Thursday, April 1, 2021

Sustainability Case Studies 17: Designing Personal Sustainability into Organizational Culture: The Case of Burning Man

Click for photo caption.
This is the 17th post in this blog series, Sustainability Case Studies, that is based on the book The Palgrave Handbook of Sustainability: Case Studies and Practical Solutions edited by Robert Brinkmann (yours truly) and Sandra Garren and published by Palgrave Macmillan in 2018. Each post in the series will comment on the content of the chapter as well as some general take-aways or practical teaching or personal/organizational initiatives that could be gleaned from the chapter. Links to previous posts on the series (including the post that introduced the series) follow after the review.

This chapter, Designing Personal Sustainability into Organizational Culture:  The Case of Burning Man, by Morgan C. Benton and Nicole M. Radziwill, focuses on the big international art and music festival known as Burning Man. The famous event draws around 70,000 people every August (except for the whole pandemic thing) to northwestern Nevada. As one can imagine, the event has a relatively large environmental footprint--one that the organizers have worked hard to reduce. The chapter focuses on how the organization of Burning Man is developing clear sustainability goals within its organization.


The chapter begins with a review of sustainability management and sustainability planning for events. It also highlights the need to focus on personal sustainability within any planning context. The chapter then goes into the case study which reviews the organizational elements of Burning Man. What is interesting is the overall organizational structure of the event. The "camp" is the main unit of spatial organization and many camps have specializations such as hair washing or food supply. Some of the camps manage things like trash pick up and water management. Thus, at least for a short period of time every year, Burning Man is the largest intentional eco community on the planet. 

Another important aspect of Burning Man is the transformational experiences individuals can have. This transformation includes aspects of sustainability and learning about the environment. Burning Man organizers and participants have also embraced something called the 10 Principles which including things like radical self-reliance, decommodificatios, civic responsibility, and leave no trace. Based on surveys, many of the attendees of Burning Man bring the 10 Principles, including those that involve sustainability, into their lives. The chapter concludes with a variety of lessons learned and challenges and barriers. Some of the lessons learned include a number of recommendations as to how to make Burning Many more sustainable, including finding alternatives to single-occupancy vehicles and reducing waste.


Layout of Burning Man. Click for image credit.

Here are some discussion questions when using this chapter for a unit on organizational sustainability, events and sustainability, or personal sustainability:

1. Why did the Burning Man festival embrace many key themes of sustainability?

2. The 10 Principles are not required of participants, but are provided to suggest conduct. How do you think this approach of suggesting vs. requiring influences participants?

3. Burning Man is often described by attendees as a "transformative" experience. What types of "transformative" experiences have increased your interest in sustainability?

4. One of the 10 Principles is Radical Self Reliance. What is meant by this term?

5. How does Burning Man impact local ecosystems (organisms and their environment)?

6. What are "Sparkle Ponies" and how do they impact the sustainability of Burning Man?

7. How can you reduce the environmental footprint of events in which you are involved such as weddings, birthday parties, or other celebrations?

8. Many "camps" at Burning Man have a distinct specialization associated with art, music, environment, or services. What type of camp would you set up at the event?

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