Burning Sustainably (Part 1): We Can, We Will, We Must
For decades we have been practicing for the end of the world. As more people look down the barrel of climate change, we have something to say (and do) about it.
For it to be better for the ecology for Burning Man to exist, than for it not to exist, what must change?
The 2030 Environmental Sustainability Roadmap declared that in the next 8 years we will become carbon negative and regenerative. How?
Stuart talks with David Festa, who brings 30 years of experience to help us figure out how.
Black Rock City and regional events around the world are unique test beds, living laboratories for embracing new technologies and practices. The Burning Man community is vast, diverse, and creative – and can ripple out into the culture to induce a new era.
Medium: Burning Man Project: 2030 Environmental Sustainability Roadmap
Burning Man Journal: Year Two Update: Progress On BMP’s Sustainability Roadmap
Stay tuned for part 2, the Road to Regeneration, with:
- Laura Day, Associate Director of Event Operations
- Christopher Breedlove, Director of Civic Activation
- Matt Sundquist, Director of the Fly Ranch Project
David Festa is an expert on ecosystem resilience and has a long track record of bringing diverse stakeholders together to meet growing needs for food, water and infrastructure in ways that improve the environment and benefit the economy. As senior vice president of the Ecosystems Program, David oversees EDF’s market and policy work to: Reverse habitat loss on working lands Eliminate fertilizer pollution as a major agricultural problem Revitalize working rivers and their ability to provide resilient water supply Restore coastal ecosystems to protect communities from rising sea level and extreme weather.
FESTA: The lack of sustainability is not a science problem. It’s a human problem. And even more than that, it’s a problem of culture. Burning Man is one of the best drivers of cultural innovation I’ve ever experienced. So how do we start?
STUART: Hey everybody. Welcome back to another episode of Burning Man Live. I’m Stuart Mangrum and I’ll be your host and invisible friend for another episode, actually two episodes, because what we’ve got for you now is just too big to fit into one podcast episode.
We’re going to take a deep dive on Burning Man’s 2030 Environmental Sustainability Roadmap. Now I think we’ve made a few mentions to this document before. It’s not like it’s a secret. It’s not like we buried it in a file case somewhere. It’s actually all open source. The publication and its follow-ups are all on medium facing out to the public. But this was a document created by, more than 50 people in the organization participated in this, and it laid out some very ambitious goals for the year 2030.
Now Burning Man also has some history going back from 2019 some prior years. Actually you could say even all the way back to 2004, when the 10 Principles of Burning Man were first published and one of them is Leaving No Trace. In 2007, it was the first year that the Burning Man event theme in Black Rock City was very specifically addressed toward environmentalism. That was the year of The Green Man.
We’ve had DA on the program a year or so ago, talking about his MOOPathon event, which was actually a fundraiser for the sustainability initiative. I am happy to say that he raised something like $31,000, which is all gonna go into buying solar infrastructure for Black Rock City and for the event organization.
Now, you look at the gigantic problem of climate change, of environmental degradation. There huge challenges. Black Rock City is just a tiny, tiny, tiny, tiny piece of that, right? It’s a city of what at its peak of, say 80,000 people, about the size of Santa Fe, New Mexico. But it’s only that for a couple of weeks out of the year. So it’s maybe one 25th of the impact of say a medium-sized US city.
That’s not the point.
Even though it’s small because we only build it once a year, and because we tear it down and learn from our mistakes every year, it has the unique potential to be a test bed, a living laboratory for some of these techniques, some of these technologies, learning lessons that we can then take back to the rest of the world.
As those 80,000 people return to their other homes, their winter homes, all over the world, they’re taking back the power of what they’ve learned, and they’re taking back the power of that culture. So even though Black Rock City is small, it has potentially a huge ripple effect throughout the world and throughout the culture.
Our founder Larry Harvey was actually a bit of a catastrophist. He would talk at times about how when the world collapsed,
Burning Man was teaching us how to be ready.
Now with climate change, it looks like some of those nightmares may come true, but we’re way out ahead of that. We have been practicing for the end of the world for 30 years. As more and more people are looking down the barrel of that climate change gun, hello, we’ve actually been creating some techniques, some tools, some technologies, some processes that might help the world survive that experience.
