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Tam Hunt: Burning Man, Abundance and Utopianism

Creating conditions to turn constraints into advantage starts with getting down to the basics

Burning Man is a riotous, yet organized, annual celebration of music, art and excess held in the Nevada desert. It attracts about 50,000 visitors and becomes the third or fourth largest city in Nevada for one week each year. But while Burning Man celebrates certain types of excess, it also emphasizes stewardship of our planet’s limited resources through various means.

Tam Hunt
Tam Hunt

This is my third peregrination to Black Rock City, the artificial city that springs up each year to accommodate the revelers. This year’s art theme, chosen by the organizers, was Metropolis, which was intended to induce some thought about how communities develop and how people get along with each other and their environment. The city itself is laid out each year on the completely flat plane of a dry lakebed. It’s a horseshoe-shaped city three miles across — a lot of room for revelers but obviously not unlimited room. Kinda like our planet.

As with most adventures, there is as much pleasure to be had in the preparation and the journey than in being present at the destination. A key feature of the Burning Man festival is “radical self-reliance.” This means that everyone must bring everything they need to survive in the desert for a week. Literally, the only items that can be bought at the entire festival are ice and drinks like coffee and tea, all at Center Camp, the only authorized vendor.

Burning Man is a “noncommercial space” and is not, common to popular belief, a barter economy. It is, rather, a gift economy, in which gifts are made with no expectation of return. Or so the theory goes; in practice, of course, there is probably some barter, although I have personally never witnessed it. Rather, the currency is like the Pacific Northwest potlatch culture in which personal satisfaction accrues through giving and not receiving.

With radical self-reliance in mind, planning for Burning Man becomes a very important exercise. How do we get ourselves and all of our food, tents and other assorted stuff to the desert? And how do we fit everything we need in a limited footprint?

I need now to bring another theme into the discussion. Environmentalists are often derided by those on the right or the middle of the political spectrum for being Debbie Downers and preaching scarcity and restraint as necessary features of our collective life on a limited planet. Obviously, there is some truth here: we do indeed live on a limited planet and we must be mindful of how we use these limited resources.

At the other end of the spectrum are the “cornucopians” who argue that we have more than enough to survive and thrive even on a limited planet. Yes, we are almost 7 billion people and counting, but even so we can live in a way that we needn’t wear sweaters in our homes or keep the thermostat at 78 degrees in the summer.

I’m a card-carrying environmentalist, and have been for years. I recycle, drive a Prius, carpool when feasible, am a pseudo-vegetarian and try to buy local foods. And I used to drink lattes and wear Birkenstocks. So I could fairly be labeled as your standard eco-freak, white guy yuppie.

But I’m not dogmatic and I try to avoid extremes. This year’s Burning Man trip made me realize that much of the polarization between Negative Nellies and cornucopians can be reconciled if we adopt the mindset of the permaculture approach to food.

Permaculture is a philosophy about how to grow food and, more generally, how to conduct our lives. Permaculturists like to talk about abundance — even though most of them are dyed-in-the-wool eco-greenies. How can they be eco-greenies and cornucopians at the same time? Aren’t these opposing positions? In a word: no. Permaculturists believe we can create sustainable abundance by wise planning and vigilance.

Now back to Burning Man ... The practical insight came for me this year when my partner in crime suggested that rather than try to stuff all of our gear, food, etc., in one Prius with very limited space (and two other passengers), we simply rent a trailer. This mental and physical expansion immediately changed our discussion from one of constraint to one of abundance. We suddenly had more than enough space and this issue ceased to be an issue.

So what is the equivalent of renting a trailer when it comes to being stewards of our planet? I would argue that personal and technological innovation is the trailer we need — and we won’t need to rent innovation because we are collectively creating an abundance of new (metaphorical) trailers practically from thin air. What does this mean? It means that personal and technological improvements are in fact having a very noticeable effect on how live. We are creating new realities daily, changing how we behave and relate to each other, and creating new technologies to power it all.

I wrote recently about many exciting innovations in renewable energy and the exponential pace of current growth in renewables. These are very exciting trends that will play a large role in improving the stewardship of our planet.

Does this make me a utopian? Not at all. Utopia is a great goal to work toward, but it is not an endpoint that can be reached. It will always remain in front of us. I am, however, a techno-optimist in some ways. I’ve written much (this piece with Nobel laureate Walter Kohn) on the twin threats of peak oil and climate change, and I continue to worry about these seemingly overwhelming problems. At the same time, I have seen in recent years some substantial changes that give me real hope we will in fact muddle through the coming decades without collapse and perhaps even without major disruption — not least of which is the impressive pace of renewable energy growth in the United States and around the world.

Personal innovation and new technology will very likely play a strong role in these ongoing solutions. Perhaps. And in the meantime, we will dance our booties off annually in the deserts of Nevada.

— Tam Hunt is president of Community Renewable Solutions LLC, which develops community-scale renewables. He is also a lecturer on climate change law and policy at UCSB’s Bren School of Environmental Science & Management. Click here for his blog, Thought, Spirit, Politik.

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