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Burning Man Journal
All the news thats fit to burn.
The Official Journal of the Burning Man Project - Summer 2000 Newsletter


Within our commodified culture, packages are more important than the products they enclose, for the package is the image of identity that we believe we buy. In the volatile marketplace of mass-produced identity, these images continually morph and change. This week's lifestyle statement is supplanted by another; last week's package is discarded. Like dead skin cells, fashions fall from us in a continuous shower. At the lowest level of this midden heap, nestled deep in the archeological recesses of popular memory, crock pots obscurely jostle with hula hoops. Piled in successive layers and degrees of desuetude, the artist formerly known as Prince lies sprawled beneath the bodies of Madonna and Coolio. This midden heap spreads steadily beneath us and below our level of attention. It is trampled as we are lured onward to the next sensation that feels cool and authentic, the next spectacle that is designed to appear real.

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Burning Man is an attempt to escape this realm of mediated reality. The spectacles produced at Burning Man are offered by participants as gifts to our community. They promote interaction, collaboration and participation in a world that we immediately create. And in great part, it is the vast and immaculate surface of the Black Rock Desert that makes this drama possible. Only in this astonishingly pristine place is it possible to summon all reality from our resources. Only against the perfect blankness of the playa can our choices feel so crucial or our actions mean so much. In Black Rock City we consume ourselves. We burn together, like thousands of self-devouring flames. We live our lives completely and we leave no trace.

Yet, if Burning Man is to validly function as a spiritual alternative to the commodified mainstream of American culture, we must be willing to consider the material consequence of choices we make as consumers. If what we bring to our desert experience is to truly define what we are, we need to look carefully at what remains as we depart. Burning Man is about immediate experience, but it is also about immediate responsibility. This is an opportunity to confront some part of what is wasted in our lives.

Our Cleanup Effort
In 1999 we undertook the largest and most thorough Leave No Trace cleanup effort in the history of Burning Man. Led by our Department of Public Works, volunteers scoured every inch of the playa surface. After removing all structures and street signs, volunteers inspected burn areas. Magnets were used to pull out stray nails, screws and staples from these piles, then melted glass, fabric and pieces of plastic were removed by hand. Lastly, screens were used to carefully sift the top half-inch of playa soil for any remaining debris. Eventually, the entire four-square-mile area of Black Rock City was divided into a grid forming 200 squares. Over a span of several days, workers slowly walked this grid at 7- to 10-foot intervals, stooping to retrieve everything in their path. Items were placed in plastic zip-lock bags labeled by location. See the table "What did you leave behind?" for a partial list of what this micro-inspection yielded. It does not include many and numerous larger items, such as watermelons, filled garbage bags, large filled water containers, furniture, piles of ashes, burned debris, aluminum cans, glass bottles, rugs, etc.

After many days of patient labor, our crews succeeded in restoring the playa to its pristine state. The human reality behind this extraordinary effort is well expressed by Larry Breed, a member of our volunteer team: "Our crew got pretty sensitized by bottle caps, cigarette filters, cable ties, tent stakes and so forth - each little thing symbolizing someone's preference to save a few seconds of their time at the expense of ours. The real killers, though, were the junk with the built-in multipliers. Someone smashes a bottle, or tosses a window onto a fire, for ten seconds of glee; then a half-dozen cleanup workers spend fifteen minutes (that's an hour and a half of effort) picking up every particle of glass. You face the sun and back away until you see a glint on the ground, then walk forward and pick it up; then you repeat, hundreds and hundreds of times."

Our systematic exercise in urban archeology is like an X-ray of the underlying waste that's generated by a mass consumption society. Analysis of these results has taught us many things. First, we have learned that trash density corresponds to length of stay. In other words, the longer you occupy your campsite, the more likely you will scatter trash on the ground. The pistachio shells you have discarded (perhaps with the thought that they will "bio-degrade" or that you will clean them up later), the cable ties you have snipped or the bottle caps you have popped and let fall to the ground (because it didn't seem convenient to collect them at the time) - all these things become dispersed and instantly invisible to casual inspection. Over time, a few
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impulsive acts, dismissed in the moment, translate into hours of your, or someone else's, effort at cleaning up. This has taught us that the best way to leave no trace is, don't let trash hit the ground. Small items secured in your pocket, garbage stowed and carefully secured in bags, or cigarette butts placed in candy tins or film canisters do not become a burden later!

