Burning Man Live | Episode 74 | 11|15|2023

George Reed: Invisible MOOP and the Net-Zero

Guests: George B Reed III, Stuart Mangrum

We committed to be carbon-negative by 2030. How will we do it? We have “Burning” right in our name.

When it comes to solar, biofuels, and energy banks, we have many irons in the fire, or rather, we are planting many seeds. Hear how Black Rock City is a hotbed, or rather, a garden bed, for the innovation of clean energy.

Stuart talks with George B Reed III, Associate Director of Burning Man Project’s Off Fossil Fuels program about the progress we’re making for a brighter future, or rather, yeah, a brighter future.

George shares what Burning Man’s leadership has been developing to be in integrity with our principles, from composting organic waste for food cultivation, to making renewable diesel from captured carbon. He shares stories of our community preventing and reversing damage to the climate.

Hear how we’re collectively rewiring reality, showing our work, and sharing what we know. Here’s how you can do it for your camp, your cohort, your city.

Burning Man Project: 2030 Environmental Sustainability Roadmap

burningman.org: About Us / Sustainability (updated Oct 2023) 

The Renewables for Artists Team

The Green Theme Camp Community & BLAST

Burning Man Journal: Your Checklist for LNT in BRC (2023)

Burning Man Journal: Waking Dreams: Evoking Greener Burns (2022)

Burning Man Journal: Sustainability Initiatives on the Road to Black Rock City (2022)

Burning Man LIVE: Burning Sustainably PART 1: We Can, We Will, We Must (Aug 2022)

Burning Man LIVE: Burning Sustainably PART 2: The Road to Regeneration (Aug 2022)


GEORGE: We can be an example of how things can be different. It’s not impossible. “Hey, we just had a remote, off-grid city for eight days operate in a carbon neutral environment.” If we’re talking in seven years here, being able to claim we did this, I would be a very happy person. We would have provided the sort of fertile soil for the impact we’d like to have.

STUART: Hey everybody. Welcome back to another episode of Burning Man LIVE. We missed you. I hope you missed us. A lot has been going on since the last time we spoke. You may be aware that back in 2020, we issued a 10-year Sustainability Roadmap with some pretty ambitious goals. We’re four years into that now, and that roadmap to being not just carbon neutral, but carbon negative by 2030. Today we’re going to talk with one of the folks who is helping lead the charge on that very monumental effort. He is the Associate Director of our Off Fossil Fuels branch, which of course, because we love to acronymize everything, he’s the A.D. of O.F.F. He studied environmental science and public policy at Harvard. He’s got a law degree from University of Virginia. He is George Reed, a.k.a. Georgie Boy, a.k.a. Gremlin. Hey, George, how you doing? 

GEORGE: Hey, Stuart. How are you? 

STUART: Good to see you. I’m good. I got a question though. With all these aliases, are you hiding from somebody? What should I call you that won’t get you in trouble?

GEORGE: Well, you’ve listed a couple; I have others. One that’s actually I’m liking more recently that you may have had some influence on is Curious George, feeling very very aligned with the new theme of this year. I don’t know if people have an aversion to the name George, but even before my Burning Man experiences nicknames have followed me my whole life. 

STUART: Well, Curious George is definitely a poster child for this year’s Burning Man theme, or next year’s Burning Man theme. I’ve actually seen a Curiouser George meme: The man in the yellow hat looking suspiciously like our founder Larry Harvey just with his hat, whitewashed yellow, or yellow-washed. I don’t know what the right word for that is. 

Hey, I want to start with, speaking of interesting words and phrases, something I ran across that you had made a reference to Invisible MOOP. Now we talk a lot about MOOP on this program, Matter Out Of Place, which is anything trash or treasure, which is where it shouldn’t be, but what’s Invisible MOOP? 

GEORGE: Well, it’s a good question. I’m actually glad you started the conversation on this point because to me it’s somewhat the foundation of the work, or at least as I personally view it. Everything that we do, we always ask the question, why? What’s in our values? What, to me leads to our principles, which in this case the foundational principle, that applies here is Leaving No Trace. And Leaving No Trace, meaning eliminating Matter Out Of Place. When we think about greenhouse gas emissions and particularly carbon emissions related to fossil fuels, we don’t see it. The impacts are not felt immediately. It’s not like seeing a plastic bag on the ground, picking it up and recycling it. It’s just invisible. I think it’s really one of the fundamental causations of why we’ve gotten to this place globally.

It is a tragedy to see nations all around the world admitting at the levels that they admit, but they don’t necessarily directly feel the impact of their actions. So it’s this invisible MOOP that we’re polluting our world with that’s creating one of the largest existential crises that humanity’s faced in modern history. 

I think that the concept of incorporating invisible MOOP as a cultural part of our Leaving No Trace endeavors and principles is foundational to what we’re doing here.