On that highfalutin note, let’s go ahead and talk to our first guest for this episode, we’re going to learn about the sustainability initiative from one of Burning Man’s most senior environmentalists. David Festa has spent a career working for environmental causes, including working for the Environmental Defense Fund.
He was a co-founder of Black Rock Solar and Black Rock Labs. And now he is our Senior Advisor for Sustainability and
Philanthropy. Hello, welcome David.
FESTA: Hey, Stuart.
STUART: So, Festa, thank you so much for dropping by. I have a lot of questions about Burning Man’s sustainability roadmap, which has been on the books for awhile here. We’re getting pretty deep into it, and it’s finally starting to seem like a real thing.
But a lot of our audience don’t know anything about this. So, I’m hoping that you can kind of take it from the top and walk us into this, what the strategic plan is about, why we’re doing it and, what it looks like from a 10,000 foot level.
FESTA: Okay. Well, one of the interesting things about this, when I tell people what I’m doing, which is working with Burning Man on sustainability, there’s often sort of this quizzical look, the cocked head, the raised eyebrow. It’s like, “Wait, you guys just light a whole bunch of stuff on fire out in the desert. What are you talking about, sustainability?”
STUART: Yes, There is that.
FESTA: And look, I have been working in the sustainability field for a long time and have seen it from many different perspectives. I’ve been a journalist. I have worked in private industry. I’ve been a political appointee for president Clinton. Until October, I was Senior Vice President at Environmental Defense Fund, a major environmental group.
I can sum up my experience of almost three decades, and say that the lack of sustainability is not a science problem. It’s a human problem. And even more than that, it’s a problem of culture. Now, we have a culture that really thinks about natural sources and the way that some people think about a credit card: as long as the transaction clears, we’re fine.
Yet we’re consuming now and hoping to pay later. And unless we begin to really address that cultural problem, we aren’t gonna be able to achieve sustainability. Burning Man is one of the best drivers of cultural innovation I’ve ever experienced. It’s harnessing that ability to help create civic engagement and cultural innovation that I think is going to be key to successful transition of the world from unsustainable to sustainable.
So how do we start?
Well at Burning Man, we’ve got to start by getting our own house in order, and that’s really where this sustainability plan comes in. It’s really about taking everything that Burning Man is doing now, both at Black Rock City and the other presence we have in the Gerlach area, and making it zero waste, carbon negative, and ultimately regenerative – meaning we’re actually putting more back into the environment and more back into our societies than we’re taking out of it.
STUART: Carbon neutral, or carbon negative?
FESTA: Carbon negative, meaning that we’re actually sucking up more carbon from the atmosphere than we’re putting in.
STUART: Well, let’s not set small goals here.
FESTA: You know, hahahah.
STUART: I want to go back to those three goals in more detail. But just, at first glance to me, this sounds to a lot of people like going way beyond Burning Man’s traditional culture of leaving no trace, right? One of the 10 Principles is obviously Leaving No Trace, which I’m just going to read this, just so that everybody remembers it.
“Our community respects the environment. We’re committed to leaving no physical trace of our activities. Wherever we gather, we clean up after ourselves and endeavor whenever possible to leave such places in a better state than when we found them.”
Until that last sentence, it reads kind of like classic 70s Earth Day sort of eco-consciousness. But that last bit about actually leaving the Earth better, leaving places better than we found them, to me seems fairly profound, that this is going beyond just picking up trash.
STUART: Is this new focus on sustainability, do you think it’s consistent with that? Or is it still basically about protecting the Earth from ourselves? Or is it something more?
FESTA: No, I totally think it is a very natural and exciting evolution in the idea of what Leaving No Trace means. It was born out of a culture that really thought about our role as an environmentalist would be to protect the Earth, protect the Earth from people.
And what we now know is that the real cultural change that we have to make is integrating people back into the planet Earth. We’ve set up these two worlds, there’s the people world. And then there’s the planet world. And, we just don’t want to screw up the planet too much while we happily carry on with our business.