A second major lesson we have learned is that when the playa is viewed from any single spot (as when you briefly glance around your emptied camp and think that it looks pretty clean) only a very small area has been accurately inspected. The seeming blankness that surrounds you is likely to be strewn with dozens of small items. Whether subdivided on a mega-scale, or walked across in lines abreast within your campsite, the best way to inspect the playa is to use a systematic grid that covers your entire area. We ask you to regard this method as a kind of ritual. It is a way of claiming complete responsibility for your actions. This year, we are also asking everyone to participate in Leave No Trace Days on Sunday and Monday. Once you have claimed responsibility for your campsite, look at your block in the same way. Join with others in an organized effort to clean up your neighborhood.

Confront Your Consumption
The first line of defense against trash on the playa begins with the choices you make as a consumer. Here are few helpful hints:

Based on an informal survey of many playagoers over the years, the average appetite loss in the desert seems to be about 35 to 50 percent. If you're like most people, your appetite will dry up after a day or two in the sun. For planning purposes, this means you will need only 2/3 of the food you think you need. Everything else is excess, and excess in the Black Rock Desert nearly always equals garbage. A watermelon is surprisingly unappetizing on the playa. A warm half watermelon is worse. A half ton of sticky, decaying watermelons is an avoidable burden on city cleanup.

Avoid creating wet or rotting garbage
Here is a handy formula: Food plus Heat times Time equals Funk. Perishables truly live up to their name on the playa. When selecting a menu item, it's important to take the "long view" of any particular food. Are you sure everyone in your party will like it? Are the portions appropriately sized? When dealing with foods with high funk quotients, like meat and cheese, risk assessment is crucial. Before you put an item in your shopping cart, perform this simple exercise: briefly imagine what it's going to smell like when it's been out in the sun too long. Fill your mind with that smell. If it makes you gag, put it back.

When you are driving back home with a stinking bag of trash in your car, this funk factor becomes overwhelming. Many people can't stand this stench. Last night they may have been wild primal beings, fearless and carefree and jumping over fires, but this morning the odor of their own rotting history consumes them, enrages them, makes them mad. Desperate, not thinking clearly, they jettison their bags in all the wrong places: in porta-johns, at neighbors' camps, near overflowing dumpsters and rumors of dumpsters, even along the side of the road.

Factor this into your food planning. If you end up with an excess of canned or dried food, it's no big deal. When it comes to perishables, excess is a mess. Bottom line: if you lack reliable refrigeration, don't bother taking more than three days' worth of fresh bread, fresh fruit, or fresh produce to the playa; they won't last longer no matter what you do. If you pack them in plastic, the greenhouse effect will steam them into mush. If you pack them in paper, they'll be croutons in no time. Consider doing some meal preparation at home. Why give a chicken bone a round trip ticket to the desert? Since you will inevitably produce some wet garbage, we ask people to separate their trash stream into recyclable, burnable, and wet. Put everything wet and messy in a mesh bag (like onions come in; burlap also works). Hang your bag on a stout rope from your car door handle or some other stationary object, to ensure it doesn't blow away (and keep it cinched). Put the resultant dried-out, mummified junk-jerky into one of those white 5-gallon buckets with a lid. You can even compact it... and voila! No more Funk.

Leave all unnecessary packaging at home
Avoid disposable utensils, paper products and Styrofoam cups, and store food in large zip-lock bags and sealable plastic containers. Don't bring large amounts of water in small plastic bottles. Bring a 50 gallon drum and fill up from there.

Most importantly, choose aluminum over plastic, and plastic over glass
Aluminum cans can be immediately recycled into art at our Recycle Camp (see details later in this article). Plastic can be crushed and compressed. But glass containers splinter into pieces. They represent our number one cleanup problem!

Life on the Playa

Pack it in and pack it out
Your Survival Guide will contain directions to several nearby waste disposal sites. You are responsible for everything you bring to the desert.

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No fires should be started on the unprotected playa at any time
This year we plan to consolidate such burning in designated areas at the front of our city. Use only these locations for burning and avoid creating a burn scar. If you are planning to incinerate art, please contact us ahead of time (installations (at) burningman (com)) and we will furnish you with guidelines for low-impact burning. If you must burn refuse before you leave, don't burn anything that isn't paper or wood. Do not burn couches or rugs. They are filled with toxins! If you have brought such bulky objects, plan to take them back with you. Also, make sure you do your burning in a barrel or on a surface that shields the playa.

