Embracing the Infinite Possibilities of Burning Man 2023


At the opening of Cory Doctorow’s terrifying novel, Homeland, the protagonist, Marcus Yallow, gives away cold-brewed coffee and parties at Burning Man when he gets crucial, hacked information on an increasingly autocratic and corrupt US government. The action comes on quickly, and the novel’s beginning gives a vivid taste of participating in the dust of the Black Rock Desert.
Don’t expect reports of line-ups; the event itself is focused on creativity and community living. Different groups donate art, drama, exhibitions, spectacles or music that brings everything to life.
The best way to get to the centre of what is to come is to look at the 10 Principles that underpin everything. These emphasize radical inclusion and company sharing; it is about barter and giving; money is not received; the focus is on self-expression and instant experience, as opposed to consumption; be self-reliant and leave your part of the leave as before it all began. IT WAS DESPERATION that led Michelle into a BDSM tent at Burning Man. Not a desperate need for a spanking. Far from being a masochist, Michelle just wanted relief from the heat, and the BDSM tent had air conditioning.

Mirage or Reality

Burning Man 2022 was hot. The infamous bacchanal held in the dusty, dry lake bed of Nevada’s Black Rock Desert started at a high of 98 degrees Fahrenheit on Monday, August 29. By the weekend, it had gotten up to 103, a record-setting temperature for a place already inhospitable to life.
That this featureless, skin-cracking-dry expanse of white dust isn’t easy living has always been the point of hosting Burning Man there. But last year’s conditions led to a general sense of burnout and malaise, and many of the 80,000 attendees asked the existential question of whether it was still worth it to throw a party in a desert on a warming planet.
Tickets usually sell out within seconds of going on sale, and when the keys to the 2023 event become available on April 12, that won’t change. Instead, the event might slowly decay after hitting a cultural high point right before the pandemic.
Reno, Nevada, is the closest big city and the fastest-warming city in the United States. Nevada currently averages 20 days a year with “dangerous” heat. By 2050, that’s projected to be 30 days. That doesn’t mean every year from here on out will have triple-digit days, but it does mean they’re increasingly likely.

Embracing Sustainability in the Desert

Michelle, 35, is outdoorsy and likes to camp out and hike. She lives in Vancouver, British Columbia, and counts many “Burners” among her friends and former roommates. “Self-sufficiency being one of the core principles, I was thinking this would be an entertaining adventure for me,” she says, alluding to Burning Man’s foundational 10 Principles that festival devotees adhere to. (Michelle asked me not to use her last name because she worries that publicly identifying as a Burner would adversely affect her professional life.)
Two friends got her a last-minute ticket and set her up with a 175-person sustainability-focused camp. There would be fresh vegan meals, talks about sustainable living, and a bio-toilet, and the centre would provide composting for other commands. She packed a duffle bag with lightweight clothes, a big hat, electrolytes, sunscreen, plenty of water, two battery-powered fans, and a two-person tent. But those supplies were no match for the dust and the heat.
By 8:30 on the first morning, her tent was an oven. She scrambled for a place to hide from the heat. The few misting cool-down stations listed in the official schedule were all packed with people seeking respite. Meanwhile, dust storms swept over the Playa, limiting visibility to a few feet and coating everyone with alkaline dust.

Redefining Boundaries

“I felt like I was gonna die,” Michelle says. She knew her two friends had air-conditioning in their shelter, but they were a 45-minute bike ride away. She finally found their yurt and crawled inside. When they showed up an hour later, Michelle was having a breakdown. “This is too much. I need to go, he sobbed. She ended up staying, however, and at the end of the week, she endured the horrendous task of cleaning rotten food out of her camp’s freezers and throwing it away—the camp’s old generators had broken down.
When we left this pathetic Mad Max scenario and arrived in nearby Lake Tahoe, we went hiking under a sky rendered apocalyptic orange by nearby wildfires. It all seemed utterly wrong and way too expensive; each year cost me $5,000, not including fashion. Frankly, being a Burner no longer felt like a good thing.
“You’re not the only one who said this to me,” says David Shearer, a clean-tech scientist and cofounder of Black Rocks Labs, which works in concert with the Burning Man Organization—the festival’s governing body, often called “the Org”—on renewable energy solutions. He points to some of the Org’s efforts to decarbonize the event, including deploying mobile solar generators for art projects on the Playa, implementing a LEED-type rating system for camps, and testing out renewable diesel and hybrid battery-diesel generators.
But the significant barrier to running Burning Man on renewables is air-conditioning, which draws an exceptional amount of power. (Even Shearer’s camp partially ran on gasoline generators.)
At least one camp in 2022 did manage to power its whole setup—including AC for 48 people—on solar power. Solarpunks constructed a 48-kilowatt microgrid using consumer-grade equipment, the largest on the Playa. It never had an outage. They didn’t allow anyone to bring an RV. Instead, they bulk-bought Shiftpods, silver dome-shaped tents invented by a Burner for camping in harsh conditions. Set up of the solar microgrid took several back-breaking days in the heat. Equipment costs totalled $200,000.

About the author

Olivia Wilson

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