Burning Man

Burning Man is a ridiculous, extravagant, glorious event held out in the Nevada desert once a year. I’ve been twice now, and although it’s ostensibly been during my holidays I can’t help but explore the ways in which it intersects with my research and activist interests. Burning Man runs almost entirely on a gift economy, and is built on a culture that encourages everyone to participate rather than passively consume the experience, attempts to respect the environment, and tries to find a balance between individual autonomy and communal effort. (Burning Man’s Ten Principles go into more detail about this.)

A view of Black Rock City from the air
Black Rock City, courtesy of Flickr user Stargazer95050

Many of those who participate in Burning Man see it as an attempt to build alternatives to mainstream social, economic, and political structures, and inevitably there are plenty of contradictions in how this plays out in practice. Just getting to Burning Man requires significant financial resources and involves a heap of environmentally-unfriendly travel (especially if you’re silly enough to be travelling from Australia). Despite “radical inclusion” being the first principle guiding Burning Man, most people there are white and reasonably well-off (you can find some data on this in the Burning Man Census under Income and Spending). These kinds of issues, however, are not unique to Burning Man: there are similar contradictions between intent and practice in other events which attempt to embody and inspire change, including the World Social Forum.

Over the next few posts, I’m going to write more about how Burning Man works and share some of my thoughts on the TEDx Black Rock City and EFF speaker series that I attended there. In the meantime, if you want to get some sense of what Burning Man is like, this is a nice (if cheesy) introduction to the people and art from 2011 Burning Man (with some partial nudity):

5 thoughts on “Burning Man

  1. One of the major things I noticed this year was that as a society it focusses on reward for difference, rather than the standard reward for franchise-perfect-sameness. That means that people actively seek to be inventive and expressive, and there is much more freedom for people to compliment and approve each other.

  2. Thanks, Jude, that’s a good point. I want to talk more about this later, because I think it’s simultaneously lovely and potentially problematic.

  3. I was referring specifically to the focus on being different/individuality, which I think is an issue because in some ways it encourages the cycle of consumption/waste that fuels much of what’s broken with the current form of capitalism. But I’ll write more about that later, promise!

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