Secure your camp
Sometimes gravity does its job on the playa and keeps objects anchored in a normal fashion. But violent weather can arrive suddenly, at any time. Don't be lulled into a false sense of security by clear skies and limp flags; the wind is always on its way. By securing the scatter of things that have accumulated in your camp - papers, cups, any small, flimsy or light-weight item - you can prevent wind-blown debris. Even metal camp chairs and unsecured tarps and tents can be instantly snatched by a stray gust of wind. Never take Nature for granted.

Create a cleanup schedule
Or cleanup plan for your camp. Decide when you're going to break camp, then assume it will be about twelve hours later. Imitate our efforts: plan to walk your campsite on a grid before you leave. Imagine when and how and where you will take unwanted items once you return. Think in reverse. Figure out how you will repack all that stuff you have unloaded from your car or truck (things just naturally expand after being unpacked).

Appoint a member of your camp as your Earth Guardian
This person will keep an eye on making sure that things don't blow away, assure that nothing hits the ground, help plan your camp's break-down and cleanup ahead of time, sort your discards for recyclables and paper, handle the problem of wet and stinking trash and generally keep people feeling good about how well they are treating the playa. This person should visit Earth Guardian camp. They will learn much, meet some very interesting people.

Join With Others
When you inspect the back of your ticket you'll find that it reads, "Participants are asked to contribute 2 hours of playa cleanup help before departure." Heavily-used public areas need the most pickup help. If someone is about to throw a bottle into a fire on the playa, remind them what this will mean in cleanup effort. If a plastic bag blows by, grab it. Coordinate your efforts with others. Over the years, many of your fellow Black Rock citizens have organized themselves to counteract these problems. You can join them.

Visit Recycle Camp
This theme camp has recycled resources in Black Rock City since 1997. This year, they are expanding their fleet of bicycle trucks to 40. Volunteers will circulate through our city, delivering trash bags to our citizens, and retrieving aluminum for recycling. Some of this metal will be melted and recast as art. Recycle Camp is also developing a crusher to shred and compress plastic water jugs. However, at this time, they cannot collect or process plastic items. This is your responsibility Their motto : Recycle, Reduce and Reuse. If you wish to help, you may contact them at recycle(at)burningman(dot)com.

Join the Earth Guardians
Burning Man's Earth Guardians work year-round to ensure the conservation of historical, cultural, and environmental resources of the Black Rock Desert. They work regularly with the Bureau of Land Management (our federal landlord) to monitor the effects of long-term desert use, and work with other user groups on conservation projects. They are an official Leave No Trace (LNT) organization and conduct desert work weekends through the year. During our event, the Guardians contribute to all phases of our city's cleanup efforts. They educate our citizens and monitor and protect the environment surrounding Black Rock City. This year they will help oversee Leave No Trace Days during our event. You can become an ad hoc Earth Guardian by simply assuming responsibility within your camp for leaving no trace (visit their headquarters in Center Camp and tell them about your efforts!). To join the Earth Guardians or learn more about how you can help, contact them at earthguardians(at)burningman(dot)com.

Participate on the playa in Leave No Trace Days
Our participant cleanup program. The most effective means to clean the desert is through systematic effort. This year we will conduct sweeps of our city on both Sunday and Monday. Please plan your time so that you can join in! We will sweep in a broad front through our city, picking up trash and communicating with participants. Volunteer rallies and socials will be held ahead of time in San Francisco and discussions and training will be conducted via the Internet. Meet your neighbors-to-be and organize now. To be part of this united effort, contact: lnt(at)burningman(dot)com.

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Inform yourself
Visit our website at www.burningman.com. It contains many pages of information concerning the Earth Guardians, Recycle Camp, and our Department of Public Works. It is filled with helpful hints and stories. It is a detailed guide to Leave No Trace techniques. Copy this information and share it with your campmates and friends.

There are no public garbage cans at Burning Man
This is because Burning Man is an activist community, not an anonymous public spectacle. As a participant, you become a member of our cleanup crew. It may, of course, seem inconvenient to look at the waste in your life. Trash is always an unlovely thing to contemplate. Yet, if we are to live intensely and well, we must learn to match our resources to our needs, to burn cleanly and thoroughly and without waste, like a good bonfire. One cleanup volunteer put it this way: "Being earnest and virtuous, thinking LNTish thoughts, doesn't keep anyone from making traces. Feeling indignant about litter becomes, eventually, a waste of emotional energy. All we can do - all we need to do - is look around, pick it up, and persuade more of our friends to do the same."