Burning Sustainably (Part 2): The Road to Regeneration
You and I, we have unique test beds, living laboratories for embracing new technologies and practices. They are Black Rock City, rural properties in Nevada, and 90-something regional events around the world. The Burning Man community is vast, diverse, and creative – and can ripple out a cultural shift in how we do the earthling thing.
How can we make it better for the ecology for Burning Man to exist, than for it not to exist?
The 2030 Environmental Sustainability Roadmap declared that in the next 8 years we will become carbon negative and regenerative. How?
Stuart talks with the champions of these goals about how.
Laura Day, Associate Director of Event Operations
Christopher Breedlove, Director of Civic Activation
Matt Sundquist, Director of the Fly Ranch Project
Medium: Burning Man Project: 2030 Environmental Sustainability Roadmap
Burning Man Journal: Year Two Update: Progress On BMP’s Sustainability Roadmap
Laura Day brings a not-so-boring background of operational strategy and event production to her role. In her past lives, she was the director of operations of a recreational cannabis start-up in Oregon and was the founder and director of Firefly Gathering, an intentional music, art, yoga, and educational festival in Flagstaff, Arizona. Laura has designed and implemented various business models around environmental stewardship, exemplary labor practices, diversity, empowerment, and efficiency, resulting in a list of accolades around ‘best places to work’ and ‘greenest workplaces.’ She graduated Summa Cum Laude from NAU with a degree in Environmental Science with a focus on sustainable communities and biodiversity.
Christopher Breedlove currently serves as the Burning Man Project Director of Civic Activation which includes the Burners Without Borders, Civic Arts, Global Art Grants, and Regional Network Programs. As part of the Burning Man Sustainability team he leads Goal #2 ‘Be Regenerative’. Christopher is a lifelong advocate of human centered design and is deeply interested in building frameworks for the future that are emergent, inclusive and regenerative. He is also maker and avid printmaker using both silkscreens and lasers.
Matt Sundquist studied philosophy at Harvard where he was student body president. After school he wrote for SCOTUSblog.com, was a Fulbright Scholar in Argentina, and was a Student Fellow at Harvard Law School. His research has been cited in the Senate Judiciary Committee, Senate Committee on Commerce, Science, and Transportation, and New York Times. He was a product manager for Change.org and Water.org, and worked on the Facebook privacy team. He is a co-founder at Plotly, where he was COO. He is the Director of Fly Ranch. See his talks and papers here: matthewsundquist.com.
STUART: I’m just going to pick up where I left off at the end of last episode, because this is a two-parter. We’ve been talking about Burning Man’s rather ambitious Environmental Sustainability Roadmap for 2030.
This time around, we’re going to go quite a bit deeper on the three big goals in that document. Let’s go over them so that we all know what we’re talking about.
1: No Matter Out Of Place, handle waste ecologically.
2: Be regenerative, create a net positive ecological and environmental impact.
3: Be carbon negative, remove more carbon from the environment than we put into it.
More than 50 people helped put the sustainability roadmap together. In the execution phase, where we are now two years into a 10 year plan, three leaders in the Burning Man Organization stepped forward to take point each of them on one of those three goals, Laura Day, Christopher Breedlove and Matt Sundquist.
Laura Day is the Associate Director of Event Operations for Burning Man Project, and she’s taking the lead role on goal number one: handling waste ecologically.
LAURA DAY: I’m one of the lucky few who gets to work year round for this organization.
I also am the sustainability lead for Black Rock City, and that’s been a really awesome role to be able to step into.
I produced a festival called Firefly gathering for six years and we aimed to be a zero waste event, and we got pretty close to that, and did a lot of focus around sustainable technologies and permaculture, and built a lot of our larger infrastructure there out of the elements that were already on the land. We really put a lot of focus into having it be a very environmentally friendly event. So that was a lot of fun.
STUART: So coming to Burning Man must’ve seemed pretty natural after that, being, I think, it is still the world’s largest Leaving No Trace event.
LAURA DAY: It is, and very much inspired our philosophy there.
STUART: Well, I’m hoping that if we achieve what we’ve laid out in the sustainability roadmap that we will be more of a shining example.
I wanted to talk to you specifically about one of the goals that you are the manager of: no matter out of place or handling waste ecologically, where are we with that? And where do we still have to go?
The principal does say that in addition to picking up after ourselves, we will try to leave places better than we found them. But as far as picking up after ourselves, we’re pretty good at that already.
We’ve had DA on this show. And he talked about the last time that we did a BLM inspection, it was the best they’d ever seen. It was virtually insignificant. But obviously that’s just one measure of our waste stream and what our impact is.
So what are some of our opportunities for getting even better?
LAURA DAY: Well, if you’ve ever been to Burning Man, you’ve driven along the 447 and you’ve probably seen some MOOP. So there’s certainly a waste stream that is leaving with folks from the playa to God knows where. That’s one of the opportunities here.
One of our big challenges is even being able to measure the data around participant waste streams, and how they’re being managed and where they’re going afterwards.
There’s enough of a waste stream leaving the playa afterwards that it has warranted a number of kind of pop up trash collectors along the side of the road to find that to be a monetarily viable business. And that’s awesome that there’s folks doing that. but we also don’t know where that goes.
It starts from the products that we purchase. What happens to all of those materials once the packaging has been discarded, the product has been used. And then discarded.
STUART: Right. In my camp, we’ve learned over the years to do about a bunch of, I guess, what people call precycling of, uh, transferring, not, not hauling all that, particularly plastic waste in glass, out to the playa and taking care of that responsibly back home.
But it is kind of worrisome to me that Leaving No Trace in a lot of people’s minds kind of stops at the trash fence, and very obviously when you see bags of trash that have fallen off of people’s badly secured loads and all that stuff. What are some other things that we can encourage the community to do to actually bring less crap out there so that there’s less left to take home?
