Burning Man’s wealthy Burners got the wakeup call they needed

The flooding in Black Rock City is a call for better stewardship of the climate—and so much more
Burning Man’s wealthy Burners got the wakeup call they needed
Photo: Trevor Hughes/USA Today Network (Reuters)
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As a touring musician, I’m partial to festivals. After all, if an album drops and nobody is around to hear it live … did it really happen? As a climate activist, however, what I’ve read about Burning Man this year has given me pause.

Billed as an orgy of “self-expression” and a display of orchestrated self-reliance, Burning Man is meant to be a utopia-in-progress for disaffected, deep-pocketed “Burners,” including billionaires and assorted tech bros from all over the world. This small slice of supposed freedom wasn’t ever free, with attendance costing thousands of dollars. And now, it’s not even guaranteed. Thousands of Burners got trapped when two-months’ worth of rainfall dropped in 24 hours and turned the festival grounds, situated on a dried-out lake bed in the Nevada desert, into a muddy nightmare.

One conservative politician mused that this was divine retribution for a famously debaucherous event. I prefer to see it as a climate comeuppance. Extreme heat scorched last summer’s Burning Man. This year, the ultra-polluting parade was rained on just days after police broke up a protest by climate activists blocking entrance into the festival.

It isn’t just Burning Man, of course. Festivals around the US and the world have been affected by extreme weather events. It was more than a coincidence that I finished writing this article on my way to Greece, where my bandmates and I ended up having to drive through a flash flood in Athens to reach our performance venue as the rooms back at our hotel took on several inches of water. If musicians continue to tour, we clearly need to work around a changing climate, and we need to employ more sustainable ways of doing it.

But what happened to the Burners at Burning Man this year also gives me hope, if only because we are finally witnessing a wake-up call that we—and they—have needed.

Black Rock City

At the Burning Man venue of Black Rock City, which ironically shares a name with a financial behemoth wrestling with its own sense of responsibility to the environment, “decommodification” and “radical inclusion” are the watch-words. Outside the festival grounds, in the so-called “default world,” there is an opportunity for those messages to finally stick.

Burners are drawn to this pop-up town in the Nevada desert because they see it as a blank canvas for their utopian aspirations. Those who can afford to attend have the financial and political capital to make that difference outside of the desert, too.

Though many Burners, especially the lifers, don’t fit the Silicon Valley mold that has become synonymous with the event, the Black Rock City census shows they are overwhelmingly well-educated, relatively politically active, and on the high side of the median income line.

They also are prime targets for the “eat-the-rich” catharsis so frequently found on social media. One tweet goes: “Influencers at Burning Man are unable to fulfill sponsored content agreements and you’re laughing?” Others point out that after spending a week in an encampment, many Burners will go home and ask the police to clear the unhoused encampment next door.

Let’s forget for a minute the gross emissions footprint of an annual event with its own improvised private airport. Or that, despite a “Leave No Trace” ethos, the festival leaves behind an environmental clean-up nightmare for nearby communities. There is a lesson here about what needs to change alongside our responsiveness to climate change. Let’s make better lifestyle choices, sure. More importantly, let’s stop sowing the seeds of inequality in our quest for lifetime passes to a destructive dream-world.

The luxury of avoiding climate-change risk isn’t available to anyone

The fortunate few have always found escape away from society’s inconveniences. But try as they might, they’ll find that no amount of money will keep climate change out of their lives. Away from the grind and grime of city life, many have sequestered away in luxurious gated communities or chic palatial homes at the edge of society. These expensive vanity projects are now at high risk of natural disaster.

As a realtor on Netflix’s Selling Sunset recently pointed out, a $19 million mansion in the Hollywood Hills is a lot harder to offload when insurers need an additional $200,000 a year for coverage against wildfires—if they’ll offer insurance at all. And rather than reading the signs, like warnings that sea-level rise will destroy $100 billion of beach-front property within the next 20 years, those who can afford fortified luxury housing in flood-prone areas like Miami are still moving in, driving housing prices higher as mobile homes are washed away.

And what about that get-away weekend to Tulum, or Turks and Caicos? As local communities in vacation destinations have said for years, and as the tragic fires in Lahaina on Maui recently demonstrated, tropical paradise may be short-lived even for the most undiscerning tourists. That bottle of Champagne you’d like to enjoy in the hot tub while on vacation? That will be gone, too, as heat and drought damage vineyards and flavor profiles. Climate change is coming for it all.

On the drive into the festival, Burners were met with demands from climate activists to reduce their carbon footprint, for example by cutting down on plastics and private jets. Let’s hope that, as the mud dries and the roads clear, they will have taken stock of the bigger picture on their exodus out.

This is a group that, by and large, can exert influence, and not just in where they choose to live or how they choose to travel or what they choose to drink. Steered effectively, their invested fortunes and political connections can actually move the needle on climate action, in ways that also benefit those most vulnerable to the impacts of climate change.

While the climate deniers are fewer and farther between than ever before, we are at a tipping point, where those who recognize the problem need to be pushed over the edge into action.

Perhaps the Burners’ mud-caked belongings will remind them of the value of making their money and power work not only for their own future, but a mutually beneficial collective future. It just might bring them closer to the utopia they were looking for in the first place.

Adam Met is executive director of the climate research and advocacy nonprofit Planet Reimagined. He is also a human rights and sustainable development PhD and plays bass in the multi-Platinum band AJR . Ben Dahan, Planet Reimagined’s fellowships and partnerships advisor, contributed to this article.

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