Forget Burning Man–this is the Burning Conference You Should Attend

Reposted with permission – Adam Creighton, CEO InStove

This summer, Burning Man will draw tens of thousands of guests, and the fixated attention of millions as it celebrates diversity, creativity, and radical self-reliance in a “temporary city” in the desert of Nevada.

It’s the bizarro, developed-world inverse of refugee and Internally Displaced Persons camps in the deserts of sub-Saharan Africa.

These camps aren’t filled with artists, college students, and the nouveau riche of Silicon Valley, but rather with young mothers and their children fleeing man-made disasters:  wars, ethnic and tribal violence, organized sexual predation and human trafficking, and other symptoms of failed states. While often thought of as “temporary” cities, these camps—like Dadaab, Kenya, where the grandchildren of the original refugees are now being born having never known a life outside the camps—are anything but temporary.

The infrastructure of these camps means that they depend heavily upon foreign aid, and over 80% of them have no access to electricity, and meet all of their energy needs in the traditional way: with wood.

Over decades, the cumulative impact of these populations meeting their needs with firewood is devastating. Over-harvesting of the increasingly scarce forests negatively impacts everything from watersheds and habitats, to livelihoods (like agriculture, grazing, and gathering) that depend upon forest ecosystems. The wood is burned inefficiently in open fires that belch smoke, poisonous gases, and particulate matter (including black carbon, the mother of all climate-changing emissions), and expose those who depend upon it to household air pollution (HAP) that is one of the greatest sources of disability adjusted life years, and preventable deaths, in the world. Each year, 4.3 million people will die from diseases traceable to exposure to HAP, and countless others—mostly young women—will go blind, become burned, or experience other life-altering consequences as a result of their dependence on open-fire cooking to survive.

The wood is burned inefficiently in open fires that belch smoke, poisonous gases, and particulate matter (including black carbon the mother of all climate-changing emissions)…

But this weekend in Kirkland Washington, a group of scientists, researchers, and humanitarians will gather to identify, discuss, and ultimately help solve these problems, at the 16th annual Engineers in Technical and Humanitarian Opportunities of Service (ETHOS) conference. Like Burning Man, it attracts eccentrics—not the kind that live in a campsite in the Nevada desert for a week at a time and practice “radical self-reliance”—but the kind who brave malaria, kidnapping, lawlessness, and extreme weather for months (even years) on end, living in the field, and teaching folks how to build better stoves from bricks (like Aid Africa), to be entrepreneurs, assembling and selling improved stoves to their communities (like Potential Energy), or to reduce the environmental burdens of feeding programs in refugee camps (like InStove). It attracts the kind of old eccentrics who give up a comfortable retirement (and the kind of young eccentrics who sacrifice high-paying careers) to chase dreams of improving life for the most vulnerable people in the most dangerous places on Earth. To say these folks are radically self-reliant is an understatement.

Now, I’m not saying there is anything wrong with Burning Man. It is a wonderful celebration that does tend to help people connect with the earth, and with each other, in a meaningful way. And for a festival, it does an admirable job of offsetting the wood it burns with organized environmental stewardship, and through the mobilization of a clean-up effort that leaves the desert as they found it. But if you really want to meet creative, hopeful, talented and brilliant eccentrics who have dedicated their lives to sustainability at an event that gives you hope for the future, and leaves you feeling inspired…forget Burning Man, and come to ETHOS.

And if you are a Burner, get in touch with us. We’d love to help wean the festival off of fossil-fuel dependency, and bring sustainable cooking to your temporary city too.

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