LAURA DAY: Yeah. Well, like you said, just learning and teaching ourselves how to, to bring the least amount of materials out there. And you know, how many one-time use things are you choosing to make your burn experience more convenient?
There’s a lot of really great initiatives that are happening in the different camps that are exemplary, that we can learn from. There can be much better education around how to manage those different waste streams once you’ve separated them.
Our waste streams for staff are pretty well-managed internally. We are composting, we have recycling, we have a whole TSA program, there’s a transfer station where we can sort trash, but, this is Burning Man. This a do-ocracy, and we’re not here to manage other people’s wastes for them.
So it’s about education and it’s about the participants joining together to solve the problem as well. It’s a little bit of a double-edged sword, because as much as we’d love to be able to be like, “Oh, well, here’s where you should put all your compost. And here’s where all the recycling goes.” That’s not supporting radical self-reliance.
STUART: Indeed. That starts to smell like the Bureau of Land Management suggestion that we put dumpsters out for everybody, they’re trying to score them thus reversing 30 years of progress in getting people to take care of their own waste streams.
What are some other things that we can do to set a better example?
LAURA DAY: We have found that the most impactful and achievable luckily focuses around food waste.
It represents 21% of the trash produced in the US even after recycling and composting are taken into account. And we know that more than half of food waste in this country ends up in landfills. We also know that for every pound of food that we throw away, it results in about four pounds of greenhouse gas emissions, with landfills being the third leading emitter of methane, which is pretty huge. Um, EPA says that pound for pound, the comparative impact of methane is 25 times greater than CO2.
STUART: Right? It’s the bad stuff.
LAURA DAY: It’s the bad stuff. And that’s what comes from food waste.
STUART: Food waste is a huge thing. All around the world, but, in Black Rock City, one thing that I keep trying to educate people on, that is really hard for them to believe, because of the environment, they’re going to eat half as much. So many people bring at least twice as much.
Now bringing more than you need of some things is good. That’s what enables gifting. That’s what enables those magical playa moments when it’s like, I need a quadruple A battery.
“Oh, I’ve got 16 of them.” But when it comes to food, you get in that extraordinarily low humidity environment, and that heat at that altitude, and you just are not going to eat half as much as you ordinarily would. So I know there’s a lot of food that gets ruined.
LAURA DAY: Sounds about accurate.
STUART: Yeah. Is that an education thing mostly to get people to stop over-buying?
LAURA DAY: Education is a huge aspect, for sure. One of the things that I’m excited about in our Nevada properties and Gerlach, we are prototyping the Bokashi method of composting. This is perfect for Black Rock City because traditional composting requires that you turn it. It requires constant supervision…
STUART: And separation of foods. Whereas this method is more of the high heat and anything goes, right?
LAURA DAY: Yeah. It’s enclosed, it’s weatherproof, it’s rodent proof.
All you do is, you put your compost in your buckets, add your Bokashi, keep it sealed, take it home with you and add it to your garden. It’s kind of amazing. It’s got a cost associated with it; Bokashi’s not free. But we’re prototyping on our Nevada properties operations, working on scaling that to accommodate the entire town of Gerlach composting.
And that will help us to understand how to scale it for Black Rock City. Once we have successful composting at Black Rock City, be able to teach camps how to manage their own waste internally, and apply it to their gardens and land-based projects, now we’re at least managing the most impactful waste stream. Once we can be successful and show how well it works in Black Rock City, then we can scale it to other events, other cities, and eventually the world. Mwah-ha-ha!
STUART: Nice evil laugh there.
So that’s the number one waste stream. I thought the porta-potty effluent and poop stream might be number one, but I understand that that actually goes into industrial agriculture. Is that right?
LAURA DAY: It does. Yeah. Our blue cans are aromatic blue cans that we use primarily on playa, they’re blue because of an enzyme that is in there that helps to break things down and that is land applied for the garlic that’s used in propane and natural gas.
STUART: I was wondering about that. I’d heard, I heard the phrase industrial garlic, and I was like, “What is that?” But yeah, that’s right. Because natural gas would probably don’t have any, any scent naturally, so they have to add it so you can detect leaks, right? Thank you for explaining that.
LAURA DAY: We’re not eating the same. Perfectly safe, and it’s actually relatively local. It’s in Nevada, so it’s not even traveling that far. I think a lot of people have this sense, like I did before learning all about our blue closets in the desert, that it’s really not as negatively impactful as I thought.
STUART: Cool. You were starting to talk about some of the initiatives that are happening out in the theme camp world.
LAURA DAY: Yes. We talked about participant data and being able to measure our success being one of our greatest challenges. There’ve been some theme camps that have been focused on sustainability initiatives for some time. You know, Ideate has been doing work with food waste, gathering and composting on playa.
And they’ve had some successes and some failures just like everyone. That group as well as many others have created the Green Theme Camp Community. This Green Theme Camp Community has a number of different working groups that are focused on different areas of sustainability.
And there’s one that’s focused on waste streams for participants. Their goal is to teach every camp how to manage their food waste in a sustainable way. The Kashi method was introduced to us actually by the Ideate group. That’s been just a really wonderful group to work with. They’re incredibly passionate and driven and interested in developing solutions that can scale for all of Black Rock City. So the Green Theme Camp Community has been awesome.
That’s created a kind of a container and a system for folks that are interested in and working on sustainability projects that gives folks a place to converge and share ideas and connect on them. The fact that we’re focused on social labs and bringing experts together to help lead some efforts is a pretty cool thing.
STUART: It’s great. And people are going to say, I want to be part of that, so.
LAURA DAY: Yeah. And there’s definitely some links I can give you for folks that want to be part of the sustainability initiatives to get plugged in and find a place where they belong. If folks want to be helping to scale the Bokashi composting method on playa, that is definitely something that we’re going to be needing some support with.
STUART: Those will be in the show notes, people.
We’re going out next year. We’re going back. There will be Black Rock City in 2022. I know. Just. Pause. Think. All right, great.
What would you like to see?
