Wednesday, September 16, 2015

Burning Man - An Ideal Community?

I was extremely privileged to have participated in my first Burn in 2015. I found a ticket, camp, and vehicle pass one week before the event began. Ultimately, it was a deeply transformative experience in living in one of the most rare communities on the planet.

Is Burning Man the ideal model for what human communities should look like or could be? My professional background is in building community via nonprofits and the classroom. I also have a strong background in federal and local government and politics.  I have no clear answer to the question, but seek to explore some perspectives here. Overall, I believe that although Burning Man has its challenges, it is a beautiful social experiment that society can learn much from.

Privilege limits scalability 

To enter the community of Burning Man, one has to pay at the bare minimum the ticket fee which starts at $390. In essence, one could say that this is dues to join an elite club. A limited number of low income tickets exist, which is great. However, one still needs to be able to take time off and be able to get to the Burn.

Moreover, one needs to bring enough supplies for food, water, and shelter for the duration of one's stay. One can bypass this by staying with a camp and sharing resources.  However, being admitted to join a camp is often based on informal social networks and sometimes involves interviews. In short, one has to be strongly connected to become a part of a camp community, and not just rough it on your own in the desert. 

Once you make it into the Burn, everything is free and you can only use American dollars to purchase coffee or ice. Everything is gifted to you including meals, spa services, clothes, emergency health care, classes, etc.  Perhaps my most impressive gift was a plane ride over the Playa with the sky divers of Camp Burning Sky (thanks again!).

Experiencing the gift economy was one of the most powerful aspects of the Burn.  I wish this could better exist in the real world, or what Burners call the "default world." However having the power to give to others inherently means you are in a state of privilege. 

Even in the alternative refuge of Burning Man, where one can express one's self and be accepted unlike in mainstream society, diversity in its many forms is lacking. Most participants are upper-middle class, White, able-bodied individuals. I encourage you to read my good friend Tyra Fennell's post about being Black at Burning Man.  I do believe Burning Man as an organization recognizes this weakness and is actively trying to address it. For example, they're actively collecting data through their annual census

So overall, by no means does everyone enter Burning Man from an equal playing field.  Even when you are inside, people live in a variety of structures ranging from tents to air-conditioned RVs.  In order to replicate Burning Man, something needs to be done so everyone is at least able to enter the space, meaning they are able to provide their own resources for self-sufficiency.  Fortunately, in the default world, this is often provided by government assistance.

I am a huge fan of representative democracy, which Burning Man is definitely not.  Police are present to enforce drug laws and provide safety.  There are free health clinics if you get sick or injured.  While camps may practice their own forms of democracy and elect their leaders, at large, there are no elected leaders. Perhaps this is not necessary since Burning Man is predominantly a week long physical event, but if it were to exist as a new society, I would want democracy.

Principles expand impact 

Above I have examined some of the challenges in terms of replicating Burning Man at scale.  Now I want to emphasize the significant positive impact that Burning Man is having on the world.  Burning Man encompasses Ten Principles: radical inclusion, radical self-expression, radical self-reliance, gifting, decommodification, communal effort, civic responsibility, participation, immediacy, and leave no trace.  I went to a workshop discussing ways people can apply the Principles into their everyday life in the default world.  Two professors at James Madison University shared how they incorporate these values into their teaching and that they are about to publish a book about this. It was also shared how Burners can act as a virus in society spreading these philosophical values.

Experiencing Burning Man actually does deeply immerse one in a community of people truly embodying the Ten Principles.  Furthermore, being a part of Burning Man is much more than going to the main event in Black Rock City.  There are regional events that happen throughout the year. Both during and after the event, many participants commented how they were more thoughtful about how they pick up their matter out of place (MOOP), or what is commonly referred to as trash. You think about your water usage in ways you never did before.

When most of the Burning Man community comes from at least some baseline level of privilege, and when many come from the One Percent, exposing this demographic to communal and social justice values can seriously transform society slowly for the long-term.