With that last sentence in Leaving No Trace really envisions, and what I think Larry knew when he was writing that, is that we’re going to have to go beyond promising not to litter. We’re going to have to go beyond that. And we’re even now beginning to understand that leaving the place better off is not limited to having more flowers there than when we showed up. It really is about integrating environment, equity, justice, all in one, because it’s all one big fabric.
That’s a core innovation that has evolved through the many iterations that Burning Man has had as we think about sustainability.
STUART: Do you see this as applying primarily to our event in the desert or to Burning Man culture worldwide? On the one hand, it makes it easier to talk about the whole community because we have a super consumptive event out in the desert, but we have all these other things going on out in the world.
One of the famous answers that I’ve heard before too. “Oh, you guys are so carbon intensive.” It’s like, well if people had stayed home that week and they’re sort of around their cities, it would have been more intensive. So there’s some kind of balancing going on a little bit there. It seems a little bit like an intellectual argument.
But it also seems like it’s making it insanely difficult to just fix, not just this small bubble city that we create for a few weeks every year, but ultimately addressing concerns all over the world. Is that what we’re doing? Are we really trying to make the world a better place ‘beyond the trash fence’? – as we used to say?
FESTA: Yeah, a lot of times people do set this up as an ‘either or’. You either make Black Rock City sustainable, or you can try to work on the global. I reject the tyranny of The Or. I think we have to do both. It’s really a ‘both and’ proposition.
We use Black Rock City, and the other properties that Burning Man owns in that corridor from Reno to Black Rock City, as a test bed. as a place where we actually can control a lot of it and we can have experiments and people can come and learn. And then we want to support them as they go out into their networks and bring those ideas back to their own communities.
STUART: How does this work dovetail with the other work that’s going on with Burning Man’s properties, out around Gerlach and Fly Ranch and all that?
FESTA: Let me start with Gerlach. Burning Man owns a number of properties in Gerlach; they’re largely currently unused for most of the year until we sort of ramp up for Black Rock City. The idea here is: How do we use these properties and create a partnership with citizens of Gerlach to build what we are calling this inclusive, sustainable development for Gerlach?
We want to create more economic opportunities. We want to create places for people to come together and share community that isn’t just a bar. We want to improve the quality of life with better Internet. More access to food, there’s quite a food desert out there. We can use our properties to do that, and do that in partnership with the citizens of Gerlach.
Given the energy of the Burning Man community, the resources that we can bring together and the partnership that we have working hand in hand with the citizens of Gerlach, I can easily imagine Gerlach becoming a model for rural sustainable, inclusive economic development for any rural community in the United States.
And now if you look at the Census, there’s almost 20,000 settlements in the United States ranging from big cities like New York or LA or San Francisco down to tiny little things like Gerlach. Of those roughly 20,000, almost 19,000 of them – in other words, almost all of them – are the size of Black Rock City or smaller.
So imagine the impact we can have on a huge amount of our country. If we can take the model in Gerlach where we partner with local burners, because there’s local burners all over the country, who understand the needs of these small communities and are bringing the tools and the learning and the cultural innovation that’s happening in Gerlach and adapting that to each of these little towns and settlements all across the country.
You know, big cities have an advantage, they got a lot of money. They have a lot of talent. San Francisco has got I don’t know how many sustainability officers. Gerlach doesn’t have that luxury.
FESTA: But we can help bring that to the table. And we can do that over and over again. So it’s not enough to make Gerlach the most sustainable, the most inclusive small town in America. It’s not enough.
We want to see that catalyze, a diffusion of that model adapted to each and every local circumstance – because no one size fits all – across the country. And that will be a huge sea change in how I think the whole country sees sustainability and is able to move the country as a whole much faster towards a place we all say we want to be, but are having a hard time figuring out how to get there.
STUART: Well, that’s super exciting. Yeah. That sounds like that’s some of the cultural work that you’re talking about. We’re shifting people’s minds, and they’re taking it home to where they live
STUART: and infecting other people with these good new memes. Let’s dig a little deeper into culture because culture is a very, very tangled thing.
