Armen Zeitounian leads the way up the staircase of the house he’s living in, a two-story colonial nestled in the smoggy hills north of Los Angeles, complete with a view and a pool and a black Ford Explorer in the driveway. In a room on the top floor, a two-by-six-inch plank, painted white, protrudes about five feet through a hole halfway up the wall; in the next room, the other half of the plank emerges, painted black.

“It’s called the No-See-Saw,” Zeitounian says. “It’s a play on perception and psychological issues. Who are you trusting when you sit down? You don’t know. So do you sit down anyway?”

The eponymous man.

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Photo: Mulling it Over via Flickr

Zeitounian once had a plan to exhibit the No-See-Saw at an outdoor festival in France, reimagining the piece so the plank would jut through a fabricated, free-standing tree. He would call it the “Tseesaw” — a seesaw in a tree. But last September, when the Burning Man Festival declared that its 2007 art theme, “The Green Man,” would examine humanity’s relationship to nature, Zeitounian changed his destination. He answered the organization’s call for contributors to its 30,000-square-foot “Green Man Pavilion” with a proposal for the Tseesaw. The Burning Man art staff not only approved the project, they gave him “more than a couple of grand” to build it.

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Thirty-one years old, with wide green eyes and a mass of curly brown hair gathered in a ponytail, Zeitounian describes himself as a “conscious person,” but not an environmentalist. “I’m not one of those Greenpeace types,” he assures me. “I recycle as much as I can, and I try to be conscious, but I’m not into alternative-energy vehicles or anything.” High on the wall of his studio he displays his basic mantra: “Oh arrogant man!” it says. “You think you can balance nature?”

Nevertheless, when he constructs the Tseesaw on the hardened sands of Nevada’s Black Rock Desert (also known as the Playa) this month, he will do it in a way that pleases even the most zealous champion of sustainability: The 24-foot tree and its plank will consist only of recycled cardboard, chipboard, and wood; just a few metal fixings will be new. The resulting Tseesaw, Zeitounian explains, becomes about “the give and take, the Yin and the Yang. It’s about a clean environment and pollution; about how we’re trying to balance nature and instead end up destroying everything around us.”

In the week before Labor Day, when an estimated 40,000 people will gather on a dry lake bed for eight days of big art, music, reckless generosity, and general debauchery, the Tseesaw will take its place in a grove of 16 other art-trees surrounding the iconic wooden man that traditionally burns on the event’s final Saturday. Zeitounian calls the exposure — not just to fellow attendees but to environmental organizations and corporations, which are exhibiting for the first time this year — “an artist’s dream.”

An artist’s dream, maybe — but how does it save the planet exactly?

The Road From Ruin

In its 22-year history, Burning Man has always been a place where environmental concerns come second to the more pressing requirements of “radical self-expression,” such as building large structures out of brand-new lumber, lighting them on fire, and watching a heat tornado rise out of the flames.

Which doesn’t mean it went off all these years without any environmental ethics. Since the event moved to the desert from San Francisco’s Baker Beach in 1990, it has labored under constant pressure from authorities to mind its litter, a task that grew more onerous as attendance grew from a few thousand revelers with guns and LSD to tens of thousands, many of them with feather boas, power tools, and kids.

Back in 1998, when the federal Bureau of Land Management threatened to pull the event’s permit unless it adhered more closely to conservation policies, the organizers declared the event’s first annual theme: Leave No Trace.

“It was through the efforts of the government’s Leave No Trace policy that we started to realize the real cost of the event,” says Tom Price, an 11-year Playa veteran who this year became Burning Man’s very first environmental director. “In the larger culture we fill a landfill and live by the ocean where there’s a fresh breeze. On the playa we don’t have that luxury. It’s a place where your impact is really mirrored back to you.”

It wasn’t an immediate success. In 1998, a friend and I, both inculcated in Outward Bound ethics, collected eight large garbage bags of trash off the Playa on the “Leave No Trace” event’s last day — some of the crap literally fitting the definition of that word. As I recall, the porta-potties were so clogged with beer bottles that we moved camp one night just to get away from the smell.

Some progress has been made since then: the Bureau of Land Management now proudly heralds Burning Man as the world’s largest Leave No Trace event. But the simple phenomenon of 40,000 hard-partying humans occupying ground that sustains no living thing (a bug in this desert is either a stowaway or a miracle) is an act against nature. Here is a place you can blow things up with evident impunity. Burning Man is not an event designed with the local ecology in mind, much less the future of the earth.

That may be about to change.

Despite its history, original intentions, or the objections of the many Burners Who Hate Rules, this year Burning Man’s organizers don’t just intend for the event to go green; they have dedicated it to solving the world’s most alarming environmental problems, from the accumulating waste stream to carbon in the atmosphere.

“It’s sort of like rehabilitating an alcoholic,” says staffer Paul Schreer, better known by his Playa name, Blue. “They have to hit rock bottom before they can admit there’s a problem. Then they swing way to the other extreme.”

Rising From the Ashes

Blue piloted the Playa’s first biodiesel experiment three years ago. It failed, he admits, when fuel leaked into the generator’s crankcase. But he learned a lot — in particular, that your rental company has to know something about the specific properties of biodiesel if you want the project to work.

