Equilibrium & Sustainability

Equilibrium/Sustainability — Burning up at Burning Man

Temperatures passed a scorching 105 degrees Fahrenheit at Black Rock City, the psychedelic impromptu settlement put up every Labor Day weekend by revelers in the Nevada desert as part of the Burning Man festival. 

“Set the oven to 300 degrees, open the oven, stand in front of it … and that might be what it’s going to feel like out there,” Mark Deutschendorf, a meteorologist with the weather service office in Reno, told San Francisco alt-weekly SFGate.

Deutschendorf was addressing conditions this weekend as the festival — a pop-up tech-world mecca canceled for two years due to coronavirus — roared back this year despite the heat.  

This year, elaborately decorated cars crisscrossed the dusty dried-out lake beds, volunteer pizzamakers churned out pies in the heat and the 80,000 temporary residents wandered among surreal art installations, as shown in this photo essay in the Daily Mail

As temperatures touch 110 degrees across the Great Basin and Colorado River Valley, some in tourist communities like Lake Havasu City, a center of boating alongside a reservoir in the Arizona desert, are staying home.

In California, residents are advised to stay inside during the heat of the day, the Los Angeles Times reported — with one Bay Area city taking the extreme step of closing parks to dissuade people from hiking outside, SFGate reported. 

Despite the heat, Californians in general are taking to the air and highways in droves this holiday weekend, which the Times reported would see 10.8 million Americans flying domestically and another 1.8 million internationally.

Welcome to Equilibrium, a newsletter that tracks the growing global battle over the future of sustainability. I’m Saul Elbein. Send us tips and feedback. A friend forward this newsletter to you? Subscribe here.

In today’s issue…Two reads to carry you into the long weekend: An embattled American Indian community in the mountains of New Mexico grapples with life after a fire, plus we’ll look at the impact of the electric vehicle boom on the environment

When fires pass, the real work begins 

The heat wave this week has fueled wildfires that are burning across the West — closing highways and threatening neighborhoods from southern California to inland Oregon.  

In addition to the strain on firefighters and the populations they are risking their lives to protect, evidence from New Mexico suggests the fires may be preparing the ground for more disaster later. 

Fighting flames in record heat: Thousands of firefighters fought blazes across California fueled by the stifling weather, which may break records this weekend, The Guardian reported.

  • Aside from its role boosting fires, the heat makes putting them out even tougher than usual, firefighters said. 
  • “Wearing heavy firefighting gear, carrying packs, dragging hose, swinging tools, the folks out there are just taking a beating,” LA County fire chief Thomas Ewald said.

Closing roads: Fires closed West Coast interstates leading into one of America’s busiest travel weekends.


Even once the fires are out, though, a great deal of work will remain, as Curtis Segarra reported for our Nexstar partners at KRQE Albuquerque. 

If what happened to New Mexico’s Santa Clara Pueblo is any indication, recovery will be long and painful, Segarra reported. 

  • Santa Clara is an indigenous community whose watershed was devastated by a massive wildfire a decade ago in the Jemez Mountains. 
  • “When the fire happened, it turned the landscape back to [like] the moon,” Tribal Governor Michael J. Chavarria said.  

The baking heat ruined the ability of the land to absorb water, so “when the rains came, it was basically like a concrete-lined ditch,” Chavarria added. 

Closing a generation gap: A particularly poignant loss was the fire’s destruction of the sacred, once-lovely Santa Clara Canyon — which became a massive torrent as rain ran off impermeable soils, destroying what trees remained. 

  • “The first thing I remember thinking to myself is: ‘How are we gonna clean this up? How are we gonna fix it?’ And in my mind, it was almost like it was impossible,” Santa Clara Pueblo director of forestry Daniel Denipah told KRQE. 
  • “The road was washed out. There was a lot of barriers, big logs, big rocks, everything that was just washed-in the area,” Denipah added. 

Bringing in the youth: The effort to rehabilitate that canyon — which is only now being reopened to the community — has become a symbol of tribal renewal and resilience, government members told Segarra. 

Denipah, the forestry director, said that restoring the canyon with the help of local youth would do double duty in repairing damage to the culture.

  • “From that 10 years of the canyon being closed, we lost that cultural connection to our younger generation, the future of tomorrow,” he said. 
  • “They need to understand where they come from. They need to understand how they survive off the land,” he added, saying it was important “not to lose them to the computer age.” 

A lifelong process: Denipah offered a sober warning for other fire-devastated landscapes across the fragile West — suggesting that recovery for damaged landscapes would be a generational project. 