When we talk about Burning Man culture, for this community of hundreds of thousands of people around the world, I know there’s at least one cultural thread of, perhaps some old timers who are really scratching their head about all this because in their head, Burning Man is all about, as you said earlier, it’s about blowing shit up, it’s about fire, it’s about consumption. It’s much more of a potlatch than a potluck. And how do we bring those people along, particularly when we tell them perhaps that “Your city has too much fire in it,” or “You’re burning too much gratuitous propane,” or “You can’t have a generator anymore”? How do we bring those people along, particularly within the Black Rock City environment?
FESTA: So I think one of the chall, one of the mistakes that we’ve made as a quote unquote environmentalist’s, and I certainly count myself as one of the people making this mistake is that we’ve really focused on what you’re going to have to give up. You can’t do this, you can’t do that. Life’s just not going to be as fun.
A, I don’t believe that’s true. And B, good luck creating a cultural revolution around that!
I think what it really is, is about demonstrating and testing, and failing at a bunch of it and figuring out from those failures, how we recharge ourselves, in this event at Black Rock City, in ways that actually are making it more fun, more recharging, and at the same time making it more sustainable.
Just a tiny example. When we go out there early, those of us that go out there early to build things, the whole playa is littered with these giant light towers, so everybody can work through the night. And they’re all powered by generators. There are solutions out there, the little standalone solutions, that power these things. They use solar power to create the lights.
You’ve got to learn a little bit of a different way of operating them; there’s a learning curve there. But, hey, isn’t that what half the fun of being at Burning Man is? You get out there and you think something’s going to work this way, and it turns out that this part broke or so-and-so forgot to bring this part, and so you figure it out, and that’s part of the fun.
In that just tiny example, you don’t have to say, “Oh, now we’re going to have to spend three months building Burning Man because we can’t work at night,” to, “Okay, we’re going to work at night and we’re going to solve some problems, but we’ve got the technology to do it.”
Now it’s a seamless transition from burning a bunch of fossil fuel to demonstrating that we can do this seamlessly without a single drop of carbon.
STUART: I guess demonstrate is the key word there. I know that a lot of our plans for this involve… It gets me back to the whole ‘us and them’ question. At what point does the Burning Man organization end and the Burning Man community begin? To some extent, it’s true that we can’t do any of this without really getting the buy-in of, say, our themecamp community, who bring the majority of the infrastructure in.
But by the same token, the Burning Man organization has a very important role to play, at least as setting an example and not setting a bad example.
FESTA: Where does Burning Man as an organization end and Burning Man as a collection of individuals doing stuff together begin? I think this is one of the thorniest questions that we as an organization and we as a community have to address. As we think about the city itself and think about going out in the world, how do we find that balance between radical self-reliance and community engagement?
Let me give you an example of one way where I think it’s working really well, That’s how Zendo operates. Zendo is an organization, and a camp, a series of them, that are there to help people who are experiencing psychological issues.
STUART: A bad trip.
FESTA: Perhaps a bad trip, or maybe it’s just, they showed up already unstable and it blew their minds, not in a good way. This is a program that started as people who were professionals in this who knew this and wanted to bring that service to the playa.
Over time, it’s really grown to be this cooperative. Zendo, with the BlackRock Rangers, with the emergency services, and there’s partnerships. So on a very practical level the Burning Man organization helps provide infrastructure support for Zendo. So Zendo doesn’t have to do all that on it.
In exchange Zendo is providing a community service that you really couldn’t do, on an individual basis. You really couldn’t provide the quality level of service and the care that they provide, if you just said, “Oh, there’ll be 50 camps sprinkled around somewhere. Go find one…” You know, you really couldn’t do it without a centralized program.
This is a way that I think Burning Man is really learning how to have a ‘both and’ where it’s driven by participants, but there’s a recognition that a certain amount of scale is necessary to make these things work. And finding that right balance between scale and individual participation is really one of the things that Burning Man has done over and over again incredibly well, when you look at its evolution over time.
I’m really optimistic that that part of the question, “How do we maintain the appropriate role for the organization and still have it be a participant-driven event?” I think we know how to do that.