I know that this particular goal had the shortest projection that, within two to four years, we’d be rocking it harder.
So what’s it gonna look like in 2022?
LAURA DAY: I would like to see there be a food waste diversion at every camp. And a collaborative effort around collecting it and processing it and getting it to the most ideal land-based applications, whether that’s a home garden or some of our properties in Nevada.
But education is really going to be the main component that I want to see happening more on playa. I know the Green Theme Camp Community is developing a certification program similar to LEED. Think about like LEED for theme camps.
STUART: I’m sorry. What’s LEED, Laura?
LAURA DAY: It’s a green building certification program that’s used all over the world. It’s a set of rating systems for design and construction and maintenance of green buildings and homes that folks can let people know that they’re sustainable. We can have little logos on our camps.
STUART: We all want more badges. Badges? We want more badges. We live for stickers, that’s cool. That’s something that the theme camp community is coming up with on their own. That’s not something that Burning Man Project said, we’re going to bless you or damn you, right? It’s coming up in a grassroots way.
LAURA DAY: Right. One of their goals in 2022 is having an example sustainable theme camp built on playa, where folks can go and visit the space and learn hands-on how they can do the same things and develop a sustainable theme camp.
STUART: Longtime dream of mine, the model theme camp.
LAURA DAY: Who wants a cookie cutter? I think some of the beauty is in the janky and in the strange. Each theme camp has got its own flavor, but there’s definitely some baseline systems that could be replicated and perfected.
STUART: And there are definitely some things that those of us who’ve been doing it a long time have learned the hard way. And I’d love to share my failures.
Like, we do a bar. The reason that we precycle is that we got tired of making individual cocktails and having this mountain of lime shells and empty bottles. So we just do everything ahead of time and put it in five gallon cornelius kegs and shoot everything out of guns. There’s some things like that that I’d love to share with people.
I’ll tell you what we really need. I think everyone should have to take a brief class on how to secure their load to their car or their truck on the way out, so that bag of trash doesn’t fall out on 447. That’s just ridiculous. So many people, so many people that are, they’ve got a borrowed truck or borrowed RV. They don’t know anything about strapping down cargo. So: Five minute briefing,
I’ll show you how to do that and not leave your crap on the side of the road.
LAURA DAY: That would be great. Yes. I think there’s a lot more education and sharing of best practice. The fact that you are juicing all your limes in advance and shooting it out of a gun. I need to do that in my kitchen right now. I am a high volume margarita drinker, so, you know, having a shootable lime juice gun seems like a pretty solid choice.
STUART: There’s a couple of hour shift of just squeezing and squeezing and squeezing, but once you’re done, you’ll be glad you’re done.
LAURA DAY: I love it. And I would love to think a little bit more about what I’d like to share with you. For now, this is about right.
STUART: Cool, and so poignant. Thank you.
LAURA DAY: We’ll talk to y’all soon.
STUART: Christopher Breedlove is Director of Civic Activation for Burning Man Project and he stepped up to champion the second big goal of the sustainability roadmap: being regenerative.
BREEDLOVE: Regenerative is the cool new word in the sustainability scene. When we think about systems, the world we’re at now, the default world is actually an extractive system. When we operate in the world, it’s a negative. And then that word sustainability became hip, and sustainability was about taking that negative one and making it an even playing field. We’re putting back just as much as we’re taking out, and so it’s a net zero effect.
In being regenerative we’re actually acknowledging that our default system has been so extractive that the systems that we use actually have to add more in that we are taking out.
STUART: Reading from the text. It says by the end of the next decade, we aim for it to be better for the ecology of Earth for Burning Man to exist than to not exist.
How is that even possible?
BREEDLOVE: Yeah. That’s a great question. What’s tricky about the Be Regenerative goal is that in some ways it’s actually the most amorphous. At this point in the world of sustainability and regeneration, there isn’t as clear of a roadmap or indicators of what truly is regenerative.
We have to take a whole systems approach to what we mean when we say regenerative. And so that doesn’t mean just looking at carbon. It doesn’t mean just looking at waste. It looks at the whole cycle of our community.
That’s exciting. That’s our opportunity to enroll the whole global community into this work with us, from the theme camps, the meeting vehicles to regional events, to BWB chapters. Everyone has a part to play.
STUART: Yeah, carbon is definitively measurable. We know how many tons of carbon; it’s very easy to be specific. But how do we get metrics around the entire system? We’re not talking about just the event at this point. We’re talking about Burning Man culture as a whole to Be Regenerative. How does that work? When we have an event at the center of our culture that is extraordinarily consumptive. How do we offset that with the rest of the work we do around the world in the rest of the year?
BREEDLOVE: When Burners first came to the black rock desert, they saw it as a wasteland. This place that was beyond the world.
It was at the edge of society. I think there was this concept back then that what happened out there didn’t matter or was apart. That’s where we got some district terminology around like the default world versus what happens in the event.
The longer I’ve been coming out to the Black Rock Desert, the more I’ve started to understand that there’s actually an entire ecosystem out there. There are communities out there. There’s animals out there. There’s plants. There’s actually a thriving ecosystem just beyond the edges of that alkaline desert.
STUART: You’re right, when you zoom out and start to see the periphery, as with many great systems in the world, that’s where the action is.
BREEDLOVE: It’s a good metaphor for me, of this global reach. As we keep on coming back to the desert, more and more outgrowths of this culture happen out in the world.
As I’ve seen how Black Rock City has really inspired other events in the world, I really see how Burning Man culture can also influence how we all are a part of, or interacting with sustainability and regenerative work. And so part of the work that we’re doing in Be Regenerative is really trying to inspire different communities to match and even outpace Burning Man in these goals towards the 2030 roadmap.
You can imagine that if all of the regional events, if all of the regional communities, if the BWB chapters, if theme camps, mutant vehicles, as art collectives, all start to embody these ideas of sustainability, just like they embody the 10 Principles out in the world, that’s actually a massive ripple effect.
