by: Joel Makower

I'm just back from the Burning Man festival, an artistic extravaganza and human experiment in the Nevada desert that happens every year about this time. Burning Man, for the uninitiated, lures tens of thousands of spirited souls to a hot, dusty dry lakebed for what amounts to a weeklong, hedonistic party with just a smidgen of content thrown in. I was smidgen of that smidgen; more about which in a moment.

This year's festival theme -- "The Green Man" -- was part of what lured me. The green theme could be found amid the countless fantastical sculptures and exhibits created for display on the desert floor. As the Burning Man official website explains it:

Pretending that environmental problems don't exist, or just running away from them, won't solve them, but we think turning potential solutions into mind-blowing art has a chance to make an impact. . . . This theme also provides us the opportunity to bring these issues into the limelight, making them a part of our community's ongoing dialog, and fostering environmental awareness in our day-to-day thinking, decisions and actions.

As I said, I was there in part to speak at a lecture series given by one of the camps. My "lecture" came in the form of a conversation between myself and Charles Shaw, editor-in-chief of Conscious Choice, a Chicago-based lifestyle magazine focusing on "social, green, health, food, and spiritual consciousness."

Nearly a year ago, Shaw called to interview me for a story he was writing. It had to do with GE, Wal-mart, BP, and other companies that, in Shaw's opinion, were greenwashing -- promoting a few good, green deeds to cover up an otherwise abysmal environmental record. I happened to be going to Chicago a few days later, so we agreed to meet.

In the course of the hour-long interview in Shaw's office, I made a case that while none of the companies in question was perfect -- far from it -- their intentions were honorable and there was far more to the greening of big companies than meets the eye. Journalistically, I suggested, Shaw's story called for more than a knee-jerk response -- "It's a big company, so it can't possibly be green" -- but rather demanded a far more nuanced approach to thinking about what the companies in question were doing, and how much each deserved both credit and scorn.

It was a fruitful hour. The resulting story that Shaw wrote transcended the knee-jerk to reflect some of the nuances. Shaw later told me that he appreciated the opportunity to rethink some of his assumptions about business and the environment.

Shaw, as it turned out, was co-organizing the Burning Man lecture series and we agreed to continue the conversation we started, but in front of -- and with the participation of -- the Burning Man crowd. And so it began.

I'll admit to having more than a little trepidation about speaking on this topic at this event. It wasn't my typical audience or venue, to say the least. Moreover, the Burning Man ethos is militantly anti-commercialism. Once you buy an admission ticket, there's absolutely nothing for sale at Burning Man except ice and coffee. No advertisements, promotions, or other forms of commercialism are allowed or tolerated. Trading and gifting are the currencies of choice. Hard-core Burners even cover up the corporate logos on their vehicles and other possessions. (Rumor has it that several of the solar companies approached to do demonstration installations at the festival turned down the opportunity when they learned they couldn't display their company's logo.) You couldn't find a more anti-business crowd.

Given all this, how would Burners cotton to my observations about big, mainstream companies' earnest efforts to integrate green thinking into their operations in ways that create business value, not just PR points? Could they see any merit in the current wave of big business pronouncements about their green commitments and performance? I was warned that the audience wouldn't be passive -- they would speak their minds without hesitation -- which added to my trepidation.

The small crowd that showed up at the geodesic dome that served as a lecture space on the very hot Saturday afternoon turned out to be thoughtful, vocal, and anything but close-minded. The conversation that unfolded between Shaw and me -- and, very quickly, with the assembled group -- was gratifyingly constructive.

(Incidentally, speaking at Burning Man turns on its head that hackneyed bit of advice to nervous speakers that they should try to imagine the audience being naked. At Burning Man, there's little need for such imagination, given that some of the audience members actually weren't wearing clothes.)

It wasn't all agreement. There was more than a little skepticism about companies' motivations in "going green," but more than that I was struck by the audience's failure of imagination. I asked the group, which seemed overwhelmingly to dislike Wal-mart, what it would take for that company to be seen as green. No one had a clue. I threw out a few ideas -- "What if every Wal-mart store had a 'small-mart' inside with outlets featuring local merchants and products?" "What if every store was solar-powered, with excess energy fed back to the local community?" -- but there were no takers. Even this relatively creative bunch couldn't envision how a behemoth retailer could ever be an environmental role model. That's a concern -- not just for Wal-mart, or retailers in general, but for any big brand seeking to be seen as a model green citizen.

Time ran out before our conversation did -- always better than the alternative -- and the private discussions that followed suggested that, much as had happened with Shaw, the conversation may have enlightened a few of these souls. That was my goal, of course. I never set out trying to convince anyone about any particular company, focusing instead on the potential of business in general to be agents of change.

And along the way, if the conversation helps even one person understand that the road to a greener economy is neither straight nor smooth, that there will be many roadblocks and detours along the route of even the best-intentioned companies, and that it will require a robust conversation between consumers and companies about each party's expectations of the other as we travel this road together, then I feel it was time well spent.

Score one for "The Green Man."

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