STUART: So Larry Harvey was pretty upfront about saying that our role as the organization was as social engineers. You think this is consistent with that? Is this social engineering project?
FESTA: Well, I like the phrase you and I have just begun to discuss recently, which is: cultural innovation.
I think that’s a really beautiful concept because we know about creating the spaces for innovation and technology, the spaces for innovation in science. And I think a lot of those principles apply here. So yes, social engineering, cultural innovation. I think once again Larry Harvey kind of knew what he was talking about on that front.
STUART: His is a little bit more Orwellian though, wasn’t it?
FESTA: Language can always be improved.
STUART: But getting people to actually not just realize their best natures, but to act on them, is really at the heart of any sort of a cultural groundswell. “Culture” being “values in action.” How many of us in this world think we believe one thing and actually act in a different way?
That’s the magic of culture in action.
In culture we inherit all these institutions, all the simple sets, all this stuff from previous generations’ value sets. Like in the case of sustainability, there’s been a pervasive value set in this world, for a couple of centuries, of extraction, of treating the natural world as a piggy bank with an endless bottom to it.
FESTA: Right. And thinking about the short term without really understanding the system that we’re in. When you’re at Black Rock City you really understand you’re in a system because everything is much closer to the surface, much closer to the bone, your survival.
There’s no trash service, there’s no one bringing you water. You really feel that in a visceral way. And of course the 10 Principles are so acculturated into everyone who goes, you really see that and you learn that. And I think then as people leave there, it makes more sense to them why they have to think about sustainability in a really different way with a different time horizon.
There’s a beautiful example I just heard of this in action, the negative parts of that consumptive culture, and it has to do with wine grape growers here in California. 30, 40 years ago when drip irrigation was first being introduced, the wine growers were really excited because you give this targeted amount of water right where it’s needed. The vine responds very quickly by producing bigger and better grapes, and they’re using less water per grape. So, what’s wrong with this? Well, it wasn’t thinking about the long run. In the long run we haven’t used less water because we say, “Ooh, because I was using two gallons. Now I’m only using one gallon. Why don’t I double my vineyard?”
So now still using two gallons. And the other thing that happened was: left on their own, grapevines grow very, very deep and extensive roots because they’re adapted to climates that have a lot of variable rainfall or where rain happens only in a couple of months, and then it’s dry.
Well, we trained the grapes to not worry about growing deep roots. You know, why would they? We give them water right at the surface and they’re like, “Oh fine.” That’s why the grapes get bigger. So we wound up creating a system that in the short run produces a lot more grapes, but it’s very fragile.
And so what we’re seeing now in California, when we’re in another drought, is that they’re still having to water a lot more than they would have otherwise because we’ve taken the natural system and trained it to depend on an unsustainable approach. You can unlearn those things in a place like Black Rock City.
STUART: Yeah, it’s true. The fact that everything there is something that we brought, and It’s everything that we have to take away. I think that’s certainly what teaches people MOOPing after at least a trip or two, is it a piece of garbage looks so dramatically out of place against that background of nothingness.
Hey, let’s talk about that. The first of the three big goals of the Sustainability Roadmap is to go to zero matter out of place and handle waste ecologically. Is that already a done deal? I mean, is that one already in the bag?
FESTA: Ha! No.
STUART: What are the challenges left to do for waste stream management and Black Rock City?
FESTA: Well, I know you’ll be talking to some of our colleagues who are on the front lines of that; Laura Day being one.
STUART: Yeah, we’ve had DA on the show before too talking about the inspection process and all that. And it seems like at least from a government compliance point of view, we’re doing pretty good at this, but what is there still left to do to get better at?
FESTA: Well let me talk about one thing that I’m very excited about and that’s the thinking that’s going on around composting.
This is another area where I think the evolution is going to be this synergistic approach between some of the participants who are really passionate about this, the organization that’s going to be providing support, and the buy-in from all of the participants.
A couple of camps, Hotel California being one of them, have been experimenting with becoming a central location for compost, a little bit like Recycle Camp. You can take your recycling to Recycle Camp and they will collect them, aggregate them and move them off playa.
