Creating change requires building coalitions, spreading a movement beyond its initial, committed core. This year’s theme, Rites of Passage, was interpreted by many participants in individual terms, but has also been described by Burning Man organisers as shaping Burning Man’s relationship to a world in crisis:
We are living in a period of widespread fear and insecurity. We cling to what we have, but what we’ve had was merely the illusion of a mortgaged future. Nothing that we see around us feels sustainable. As one who blunders off a cliff, our legs still twiddle in the air: we haven’t gained a foothold that will see us through. Deeply-fathomed change we share with others — the kind of change that summons up the earth to meet one’s feet — becomes the only pathway forward, our most crucial step.
This framing encourages a shift away from the divide that many burners draw between Burning Man and the ‘default world‘, “The rest of the world that is not the playa during the Burning Man event.” Burners often emphasise the difference between Burning Man and the rest of their lives, and the difficulty of re-integrating into the ‘default world’ after Burning Man: a quick search of online forums will turn up a whole heap of threads about dealing with the shift.
During his talk at TEDx BRC, Larry Harvey criticised this way of thinking about the rest of life outside Burning Man as the default world. He argued that this implies the ‘source code’ of reality always resets: no change is possible. However, going back to everyday life as part of the Burning Man community means that burners do have the resources to create change.
Harvey, along with other speakers at TEDx BRC and elsewhere at Burning Man, explicitly called for Burning Man to play a greater role in helping to change mainstream society. Two or three different speakers, including Larry Harvey, quoted Milton Friedman in describing Burning Man’s potential to embody alternatives to the systems we have no:
Only a crisis—actual or perceived—produces real change. When that crisis occurs, the actions that are taken depend on the ideas that are lying around. That, I believe, is our basic function: to develop alternatives to existing policies, to keep them alive and available until the politically impossible becomes politically inevitable.
If Burning Man is going to model alternatives in a way that has a potential to be politically useful, the Burning Man community needs to move away from seeing Black Rock City as being separate from, and other to, the rest of the world.
Even the best alternatives are useless if noone knows about them, or if they’re misunderstood. There are plenty of people out there arguing that Burning Man is more than just “one big drug-addled rave party in the desert”. (The argument is slightly complicated by the fact that, for many participants, this is exactly what Burning Man is all about.) But I think more probably needs to be done to raise awareness of the alternatives that Burning Man has to offer: which of its systems can be transferred to our everyday lives?
Linked to this is the need for Burning Man communities to not only expand their reach outwards into off-playa communities, but also to learn more from off-playa communities. As I noted in my first post, Burning Man participants are not a particularly diverse bunch. This means that the alternatives that we build out there and the ways in which we think they might apply to everyday life are often going to be limited by our own experiences. I heard a heap of people talking about how to escape the constraints of their (reasonably well-paid) nine to five jobs, or how to give themselves more room for creative expression in their lives. I didn’t hear anyone talk about how to deal with foreclosures, or long-term unemployment, or the US’ serious institutional racism. If the Burning Man community is going to offer solutions, there are good reasons to think critically about what the real problems actually are.
There are plenty of people involved in the event who are taking steps to make the principles behind the event relevant and useful beyond Burning Man. The well-established Burners Without Borders and the newly-created Burning Man Project are promising developments. Those involved in the latter aim to “bring experiences to people in grand, awe-inspiring and joyful ways that lift the human spirit, address social problems and inspire a sense of culture, community and cultural engagement.”
If this is going to succeed, Burning Man communities will need to build links with other organisations and movements. I’ve argued elsewhere that we need to see more effective coalition-building, particularly from those who want to create progressive change but don’t necessarily have a background in left-leaning activism. I’m curious to see how well burners will link up with other communities, particularly those that are economically and politically marginalised. The networks that are built in coming years will, I think, play a large role in determining whether 2011 will really have been a Rite of Passage in Burning Man’s development.