Little green burners

Why is Jim Mason fighting bureaucrats instead of working on his alternative fuel project?
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steve@sfbg.com

GREEN CITY Today's environmental problems — global warming, peak oil, drastically dwindling biodiversity, an unsustainable economic system that pollutes and consumes too much — are big. And there are many big solutions proposed by big governmental bodies, big individuals, and big corporations.

A major commitment is truly needed, but perhaps it's the million small innovators and gestures that are most likely to add up to the most fundamental shift. Could these people, linked together, with enough freedom and support to pursue their visions, save the planet?

Burning Man founder Larry Harvey threw a stone into this pond last September when he chose Green Man as the theme for this year's event, a decision that has rippled through the thousands of creative, capable people who spend much of the year tinkering in workshops around the Bay Area and across the country. People like Jim Mason.

Mason heeded Harvey's call in his typically exuberant fashion, developing an innovative gasification system that turns biomass waste products into a usable fuel similar to natural gas. Collaborating with fellow artists and engineers in the Shipyard space that he created in Berkeley, Mason has been doing groundbreaking work.

The group converted a 1975 pickup truck owned by impresario Chicken John to run on substances like wood chips and coffee grounds, and Mason and John have been working principally with artists Michael Christian and Dann Davis to develop a fire-spewing, waste-eating, carbon-neutral slug called Mechabolic for Burning Man this year.

"Chicken's shitty truck is going to be sitting in front of the Silicon Valley's big alternative-energy conference for venture capitalists," Mason told the Guardian on May 22 as he headed to the Clean Technology 2007 confab, an illustration of the place little innovators are starting to find amid the big.

The New York Times featured Mechabolic in a technology article it ran earlier in May about the Green Man theme, and the project has been a centerpiece of the green evangelizing being done by Burning Man's new environmental director, Tom Price.

Price has been working with hundreds of innovators like Mason to turn this year's Burning Man, at least in part, into a green-technology exposition where creative types from around the world can exchange ideas. "It's the Internet versus the big three networks" was how Price compared the big and small approaches to environmental solutions. "The goal is to show how easy and do-it-yourself profound solutions can be."

But ragtag approaches like Mason's don't fit well into institutional assumptions about art and technology, as he discovered May 11 when Berkeley city officials ordered him to shut down the Shipyard or bring it into immediate compliance with various municipal codes.

"They need to temporarily leave while they seek the permits that ensure it's safe to be there," Berkeley planning director Dan Marks told us May 18. He criticized the Shipyard for using massive steel shipping containers as building material, doing electrical work without permits, and not being responsive to city requests.

The move stopped work on gasification and other projects as the Shipyard crew scrambled to satisfy bureaucratic demands — but it also prompted a letter-writing campaign and offers of outside help and collaboration that convinced Mayor Tom Bates and city council member Darryl Moore to meet with Mason on May 21 and agree to help the Shipyard stay in business.

Berkeley fire chief David Orth and other officials fighting the Shipyard say that Bates has asked for their cooperation. "A request has been made to see what can be done to keep the facility there but bring it into compliance," Orth told us.

All involved say the Shipyard has a long way to go before it's legal and accepted by the city.