STUART: And we’ve got “Burning” right in our name, George. It is not the “Sequestering Man,” it is the “Burning Man.” And, as Frankenstein’s monster famously says, “FIRE BAD!” Is it really possible? Are we ever going to get what we do in the desert which is inherently ‘burn shit up’? How are we gonna make that sustainable? Is it possible? Do you feel like it’s possible to achieve our goals, very ambitious goals that we’ve set out in our roadmap, and still be Burning Man? 

GEORGE: I actually do. You have to really break down the problem into distinct pieces and then look at them one by one. Before I dive into that, I’m happy to touch a little bit on the strategy because there’s 2 main pillars there: 

  • Emission and damage reduction or mitigation. For that we’re conceptualizing a program that we’re calling Net Zero Black Rock City currently
  • Removing carbon from the atmosphere, which is a much more regenerative innovation, regenerative practices that we’re really focusing our year round operations in northern Nevada on.

One of the things that I like to say, when people comment, “Hey, you’re Burning Man, when are you going to stop burning the Man?” Right? When we look at the problem of carbon emissions and the disruption to the carbon life cycle, which is really the problem. We all emit carbon dioxide when we breathe. Carbon dioxide gets emitted and then absorbed throughout a natural life cycle throughout history. The problem is we’ve disrupted that life cycle by taking millions and millions of year old stores of carbon and taking them out of place, and injecting them back in the atmosphere.

STUART: Dinosaur juice, right? 

GEORGE: The dinosaur juice that took millions of years of natural cycles to get to the permanent storage space. 

When we burn a tree, the Man for example, that is a 10 to 30 year life cycle disruption of carbon. So we can theoretically plant a tree, or the amount of trees of any of that art that’s built, and over 30 years grow back, nurture that, and offset whatever the damage was from those emissions. If we’re burning fossil fuels and tens or hundreds of thousands of gallons of diesel, for example, that is going to take millions and millions of years for our ecosystem to reabsorb and get back into balance.

STUART: Let’s dive into some of the reduction efforts that have taken place just over the past year, both in Black Rock City and out in Gerlach and Northern Nevada properties where you’re working. Let’s kind of tick off the list. Let’s start with solar power. How are we with starting to replace essential infrastructure that runs on diesel generators with solar? 

GEORGE: So this year we took a really, really deep look at our own operations. In order to lead the community with integrity we felt that it was important for us to really take a hard look at how we do things ourselves. 

We put a working group together: Team BRC Ops, organizational leaders such as ChAoS who runs DPW, HotSpot, who runs all our fuel and utilities, Jeannie, who helps lead our power and design initiatives there. And we did multiple things this year. One was: expand our solar fleet. Our solar program is really meant to be primarily a demonstration and innovation division to model mobile solutions that camps can hopefully scale, build themselves ultimately. The big ones are the Unicorn. They’re 2 container units. We powered the Man, the Temple, and Center Camp all 100% on solar with those big units.

STUART: Sweet.

GEORGE: We had 2 other 3rd party units that we had purchased that we’re testing. Those powered DMV and Ranger Outpost Zero, 100% on solar. And then we had a single container, high power unit that powered all of Gate operations this year. So it was 8 total there. And those we call them the mobile pop up solutions. Those are generally container-based solutions that can be shipped, packed, put up in a day or so, taken down, and redeployed. We actually redeploy those on our properties in northern Nevada to take our operations on those properties off fossil fuels year round. We’ll continue to develop that program and use them. Both apply as demos, and then test them further to reduce our fossil fuel use in northern Nevada until we have those completely off the grid. 

The most powerful thing that we really did in terms of emission reduction this year was test batteries coupled with our generators this year on our grid. 

STUART: I noticed it. I noticed it in my staff camp the sound of generators was noticeably absent because we’re running off of battery power. So what kind of net savings do we get off of a system that’s designed like that to bank it and not be running like full capacity all the time? 

GEORGE: It’s a complex answer. And we don’t have all the data yet on what happened here. We have anecdotal evidence. On our prototype circuit, last year, we reduced our fuel use by 60 to 70% on the circuit by coupling the generator and battery. I don’t know if it’s going to have that larger effect on every circuit. We coupled that with another initiative, which was more efficiently designing our circuits so that we used smaller generators. So, we’re going to see what that had on the overall fuel use reduction, but I’m personally anticipating it to be in the 50% plus range. I don’t want to get too far ahead, but that’s what I’m guessing.

STUART: I understand there’s also some experimentation done this year on renewable alternative fuels, some kind of renewable diesel. What’s the story on that? 

GEORGE: So, our strategy here is two fold. One, reduce our fuel use and then transition the remaining fuel that we need to renewable or less carbon intensive alternatives. What we’ve been testing the last 2 years, and we expanded to 8,000 gallons this year is a fuel called R99 which means that it’s 99% generated from essentially biogenic sources: old corn oil, waste products. It’s advanced biofuel, I would say. 