This year, instead of asking permission from rental companies to use biodiesel in their equipment, the organization asked those firms to bid for the event’s biodiesel-only contract. Every one of the companies obliged. (They settled on Kohler Rentals out of Reno, Nev.; Bently Biofuels will provide fuel produced from waste oil.)

Price calls the biodiesel deal a model example of how consumer choice can change the world: “Because of our repeated insistence and demand, a whole bunch of companies that refused us before said yes now. It’s truly amazing.”

Similar shifts have happened throughout the festival: In other years, the solution to the escalating trash problem was to order more dumpsters; this year, the various camps of 100 or more — some of which have long carried green-leaning names like Recycle Camp and the Alternative Energy Zone — will feature compost bins. Recycling centers in Reno that typically close on Labor Day will stay open to receive Burners’ recyclable trash.

Save room for desert.

Photo: john curley via Flickr

And what about generator exhaust, the columns of smoke that rise from burning art, and the RVs, SUVs, and other oil-leakers that transport us all to Black Rock City? Two years ago, a group of environmental consultants — including Price, a former environmental journalist — began a project called CoolingMan, to monitor and offset the Playa’s carbon load. According to their website, roughly 27,000 tons of carbon billow out of Black Rock City every year — 30 times more than the amount that emanates from the notoriously carbon-squandering Madonna, who called attention to her private-jet lifestyle when she participated in Live Earth. Cooling Man urges people to donate offsets to help make up for the greenhouse gases wafting into the desert air. Last year they aimed to offset the 100 tons of carbon generated by the Burning Man himself; this year, they’re shooting for the whole amount.

Nothing on the Playa this summer, however, will be greener than the art. Last year’s masterpiece, the Euchronia project, consisted of a hundred miles of boards arranged into an irregularly shaped cavern. Observers screamed in protest at its spectacular fiery destruction: “You’re wasting perfectly good wood!” one woman yelled. “Save the forests!” But in 2007, eco-themed projects have burst forth as if lurking ready-made in some alternate universe, waiting to be born into the world of metal and neon.

They include epic technological wonders like the garbage-to-hydrogen converter Mechabolic and the Single-Cell Solution [PDF], a machine that feeds collected biodiesel exhaust to algae in a pond, and then makes fuel from the algae — sequestering carbon at the same time that it produces oxygen and fuel. Best of all, perhaps, only the sun will power the lights on the 40-foot man that stands at the center of the city.

“We’re addressing solid waste, materials, energy, transportation, art, and media in all aspects of the event,” says Price. “We put everything on the table. Who says we can’t solve the world’s problems while blowing things up and shooting flame throwers in fuzzy pants?”

Man Meets World

Some of those solutions to the world’s problems will be exhibited in the Green Man Pavilion, where an unprecedented array of international corporations will display their goods at the rigorously noncommercial event. Price says he’s been besieged by critics of the corporate involvement, “even though the terms we’ve mandated are very strict”: The organization still forbids the prominent display of commercial logos and sales of anything but its own coffee, lemonade, and ice.

But Price and other organizers worry more that the event will fade into insignificance if there isn’t more cross-pollination with the world at large.

So will this grand Burning Man foray into carbon-conscious stewardship be faultless? No, and that’s not the goal. “Five or six months ago I emailed [author and environmentalist] Bill McKibben and said, ‘We need to build the 10th-largest city in Nevada from the ground up and do it right. Or wrong,'” Price says. “And he wrote back that the idea of making a temporary city in the desert somehow sustainable is so ridiculous, that it really doesn’t matter.”

“He said, ‘You already know you can’t do it — that’s what makes trying, and succeeding in any small way, so great.’ And the worst that can happen is that you get a lot of really smart people together who come up with solutions to environmental problems and have fun doing it.”

Or you get a lot of really smart people together who come up with solutions to environmental problems and then forget about it until next year. Roger Wilson, the mayor of the Alternative Energy Zone, worries a little that environmentalism will prove a fleeting Burning Man trend, and too many “shoulds” will turn people away from the idea altogether. In the 500-citizen AEZ, generators have been banned since 2001 for the sake of more imaginative projects. (With Wilson’s help, I built my first solar generator there in 2003, and powered two scooters with the juice.) The emphasis has always been less about saving the planet than about having fun with low-voltage light-emitting diodes, or hacking Game Boys to pinpoint iridium flares in the big night sky with solar-powered lasers.

“I don’t care what people do at Burning Man,” Wilson says. “I don’t care if they roast their marshmallows over 200 gallons of diesel fuel every day for a week. What matters is what they do when they get home. If you can teach them how to burn things in a green way, that’s great, but it’s trivial. If you can teach them to be greener the other 51 weeks of the year, that’s a big, big accomplishment.”

In the end, the greening of the Playa might be understood less as a campaign for the earth and more as a reflection of shifting world opinion. “At least one part of the reason they’re doing this is because environmentalism is trendy,” Wilson says. “But that’s OK. I’m frightened about the world, so I find that delightful.”