STUART: How do we know when that has been successful? When we have reached a tipping point where Burning Man does in fact become better for the ecology than the world without it?
BREEDLOVE: That’s the great question.
We’re still a little bit in the learning-by-doing formation of it. We’ve been building coalitions of different burners out there doing this work globally. Earlier this year we featured the Permaculture Action Network, which we at BWB have worked with several times. This is a really great model of using the energy that comes in around an event, a concert, a regional experience, and then utilizing that crowd to do work in a permaculture fashion in the local community where you are.
Last summer we did the Permaculture Action Day at this school in Oakland, and we were able to bring over 300 burners out there with West Oakland community members and we not only worked on the soil, planted new trees, built a solar array for the outdoor classroom, but we also brought in the art cars and the music and the performances and the theme camps, because I think that’s part of being regenerative.
It’s not just about that kind of ecological number, it’s also about the social and community number that comes out of that. By weaving together those communities. That is part of being regenerative, so that those connections and those relationships continue to flourish there.
STUART: Yeah. And particularly in the context of a youth education setting like that, making it cool is I think a fundamental part of it.
It’s funny. I just heard a statistic the other day that more Americans now are interested in gardening than they are in clubbing. So maybe that’s a positive impact of this last crazy year; everybody wants to get their hands in the dirt, which is clearly a good thing.
BREEDLOVE: One other group that we actually featured is this non-for-profit group called the Ecosystem Restoration Camps.
This is a network that’s very akin to our own regional network of land projects around the world that are doing at minimum 10-year land projects around doing regenerative work. We’ve started to map where their camps are uh, against the map of where our regional events are.
One of the hardest things for a regional event to do is actually to find the right land to do it on because you have to talk to the cops, the fire department, the local community, but these camps are already rooted in their communities.
You can start to imagine that we could even have regional events at some of these ecosystem restoration camps. There’s actually a really beautiful connection between these things because our community can come in, build the infrastructure, and possibly even leave it there.
Because another thing that we know a lot of burners struggle with is: where do I put the things when this is done? Storage and transportation logistics is a huge part of an event. So by actually partnering with long-term land projects, they can benefit from the infrastructure our community has been building. We can benefit from the relationships they have in community, and we see how that can be a really beautiful connection as well.
STUART: In an ecosystem restoration camp, what kind of work are they doing?
BREEDLOVE: Well, each camp is different. There’s one in Paradise, California, where they’re actually doing fire remediation work after the big fires that are up there. There’s another camp in the Sinai Desert in Egypt that is about reversing desertification.
In these different places, they have about 40 of these around the world, that each location has different reasons for having their ecosystem regeneration.
One other community that I think we’re really proud of helping support was the formation of the Green Theme Camp Community. We took the opportunity to turn our BWB Fall Summit in 2020 and to something we called the Green Theme Camp Symposium, and we had over 80 theme camp leaders come together and start to talk about how theme camps can actually beat us maybe to these 2030 goals. This Green Theme Camp Community, they’re building a compendium project called the thrival guide, which is going to be a list of sustainable and regenerative infrastructure projects, the toolkit to not only survive in the desert, but really thrive.
STUART: What are some of those advanced techniques as a desert camper to really get yourself up there into the super green?
BREEDLOVE: It all depends on what your camp does, but there’s a variety of ways that you can look at building solar. A team that’s come out of the Green Theme Camp Community is called the Renewables for Artists Team, or RAT. And RAT this year did a whole solar 101 workshop for artists and small theme camps, which is now available online for anyone to learn about.
And then there’s things around shelter, and what’s kinda cool about the shelter group is they’ve just started working with some friends of ours who also work in a refugee context. And the UN and some of these other organizations have a rating system for how green, how sustainable is housing, based on: How hard is it to build?
How sustainable are the materials? How long does it take to put up and down? What’s the half-life on these materials? We’re starting to use those same metrics for shelter on playa.
You can start to see, and this is where it gets exciting, is that all of these things start to weave together. If we build a really amazing Thrival Guide, we start to kind of imagine what a model green theme camp is. And as we start to future-project what maybe the world is going to be like in the next 10 to 20 years is that environmental migration is going to continue around the world and by actually prototyping a model sustainable green theme camp that can move anywhere in the world, we’ve also started the model a camp for anybody moving around the world.
In a way we tricked ourselves into creating this for Black Rock City, but it’s useful anywhere.
STUART: Any other synergies that you see between the communities that you’ve been working with and Burners Without Borders, and with pursuing this work?
BREEDLOVE: Our goal is really to try and listen to the community as much as possible and figure out how to facilitate and support their visions and their projects to be as successful as they can.
Over the years sustainability isn’t really a new goal for BWB. It’s just been one of the project areas that we find burners to be interested in. So we’re going to continue to support these projects that we see emerging. Like last year, we also had a
Permaculture Action Day with the Paiute out in Nixon.
A group of volunteers who were part of the “Awful’s Gas & Snack” art project, as well as Temple volunteers. And BWB went out to
Nixon and were able to do a full day of wetlands restoration work led by the Paiute community. Which was a really amazing opportunity for us to get together and get into the ecosystem of Northern Nevada and learn more about what’s happening out there.
STUART: I love it. Let’s go back to the event though. And I agree with you that the same camps do bring most of the infrastructure, but wouldn’t you say that the Burning Man Project has some responsibility to set a good example and possibly to coordinate some of these activities?
BREEDLOVE: Well, I think you’re hitting close to the philosophical heart of so much of this work, when you look at all the principals together, how do you lean in?
Where does Radical Self-Reliance come up against Communal Effort? And where does that come up against Leave No Trace?
What we’ve really been trying to do is champion some of these community projects we’ve seen bubbling up out in the city and bring those closer into the organism.
This is where some of the conversations sometimes gets a little difficult because some people would say, “Well, that’s not actually radically self-reliant because what we want to do is have community members learn it themselves, have that real world experience of hauling the bucket out and learning what it’s like, how much waste they create.”