STUART: It’s from the deep fryer bin at Bruno’s, isn’t it? You’re just sucking out the used French fry oil. No, I ran a car on R99 for years, and I was astonished to learn that the original diesel engine, created by Heir Diesel, ran on peanut oil. That was the original fuel and the petrochemical alternate that was sort of shimmied in on everybody is actually way inferior. It burns a lot filthier and everything else. So running on grease. Cool. You went through 8, 000 gallons of grease this year? 


STUART: Greasel. Yeah. Let’s call it greasel. It’s way sexier than an acronym. 

GEORGE: So we had a lot of greasel. We were able to pretty much test it in every major piece of equipment that we used. So part of this is getting a cultural acceptance as well as a corporate acceptance from the vendors and the other people that we use. If they say no, we can’t use it, we cannot expand the program. So what we really focused last year was getting consent from all the various vendors that we work for. “Can we test this in here? We’ll give you the reports. If it works, we’ll make sure that, if we expand this, that we can use it in the future.” So we really laid the groundwork for an expansion of that program.

STUART: Well, I remember that when I converted a conventional diesel vehicle to greasel because it ran so much hotter and cleaner, I went through a lot of fuel filters. So I understand, probably from a rental point of view that might be a concern on the part of the vendor, that there’d be more maintenance involved, at least for an initial period. 

GEORGE: It’s a concern, but it’s mostly due to lack of knowledge. That was a problem caused by traditional biodiesel. The R99 is a completely different processing mechanism. It actually burns cleaner. We had zero issues. The stuff ran cleaner, the stuff ran more efficiently. It was better than diesel. It did not have the same problems I think that we experienced in 2007 ish when we tried this here and others. 

STUART: New formulation. Yeah, 2007 Green Man, I’m feeling a little bit of deja vu because I think we tried some of these things then, maybe a little bit out ahead of ourselves. The time hadn’t quite come for it yet, but that was one of them I remember.

So, alternative fuels, smart grids, solar power; now that’s great for the organizational point of view, but what about for the vast majority of people who are burning fuel out there, which is all of our theme camps. What’s going on out there? And what kind of options have we given for people who don’t necessarily have a couple of hundred grand to reinvest in a solar array for their camp? How are they coming along? 

GEORGE: Well, the community has actually been ahead of us on a lot of this specifically, just like anything else, you have leaders that emerge. We’ve had a lot of great work coming out of community led efforts like RAT, Renewables for Artists Team. They supported 2 dozen artists this year getting their art pieces completely onto solar and off of generators. Green Theme Camp has been working for years to collaborate on programs. They are now main contributors and participants in a new green corridor that we opened up this year. It was kind of spearheaded and birthed by Burners Without Borders, was a really big supporter of that program.

STUART: Let’s talk about that a little bit more. So the Green Corridor was a clustering of camps who are running on alternate energy, zoning them all together, if you will?

GEORGE: Yes. It doesn’t mean that they are all 100% running on clean energy. It just means that they are committed to our goals and they’re taking steps towards more sustainable operations being carbon negative is one of them, but a number of them are taking on other initiatives, things like composting. And there’s a camp that runs an entire participant led organic composting collection operation.

So we’re seeing the community kind of step up and provide these services collaborate. The concept of grouping them together, and this was the 1st year, was to provide a platform for them year over year to continue their collaboration, find ways that, “Hey, maybe we can link our grids,” similar to the things that we’re doing.

We have the luxury of a few things. One is buying power, right? We have some leverage and how we can negotiate things. We also have more sophisticated operations that we spend all year really planning. So we can really start to do that stuff more systematically and more programmatically. When you’re trying to put together a camp and you don’t know whether you’re going to have 30 or 40 people this year, it becomes a lot more complex. So allowing these folks to kind of start to collaborate long term, set up some sort of infrastructures that they can evolve and incrementally improve each year is something that we wanted to give space to. 

And a lot of those groups, I think one of the qualifications that we had there was that they also participate in another participant led called BLAST: Burner Leadership Achieving Sustainable Themecamps.

The BLAST team of participant-led volunteers supported essentially a LEED Certification, like a Burner version of a LEED Certification, looking at various sustainability: How do you handle your waste? How do you handle your water? How are you looking at your transportation? How are you looking at your energy? How are you looking at shade and other infrastructure? And they rank them similar to a MOOP Map, and it encourages collaboration, discussion, and incremental change around a host of sustainability-minded initiatives. And 46, I think, camps participated in that this year, which was pretty impressive. 

STUART: Let’s move beyond power because there are so many other possible aspects and ways that we can reduce our overall carbon footprint. What about food recycling? You mentioned IDEATE. We also have a pretty aggressive staff program, and I understand that’s starting to run year round for Nevada operations for all the folks up and around Gerlach. Is that right? 

