rethinking LNT

I identify as a Burner. I’ve been to Burning Man twice, though not since 2008. I almost went this year, but couldn’t quite put it together. Oh well. Next year. I have a lot of good friends in that community, and have a lot of fun with them in Chicago.

One of the Ten Principles of Burning Man is ‘Leave No Trace:’

Our community respects the environment. We are committed to leaving no physical trace of our activities wherever we gather. We clean up after ourselves and endeavor, whenever possible, to leave such places in a better state than when we found them.

Which is an important idea. I like it in a lot of ways. But as I reflect on it, I think it’s predicated upon what I’ve begun to think of as footprintism: the idea that there isn’t a legitimate role for humans to play in nature. That the impact humans have on their environment is their ecological ‘footprint:’ All things inside the footprint are ‘artificial,’ an interruption in nature and therefore bad. All things outside the footprint are ‘natural’ and therefore good. A footprint is to be minimized. I’ve written about it before.

And in some circumstances that might be true. Burning Man itself happens on the playa, an ancient dried lakebed, where the top of the food chain is marginally multicellular. It’s hard for me to think of a healthy role humans can play in that ecosystem, even just for a week.

But we don’t just go to Burning Man in the desert. We have regional events (Lakes of Fire is the one I’ve been to) in different kinds of locations, and we have various  local parties and events: Precomp and Decomp (events before and after Burning Man) are celebrated in a lot of places, and we have Resonate and all the various Freakeasy events in Chicago. Us Burners like our parties.

And outside the playa, it’s very likely we can find a legitimate ecological role for humans to play. That might also look like leaving behind a clean, intact environment. But it also means participating in natural and invented cycles: composting as much as possible, recycling where necessary, and minimizing (eliminating?)  landfilling.

We could also try composting and recycling within our community, and see if we can make that work. Upcycling event waste into art seems like a natural practice for us. We could even design our future waste (cups, plates, whatever) to use in some art project, or with some general purpose in mind.

I really hesitate to carry this line of thought much further, being as it might end with me running composting and recycling for Burner events, and I feel like I’m already pretty busy. Though, hmm…



  1. With all respect to the burner community and in deference to the impressively held commitment to leave no trace, Burning Man sill necessitates a high degree of waste. Fuel, materials, money. Think of all the cars that drive out there, all the fuel used to power art cars and installations, the materials used and thrown away. Burning Man is very far from being a “green” event. So, yeah, leave no trace is nice, and yeah BM is a great experiment in social consciousness, but I sense a bit of a disconnect between the principles of the event and the amount of waste it entails just to exist.

    Not a rant against BM, just observing the point.

  2. Hey John! I think it’s important to remember when embarking on this train-of-thought that of all the Burning Man ethos, ‘Leave No Trace’ is unequivocally the most Bureau of Land Management centered. We cannot Leave A Trace or BLM will revoke the BORG’s permits and say we have to leave and never come back. Especially when Burning Man was in its inception – and the cultural cachet and the vast amounts of money being poured into the Gerlach/Reno area was less pronounced -this was a very legitimate worry.

    Now, since that time, the Leave No Trace principle has become much more of an ingrained part of our community and not just a method of eluding penalties. Many small camps and even large theme camps ( I know both Burners Without Borders and Department of Teathered Aviation keep compost bins ) are very serious about handling the waste created and its disposal. But still, the origins in this way of thinking come partly by way of BLM being part of the parks system, which, since the 1950s, has emphasized in their missions the bit about not just conservation, but also preservation of the last wild places in America. The idea being, we should keep some of our land wild and untamed, which is why you should leave it the way you found it. ‘Leave No Trace’ is actually a conservation/preservation minded axiom, not really an ecological or ‘green’ one. It has nothing or little to do with recycling/upcyling, going green, saving fuel, or any of that, but of the idea that as caretakers of this nation we should leave some of the natural beauty of this country unspoiled for the generations which follow us. In a very ironic way, the ‘Leave No Trace’ ethos is actually almost entirely against a huge event like Burning Man which could never in a million years actually not leave a trace.

    Which is not to say the BM is bad or doing a poor job, but that our interpretations and intentions behind the ‘Leave No Trace’ principle have grown and changed. Hopefully for the better. The way in which we wish to use this phrase in our lives at home is where the change is most important. While we make huge effects on the Black Rock Desert (tire tracks don’t just up and disappear) it is at least a very desolate and vast environment, which Black Rock City only takes up a tiny portion of (I was lucky enough to visit Fourth of Juplaya this year and, wow, I’ll tell you, when you’re out there and the city isn’t you really begin to appreciate how enormous that desert truly is). In our own lives though we can make a difference, or at least not contribute to the problem.

    I do very much agree with you though, that it is problematic for humanity to consider any change it makes as negative. We are animals just as the elephant and the beaver are (and both make significant changes to their environment). To bring it all back to the beginning, the Boy Scouts co-opted the ‘Leave No Trace’ idea in their conception of hiking, camping, and other outdoors-y activities. They said: ‘Leave No Trace, Leave Only Footprints.”

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