Environmental Graffiti Interview: Tom Price

Robert Knox, former editor of Environmental Graffiti got the chance to ask Tom Price (Environmental Manager of Burning Man and Director and founder of Black Rock Solar a few questions). Tom has been shortlisted as one of four “environmental heroes” by PEOPLE magazine

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Tom Price. Image via Matthew Taylor

How did the idea for Black Rock Solar, and the idea of making solar power
cheap or free, come about?

When we were planning the 2007 Burning Man event, which had “the green man” as its theme, we wanted to incorporate solar power. A person who owns a company that builds large solar systems offered to loan us some panels, and when trying to figure out what to do with them afterwards we learned about the high rebates available in Nevada. Solar costs on average $10 per watt to install, and the rebates were $5. But about half the cost is profit and labor, and we realized that if we weren’t interested in making money, and could get volunteers from Burning Man to help build and install it for not very much wages, then we could build it pretty much for free–which is exactly what we did. The great thing about the environment and community of Burning Man is that it’s very much a do-ochracy, so when someone has a good idea there are very few impediments to making it happen.

What projects are you working on at the moment?

We’re building a 60KW solar array for the Natchez Elementary school in Wadsworth, Nevada, which serves the students of the adjacent Paiute Indian Reservation, and have a dozen more schools, hospitals, and other public buildings lined up to do after that.

And we’ve got a super project going at this summer’s ROTHBURY festival ( 4 days, 70 bands, camping, should be fantastic ). Instead of a Ticketmaster fee, they’re charging a green tax, and giving a bunch of the proceeds to us to build a permanant solar array for a nearbye school. Now THAT’s my kind of party with a purpose.

What do you hope to accomplish in the long term, both with Black Rock and personally?

We want to completely reframe people’s idea of renewable energy, from being something that’s expensive and exclusive to the rich, to being cheap (or free!) and available to everyone. We want to take down the oil industry, one building at a time.

And personally, I’d love to get myself out of debt, so I could stop worrying about the bills and focus on getting things done. I suppose never having worked for a for-profit corporation ( Burning Man, ironically, the exception) is a good part of the reason why. That, and plane tickets ( see below ).

What do you do when you’re not trying to save the world?

My wife and I have a 4 month old daughter, which is a full time job in itself. I absolutely love to travel, and in fact used to be an environmental/human rights journalist, but after having been banned from the country I was doing the most work in, Botswana, I’ve had to cut that short a bit. But writing this now I realize I don’t really do much that’s not related to my work. Hmm. I need a hobby.

Both Black Rock Solar and another project you’re involved in, Burners Without Borders, came out of the Burning Man Festival. Why do you think the festival has inspired so many people to get active in various causes, while larger and more publicized festivals like Live Earth are generally seen as less successful in that regard?

Because they’re fundimentally different experiences. Live Earth was a product to be consumed, no matter how green or progressive the packaging. Burning Man is the world’s largest event created almost entirely by its participants. That’s a profound difference, and a transformative experience. When people are immersed in an environment that people just like them created, and when they are cut off from their usual social signifiers of who is/isn’t important ( at Burning Man, for example, there is no backstage, no special access, no demarcations at all, so everyone has pretty much the same experience), they they’re free to be who or whatever they want to be. And most people, it turns out, want to be creative, generous, outgoing and community oriented. So, magnify that by 50,000 people times seven days, and you get an incredibly immersive and positive environment. There’s just no comparison between that, and a concert you buy a ticket to, watch, and then leave.

Installing solar power at little to no cost seems like the type of thing that would appeal to almost everyone, but all environmental issues can be controversial. Have you encountered any roadblocks or resistance?

Sure, but none we couldn’t overcome. Mostly, people and institutions have no way of handling what we’re presenting: “Wait, you want to build a million dollar solar array, and give it away? Is that legal?” is the sort of thing we hear. No one as best we can tell has before combined this kind of large scale financial capital with social capital, and what we’re doing doesn’t fit into anyone’s idea of how the world works. So we encounter a lot of resistance from time to time. But once we explain that no ones getting rich, and that all the money saved gets to stay in the schools to help school children, then it’s down to a question of whether or not they want to be in the way, and most people don’t. I mean, there’s not much to argue with, when you get right down to it. Burning Man operates on what’s known as the “gift economy,” where things are just given away with no thought of return or exchange, so for us it makes perfect sense.

What has been your proudest environmental accomplishment so far, and what has been your lowest moment?

Tough call, as I’ve been in this game for a number of years. I guess it’s a tie, between watching Bill Clinton establish the Grand Staircase National Monument, which I’d been working for years along with many others to protect from coal mining, and watching our first solar array go online.

Worse would have to be last year at Burning Man, when a very disturbed person climbed atop the environemntal pavillions we’d spent 10 months curating and set the man on fire early, closing the entire space for almost the entire event on the first day it opened. There was a machine in there that made open source, renewable, carbon negative energy. I really wish I’d had the chance to show the media and everyone there how it worked.

You started out as a small, grassroots organization. What was the biggest challenge in getting the project off the ground?

Mostly it’s been logistical. Trying to build half million dollar projects, it’s not so much the money but the paperwork that’s the impediment. It’s a good opportunity to practice patience, I guess.

What advice would you offer someone who wants to go out and get involved beyond recycling or reducing their own energy use?

First, pat yourself on the back–you’re already way ahead of most people in even noticing that’s not. Then, get someone else to do what you’ve done. Seriously–nothing is more effective than one friend talking to another. Be a persistantly conspicuous good example. Most people don’t act becuase they’re unsure of doing it wrong, or knowing it will matter. A quick word can make all the difference.

As for your own behavour, consider this story: my friend Sarah told me about how her friend Julia Butterfly Hill ( of tree sitting fame ) had challenged her to carry around all her garbage for one week. All of it. Napkins from a restaurant, apple cores, everything. She said it was incredibly eye opening, and now every time I toss anything I think of that story and have become aware of just how big my footprint is. Maintaining an ever growing awareness and acknowledgment of your actions, that’s a commendable goal.

What do you think is the biggest environmental problem we face today?

Inertia. Our entire culture is predicated on the idea of consuming your way to happiness–which won’t work and we don’t have the stuff for even if it it did.

What do you think will be the biggest challenges we’ll face in the future?

Massive, grinding displacement and disruption of the world as we know it. Back when I was reporting, I witnessed first hand people on the island of Tuvalu dealing with litterally loosing their nation from under their feet due to climate change. Multiply their hardship and distress by the billions and you’ll get to where we’ll be.

I take some solace in the words of Bill McKibben, who was among the very first to write about climate change. When asked about the future, he says “I’m not optomistic, but I’m hopeful.” Sums up my thinking precisely.