As I sit down to blog about Saturday #9, which I spent in the Nevada desert with 65,922 ‘Burners’, I am being deluged with emails and Facebook messages. Perhaps it was a mistake to post nearly 200 photos and videos on Facebook before I got around to writing captions. Oh well, what is done is done. My next blog post (tomorrow night?) will be an edited photo essay.
Some of my Facebook friends have asked very specific questions. Others have written to congratulate me on making it through seven days in the Nevada desert, and all that entails – pungent porta-potties, baking hot sun by day, frigid nights, winds capable of picking up a tent and dropping it several miles away, and dust storms. Oh, the dust storms. And still others are probably mobilizing to have me committed.
Many of those same friends and acquaintances were unaware of Burning Man before I started blogging about it. And despite all of their questions, and my many attempts to explain what Burning Man is all about, I still have trouble describing it in a single sentence. This is the best I can do: It’s a gathering of 65,922 artists, makers, techies, and creative-types doing their best to look like Mad Max stand-ins while building, running, and fully experiencing life in a temporary city under some of the most inhospitable conditions imaginable, all the while surrounded by the most amazing art that will ever exist for a week before being burned to the ground. How’s that?
What I can definitively tell you is that Burning Man is held every year around Labour Day in the Black Rock Desert, about 100 miles north of Reno, Nevada. It may as well be 10,000 miles north of anywhere because it’s like nothing you’ve ever dreamed of – unless you dream of Mel Gibson and Tina Turner in a post apocalyptic Thunderdome. And even that wouldn’t be remotely close to accurate.
One friend asked, “How does a motley collection of dusty hippies, punk rockers, techno-ravers, and fire-breathing machine-art freaks get along so well under such utterly horrible conditions?” Compared with cops shooting civilians in other U.S. cities, life on the playa is very, very peaceful. Not peaceful as in calm and quiet, mind you, but everyone is incredibly respectful of each other.
Like any city of the size, there are a few issues – very few, actually. Some people party a bit too hard for their own good. A few are stupid beyond words. Sadly, one woman died this year under a slow moving vehicle. But seeing as danger lurks around every corner, the whole place runs amazingly well. The main reason that Burning Man works is the list of 10 principles laid down by the event’s founder Larry Harvey. When everyone is committed to living by these 10 principles, a week at Burning Man is so much better than any week in the “default world” even if there are a few hardships. Come to think of it, maybe it’s because there are hardships.
If you’ve read anything about Burning Man in the last few weeks, I’m guessing it was an article in the mainstream press in which the author laments that Burning Man has somehow lost its soul. The authors of these articles generally lay the blame on the ‘fact’ that aging hippies who numbered in the hundreds or even low thousands in the event’s early years are quickly being replaced by tens of thousands of party kids and a few dot com billionaires who are ruining the event for everyone.
True, Silicon Valley royalty like Sergey Brin, Mark Zuckerberg, and Elon Musk fly into Burning Man’s temporary airport in private jets and stay in luxury motor coaches staffed by gourmet chefs, personal assistants, and with all the comforts of home.
And it’s not just dot-com billionaires who are taking the heat. Yesterday I posted an article by right wing political commentator Grover Norquist. When the squarer-than-square Norquist announced via Twitter that he would be attending, Vanity Fair re-tweeted his comment and added: “The Day Burning Man Died.”
But did it? Is Burning Man really writhing on its deathbed? Has it really been declared DOA? After a week on the Playa, I’m calling ‘bullshit’ to the typists who annually pump out the event’s obituary.
While some of these authors openly admit to never having been closer than Reno, let alone camping in the desert just to see the Man burn, very few will admit the truth: they’re delivering the spicy stories their editors are demanding. These articles play into some shop-worn stereotypes and thus sell magazines and/or attract eyeballs to websites.
First, Burning Man was never dominated by dusty hippies. Blogger Chris Taylor writes on ‘Festival Fire’ that Burning Man “is, and always has been, ruled by all kinds of techno-smart futuristic punks rather than nostalgic hippies or dippy ravers.”
Silicon Valley billionaires and tech-loving people of all tax-brackets are drawn to an environment like Burning Man where innovation thrives.
Tesla performed early testing on its prototype Roadster at Burning Man. The electric car manufacturer’s CEO Elon Musk also came up with the business model for another company, Solar City, after experiencing the communal aspect of Burning Man where all power is generated within the city, either by diesel generator, wind or solar. Google CEO Larry Page has mentioned Burning Man when calling for special zones where tech companies would be free to test things that are currently illegal in the U.S. And Libertarians like Norquist no doubt appreciate Burning Man’s focus on radical self-reliance. You have to plan for all possible eventualities or suffer the consequences when you’re at Burning Man. The government won’t be there to bail you out if you run into trouble on the Playa.
So why this obsession with billionaires and those with political beliefs that don’t exactly align with mine? It’s really quite simple. Burning Man is built on 10 principles, and perched atop that list is the call for “Radical Inclusion.” In other words, as long as they adhere to the other nine principles, billionaires and right-wingers are no more or no less welcome at BM than working stiffs like me. Okay, make that “un-employed transients” like me.
My political stripes don’t run on the same angle as Norquist and I can only dream of talking SuperChargers and Gigafactories with Musk or Glass with Brin. I don’t “camp” in a $2 million motor coach, or a compound comprised of eight of them for that matter, but that doesn’t make me any less welcome at Burning Man. And more importantly, neither should it make those who do have such luxuries any less welcome either.
Norquist wrote in his piece for The Guardian: “A community that comes together with a minimum of “rules” demands self-reliance – that everyone clean up after themselves and help thy neighbor. Some day, I want to live 52 weeks a year in a state or city that acts like this.”
Me too, Grover. I think we’d get along just fine. We won’t agree on everything, or perhaps anything, but that’s okay too.
If one thing becomes abundantly clear after a week at Burning Man, it’s that it takes all types to make the world go round. Vive la différence.