GEORGE: Absolutely. We’ve been, and folks like Blue have really led the charge here in pushing our own operations towards ecological handling of our waste is the way that we approach it where we recycle and reuse our organic waste. I think we collect 100% of our organic waste from our commissary and our staff operations. Last year, we sent that organic waste down to a composting facility outside of Sparks. We actually bought it back, 120 cubic yards of it. We use it in a regenerative land rejuvenation and native species reintroduction project as well as we’re measuring carbon sequestration impact of seeding that soil in this way.

So we’re going to be looking every year at, “Hey, what are ways that we can regeneratively use this waste?” There’s discussion at Fly Ranch and The 360 around food growing operations. So utilizing this to simulate production of food for the local community. That’s a program that we hope to continue and ideally either support through participant-led activities, or in other ways the complete regenerative use of organic waste in our city.

STUART: I smell another episode in there. I’m pretty sure that we’re going to get maybe Mr. Blue and Dumpster Muffin on and talk some more about that, and get trashy about the trash. What about carbon reclamation? Are you aware of any carbon reclamation or sequestering projects that are going on that we should know about? 

GEORGE: Well, we are in discussions with a number of academics, third party startups. There’s a bunch of discussion around new technologies evolving around what they call “direct air capture,” which is a lower intensity, lower energy intense way of actually physically removing carbon from the atmosphere. And then you can look and say, “Okay, what do we do with that?” You can go all the way from liquefying it, putting it back in the earth, right? Putting it back into the long term storage, reversing the damage that we’ve done. You can convert that into fuels. Ultimately, you can create renewable diesel with that carbon, so that you then create a non-damaging cycle. It’s not storing it, but at least it’s not burning new stuff. And so we’ve been in discussions with Matt Sunquist over at Fly. He has been leading a lot of these discussions as well. We’ve done some webinars around credible projects that we believe are long term carbon sequestration opportunities of investment, project groups like Project Vesta, Climeworks. We would encourage folks to look at the webinars and materials that we’ve released around these things. And when you look at your travel emissions, for example, that’s a natural place, we would encourage participants to say, “Okay, here’s my footprint for my travel. I’m going to tack on X dollars and invest in one of these projects and offset my footprint there.”

STUART: I do encourage all of our listeners to go back and listen to actually several episodes we’ve had with Matt Sundquist on talking more specifically about this. One thing that I learned from him is that, you know, when you look at our overall carbon footprint, something like 90% of it is getting to and from Black Rock City. Now, all the work of making the city itself carbon negative seems achievable. But that one honestly seems insurmountable to me. Within the next seven years is there going to be anything that you see coming up that’s going to allow us to cut back on the amount of invisible MOOP that we generate just getting to and from our favorite city?

GEORGE: It’s an interesting question. And it’s something that goes back to the, “why are we doing this?” in my mind. I’ve been looking at this really closely because we’ve been scoping out. How do we define what the scope is when we say we’re a Net Zero Black Rock City? What do we include? What do we not include that kind of thing? 

When I look at human participant travel to and from the event, and I calculate what the average emission profile is there, it is roughly equivalent to what I would call ‘base case’ footprint of people just living in America. What you have to think about is people then come here for 8 days and they ride around and bikes. They park their car and they ride around on bikes for 8 to 10 days. If you calculate what their emissions would have been for those 8 to 10 days, otherwise, if they were living and going driving back 45 minutes to work or doing whatever they did, sitting in their houses, running their air conditioners, that footprint roughly equals, if not exceeds — when you count people carpooling and things like that — exceeds what the actual transportation emission profile is in participant travel getting to and from the event. So, arguably, it’s kind of a wash. We say, “Oh, yeah, this is incremental,” but it’s really not. To assume that 80, 000 people are going to sit in a teepee with no air conditioners for those 8 days and otherwise admit nothing, not go on vacation, not take their private jet to Monaco instead of Reno. So it’s a question there of what’s the actual incremental impact. 

I look at it as a self-reliance thing, right? You should be measuring it. You should be aware of it. You should be thinking about it in your daily life, not just when you’re coming back and forth to Black Rock City. Is Burning Man going to have a transformational change in the human transportation industry? I’m not sure that that’s really what our voice is. And I think that we also value the impact of human gatherings more than saying “This is too big a problem.” I also argue that the incremental impact of people coming back and forth, and what they actually do, especially if they’re living now in a completely carbon neutral environment, will be net positive versus the travel emissions that we see there.

STUART: We have to keep it in perspective because, you know, even though it seems like we’re in a Petri dish out in Black Rock City, it is an American city. And yes, parking it for a week. How unlikely is that. Have you done that kind of analysis and look at how we’re doing compared to other comparable U. S. cities?

GEORGE: We have not done that specifically on a city by city basis, but we’ve looked at it sort of more on an individual per capita kind of footprint. And obviously it seems bad, but it’s much less than what we do in our daily lives. 

STUART: OK, so once we factor out driving on playa what’s the breakdown between how much of the carbon footprint is generated by staff and by core infrastructure and how much of it roughly is generated by the participants?

