BE YOURSELF, BUY YOURSELF, BURN YOURSELF
I wake up floating into the sunrise, my body held by a beautiful woman and a chinese pagoda on wheels with a bed on its bonnet. Around us a pure white desert, towering sculptures and hundreds of people on bicycles. The ‘art car’ turns and trundles back to camp. We hop off and search for breakfast; the camp we find only serves tequila slammers. After a shot we climb into an eight-metre-high outsize teapot and have sex. We crave tea, the host below offers us a cup. We stroll to the porta-loos still hungry, a man says it’s his birthday and pours whipped cream into our mouths, then covers them in chocolate and sprinkles. We finally got our breakfast. It’s 9am.
This is Burning Man 2014 – and it is the greatest party on earth. But as this is a blog about community and not about hedonism, I’m focusing on how the festival inspires the spontaneous interaction, radical inclusion and immediate connection between strangers it is known for preaching.
First things first, unlike other communities I have visited, Burning Man is radically unsustainable. It is a festival, not an intentional community. Living permanently in this harsh desert climate with such an excessive rate of consumption is blatantly unimaginable. Burning Man is meant to be temporary and temporary it is. It is an experiment – albeit an enjoyable one – in the ability of humans to share, to connect and to trust each other.
The festival is held on the alkaline salt flats of Black Rock Desert in Nevada, USA. There is no water, no shelter, no life. Every participant is expected to bring what they need to survive – including entertainment. There is no money at Burning Man. You bring food, you bring drinks, you bring thousand-dollar art projects – then you share.
Imagine a city where everyone can be whatever they want and however they want. Always fancied being a sex guru? Put up a sign outside your tent saying ‘SEX GURU’ and see who enters. It really is that kind of place. Of course, most people are more modest in their offerings. If you’re a good musician, you play. If you’re a good scientist, you build. And if you happen to find both in the same camp, the scientist hooks up his electrode tower to a MIDI keyboard and the musician plays Bach with lightning.
The key to this joy of giving is that everyone is offering their personal skill or gift, and is proud of it. No one ‘works’ in anyone else’s shop/art gallery/bar – you set up your own and pick your hours. Hotdogs, yoga lessons, massages, rum, palm readings, bracelets, job advice, poetry or haircuts: you offer it for free and your neighbours consume at will.
The lack of currency spawns a lack of hierarchy. No one can wave their gold card at the bar girl to get her attention; you hold out your plastic cup, you smile and you wait. But humans are still humans, and life is still a marketplace. If you give someone a hug, they’ll more likely give you a bracelet. If you read someone a poem, they’ll more likely give you a beer. It is the ultimate lesson in you get what you give, but you don’t need to be an extravert. If you love to sing and dance, you can float from camp to camp performing for people. If you’re a little shy, you set up a whiskey bar and let the party come to you.
Burning Man is only place I know where you can walk down a street full of strangers and be invited in for a drink by all of them. The question is: why? Yes, the organisers state very clearly that the festival is about radical self-expression and radical inclusion, but people rarely follow orders unless they want to or are forced to. My theory is: generosity is exponential.
It is quite common to feel lost and lonely at Burning Man, there is so little structure and so few rules that one is often paralysed by choice. My cure was to wander and give. When I felt low, I would set out in no particular direction and offer a poem to the first person I saw. With every positive reaction my confidence bloomed and my performance sharpened. By midday, I’d have spoken to over fifty people, consumed pancakes and vodka, played Duck Duck Goose, and delivered a box of Coco Puffs from the on-site post office to the ‘Cereal Thrillers’ theme camp.
Of course, people can only be generous when they have a surplus of resources. The beauty of Burning Man is that everyone has brought (and bought) so much that no one is protecting anything. The only moment when I saw anger and fear creep back into the community was when resources became scarce. Setting fire to the Man – the 20-storey-high wooden effigy from which the festival gets it name – is the only event of the entire week which everyone wants to attend. Understandably, people who had been waiting for hours in a good spot were annoyed by late comers pushing in front of them. Abuse was hurled and scowls were mounted as certain individuals tried to ‘take’ the good spots from those who had patiently ‘earned’ them by arriving in good time. I was shocked. For the first time in a week, I felt the pain of people who have been dispossessed, and the arrogance of those who took from them.
It is important to note two things. One, that any sustainable-living advocate will first be horrified by Burning Man: so much consumption, so much waste, so much money (before you arrive). Two, that Burning Man is not cheap. We camped very rough and brought minimal resources and still spent over $1000 each on the week (ticket, supplies, tent, car rental), and that’s not including my flight to San Francisco. If you want to build a really impressive theme camp, not least an art car, you’re looking at spending over $5000. As an experiment for how people can learn to share and connect, there’s still a high financial barrier to entry.
Having said this, I challenge any human with an open heart (whatever your ecological beliefs) to visit Burning Man and not be moved. The energy, creativity and openness supersedes anything I’ve felt anywhere else in the world. Any cynical thoughts that gnawed at me after day one were drowned by my hug-a-minute day two. My final question is this: if, in the future, we can create world where we have enough resources to satisfy everyone’s needs – can we maintain the same level of community felt at Burning Man? Or would inherent human competition adapt to this new scenario and find fresh battlegrounds in which to capture power?
For more perspectives on Burning Man, check out:
The Free-Market Convert:
The 1% (Wealthy Techie):