You can see the same thing beginning to emerge around compost, where strategically located throughout the city, there’ll be stations to bring your compost. And those stations will have the appropriate technology and receptacles to manage that. We’ll have the appropriate contracts and relationships with outside vendors to handle the compost once it leaves the playa. And you can even imagine taking that compost and donating it to local communities who might grow vegetable gardens which would A address the food desert problem in the region, but B could even be selling vegetables and fresh fruits back to the Burning Man community when we show up in August.
So you begin to see how this could create a real virtuous cycle and more connections with the local community and raising awareness around the issue of food waste and compost.
STUART: That definitely ties into the second big goal, which is to be regenerative, “to create a net positive, ecological and environmental impact.” The one that gets me – we talked about this earlier – is being not just carbon neutral, but carbon negative.
How does Burning Man (emphasis on “Burning”) reverse that?
FESTA: First let me just say that life creates greenhouse gas emissions. We can’t exist without creating some level of greenhouse gas emissions.
I do bristle a little bit at the criticism that, “Oh, well, if you guys weren’t burning stuff, somehow you create zero greenhouse gases.” Look, everybody creates greenhouse gases. First of all we want to minimize the amount of greenhouse gases that we generate.
Once we’ve minimized that, how do you restore balance to the greenhouse gas equation? Well, you’re going to have to take greenhouse gases out of the atmosphere somehow.
This gets us into the world of carbon offsets or carbon credits. It is a fraught world because the concept is sound, that you really can take carbon out of the atmosphere in a number of ways, and if we did enough of that, and we minimize our emissions in the first place, that’s how we’re going to get out of the negative cycle of increasing greenhouse gas emissions.
How do you do that in a way that’s credible, that’s real, that’s workable? This is where the challenge is. And I think Burning Man has got a pretty good approach to this.
STUART: Well, this is also where it’s starting to sound fabulously expensive. Minimization means, on the ground, it means replacing a lot of the infrastructure that Burning Man owns and that our campers own with new infrastructure; replacing generators with solar, that sort of thing.
And then offsets on top of that is an additional expense. Where are we going to find the money for this? And thank you for not saying out of ticket sales, because ticket prices are about as high as people are willing to pay already.
FESTA: This is one of the great assets that Burning Man has. Because we are a great test bed, because we’re a great incubator, people want to work with us. People see us as a place to try their technologies, to see how they work.
I can give you a couple of examples.
Fly Ranch and a little project that the listeners may have heard about, the Land Art Generator Initiative or LAGI. It’s a design company. And the competition says, “How would you design a living system, meaning an integrated settlement with people and farming and everything you’d need to exist. How would you create that in a way that meets several criteria?”
One of which is that you’re going to be carbon negative. Its existence is going to take out more carbon from the atmosphere than it’s putting in.
LAGI – The Land Art Generator Initiative – is hugely visible on the world stage. And working with Burning Man, they made the decision to have their next competition be hosted at Fly Ranch. And as a result we had philanthropic support for it; generous individuals gave us money to help put on that event.
We had, oh my goodness, something close to 200 applications that again were designs that people put their own time and money into to demonstrate because they wanted to be on this platform at Fly.
We announced 10 winners whose designs we want to build out at Fly. And we’re in the process of raising philanthropic money to help support that, because of the globally important world stage that Burning Man has.
We have valuable assets that people can’t really access any other place. It’s almost sort of an in kind contribution. They’re willing to bring their ideas.
I just earlier today was on the phone with a new company that’s doing some really innovative zero or closed economy work around water and waste. They want to know if they can pilot it at Burning Man. Well, their units, I don’t know what they cost, north of a million dollars. But their idea is, “Let us come out there and let us try this. Let us pilot this out there. See if it works, see how we can do this.”
So, money isn’t everything.
We have a lot of other assets to offer and partner with people to help test these technologies, help the event meet our goals, and at the same time introduce a whole set of new people to these technologies and ultimately help lower their costs so that we can get them out into the world.
STUART: Yeah, I’m still gonna ask the question about when it comes to replacing Burning Man Project’s aging infrastructure for hosting the event. I look out at the Ranch and I see all those diesel trucks out there that can’t run on biodiesel. I see all of that generator stock that’s running the year round operation.