“I don’t think it’s ever gonna end,” he said. “It’s probably gonna keep going long after I’m gone.” 

Battery alternatives could preserve deep ocean

The passage of hundreds of billions of dollars in federal clean energy subsidies — and several states’ decision to ban gas cars in a little over a decade — are already leading to big moves by the auto industry toward new electric vehicle (EV) supply chains.

A vital question: These new production chains come with an urgent problem — how to get the necessary minerals without devastating huge swaths of the environment.

One controversial mine in the upper Midwest would produce nickel — potentially at the risk of pollution to local lakes, streams and the wild rice beds of the Ojibwe people, The New York Times reported.

  • Nickel is a necessary component of EV batteries, where it helps boost the capacity of the cathode — which sucks up electrons from the anode, producing an electrical current, as CNBC reported. 
  • The mining company, “will come and go — greatly enriched by their mining operation. But we, and the remnants of the Tamarack mine, will be here forever,” Kelly Applegate of the Mille Lacs Band of Ojibwe told the Times. 

Ocean is no substitute: Attempts to avoid human rights by mining the deep ocean may be even worse than land-based mining, oceanographers told the Vancouver Sun.

A proposal by a Vancouver-based mining outfit to mine polymetallic nodules by dredging the seafloor nearly 4 miles below the surface could unleash irreparable damage, the Sun found. 

  • “I don’t think it’s obvious that deepsea mining is a much better way to do it, in terms of the environment,” said oceanographer Craig Smith. 
  • Smith noted that the deep sea plain is one of the most biodiverse and sensitive ocean environments on earth. 

“There are a lot of unknowns, and once we do it, we can’t go back. There’s no way to fix this deepsea ecosystem,” he added. 


There are other options that may wreak less havoc here on earth — from batteries made from biomaterials, from better recycling or even from looking to space. 

Batteries from crabs: A team at the University of Maryland fabricated a battery from a combination of zinc and chitosan — a variant of a chemical found in the bodies of crabs, lobsters and many fungi — according to a paper published on Thursday in Matter. 

  • The battery is made from just chitosan and zinc — leaving out scarce, toxic and potentially flammable lithium. 
  • Two-thirds of the battery can biodegrade within five months — leaving behind just inert, recyclable zinc. 

“The design of new batteries that are respectful of the environment, cheap and producing high discharge capacity, is one of the more important items that must be developed in the coming years,” one battery expert — not involved in the study — told the Guardian.  

Wait for scraps: Many auto-supply giants are pouring money into battery recycling facilities, which will let them pull scarce materials from old cars, Bloomberg reported. 

But those facilities may stand largely idle until more EVs reach the end of their lives, according to Bloomberg. 

  • The first wave of junked early-adoption EVs won’t start hitting junkyards till 2025. 
  • While recycling investment is picking up in the U.S. and Europe, China is world leader — in large part because the country’s massive electric vehicle adoption means it will be the source of “the first big wave of scrap,” as Bloomberg put it. 

But even as recycling picks up, we’re going to need new raw materials, one mining expert told Bloomberg. “Recycling isn’t going to be able to plug that gap any time soon.” 

Looking up: One possible solution that could be far easier and less ecologically destructive than deepsea mining is turning to the moon, Lewis Pinault of aerospace venture capitalist firm Airbus Ventures told Nautilus Magazine. 

  • I think there is room for a movement, if you will, to say, “Look, we have a responsibility to life on the planet and to the diversity of the planet,” Pinaul said. 
  • “And we have this gift of our geological twin, the moon, to provide us with mineral and energy wealth.”  

“Once we’ve done the hard work of knowing where to mine [on the moon] the next steps are solvable,” Pinault said. 

Friday Follow-ups

Returning to stories we’ve covered throughout the week 

California solar fights to supply off-grid community 

California asks electric vehicle drivers to hold off on charging 

Foul play suspected in death of Texas spring  

  • We wrote about the long-term water supply concerns facing the State of Texas, and the water conflicts arising from it. A spring-fed pool in the sweltering Rio Grande Valley town of Brackettville has dried up — and local advocates says local commercial agriculture is at fault, Texas Monthly reported. “This is not a place to grow crops. This is going to be a tourist location. But . . . the only way we’re going to get there is if we have water,” one local activist said.

🦩 Lighter click: The Hill’s photos of the week

Programming note: Sustainability will not publish on Monday in observance of Labor Day.

Please visit The Hill’s Sustainability section online for the web version of this newsletter and more stories. We’ll see you next week.



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