GEORGE: 70% of the carbon emissions on playa inside the trash fence are generated by participant operations and activities.

STUART: Not getting to and from Black Rock City, but operating inside the city, running their generators…

GEORGE: Burning their art, burning the burn barrels, things like that. Participants have the lion’s share of the challenge here. 

STUART: If we just make staff net neutral, then we’ve dropped it 30%. 

GEORGE: Well, that’s true. Our hope is to get there sooner than 2030. The challenge is going to be: How do we open access? How do participants come together to find solutions collectively?

The participant achievements, I’ve got some stats. If we were talking about the participant side of things:

  • 53% of our camps, so 671 of them, worked towards the Sustainability Roadmap that made some sort of commitment to us this year.
  • 868 camps, so almost 70% of camps, sorted their waste in the compost.
  • I mentioned IDEATE, they’re hosting actually a whole collection facility essentially at their camp. 
  • 43% of our camps this year, that’s 539 of them, use some form of renewable power. 
  • 20% of camps receive sustainability tickets through the various programs indicating that they were taking on something here.
  • 245 camps participated in HUBS, which is Humans Uniting for Better Sustainability. 

So, besides The Green Corridor, which is kind of the main focus, we are starting to see participant-led groups just starting to form and do this themselves all over the place. So that’s happening organically.

  • 35% of our Honorary art projects are working towards the Sustainability Roadmap, so they made some program implications to move towards these goals. 

So there’s a lot of stuff that’s happening there in Black Rock City that’s kind of coming out organically and participant driven. Close to 50% of camps right now are doing something here, which has been a really exciting development for us here. And it really been stemming from just the energy that’s put out by the 2030 Roadmap goals and giving some people some sort of lighthouse, guiding post. So we’ve been really excited about that to see that just happening organically. 

STUART: Tell me about the other folks that you’re working with out in fabulous Gerlach and in northern Nevada. Who are some of the folks that are contributing to this effort up there? 

GEORGE: Sure. The way that I view my role is really more of a facilitator at this point. We work with various working groups and operational teams that actually have the ability to do things when we 1st started this work a couple of years ago. We were trying to impose things. “Hey, let’s put solar here. Hell, let’s do this. Let’s do that.” And we started feeling pushback from the operational teams because these are folks that have spent decades fine tuning their operations, and anytime you throw in a monkey wrench, it just creates disruption. 

So we started feeling this tension of trying to push sustainability things on the operational people who I think in some cases also weren’t really necessarily feeling their voices were heard. So we opened it up and said, “Okay, you tell us what to do.” And the feedback, it sort of opened the floodgates, which led to a lot of the successes that we’ve seen this year.

I mentioned ChAoS has been a huge collaborator for me on the operation side. HotSpot. Jeanine. Hazmat. The work that he does with looking at all the relationships and the vendor services and starting to embed this principle and embed these values in the decision making process that they make. It’s a slow burn. It’s incremental, right? You know, all these contracts are multi-year, so we have to slowly… it’s a lot of not-sexy paperwork, kind of background relationship things. Shay at OSS, President. 

STUART: Outside Services, which is where a lot of big generators and big RVs and all that stuff come from. So I can see how that would be an important piece of the puzzle. 

GEORGE: To go back to the participant opportunities. Phase one is kind of cleaning up our own house. We need to learn how we do it. We have to lead by integrity. We also need to open up those opportunities for participants to rationally have access to participation. As you mentioned before, it’s hard to say, “Okay, go to solar,” and they say, “Well, it’s going to cost me $300,000 to put up a solar thing and then I’m going to use it for 8 days. And then what do I do with it? And I got to have 20 people come and install it…” 

I’m pushing a little bit of a longer term program, a transition from OSS to Sustainability Site Services, where we work with innovative companies, people that are coming in, or innovative groups that want to offer products or services through OSS that allow access to participants to say, “Hey, instead of running a generator, it’s a little bit more expensive, but I’m going to rent this mobile solar from this group instead.” We slowly need to phase out. If we’re being authentic about our goal, the reality is that in 7 years, we won’t be renting any diesel or fossil fuel-based generators. We won’t be selling any fossil fuel, period. That would be antithetical to the goal. 

It’s not going to happen next year, but we are going to start providing those opportunities or seeking ways that we can provide those opportunities with those groups and hopefully to provide a platform for demonstration innovation for a lot of these folks. 

My preference would be for most of it, all of it, to be open source in some way, but I think to the extent that we do implement and transition these types of programs towards that, at a minimum we want to have an open source platform where people can give feedback. We can see ,“Hey, I rented this solar trailer from this group, and it worked,” or “it didn’t work,” or “it broke, and they never came,” so we can filter out, similar to the camp ranking system.

But it becomes also a place of feedback for those folks that are developing these technologies, so it’s a win-win and that also helps accelerate the development of those other technologies and products that can then be brought out by those companies out into the world.   