That’s like a big capital expense for us to replace that sort of thing. And not that that is a huge percentage of everything that gets burned in the Burning Man world. But as you said earlier, our leadership role and our role as setting an example, tells me that we have to go out ahead with some of those things and show people through our actions what it means to burn a little more greenly.
FESTA: Yeah. I suppose as an environmentalist, this is the wrong metaphor: How do you eat an elephant? One bite at a time.
STUART: Well, if it’s one of Stewart Brand’s cloned mastodons that’d be better, but go ahead.
FESTA: You don’t do it all at once, is the answer. We have to acknowledge that this is going to be a transition over time, but we’re already starting to do that.
Just last month I was out at one of Burning Man properties, Dog Ranch, and they have just installed a small solar panel trailer that we bought at auction from a company that had gone bankrupt. So we got it for well under manufacturer’s retail suggested price. We rolled it out there. And the ranch manager out there said, “Yeah, I just did it myself and plugged it in.” And he has cut his generator time by a significant percentage, closer to half. Just that one thing, that one little trailer, which means we’re spending less money on fuel.
So these things have payback periods that allow us to make some capital expenditure upfront and recoup those costs over time without having to replace or raise ticket prices. So those are the kinds of things that we need to do.
There is an element of time here. We’re not going to do it all at once, but it’s figuring out what are the most visible and meaningful first investments we can make in something like these solar trailers to cut our fuel costs and reduce our carbon emissions. That’s great.
STUART: I know that back in your days with Black Rock Solar the model there was to work with government incentives which have subsequently dried up. Is there any hope of any government participation in any of this or are we pretty much on our own, stuck here in the private sector?
FESTA: Oh no. I think Government incentives rise and fall. They’re driven by all kinds of things: political philosophy, who’s the squeaky wheel. We’re coming out of a period where they were at an all time low.
I do think we’re going to see an increase, especially as things like the infrastructure bill that is currently a hot topic in Washington, DC. As these things begin to become a reality, you’re going to see more of that.
You asked earlier about carbon sequestration in the context of becoming carbon negative.
The United States Department of Agriculture actually is rolling out a number of programs to help subsidize ideas and pilots that will help farmers and ranchers run their operations in ways that are a lot more carbon or climate positive, meaning they’re better for the climate than worse for the climate.
The farm bill already has about $5 billion worth of environmental subsidies in it – depends on what you think of as a subsidy in that context. That’s what the Department of Agriculture will tell you. But there’s already a fair bit of money and they’re looking at how to expand that into this carbon farming, carbon ranching.
And again, we come back to Fly. We have 1300 acres of land that can be used as a test bed. And one of the things that farmers are really concerned about and trying things is, they take a piece of property that they’re counting on for revenue, to pay their bills. And then they’re going to experiment with that property. They’re going to try a new crop or try a new technique or try a different way of managing their cattle. Well, if it doesn’t work, that’s a huge risk to them.
STUART: And a huge opportunity cost for what they could have been growing there. Whereas it Fly, there’s not a lot going on there.
FESTA: Right. So what about a partnership where we would say, “Hey, we’re going to put up 200 acres. And local farmers and ranchers, if you want to participate in one of these USDA programs that will help subsidize the cost of doing something, you can do it here and not actually sacrifice or put at risk the income that you need off of your land, doing what, you know works on your land (even though it’s creating greenhouse gas emissions). Come out here and try it.”
FESTA: How is Burning Man going to go about becoming carbon negative? This is one of the ways that we can do it. There’s going to be a lot of different building blocks here. There’s no single thing that’s going to work all on its own, but this is how we can build it.
And also back to your question of, “What about State and Federal support?” It’s going to rise and fall. I see it rising at the moment. It’s a great way to catalyze things. I don’t think we can count on it as a permanent revenue stream to pay for everything, but it definitely is a part of a portfolio of ways that we can get the revenue.
STUART: Yeah. That’s pretty exciting. To me, it’s just a matter of getting us over the hill.