I like to kind of challenge around that: When we say Radically Self-Reliant, is that me as an individual? Is it us as a camp or is it actually us as a city, Black Rock City?
I can also make the argument that by collecting compost and Black Rock City and keeping it localized, and possibly building soil that we could someday build a garden in, and that garden could actually then come back and feed our staff and volunteers, that actually sounds more radically self-reliant to me than having 80,000 people bring a bucket out of the city and drop it somewhere on their way back home. That’s that really interesting point around sustainability that we get to talk about.
STUART: And it’s something that works better at scale too. It needs its whole dedicated volunteer team and all of that.
BREEDLOVE: Well, I think that’s the thing. It’s at how big of a scale can we go.
STUART: Yeah, that sounds great. So 2022 in Black Rock City. Yes. We’re going to be there. What are your hopes for that event? What are we going to do?
BREEDLOVE: A lot of our work is going to be centered on the Green Theme Camp Community. We really see that as a nexus point for how that can scale out.
We start to prototype what a green village looks like. Can a bunch of camps who all want to hit these goals together start to think about how we weave the infrastructure together and actually build these models at a larger scale?
STUART: That sounds really exciting. I’m always up for improving my camping game myself and having my camp have less of an impact on the world. That sounds fantastic.
BREEDLOVE: It’s not just about the land. It’s about the people, it’s about the communities as well, and why this actually is the perfect thing for Burning Man to focus on is that here’s three types of change that need to happen. It’s technological change. It’s systems change. And then finally cultural change.
The technology is here or just about to be here. It’s just about implementing it and distributing it. Systems are actually being worked on by massive global organizations.
But that culture change is one of the hardest things to really hit at. And that’s where I think Burning Man has this really important part to play in the movement. If we can create that sustainable regenerative Burning Man, then people are going to have that Burning Man experience, and they’re going to say, “Why can’t life be like that everywhere else?”
We already know they do that with art, with community and these other things. People are going to have these hands-on experiences of playa without generators of actually being more in touch with their food systems, of being able to feel that way of being different.
And when we think about the influence of the people who come to Burning Man, that’s where that culture change, I think really can scale at a massive global level.
STUART: The principle of Leaving No Trace does, at first glance, sound like it’s aiming towards neutral, but if you read it, it does include the words “Leaving places better than we found them,” which to me sounds like regeneration in a nutshell.
BREEDLOVE: It certainly does. That’s what’s so amazing about how the principles were written. When you take the time to actually read the paragraph below the short little quip, it has so much more meaning. And I think that’s the moment we’re in as a culture. We’re not actually redefining what the principles mean. We’re just rediscovering how much depth they have and what it means to us in this day and age compared to when we read them for the first time.
STUART: Matt Sunquist is the director of Burning Man’s fly ranch program up in Northern Nevada, and he’s driving the third and final goal of the sustainability roadmap: to be carbon negative by 2030.
Quick note on sound quality for the segment. Uh, unlike most of our interviews, this one was recorded IRL out at Fly Ranch, which is pretty far off the grid, where the pavement ends, cell towers don’t dare to tread, and the internet is just an illusion. So this was done the old fashioned way: with a recording device and a microphone, and the two of us sheltered from the wind in the spacious trunk of a 1958 Cadillac Sedan de Ville submerged up to its door handles in the prehistoric mud of the Fly Springs.
Um, not necessarily true, but if we had done it that way, it would have sounded something like this…
STUART: So, Matt Sunquist, first of all, just how optimistic, how do we get there in nine years?
SUNDQUIST: We knew it would take a couple of years to really get rolling. We’re now starting to see those pieces come together, different projects internally and externally being interested in it.
Partnerships, the design challenge that we are working on. different groups working on waste management strategies. The Green Theme Camp Community. Those are all the seeds. And I think that they will spread and that’s what will get us.
There’s no way we’ll ever be able to achieve these if it’s top-down, it has to be top down and bottoms up. Then we can meet in the middle. That’s where I think it will come from is the community and people in regions. Innovating in ways that we can never anticipate.
The most impactful thing I think that could happen outside of Black Rock City would be if one of the regional events decide they’re going to beat us across the finish line.
We would learn so much from them. And because we’re big, it’s going to be harder for us to be innovative. If you have been regional with 500 to 10,000 people, You could actually pull it off in a year or two with a seismic shift. It’s going to be surprising amounts of speed that will pick up as we move forward. We’ll get there.
STUART: Our signature event is a temporary city of 80,000 people. It’s only for two weeks out of the year. Have we done the math? Roughly how much carbon do we kick into the air in Black Rock City?
SUNDQUIST: Around 150,000 tons of CO2 that we had met through the event.
STUART: For one Burning Man, at the current size.
SUNDQUIST: Yeah, We’ve done our own emissions inventory. Now, Marnie Benson, and a group called Travel Naked has been doing a very rigorous assessment of it that has much more precise projections.
STUART: Working with the folks from Black Rock Labs?
SUNDQUIST: Yeah. So 150,000 tons, that’s manageable. Compared to the other organizations that have now made the same commitment, we’re a drop in the bucket.
When we made the commitment to be carbon negative, which in a rational society, governments would just require of corporations at this point. We were the only organization or city that I know of that had done that.
And after we did it a lot of other companies made similar commitments. And that is great because it’s going to spark market innovation, partnerships, alliances. If we were trying to do this alone, we would never be able to pull it off. Now we’ll be able to be part of these groups and these projects, and hopefully be able to influence them to be thoughtful and ecological and community-minded, and good stewards of the land.
A rational government should just be saying, “If you emit a bunch of carbon, we’re going to tax to you the hundred or $200 a ton that it cost to draw it down and then put that into drawdown projects.
STUART: Well, let me know when you see a rational government. But only for us, for our little corner of the world, what we do have control over in Black Rock City. What’s that coming from? Is that from all of the generators? Is it burning all the art?
