Can Burning Man Pull Out of Its Climate Death Spiral?

It was desperation that led Michelle into a BDSM tent at Burning Man. Not a desperate need for a spanking. Far from being a masochist, Michelle just wanted relief from the heat, and the BDSM tent had air-conditioning.

Burning Man 2022 was hot. The infamous bacchanal held in the dusty, dry lake bed of Nevada’s Black Rock Desert started at a high of 98 degrees Fahrenheit on Monday, August 29. By the weekend it had gotten up to 103, a record-setting temperature for a place already inhospitable to life. 

That this featureless, skin-cracking-dry expanse of white dust isn’t easy living has always been the point of hosting Burning Man there. But last year’s conditions led to a general sense of burnout and malaise, and many of the 80,000 attendees asked the existential question of whether it was still worth it to throw a party in a desert on a warming planet.

Tickets usually sell out within seconds of going on sale, and when the tickets to the 2023 event become available on April 12, that probably won’t change. Instead, the event might slowly decay after hitting a cultural high point right before the pandemic.

Reno, Nevada, is the closest big city, and it is the fastest warming city in the United States. Nevada currently averages 20 days a year with “dangerous” heat. By 2050, that’s projected to be 30 days. That doesn’t mean every year from here on out will have triple-digit days, but it does mean they’re increasingly likely.

Michelle, 35, is an outdoorsy person who likes to camp out and hike. She lives in Vancouver, British Columbia, and counts plenty of “Burners” among her friends and former roommates. “Self-sufficiency being one of the core principles, I was thinking this would be a really fun adventure for me,” she says, alluding to Burning Man’s foundational 10 Principles that festival devotees adhere to. (Michelle asked me not to use her last name because she worries that publicly identifying as a Burner would adversely affect her professional life.)

Two friends got her a last-minute ticket and set her up with a 175-person sustainability-focused camp. There would be fresh vegan meals, talks about sustainable living, and a bio-toilet, and the camp would provide composting for other camps. She packed a duffle bag with lightweight clothes, a big hat, electrolytes, sunscreen, plenty of water, two battery-powered fans, and a two-person tent. But those supplies were no match for the dust and the heat. 

By 8:30 on the first morning, her tent was an oven. She scrambled for a place to hide from the heat. The few misting cool-down stations listed in the official schedule were all packed with people seeking respite. Meanwhile, dust storms swept over the playa, limiting visibility to a few feet and coating everyone with alkaline dust. 

“I really felt like I was gonna die,” Michelle says. She knew her two friends had air-conditioning in their shelter, but they were a 45-minute bike ride away. She finally found their yurt and crawled inside. When they showed up an hour later, Michelle was having a breakdown. “This is too much. I think I need to go home,” she sobbed. She ended up staying, however, and at the end of the week she endured the nauseating task of cleaning rotten food out of her camp’s freezers and throwing it away—the camp’s old generators had broken down. 

It’s Hard to Be Green in the Dust

Festival attendees have to deal with dust storms on the playa. 

Photograph: Jordan England-Nelson/Getty Images

Full disclosure, I spent Burning Man 2022 in a gas-guzzling, air-conditioned RV. It was my sixth year at the Burn, and I was having a crisis of conscience over my participation, which was exacerbated by sitting in a 12-hour traffic jam to get out that was so big you could see it from space.

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