POWERED BY 2,000 GALLONS OF PROPANE and 900 gallons of jet fuel, the mushroom cloud thundered across Nevada's Black Rock Desert, incinerating a 99-foot-tall wooden oil derrick and deluging thousands of art- and party-loving spectators with a 2.4-gigawatt blast of heat and light. Loudspeakers blared a dark, off-key rendition of "The Star-Spangled Banner." Eight towering, humanlike metal sculptures representing the world's religions bowed in worship before the flaming spectacle, said to symbolize the impending crash of our fossil-fuel-addicted civilization.
The Burning Man festival is notorious for such grandiose displays. Volunteer coordinator Kachina Katrina Zavalney was not amused.
"It made an obscene mess," she said, the frustration in her voice echoing a growing philosophical rift.
For years "burners" have been trying to draw lines of ethical behavior in the desert sand. As last summer's "Crude Awakening" performance broiled the night sky with petrochemical flames, some confronted a question whose relevance resonates far beyond the annual encampment: With life on Earth now clearly at risk, how much waste, pollution, and hypocrisy can we humans justify in our pursuit of art, education, freedom, and--yes--fun?