SUNDQUIST: About 90% was travel. And then the rest of it is on-playa emissions. So some combination of generators, mutant vehicles and vehicular traffic on playa. And then art burning is a small percentage of that.
STUART: 90% is travel? This raises to me an interesting question of: All of these goals, how specific are they to Black Rock City? If Black Rock City didn’t exist, a lot of those 80,000 people would take a summer vacation and travel and put an equivalent amount of carbon into the atmosphere.
The question is when I talked to Laura Day about the MOOP and waste stream goal. It seemed at first it’s very specific to Black Rock City. But until you start thinking about where all that waste goes after it leaves Black Rock City: Is it being recycled? Is it going to the right places? What happens to the compost? All that. So it seemed like it was larger.
When I talked with Breedlove about the regeneration goal, he made it very clear that there’s no way that we could Be Regenerative just within our bubble of Black Rock City. We have to look at this as a global, cultural year-round thing.
Being carbon negative, is it more in that latter category of something that we think about more than just in Black Rock City?
SUNDQUIST: Yeah. While the carbon emissions may mostly happen in that period, it’s not all just that week either because you have people coming in earlier to be part of crews, building art, transporting art.
While the majority of our waste problems, as we think of them, happen for roughly the time of the event and the week afterwards, when things are making their way into landfills, that’s where we need to have really substantial intervention. And the waste for that will need to get managed year-round too.
STUART: Yeah. It’s hard to think of any of these examples as being discrete anymore.
Black Rock City. That is an area that where at least as an organization, we have, at least a power of convening and a power of setting a good example for our community. What are some of the things that we can do to get our footprint down?
SUNDQUIST: We could try and transition entirely to the renewable energy, which I think would be incredible. We would be one of the first cities to ever do that. That’s something that I know Chef in the real estate folks are working on. And we published a case study that Black Rock Labs wrote, when we posted the roadmap, of how we could build a large-scale solar array on the 360 Acres.
STUART: Yeah. And we talked to Chef. We had him on the show talking about that and got it. God knows, nobody likes the sound of a generator at night. People who have been arguing over that for as long as we can out there.
What about the vehicles, both on-playa and getting to and from? Are there any ways that we can accelerate that, and get more of that 90%?
SUNDQUIST: Well, I know this will be an unpopular opinion, but I think that we should tax on-playa emissions, and that we should tax incoming travel emissions as well. And just use that as both a means to pay for carbon capture projects to offset those emissions, and because it incentivizes certain behaviors.
You can’t immediately start with a prohibition on generators. I’ve heard people talk about batting them, ending the use of them. And I think that would be very complex.
But if you have a viable grid model around the city and solar that people can buy into, then it becomes easy because. Why would you be doing this if we have this other model anyways, and if you have to pay a tax on it? The same could be thought about for electric vehicles.
So mutant vehicles, would they ever be able to run on batteries? Would sound camps be able to run on batteries? I don’t know. If we really look at the whole scope of what we’re doing, that’s when creative solutions can emerge.
STUART: When we implemented the vehicle pass about six years ago supposedly that was going to be a tax that would deter more people from driving, and as far as I’m concerned, it hasn’t seemed to have reduced the amount of vehicle traffic. If people can just pay a fine, they’ll pay a fine. It’s just like, “You’re gonna add something to my ticket price? Fine. And I’m good now! I don’t have to worry about it anymore!”
SUNDQUIST: This is a tricky thing about any taxation policy. Briefly entertaining the notion that we are something like a civic government.
STUART: We’re not, but we fill the role of one.
SUNDQUIST: Yeah. We run a large-scale experiential art project that makes it seem as if that’s what we’re doing. But, any tax policy that you’re implementing on something like that, can if you’re not careful have negative outcomes, in terms of letting people pay to pollute.
But if you think about what the actual cost would be, and if we say “We are actually going to put this money directly into either paying for carbon credits or building our own carbon dioxide removal projects,” then I think you could get somewhere.
And if we tax them at the rate that they actually cost to capture, you’re talking about real money because it costs between $100 and $250 a ton to capture CO2.
STUART: So, if we were to just buy our way out of this issue, how big of a check would we have to write?
SUNDQUIST: 10 or 15 million a year.
STUART: So that’s… doing the back-of-the-envelope math, that’s not doubling the ticket price, maybe adding 50% on top of the ticket price.
SUNDQUIST: and the cost will continue to come down.
STUART: But isn’t that just kind of cheating?
STUART: So how do we build a more sustainable sustainability model?
SUNDQUIST: We should try and build a bunch of our own.
STUART: Our own carbon capture?
SUNDQUIST: Well, one of the differentiations in language I think about is: Carbon capture, that’s often industrial and mechanical machines
STUART: Like scrubbing it out of the air.
Yeah. And that’s what direct air capture is. We also want to think broadly about carbon dioxide removal, not just carbon capture. Where carbon dioxide removal can run the range from nature-based solutions to mechanical.
So at the base level, you have afforestation reforestation projects. We don’t need to constrain ourselves to planting trees here, but we could, and salt marshes, investing in mangroves. Those are great carbon capture projects.
STUART: Plus they have all kinds of other advantages.
SUNDQUIST: Yes. They have downstream biological benefits. Then you can think of projects like bioenergy BECCs, where you purposely grow a plant that has a high carbon capture capacity. Then you remove it and you burn it and you capture the CO2 that it admitted and store it. And then you turn the energy into a biofuel.
We could be growing algae here and using that as additives. One of the big discoveries in agriculture recently has been that you can reduce methane emissions in cows by up to 82% if you feed them seaweed. So what if we were growing seaweed out here?
Yeah, it massively changes their methane output.
STUART: But, man. Hey, we’re in a desert. How are we going to grow seaweed out here?
SUNDQUIST: Oh, I mean, this is a thing, people in various desert countries have been looking into how they could do this. There’s algae already growing in the pond.
STUART: It’s true. There’s plenty of salt in the soil.
