burning Man, where the strong culture of gifting permeates through to every human interaction. The characters you meet on the dust streets always say hello, strangers repeatedly offer you food and drink, and tens of thousands of people work together to create something beautiful and playful and fun – just because.
2. You can use WAY less water than you think. At Burning Man, dishes of dirty sinks get washed under the slow flow of a water bottle – drip by drip. In this barren desert, water is the ultimate resource (along with shade) and conservation efforts are more impressive here than on the greenest block of the mainstream world. Grey water is never thrown out, but sent to shallow evaporation pools where it can be reused for fouler tasks before evaporating into the sky. You learn that you can go a day or two – even several – without taking a shower or washing your hair.
3. Sustainability requires planning. If you are going to survive in the middle of the desert for a week based on the items that you bring with you, you better have one heck of a plan. Burners plan for several months, and sometimes all year long, in order to create camps that are sustainable – and often have sound stages or multiple stories to boot. Going green doesn’t happen overnight – it takes a concentrated effort and a dedication of time as well as passion.
4. Sustainable doesn’t have to be so serious. Granted, saving the earth is serious business, and humans seriously need to start conserving resources and treating our environment with respect. But all too often, voices in the sustainability movement come off as preachy or disconnected from the realities of everyday life. But at Burning Man, sustainability is turned into play. The Playa becomes a sacred playground for the manifestation of dreams, and proponents of green living share their opinions through art, dress, dance and other forms of creative expression.