Leave No Trace

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The Leave No Trace Pictogram by James Wickham

Leave No Trace is one of the original 10 Principles of Burning Man. The Ten Principles were written by Larry Harvey in 2004 as a guide to the organisation of Burning Man, and later adopted as a model of thinking and behaviour for participants to follow at the event, and in their lives generally.


"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."

Historically 'Leave No Trace' was the name given to a set of guidelines for visitors to National Parks in the USA, which first appeared in a NPS brochure in 1987. The seven guidelines are:

  1. plan ahead and prepare,
  2. travel and camp on durable surfaces,
  3. dispose of waste properly,
  4. leave what you find,
  5. minimize campfire impacts,
  6. respect wildlife,
  7. be considerate of other visitors.

In 1998 Burning Man formally adopted the “Leave No Trace” principle, borrowing the phrase from the United States Forest Service, the Bureau of Land Management, and the National Park Service, which had jointly popularised the term.

As a Burning 'Principle' and its relation to other Burning Principles

Leave No Trace is one of the core burn principles. This must be included in any Burn in order for it to be officially associated in the Burning Man community.

Usually it is important to understand that all principles apply equally and concurrently. The principles were designed to all work, and to all work together. Generally, no principle can be used to justify an act of commission or omission that violates any other principle. Principles do not 'conflict' with each other or 'contradict' each other because no principle is intended to be considered or applied in isolation from all the remaining principles. No principle takes away from any other principle. The principles are additive.

That said, Leave No Trace is a principle that leaves little or no room for compromise. It's clear that principles such as Radical Self Expression must never diminish Leave No Trace. The only principle that might modify Leave No Trace is Civic Responsibility, and only in three specific circumstances:

  • A crime scene has to be preserved 'as is' for as long as the authorities require it to be.
  • If an event site has MOOP prior to the Burn event setting up, then it is usually expected that the pre-event MOOP will be removed along with the Burn event MOOP.
  • It is possible for a Burn event to restore or improve the ecology of an event site, but only WITH the agreement of the landowners of the event site.

Note though, the definition and identification of pre-event MOOP, or pre-event environmental degradation can be subjective, and can be wrong. It is essential to consult with landowners or land custodians in these cases. Furthermore, steps taken to restore or improve the event site environment can - if not carefully designed and implemented - actually further degrade the environment. For example, removing a weed species might result in soil loss, create the opportunity for even more invasive species, or remove a food source for a species which has adapted to the presence of the weed species.

Leave No Trace is a very straight forward principle. When you walk the site during and after the event MOOP is usually very evident. And success in preventing and managing MOOP is usually very easy to assess.

Interactions between this principle and real world circumstances in the context of Burns

One of the great debates in Burning philosophy and practice, is whether Burns should take any steps to help participants and Theme Camps manage MOOP. The debate recognises that every step a Burn organisation might take to assist in managing MOOP might have the effect of reducing the sense of responsibility for avoiding and managing MOOP among Theme Camps and participants generally. To some extent this expectation is based on a certain view of how people and groups behave - but it has to be acknowledged that this is observed experience from many Burns.

Activating Leave No Trace

A Burn Principle is not intended as a description of 'what is', but rather a guide to taking active steps - and not just within the Burn community. Examples of activating Leave No Trace include:

  • Programs to educate Theme Camps and participants in the principle of LNT, including awareness of MOOP and preventing and managing MOOP.
  • Supporting the creation of volunteer MOOP cleanup teams, and support them in their operations
  • Having processes to document MOOP presence, particularly post event and in that case to attempt to attribute it to individuals or Theme Camps for follow up.
  • Documenting pre-event MOOP and discussing this with landowners or land custodians in order to achieve positive outcomes.
  • Setting clear rules about what is MOOP and whether it can be brought to the Burn event.
  • Creating facilities or partnerships with groups within or external to the event in order to assist Theme Camps and participants to manage MOOP
  • Programs to extend awareness of LNT beyond the event and participation in LNT activities outside the event
  • Promoting LNT within the context of, and also as an introduction to, the wider issue of Sustainability
  • Providing guidance on calculating Carbon pollution, avoiding it and mitigating it.

This principle in wider historic and philosophical contexts

The Ten Principles of Burning Man are in class known as 'Moral Systems' All attempts at creating a universal 'Moral System' have failed, and they have at times incorporated elements that we would reject, and have been championed and fought over at the expense of lives and nations.

Danny Usery makes the point that although sets of moral principles ideally should not contain inherent contradictions, in practice they often do. He suggests that in resolving those conflicts - which is necessary in order to follow those moral principles in 'real life', a person should apply a set of theory rules (or ethical principles) which will guide you in your application of those moral principles. He acknowledges the existence of multiple examples of ethical principles (such as Utilitarian or Kantian) and further acknowledges that the a person attempting to choose amongst these various ethical principles might seek further guidance, using some criteria to do so, and some ethical principles to understand which criteria to use, and so on ad infinitum.

The Burning Man Principles and Community provide no specific guidance on what 'ethical principles' should guide a Burners (or a Burn Organizer's) view towards and application of the Ten Principles. The 'purist' might hold that Burns should not charge money, and in fact should not be organized by anyone - but in fact organized by everyone. This viewpoint finds its nearest expression in the Rainbow Gathering movement. Others would hold that the Burn is an opportunity to showcase 'ideals', but the showcase has to exist in the 'real world' and comply with the economic and legal constraints of the real world as it stands now while we work to bring the 'real world' into line with our 'showcased world'. Some will hold that 'the pure is the enemy of the good', and others will say that 'If you want to do anything, do it now, without compromise or concession, because you have only one life. Gao Xingjian

Expressions and Artwork

On and off-playa installations have been created to express this principle. Perth graphic designer James Wickham created a set of pictographs in 2015 to illustrate the 10 Principles, and these have been widely praised and adopted.

See Also