SUNDQUIST: Yeah. And so, we could be building our own director capture projects here, being a space for people to experiment with projects out here. Doing art projects that would be based around these kinds of things.
Really the most important thing is to lay the right infrastructure for scaling projects here. From the beginning, we’ve tried to come to fly for as long as we could be here sustainably.
That started with nature walks and composting toilets. And then we had some campouts. And so since 2018, we haven’t used generators here. We have the solar rays. And so we’ve come here for longer and longer times.
Black Rock City is transformative for me because of the infrastructure and the people there. And it makes me think differently about my relationship to society and other people.
Fly does that same thing, but it adds in nature. And it makes me think differently about my relationship to land and ecology in a way that I just don’t get when I’m at Black Rock City.
STUART: Well, the black rock desert is nature, it’s just a rather sterile, barren nature.
SUNDQUIST: Interacting here, it’s the ying to the yang of Black Rock City. It’s water. It’s life. It’s quiet. It’s soft. Where Black Rock City is, it’s fire, it’s explosions, it’s noise.
STUART: Just the environment itself is harsh and unforgiving. It’s not a nurturing environment.
SUNDQUIST: We have to think about the whole downstream and upstream consequences of what we’re doing. If we reorient our position to land in this immediate vicinity, that’s when we’ll be able to think about how do we go more global than this? Now that we’ve figured out toilets and energy and food and waste and shelter here, at a baseline, how does that transform us to be able to think more broadly about our global role?
STUART: There’s technical solutions, there are systemic solutions, and there are cultural solutions. We’re just talking about technical. Systemic solutions, that would be the rational government that you were talking about.
STUART: So what about cultural? Even though our footprint is relatively small in the grand scheme of things, do you think that Burning Man has a wide enough influence to be able to have a ripple effect into other areas?
SUNDQUIST: That’s why I wanted to work on this at Burning Man. Because to be somewhat cynical, I think that we’re going to all be living in climate emergencies in 10 or 20 years anyways.
When that comes, I’d rather be ready for it than not, and have already started working towards that. There’s no better place to try and make global change around climate change. Other organizations are exclusively working on the technical and the systems part of it. Very few organizations are working on the cultural part of it.
We have people coming from all over the world, many countries, 90-something regional burns, Burners Without Borders chapters all over the world. 80,000 people a year coming in from everywhere. If people see what it can be like, and we build it together, and we do this thing that no country, no city, no organization has ever done – while the carbon capture goal, if we do it right in an integrated way, is very ambitious, we could buy our way in – there’s no way we could buy our way into being regenerative.
That to me is the most ambitious goal because the scope of it is so vast and there’s no shortcut. There’s no backup option where we could just say, “Well, we’ll just write a big check and get out of this.” Because as the ecological piece of it, of thinking about our global impact (“Is it better for us as a culture to exist than to not exist”) is so vast.
But if every person in the world, if every country in the world, if every land project in their specific place said, “I want my existence to be in service to the land. I want to be better for this land that I’m on right now than I am worse for it,” We could fix climate change. We could turn it around.
It’s important that we walk the walk. We’re a drop in the bucket in terms of our actual emissions, but the impact that it could have for us to do that and to be a leader and to be in integrity with the land around us is well beyond the impact that I think any other city could have if they did it, because they’re going to be on a timeline that’s too late.
STUART: I can’t think of many other cities that are based around a shared ethos, the way that Black Rock City is. When you think about members of our community. Nobody knows how many of us there are around the world. Is it a half a million, is it a million? It’s something like that.
But those people tend to be often in influential places. Do you think there’s a potential for people to be inspired or shamed into taking some of the stuff back home to where they live?
SUNDQUIST: Well, people already bring the principles home with them. People bringing Leave No Trace home; the beach cleanups that people do. art in public spaces, gifting. The types of things that people already bring home from the burn, those are already codified into the culture and people already take what we’re doing here, take it out into the world and have an awesome impact.
In part the reason why we don’t address climate change globally is because individuals are overwhelmed by the system around them and it feels like too much to take on. But if we can have an example of something that’s regenerative, that people can go home and demand from their corporate influences in their country and from their governments and say,
“We now know what it looks like to be Regenerative. There’s now an open example in the world. We want you to say that’s your goal too. And we’ve seen it done and we know how to do it, so we’re going to do it here.”
Then that could be a solution path. I have not been able to think of a lot of solution paths that wouldn’t bring about the cultural transformation worldwide that we need.
And it’s still unlikely. This could totally crash and burn. There’s no reason to think that we’ll actually succeed other than hope. But even if we fail, I’d rather be working on this, then ignoring it.
STUART: So, Burning Man has the word “burning” in it, and this whole thing, the rock at the bottom of the kettle is stone soup is a big-ass wooden sculpture, soaked in paraffin, and kerosene. And we set it on fire. We’re not going to have to give that up, are we? Should we give that up?
SUNDQUIST: Well, let’s imagine wildfires, heatwaves, climate disasters happening around the world, and you say “We want to still have this huge fire,” I feel like that’s going to be a little harder.
And so, this is just a hypothetical.
STUART: Is this melting man? I’m going to get a big chunk of one of the last glaciers, ice sculpt it, and then watch it slowly dissolve in the desert? No?
SUNDQUIST: I think there’s a lot… We can get really creative, burning different types of substances that are not… Like, what if we didn’t make it out of wood?
You know we could burn it out of things that wouldn’t create the kinds of missions that we have now.
There’s a lot of paths that I think are interesting. Not that that’s what we should do, but that’s the kind of year-round system thinking of integrating all of our substances, using everything that’s available to us, prioritizing the land. We’ll have to think about across the range of everything that we’re doing, if we really want to address climate change.
SUNDQUIST: I don’t… I care a lot.
STUART: No, no, there are ways. I’m working with you. It doesn’t have to keep burning.
SUNDQUIST: It’s the kind of thing that would be cool to invite scientists and to talk about it with us. What I’ve been so shocked by and in the community is, if I say I need someone who knows about this thing, someone says, “Oh man, you need to meet so-and-so…”
STUART: That is amazing. They call it playa magic, but it’s just true all across the community.