With our new power vendor this year we were testing these batteries. As I mentioned, we had 62 grids this year, 47 of them, so about 80% of them, were coupled with these batteries. What that basically did is, instead of running those batteries 24/7, they would run until the battery got to a certain charge level and they’d shut off. So that’s why it was quiet for a good part of your time. Then the battery would drain down to a certain level, and the gennies would kick back on and charge it up. 

It reduced all that wasted fuel that we used to have, you know historically, 24/7. Now, in some cases, they’re just running a couple hours a day. The story about why this is relevant to the feedback is: when we first got those batteries in Gerlach, we tested everything. We had a pre event: Ops in northern Nevada, where all the workers come in, they’re building things up at The Ranch and other places, and they’re living there, you know, hundreds of people. So we have to build a temporary power structure for them. The batteries were failing left and right. They were overheating. The programming was problematic. There were all sorts of issues. 

STUART: So this is new equipment for the vendor too, right? 

GEORGE: New equipment for the vendor, cutting edge technologies all made sense on paper.

When you get out to the desert, things go wrong. instead of throwing our hands up — and I’ve worked in a number of organizations throughout my career, 99% of them when faced with this problem at this time frame, right before the event would have thrown up their hands and said, “Forget it. We can’t do this. It’s too risky.” What really impressed me about our team here was they buckled down. The battery manufacturer flew in from Europe, the CEO flew in from Europe. They had developers. They had designers. They all came in. They did, I think, 14 reprogramming of the software. They advised our team, advised them on redesigns of the product to solve some of the problems that they had. And we were able to successfully implement it in Black Rock City.

But more importantly, now these vendors, these product manufacturers, have a better product that’s going to be usable in other situations outside of Black Rock City. So we really accelerated the development and usability of that equipment. We hope that our community can do that, you know, on an exponential level. 

STUART: So you raised an interesting question when, in the equation for themecampers, “Where do I store this when I’m not at Burning Man?” That kind of applies to us too, doesn’t it? If we are investing in a lot of solar infrastructure, primarily to fuel our event, it’s a few weeks or a month each year. How do the economics of that work to have it sit for 11 months of the year and not do anything for us?

GEORGE: Well, we don’t do that. We actually redeploy our assets on our properties in Northern Nevada. 

STUART: Oh, okay. So out of the Ranch, now to Fly and yeah, various properties out there. I see. 

GEORGE: Yep. So we use them. I actually have like the plan for this solar department is till we reach what I’m calling a saturation point. Then we have to revisit how much new investment we’re making into those assets, because we certainly don’t want to have containers of solar panels sitting around in a storage yard for sure. 

STUART: Sitting around getting old and obsolete. Interesting, so I’m wondering if there’s anything that’s uniquely Burning Man about the approach that we’re taking here. If you go to In & Out you can get “animal style.” And in K-Pop you can get “Gangnam Style.” Is there like a “Burning Man style” of sustainability work?

GEORGE: It’s a good question. When I look at this issue, because I work for the Burning Man Project, I’m really primarily, at least in the near term, focused on our own operations. We’ve developed the internal platform to execute on that, to be a collaborative and open one. So I do think that the way that we are addressing internally is very much a Burning Man approach.

When it comes to the participants, it’s happening organically. We haven’t stepped in much just because we normally don’t with much anyway, unless some other regulatory agencies are requiring us to. So, we’ve really been trying to provide the platforms, the soil, for feedback on them and opening up avenues for collaboration. 

STUART: Okay, so collaborative. A lot of discussion, a lot of back and forth and a lot of creating a space for them to do it themselves is what I’m hearing. Is that right? 

GEORGE: Yes. Phase two and phase three, where I think the organization can play a role is starting to provide those baseline platforms; maybe online open source databases, Better Burner Bureau kind of feedback loop on Sustainability Site Services options, things like that, where we have a much more what I would call “productive space” where people can actually act on them. A lot of the things that I’m seeing here, practically, that exist today are discussion forums: “Learn about solar. Here’s a Facebook group,” But it’s very difficult for people to find “I want to build something like that. How do I do it?” You know, “I’m not a solar designer.” So providing platforms where people can really post “Here’s the designs. This is the material you would need. This is the amount of labor that it needs. Here’s what it can actually power,” where you can filter and start to look at those options and solutions and build out those databases,” I think are things that we can do better, and are things that we’re definitely contemplating building out to support that. 

Certainly I don’t think that Burning Man is going to go down the route of providing these services ourselves, where we’re going to go out and build a whole bunch of stuff and rent them to camps as an option. We do really want people to take ownership of this in a way to get people thinking, and to participate in this activity; it sinks in. The experience that we have, and the impact that we have as a community, the way that I think about it, is stepping outside of our normal default reality and landing in a place where reality is different. That’s always been the impact of the event for me. 

