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Creek Running North

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August 22, 2005

Burning man

I've posted before on my less-than-glowing opinion of Burning Man. (Elevator version: I go to the desert to get away from the kind of people who go there.)

Today, via Boing Boing, commenter Tim Holt directs us to this satellite view of Burning Man's impact on the land. Another Boing Boing commenter calls the term "land scars" (in Holt's original comment) "misleading," saying

Judging by the amount of settlement at the site, I'd estimate that the picture was taken at this time of year--that is to say, about a week before the event started. What you're seeing is the beginning of the city, not the aftermath.

That's a point worth considering briefly. And then discarding. See those nice little lines in the playa soil? Those are there because the soil that once lay over them - the stuff that was the same color as the surrounding playa floor - has been broken up into dust and released into the air.

Particulate matter pollution is a major problem. In the Central Valley in California, for instance, farmers are under increasing pressure to limit the amount of dust their tires and plows kick up, because the people who live nearby are paying the price in increased respiratory distress. And people aren't the only ones who suffer.

And - regardless of any misgivings one might have (as I do) about industrial agribusiness - at least that's particulate matter pollution resulting from people doing the work of feeding us and clothing us. Burning Man's particulate matter pollution is the cost we pay for... what, exactly?

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Getting in touch with our inner passive-agressive yuppiness.

Posted by: Roxanne at August 22, 2005 01:55 PM
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I grew up in the desert.

I've never been to Burning Man. There is a part of me that would have liked to have made it there one year. But I suspect it may have been like the time we were driving through the West, from the Columbia River Plateau, down through Utah, and it was wonderful being around the desert again. I had never been to Las Vegas and we were going to be going through Las Vegas. I was looking forward to at least doing coin laundry there. But then we were at Las Vegas, and there was first all the artificial green, the golf courses, that came as an offront. And going from the desert into Las Vegas proved to be too much. We wanted back out, immediately. We drove straight through and didn't stop. Even though a rainbow ended right smack dab over one of the casinos.

Posted by: Idyllopus at August 22, 2005 04:07 PM
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i do like ecstatic events, but they don't work when annualized and popularized. too many people.

idyllopus--your story reminds me of driving well into darkness and arriving in las vegas at 3 am. it was painful after the solitude of the desert. like you, we drove straight on through.

Posted by: dread pirate roberts at August 22, 2005 09:27 PM
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while working my way through our small library's video collection I ran across a film on Burning Man. I'd never heard of it. Oh gosh oh golly, I guess I'm not up on hip events any more.......sigh. ;-) I must admit it was compelling in an odd way. Despite the participants' common view that a lot of people *don't get it* when they first attend, I couldn't really see there was anything to get besides nostalgia for a large *happening*. So spending 5 thou on water or something else to give away is more real than putting that money to work in your community? to the damage caused by this yearly event, well, I'm not surprised. Wonder what the participants' view of that will be? If their only contact with nature is a yearly trek to the site, it's no wonder most view it as empty and expendable as a parking lot.


Posted by: b at August 23, 2005 05:57 AM
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There's a definite trend to the "I don't like Burning Man" posts and articles one encounters. Generally, they're written by people who've never actually been.

I have to strongly disagree with the statement "'s no wonder most view it as empty and expendable as a parking lot."

As far as the impact, it's truly minimal. A huge amount of effort goes into cleaning up the site after the event. I've personally spent many *days* -- sometimes weeks after the event -- picking up every last pistachio shell and bit of costume fluffery we could find. Then during the winter the rains turn this dry lake bed into a shallow lake again, effectively erasing all our roads, etc.

And as to the point that (you assume) we're the kind of people you go to the desert to get away from, you *might* be right. But you'll never know, will you?


Posted by: rasputin doublejack at August 23, 2005 05:34 PM
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There's a definite trend to the "I don't like Burning Man" posts and articles one encounters. Generally, they're written by people who've never actually been.

While I'm sympathetic to that criticism, I also wish I could tell people they ought not criticise me unless they pay a several hundred dollar entrance fee first.

You might try reading the linked previous piece, RD. I think it might answer some of your objections, though of course I trust you won't agree with it.

And as for the "kind of people" I want to avoid while in the desert: that's any people. I sure as hell don't want to head to a wilderness area with several thousand of my closest friends, no matter how diligent we are cleaning up afterward.