SUNDQUIST: It’s crazy. That there’s that kind of conversation about how we would do that. That’s the kind of thing that I think symbolically, and we could do that for other art too. Maybe it doesn’t need to be The Man, or maybe we figure out some solution to burn some other substance. I don’t know.
But if we start to think about it from a full systems perspective and thinking about the trade-offs of not doing this, then if we could be doing something that we know is going to have substantial benefit for the land here for locals, for actually doing our own carbon capture projects, then we don’t have to pay for them.
How do we think about how we can be loyal to the land, how we can see it as sacred?
STUART: Well, the Leaving No Trace ethic definitely springs from a desire to respect the land, but a very specific kind of land. It’s like the surface of the moon. But that’s old thinking, that’s my old Burning Man brain talking. That’s before the modern era, when
Burning Man is a global nonprofit with a global community and a year round mission.
We do have to start thinking about “outside the trash fence” as part of the equation of regeneration, even of just Leaving No Trace.
SUNDQUIST: It’s already in the principal, we just elevated it and got more specific.
STUART: So I know that the field of carbon capture is super vigorous right now, it’s moving faster than a lot of people can keep pace with. Are there any projects that you find exciting that you think that we might want to work with?
SUNDQUIST: Yes. There’s so many that are coming out, and we’re so lucky to have scientists to advise us; Lulu from our staff, Laura Dane, Scirpus, David Sheer. Five or six people with PhDs were involved with the drafting of our sustainability roadmap.
Thankfully that’s been really great to have that kind of influence in the organization.
Xprize is running a carbon capture design challenge right now that Elon Musk donated a hundred million dollars to, and we have invited him to invite their folks to pilot at Fly. That would be a longer-term project in relationship with these teams, but as the kind of initial types of solutions that I think we could potentially have here at Fly, where people come and they say, “Oh, I can think differently about my orientation to nature here.”
Then there’s a group that’s making mechanical trees. There are passive CO2 gathering machines. The science and the tech behind them is great. And the guy who came up with them, he’s kind of the grandfather of carbon capture and direct air capture in a lot of ways. He published a lot of this research in the nineties and this is his project. We have invited them to pilot mechanical trees here.
STUART: I look forward to the day when there’s a mechanical tree forest out here.
SUNDQUIST: Those kinds of partnerships, what we can bring to folks is community, our orientation and the way that we think about things, lots of volunteers, and a way of thinking about things in the way that we do where it’s participatory, or it’s open.
You know my favorite thing about Burning Man, the event, from an experiential standpoint is this way that it brings the inside outside; where you get to see the guts of everything. It’s all happening around you.
That’s something that is unfamiliar to many corporate entities. My experience working here and working at Fly where everything that we’ve done has been that way, has given me some insight into just how vast the burner network is and how creative it is. If we can combine that with scientists and innovators and designers who are building these kinds of things, and that’s really what LAGI’s been all about is how do you make renewable infrastructure into beautiful artistic expressions.
You know, no one has ever said, “Man, you know what I want to put on my front lawn? A solar array. It’s gonna be a great art piece.” Because it’s not.
Solar mountain, one of our LAGI projects, could be a great art piece at scale for someone. And that’s how all of the things that we want to do. The landscape around here lends itself to spectacular renewable projects like that.
STUART: And even just being outside. That is a huge part of the experience for so many people is to actually be in nature – and not in a contained nature of like a state forest campground or something like that. But to be out here in the elements in real nature, right? That’s an eye opening experience for a lot of people, particularly urbanites.
SUNDQUIST: Here at Fly, you’re just on the land. We’ve barely built roads or paths here because we’ve had 8,000 people who’ve gotten to come through and can be like our co-founders. They’ve seen it in its earliest states.
Where people come out here and they see a whole bunch of awesome carbon capture projects, or they see awesome art. Then that’s the kind of thing where we can have that cultural impact. People can come out to their cities or their companies and stuff.
I’m going to be the change maker in my company, and I’m going to get us to do something that’s even better than what Burning Man is doing. Other people are going to be way better at certain parts of it than we are because we have limited resources, we’re building a city, we have all this stuff that we have to do. This isn’t our expertise yet.
STUART: Or we could inspire, I love that idea of inspiring people to do better than we do. I always think our highest contributions is people who actually graduated from Burning Man and take it out into the world.
SUNDQUIST: I don’t know if I’m going to have kids. That’s something a lot of my friends talk about whether bringing kids into the world now is a good idea, but, I think my brother will, and I’ve always thought about what I would tell his kids when they’re 25, if he has kids, and they live in a world that’s like, if we don’t change it, it’s going to be, what would I tell them?
I want to be able to say to them, “I’m sorry, I’m sorry that this happened. I committed all of my energy and all of my purpose to trying to change this and make it so you wouldn’t have to live in a world that’s like this.”
That’s my fear. And my hope is that I instead get to say to them, “It almost got really bad, but we made a huge, ridiculous change to the way that we lived. And now things are better than they were before we’ve gotten off of the hose, gotten off of the carbon, the endless emissions, the “dig, burn, and dump” societal model that we have for how we do things.”
That’s why I want to work on this. It’s an existential thing that’s about changing our relationship to land and to people and to everything around us. And that’s a cultural shift.
STUART: That’s all the show we’ve got for this one. Big appreciations to all of our guests in this big two-parter: David Festa, Laura Day, Christopher Breedlove, Matt Sunquist.
Thanks also to Ladies and Gentleman for suggesting that we even do these sustainability shows in the first place.
And to the usual suspects, our Tech Producer and Story Editor, Michael Vav, our Producer, Andie Grace.
And to all of our listeners who help make this crazy thing possible. Burning Man Live is a production of the Philosophical Center of Burning Man Project. No animals, minerals, or vegetables were harmed in the making of this podcast product.