Before I joined here, why I would try to go every year was it kind of cleared my brain of saying “This is the way things are.” So, “Oh, it’s not like that over here. Why is that? Oh, it can be different.” The participation in that community, and the transformative experience of existing in that alternative reality, changes the way that people think, and I think it breaks down walls that oftentimes hold people back from moving forward in a certain direction. So we really do want to encourage people to take leadership, to think about these things, to participate, to engage in them. We don’t necessarily want to make it just easy, and it’s not going to be easy.

People are going to have to find, even if they’re just looking at alternative options and designs are going to be, it’s going to still be difficult. But I think it’s important that the community ultimately feels that this is a cultural mission that they are aligned with. I certainly feel it from the people that I speak to, but I probably have a, you know, self selecting group of people that reach out. 

STUART: Yeah, the climate change deniers are just not going to talk to you at all. 

I want to talk to you about getting some of that R99 because I just looked it up and that is way better than the old B99 I used to run through the Jetta TDI. Yeah, sounds like a miracle fuel, which there’s probably a still very limited supply.

Hey, I want to talk about you, George Reed. Looking at your CV, you’ve had a very interesting and twisted path that’s taken you from being a Harvard man, to being a government employee, to being a lawyer in New York City, to now working for Burning Man. How did that work? And what do you think that sort of background brings with you to this role? Good or bad? 

GEORGE: Well, I hope it’s good. And it’s interesting, my parents and my wife often ask me the same thing, how I got here.

STUART: “You could have amounted to something, George. You could have amounted to something.”

GEORGE: Yeah, you could have made money doing something, right? 

I studied environmental science and public policy in college. It was an honors-only major, very heavy climate science. The intergovernmental panel on climate change was being formed to advise the UN, and they had just released a report that for the first time announced that scientific consensus was that humans were having a discernible impact on the climate. We were really diving in. “Okay, what are all the things that could happen in the next 50 years?” It scared the shit out of me. It was not apparent to us the way that it is now.

That really sunk in me and became a core part of my values, beliefs, and sort of understanding around the world. I worked in the White House and the climate change task force for a couple of summers. When I went to law school, I thought I’d go back and work in the Gore Administration. There were all sorts of bipartisan coalitions happening at that time. That’s what I thought I was going to do.

So then I went to New York to practice corporate law. I did that for about five or six years. It was really great. I learned a lot, so much of my professional skill set looked at how to structure deals, structure relationships. And then I decided around the time I turned 30, I kind of had an early life crisis and said, “I don’t know what am I doing with my life? I like the work. It’s intellectually stimulating, but it’s not fulfilling me: buying a company, selling it, and laying off 1000 people, and a couple of guys getting paid 50M bucks. And then, “Yeah, let’s go out to a steak dinner.”

And so I kind of stepped back and had some moments of reflection and decided that I wanted to dedicate my life to the acceleration of the adoption of clean technologies in the United States. I wrote it down on a napkin. And the rest of it kind of followed that. 

So I’ve always kind of looked at where I could have an impact towards that larger principled goal and my own personal mission. I worked in some clean tech investment, private equity kind of spots. I started getting into solar when that took off, got into community solar project development for the last 8 years, which is a really great fun experience for me to work with dozens and dozens of local communities that we’re looking to implement these. So I learned a lot about how communities work, how people can get things done, how to bring the right stakeholders together.

And I’ve also run kind of some U. S. divisions of larger companies where I’ve done turnaround exercises or other sort of strategic growth exercises. So that’s really helped me be able to look at this problem, at least organizationally, and put a little structure around it.

I believe I’m here because I think that we, as a community, have the ability to have a huge impact in this area. It may not be as simply defined, but I think the seeds that we can plant, that have the ability to grow out into the world, are exponential versus any impact that I’d be able to have another place where we’re typically chasing one solution and pushing ways to do that.

I’m still aligned with my mission. And I hope that the skill sets that I bring to the table have value to the organization and to the community. It’s an honor to be here. I actually feel humbled very often with the caliber of people and passion and everything around me.

STUART: That leads perfectly into my next question. This is something I ask all my guests. You’ve been going to Burning Man since 2011. Why do you keep going back? Why do you think it matters to the world rather than just for you for personal growth and transformation? Where’s Burning Man’s relevance in the world today?

GEORGE: Well, that’s certainly a broader question than necessarily around my work, but it’s related directly. For me personally it’s really about challenging my perception around the way things are. The reason I go, I have gone in the past, is to take myself outside of our default way of living. I think our brains get clicked into this thing where they’re on operational mode 90, if not 99%, of the time we wake up and we do the same thing and we go to work, and we get into that rut. And things need to change. Things don’t change in that system of just continual operation.

So, for me, it was a way of removing myself and then having that time to be separated, think about what I am doing, and start to uncrack and break down those walls in my brain. I’m hoping and I’m assuming that that happens to other people. 