But as far as that goes: thanks for picking up those pistachio shells. I'm not being snide. That's one of the things I like about Burning Man Folks, and I'm sincerely grateful for it.

Posted by: Chris Clarke at August 23, 2005 06:08 PM
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Actually I didn't say I didn't like Burning Man, only that I didn't care about it one way or another.

While one would wish everyone would pick up their litter as effectively as you folks after an event, leaving the place litter free is not quite the same as having no impact. You have to admit that the amount of people and vehicles wouldn't change the ecology of a parking lot, but might have consequences that you cannot readily see (except for the dust) in the desert environment, despite the romantic notion that the water returns yearly to erase your presence.

Do some reading on the fragility of desert playas.

It's not just you, everyone puts their self interest first. And we all make an impact. The above article mentions that hiker's lug boots have an impact on wild areas. Put up a fence to exclude people and we'll all stand at the barrier wishing we could be out there in the middle of it.

I run my dogs in FL scrub that's been badly used by people for 30 yrs. It's hardly a pristine place. Our impact is less than the ATV's, less than the beer and bullets crowd that leaves broken glass and beer cans everywhere, and I do pick up junk out there on a regular basis, but still, we're making changes in that environment by our presence.

Would the burning man community be ready to move if it were shown an annual event was bad for the ecology in that area?

If my state would suddenly find the funds to buy this property and make it a conservation area I would both cheer and feel sad. Both the dogs and I depend on this area for our sanity. Unfortunately this isn't likely to happen. It appears that the housing boom has reached rural FL and this chunk of land, platted out 30 yrs ago with only roads bulldozed into it, might fall to the dozers. Damaged as it is, I've come to appreciate the seasonal changes and the stark contrast between the natural scrub habitat and the deadness of all those lawns.


Posted by: b at August 24, 2005 05:27 AM
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Chris, I'm sure we all agree that the event has an impact. But that's not meaningful until we also establish the "compared to what" part of the equation.

If forty thousand people go anywhere and do anything they will have an impact on that place. I believe that the impact of this event compares favorably with any other short but large gathering in any other "natural" place.

Posted by: tete brulee at August 30, 2005 01:57 AM
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Compared to not holding the event?

Posted by: Chris Clarke at August 30, 2005 06:25 AM
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As a long time burner, and one who has significantly reduced my time on the playa, i would like to share a couple of my own observations. The Burning Man Foundation has set aside a great deal of economic and personnel resouces to facilitate the "resurrection" of the playa following Burning Man each year. Part of the motivation is to recoup some of the very large sums of dollars they are required to post with the Bureau of Land Management to offset damage to the environment, and this includes mitigation from the chemical changes in the playa material from burning(it turns to a weird glass), and the endless most unintentional pouring of countless toxic liquids on the playa itself(into the substrata water --there is a whole lot of pee going down).

That said, and yes compared to not holding BM, the Black Rock desert and greater Lahotan region does experience a significant degree of mistreatment. But that is not my biggest disagreement. Other than the banning of all the fun generated by blowing up really cool explosive compounds and shooting automatic weapons, Burning Man used to be about small viable desert camping communities. Now it is about massive wasteful use of economic, energy, and material resources. The thousands of vehicles(RV's, large trucks, SUV's especially) that must get to the site, the endless operation of generators and other non-essential fossil fuel powered equipment, the voluminous mountains of batteries(you can't imagine unless you have been recently, how many batteries each person consumes and discards), the millions of dollars spent on materials for clothes, art, costumes, decor--all of which are pretty much ruined by the playa dust---this is an event that flies in the face of any self-respecting environmentally oriented human being. The ecological footprints of burner's are galactic.

All that said, i go again for year #11. However, this year my goal is to leave on the lightest of footprints on the playa. I fly, free on business the following week, to Reno on Saturday morning; i use the hotel airport shuttle to the casino hotel where i stay for free in a room that is already energized whether it is used or not; i ride in the 'already-going-to-the-Burn' hotel limo and walk out from Center Camp to the Burn; then return to the hotel afterward--my whole time on the playa will be under two hours. Why? Because doing this will complete the cycle and withdrawl from the Man. Last year i was there for five hours, the year before 18, before that 3 days and so forth. I can now let go of it completely from my life, and pursue a path of highly vocal criticism as a former Burner who should know better.

Posted by: spyder at August 30, 2005 12:31 PM
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