Lessons from Burning Man 2007
A man in a hardhat just dropped off his chicken for me to mind — a Japanese Silkie who watched me with one surprisingly smart eye as I typed this post. I reassured her I was a vegetarian, and she seemed to relax. After a few minutes, the man in the hardhat returned, thanked me, and said he was off to find a blowdryer so he could give the little hen a bath. Playa dust has coated her feathers.
If it had been Monday, I might have thought this strange. But it’s Sunday, and along with nearly 48,000 other people at Burning Man I’ve weathered two battering whiteouts of several hours each, and ingested some things I probably shouldn’t have, and it was only after he’d walked away that I reflected back on the incident as unusual. That’s what’s great about this place: The Playa cracks your mind wide open. The spectrum of reasonable behavior widens. You question old prejudices and drop useless restrictions. Your mind frees up to learn.
So what better place to learn new tricks for reducing our dependence on fossil fuels? For coming to understand — in a visceral, tactile, immediate way — what it means to produce and expend energy?
This, I assume, is what the exhibits under the Man, in the Green Pavilion, were supposed to accomplish. There was a game you could play, in which you threw hacky-sacks at little boards painted with images of oil rigs and smoke stacks, hoping to knock them over. There was the “Single-Cell Solution,” an exhibit by the Chlorophyll Collective, which takes up exhaust from biodiesel generators in fluid-filled tubes, feeds those nitrogen-rich emissions into a pond where it feeds algae. The algae can be used to make more biodiesel: A closed fuel cycle. A marvel. Why aren’t we doing this on a large scale? What would it take?
But many of the pavilion exhibits — supplied not by corporate powers, as was rumored, but by small, green-centric companies and science museums — consisted of long interpretative texts accompanied by exhibits about the toxicity of batteries and the beauty of wind. I couldn’t concentrate on them here enough to absorb them; I doubt I ever would. It felt like a science museum without the big ball you put your hand on to make your hair stand up. It did not feel like Burning Man.
Much better stuff, however, held forth on the open Playa. One night on a hunt for the Cubetron, a psychedelic box of bobble lights that blink in an amazing variety of patterns (solar-powered, of course), I stumbled across an alluring line of lights, climbed up a small platform behind them, and found myself standing above an impressive sea of photovoltaic panels: The 30 kilowatt array that was powering the Man.
And farther out on the Playa was Homouroboros, by Peter Hudson, a massive carousel of monkeys and snakes sculptured in precise positions so that when the carousel spins some fifteen feet above your head, and a strobe light flickers on them, it looks like the monkeys are swinging from tree to tree, with the snakes swirling down the branches toward them. The electricity for this “stroboscopic zoetrope” comes from a ring of bicycles wired into its power supply; if there aren’t enough cyclists pedaling frantically around it, it remains dark and still. “If you don’t work, it doesn’t work,” says Hudson. Perhaps some people walked away from it with a better understanding of energy. Perhaps not. All the same, it was exquisite.
A man named Paul Addis is in custody for the crime of torching the wooden Man at the center of this city early Tuesday morning, and the city has bloomed with "Free Paul!" graffiti. The rebuilt Man (“They made a new Man out of him,” went the circulating joke), went down last night in a blaze of phosphorescent flame: It was green fire right to the end. It fell over in a single piece, supporting structure and all, and the crowd almost instantly migrated past it to “Crude Awakening,” an awesome 90-foot effigy of an oil rig surrounded by steel sculptures of prostrate humans. It exploded a few hours after the Man in a hail of fireworks and a mushroom cloud fueled by 2,000 gallons of propane. People howled and danced in its ashes.
In other words, they blew up a tank of fossil fuels to celebrate our rejection of fossil fuels — something that even in the moment it was happening, wasn’t really happening. I hope we all got this.