The other aspect of it more broadly is just the human connection of being put in a world of the 10 Principles, being in a decommodified space, being in a place where we feel a responsibility to each other and our campmates and other humans being that goes beyond what we wouldn’t normally have if I was sitting in a cafe downstairs underneath my building here.

The connectedness that we have being present with each other without having a computer right in front of us, or our phone connected to our ear. All of those things I think are really important for us to come and remember that we can come together as a community and we can do things differently.

When we realize that, and when you have that experience, you realize you can go home and create that experience in other places. I see it happening in my personal community. My circle of friends, I don’t know how this happened, but I would say 99% of my closest friends are all Burners. And they really do live this, and I’m watching these things formulate for 20 years. 

There are enormous communities that are starting to really foment around these principles, and the way these ways of living and having an impact on those communities very, very deeply. 

I do think it’s important for us to get outside and have a central place of gathering. I know there’s questions long term, you know, over the next 10, 30, 50 years, can we still have the event out there? But I really think that our founders were very prescient to choose that location because it’s such a distinct… you feel like you’re landing on Mars, right? You literally feel like you’re on another planet. 

STUART: A couple more questions. Are there any misconceptions about Burning Man and sustainability out there that you’d like to take this opportunity to clear up?

GEORGE: I see a lot of misconceptions that Burning Man is doing nothing or doesn’t care or it’s just ignoring it. I feel like I don’t know how prevalent that view is. But, you know, I read all the blogs and everything. The reality is that we are taking it very seriously. As I mentioned, we’ve been handling our waste ecologically for years. We’re really looking to fully regeneratively utilize our waste and divert and recycle everything. We’re looking at ways that we can transition all operations. We’re transitioning from diesel light towers to solar light towers. We test-cased 4 electric EVs this year. We want to do that properly. So we also have to ramp up our renewable generation, right? We don’t want to be charging electric vehicles on diesel generators. So it’s kind of like this balancing act of investment and strategy. 

Our operational leadership is feeling that we, as an organization, can get our operations to net zero, and Black Rock City, sooner than 2030. So I would hope to say that, “Hey, we as an organization, have done this. These are the things that we’ve done, and here’s the lessons that we’ve learned.” 

The rest of it, I think, is going to be: How does the community receive this from a cultural standpoint, and what do they want to do, and how much are they going to step up? And how can we support that? 

We always have that balance between what are we promoting, or telling people what to do, or in some cases, even requiring people to do. Our hope is that we are able to provide enough platforms and carrots and pathways that people have access to, that they can come along with this journey with us.

We understand that it’s a challenge. It’s very difficult to be coming over from Europe and land somewhere and somehow even just get your stuff there, never mind have to think about “How do I completely transition my thing to a carbon neutral situation?” 

I’m putting an open call here to the community: If people have ideas here or think that there’s things that we can do here as an organization within our principles to support those efforts, we’re in an open source listening mode right now, and we’re starting to coalesce around some things, but it’s going to be an evolving process over seven years. Some things are going to work. Some things aren’t going to work. 

My message is: Don’t get overwhelmed by the magnitude of the problem. A lot of people, myself included at times in my life, get paralyzed when they think about what a big issue it is. Climate change in general, never mind, just like, “How am I going to do my camp this way?” And they say, “It doesn’t even matter. The world’s gonna burn anyway.”

The reality is that whatever we do in Black Rock City, whatever the effects of climate change are going to still happen in Black Rock City, us getting to zero emissions is not going to stop it because we’re a little drop in the bucket. It’s the same problem that the entire world has, and it’s probably one of the reasons why we’ve gotten ourselves in this place in the first place. 

What we can do is learn these lessons, take them and apply them and bring them back. Right now I would encourage people to think incrementally. Right now, if people are saying, “I don’t know what to do,” don’t freak out or don’t feel bad. Just take a little step. Just start thinking about it this year. Start to research things and propose ideas to your camp that maybe you implement next year. Look at what other camps are doing. Take notes. How much fuel do we use? How can we reduce half of it next year, or a third of it next year? There’s little things that we can start to do, and I think as we start to see those incremental changes being deployed, it’s going to start to have a compound effect. That’s our hope. 

We can be an example and beacon of hope, I think, to the world here, an example of how things can be different. It’s not impossible. Hey, we just had a remote, off-grid city for eight days operate in a carbon neutral environment. That’s pretty transformative to see that possibility happen. If we’re talking in seven years here, Stuart, and we’re circling around being able to claim we did this, I would be a very happy person. I think we would have provided the sort of fertile soil for the impact we’d like to have.

STUART: Our guest is George Reed a.k.a. Gremlin. He is Director of Burning Man’s Off Fossil Fuels program. George, it’s been really, really wonderful talking with you. Thanks so much for coming on the program, man. 

GEORGE: I really do appreciate the opportunity to share this work to a broader audience. 

STUART: All right. Keep kicking ass. Thank you.

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