GREEN CITY Two years ago Tom Price called me from the hurricane-ravaged Gulf Coast. We didn't know each other, but he'd read some of my articles about Burning Man, including "Epilogue as Prologue" (10/4/2005), which culminated my seven-part series by looking at how burners were projecting their culture, skills, and ethos into the outside world.
The most obvious example I used was the group that went straight from Burning Man 2005 to Mississippi to help clean up after Hurricane Katrina, which hit during the event. "If that isn't applying our ethos, I don't know what is," Burning Man founder Larry Harvey said in my article. "The very skills needed to survive at Burning Man are the skills needed to respond to a disaster."
Price had been a little busy mucking out flood-damaged homes and rebuilding a Buddhist temple in Biloxi, Miss., but the he'd called home for the past five months had finally gotten an Internet connection, and he'd just found my article. "Dude, we're still here," he told me excitedly by phone. "It's happening just like you wrote. We're doing it."
As I started to learn, Price was an accomplished idealist for whom "doing it" means working to save the world. In college in Utah he spent a year in a shanty he erected in the main college square urging the university to disinvest in apartheid South Africa, and his removal led to a court case that expanded free speech rights. He worked as a journalist chronicling threats to the indigenous Kalahari tribes in Botswana and as an environmental activist and lobbyist in Washington DC, where he eventually became the main contract lobbyist for Burning Man, an event he loves.
In Mississippi he turned an encampment of do-gooder burners into an organization he dubbed Burners Without Borders. Price spoke so passionately and eloquently about what they were doing that I just had to go, working with them (as both journalist and laborer) for a week and writing a Guardian cover story about the experience ("From Here to Katrina," 2/22/06).
It was a project and a moment that seemed to capture both the scale of the environmental problems facing this country and the enormous potential of motivated individuals to creatively deal with them.
From there Burners Without Borders went on to create a program that recycles the huge amount of wood used by the more than 40,000 people who now attend Burning Man every year, donating it to Habitat for Humanity for the construction of low-income homes. And the group has sent contingents to do cleanup work after floods in the Pacific Northwest and cleanup and reconstruction in Pisco, Peru, after the massive earthquake there in 2007.
Price became the first environmental director for Burning Man, reflecting its Green Man theme last year.
One of the most notable projects to grow from that endeavor finally came into full bloom Dec.