The Cult of the Burning Man Festival

Burning Man Festival

The new (age) consciousness of the Burning Man festival.

Fluffy moon boots — check. Ski-goggle sunglasses — check. Viking helmet — check. A cacophony of voices, drums and howling sandstorms — check. Over 70,000 half-naked people dancing around an arid landscape of scorching 110º heat — check. I know what you’re thinking: we’re in Bosch’s hell, right? Nope, just Nevada… Welcome to Black Rock City, home to the one and only Burning Man festival.

The Burning Man festival, temporary residence of the enlightened among us (myself included, of course) is, on the surface, a music, arts and performance festival. But it’s actually more than that: it’s an attempt to imagine a social space of coexistence, collaboration and self-expression. From its conception, it has been carried by 10 principles, imagined and defined by its founder, Larry Harvey, that describe what being a “burner” really means. These include things like “Radical Inclusion,” “Gifting,” “Decommodification” and “Leave No Trace.” Pretty commendable, right? So before all y’all nine-to-five slaves out there try to tell me it’s just a drug-addled hippie circle-jerk, let’s actually think through some of these, and maybe even why that might not be such a bad thing… Sharing is caring, after all.

Radical Inclusion

Burning Man Festival aerial

First up, “Radical Inclusion” means “we welcome and respect the stranger.” If there’s one thing a Burning Man festival does better than any other, it’s making an otherwise entirely inhospitable environment feel like the most welcoming place in the world. Everyone’s pretty “peace and love.” In fact, all of the amenities and services are a group effort, or an instance of “deeply personal participation.”

A typical day starts with you reporting to your camp leader where you’re assigned a task to pitch in (cooking, cleaning, etc.). Woodstock and Glastonbury may be the original ’60s get-togethers, but a Burning Man festival takes communal living to a literal level. Whether you’re frying 200 eggs or scraping dry poo out of a bucket, everyone gets a piece of the action. The festival imagines a form of coexistence, with the Silicon Valley startup nerds working and raving alongside the crust-punk baristas from Albuquerque. It’s more than just a place — it’s an idea.


Burning Man Festival money

Which brings me to “Gifting.” At a Burning Man festival, money is deeply frowned upon, all in the name of “Decommodification.” After my $400 ticket, $800 return flight and the price of renting my VW (mine was paid for by the Google scholarship that funds the trips of up-and-coming tech junkies), this is a festival all about getting rid of those Benjamins. Rather than pay for goods and services (say, a back rub), you simply receive and give gifts to one another. “I have some, ahem, smokes; you have some kale chips. It’s all good; let’s share.”

But seriously, removing money from the direct vicinity of the playa (the festival ground) means that you spend a decent amount of time trying to figure out how to introduce the gifting principle back home. I tried it for a while with my parents, but in the end they seemed to think my poems and bongo solos didn’t quite constitute a fair exchange for room and board.

Yet that’s precisely the point: “exchange” is the mind-set we’re trying to outgrow — gifting isn’t supposed to be about “I scratch your back, you scratch mine” but about spontaneous and unprecedented generosity. The idea is to replace the principle of trade with that of sharing and, more specifically, of the free and unhindered presentation of our unique and individual gifts of self-expression. Art and creativity are the only currencies you’ll find at a Burning Man festival.

I will say that perhaps one of the most touchy subjects people have raised with me is that, yeah, $1,200 to even get to a Burning Man festival is kind of a lot of money. I suppose there’s a limit to radical inclusion when it comes at such a high price. It was kind of awks when I realized that, according to UNICEF and Wikipedia, this is more than the average yearly income of people in developing countries (≈$1,000 or less). Plus, has anyone else noticed that there seems to be an increasing number of sherpas running around after tech execs? Though financial aid does indeed exist for those in need, there’s still a limit to how effective this can be. Moreover, because there are more than twice as many people registered for tickets each year as there are spaces, often newbies and veterans are left out, which can lead to some pretty extortionate practices on dodgy resale websites.

Leave No Trace

Burning Man Festival effigy

“Leave No Trace” describes the aim to leave the site better off than when we arrived. So that means no litter whatsoever. A Burning Man festival is a hub of environmentalists. If we’re not catalysts for preserving the natural world, we’re doing it wrong. It’s a party, sure, but it’s also meant to be a party. You know, like a political one. There’s an agenda, and it’s green green green, my friend.

Saying this, saintly as we may be on-site, when it comes to transportation to and from a Burning Man festival, it’s been fairly well published that we have a slight CO2 issue… “We are committed to leaving no physical trace of our activities wherever we gather” is an excellent aim, but when you’re chucking out more greenhouse gases just getting there than your average cattle farming, truck-driving Texan, well, that’s not cool. LA Weekly, using Cooling Man (a site dedicated to this issue), broke it down: your average American produces 0.33 tons of greenhouse gases a week, and us burners manage a whopping 0.67 (Texans, you’re only at 0.49, but still…). I just hate to feel as though the vibe is sometimes “Don’t leave a trace we can see, but invisible stuff is fine” rather than “Let’s actually sort this out long-term.” I get it: we’ve got an oil addiction that’s hard to kick, but when there’s a global meltdown currently under way, it seems like perhaps some offsetting of the ol’ carbon footprint might be just what the doctor ordered.

Let’s spread the positives but also have the courage to accept what we can improve.

In total, I want to be able to stand up for my fellow burners and say we’re not trying to transcend this economic and environmental crisis going on around us, safely separate from it all, but that we actually want to do something about it, with our moon boots firmly on the ground. It’s like lots of things that provide an “outlet” or “alternative” to sociopolitical norms: you risk simply commodifying the experience of refuge itself, rather than taking the ideas and implementing them in society at large. We can’t just build a giant wall around the festival and call it a day because we’re all good, you know?

peopleJim Rankin / Getty Images

I’ve always been a strong believer in the idea that if you want to open up your consciousness to a new way of seeing the world, well, you have to actually be in the world. And for many of us, that’s still the very real slave-to-the-wage white-collar universe or, unfortunately, some dismal factory in a slave-state. Some of us are still waiting to even be in a position where we have the resources to give gifts in the first place.

So let’s spread the positives but also have the courage to accept what we can improve. Maybe there could be some kind of progressive-income-tax ticket price? Like, if we’re gonna be overrun by the Hollywood and Silicon Valley billionaires, could they maybe pay for us? Or at least a program that automatically offsets the carbon footprint in the price of the tickets themselves. That could be cool, right?

It’s up to us to burn “the man” beacon and share the light. end



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