Because we all know that, eventually these greener technologies, they save money, they are money makers in the long run. It’s just that transition, right? It’s just going over that hump so to speak. But I’ll tell you what personally if I had a little tree-planting optional surcharge on my ticket as a participant, I would absolutely check that off, but I don’t know. That’s just me.
FESTA: Yeah, so I think Stuart, it’s really a portfolio. As we’ve been talking, it’s really occurred to me, the best way to talk about how you fund it as a portfolio approach.
Some of it is funded because Burning Man’s is going to save money in the long run. Some of it is funded because we can partner with local, Federal and State governments on programs that help break down the costs. Some of it is going to come from philanthropy. And I think some of it will come from the participants themselves, either because of what they bring to the playa or through what you’re talking about, a checkoff program. You check a box. I have no idea if that makes sense ultimately in Burning Man context, but I do think…
STUART: All my ideas about ticketing are generally thought to be bad ideas. So, “Not my monkey…”
FESTA: I think how we pay for it as a portfolio approach with patience.
STUART: Yeah. That totally makes sense. We still have nine years on our sustainability roadmap. But when we go back to the desert in 2022. Lemmie just savor the sound of that phrase. When we go back to the desert in 2022… What would you like to see as really tangible first steps out there at Black Rock City next time we do it?
FESTA: I’d like to see some, I will call them, mid-scale pilots of how we handle our poop and our wet waste, you know, the composting.
I’d like to see at least the infrastructure operations of Burning Man be something that we have gotten the carbon offsets and credits to make that carbon negative.
I’d like to see a significant decrease in the participants’ need to drive their own cars and vehicles. I’d like to see a significant reduction in vehicle miles traveled to Burning Man. I think we can do that.
STUART: I know that transportation to and from is obviously one of the biggest carbon sucks. How do we reduce the number of miles traveled per person?
FESTA: The most immediate way is an expansion of the Burner Bus program, which I think is a terrific program. More people just sharing rides. There are a lot of really cool ideas being kicked around out there. One of them is to revitalize a train route out to Burning Man. We’ve got tracks really nearby.
STUART: You got to cross them to get there from which end of every way you come. Yeah, that’d be super exciting. But isn’t that like some crazy tangle of railroad laws going back to like the 1860s of rights of way and all that stuff?
FESTA: It is not a nontrivial. But remember, we’re talking about a nine-year vision here. Ultimately we’re going to need to have some other bigger solutions.
I would like to see when people come, there’s already a thriving year round presence on another Burning Man property out there: “The 360,” which is 360 acres that Burning Man owns right adjacent, I mean, it butts right up to Gerlach.
And right now there are folks out there, Burning Man employees and volunteers, working on creating the structures for a place for people to store their art cars so that we don’t have to drag those back and forth; a place for people to come and begin to look at what a model green theme camp would look like, so they can come and see one all up in operation.
Some model operations to help inspire people and inform people, I’d like to see that up and running, at 360, by the time we all go back… go back to the desert.
STUART: Super cool stuff. All right. It’s been really good to have you on the program.
FESTA: Stuart, I hope it’s only the first of many that… As always, I love talking with you.
STUART: We want to have you back. Like we said, we’ve got nine years left on this roadmap. I know that the people who are going to want check-ins from time to time. Thank you so much Festa for joining us today.
STUART: Okay everybody. Thank you. That’s it for part one, but be sure and come back and pick up where we left off in part to the road to regeneration, where I get to talk to three super interesting people. Each of whom has stepped up to be the organizational champion at Burning Man for one of those three sustainability goals in the roadmap.
We’re going to be talking to Laura Day about waste stream management. We’re going to talk to Matt Sundquist about going carbon negative. And with Christopher Breedlove about swinging the big old needle over into being a regenerative culture. Check it out.
Burning Man Live is a production of the Philosophical Center of Burning Man Project made possible by the generous donations of listeners like you at donate.burningman.org.
Our Technical Producer and Story Editor is Michael Vav. Our producers are Andie “Action Girl” Grace and a future draft pick to be assigned. I’m your host and unindicted co-conspirator Stuart Mangrum. Send us your love mail, your hate mail, but not your junk mail, at email@example.com.