Burning Man: Radical self-expression or excessive self-indulgence?
It’s 6:00 am and I am wandering the wilderness of Burning Man trying to recover from 5 days of the most amazing art, intensely visual and soul-wrenching spiritual experiences (and of course dancing and partying) imaginable. My head is still floating from going a little too hard and sleeping way too little and I am headed out to the playa (the dry lake bed where Burning Man is held) to catch the sunrise with thousands of other “burners”. This is my 7th burn in the last 10 years and while I know and have lived the fundamental principles of Burning Man, I feel a little differently than in the past. One of the principles I have loved most is radical self-expression. As a 30-year career finance and investments professional and father of 3 daughters, I have lived a life far more buttoned down than you would think if you met me at Burning Man and the ability to let loose, and be anything and everything I want without judgement has been wonderful. But as I wander the early morning desert, I begin to worry that Burning Man is beginning to feel more like radical self-indulgence and exclusivity than self-expression.
To be clear, I have loved Burning Man from the moment I stepped onto the playa. It was 10 years ago, and a high school buddy who had attended for years finally talked me into going. I was skeptical to say the least. A bunch of hippies, naked and doing drugs in the desert? No thanks. I had given up that type of behavior 20 years ago when I graduated college, got married, and had kids. But I always have had the soul of an explorer so doing something completely out there, in such a beautiful natural environment seemed like something I had to try at least once. So in 2010 I packed my bag, flew to Reno and caught a ride to the Black Rock Desert where my friends had already set up camp. I showed up early evening and was immediately handed a potent vodka and energy drink cocktail and was told to put on my first costume (an anatomically correct Pamala Anderson Bay Watch bathing suit, a wig and lipstick). From there we took off to explore the black night and see mind blowing camps, amazing music, and art cars (and people) lit up with incredible light and fire displays. The next morning, fortified with all kinds of things to give me energy I struck out to explore Burning Man. I spent the next 8 straight hours dancing to EDM music (first real dancing since college) at an amazing day party (Distrikt) smiling from ear to ear and in love with everyone and everything. I wasn’t just hooked, the love and community of the people and experience of Burning Man grabbed my soul in a way nothing ever had before.
10 years and 7 burns later a lot has changed and a lot has not. There has been a fair amount of criticism of the event, often written by people who have not attended or have only gone once. Much of that criticism is fair and unfortunately obscures the beauty and positive message that should be taken away from the experience. Burning Man, both the good and the bad, isn’t something that cannot be fully understood from afar or from one visit.
Radical self-indulgence and exclusivity. From the outside, Burning Man can look like a huge self-indulgent party for well-off white people (sadly I could be described as falling into that camp). And unfortunately, that is not untrue. To start, it is very expensive to attend and participate. That creates a barrier for people who don’t have a lot of money. This has been brought to the forefront in the last few years with emergence of high-end, luxury camps for the ultra wealthy. From the outside, it seems the Burning Man organization has done an admirable job to try and increase tickets for low income individuals and to eliminate the “glam camps”. But ticket prices are only a small part of the cost. There are no statistics or information about participant demographics, but just wandering through the playa and various camps you mostly meet people with means. Also, you are struck by the fact that minorities, particularly blacks are woefully underrepresented.
Environmental impact: nowhere other than Burning Man can I imagine a place where 70,000 people can party like crazy for more than a week without any trash cans or publicly available sanitation (other than port-a-potties), and the place stay remarkably spotless. You do not see trash or even cigarettes on the ground anywhere. It is remarkable in my opinion.
That being said burning that much creates quite a bit of greenhouse gas and that many people in a natural environment has to have a negative environmental impact. It is difficult to quantify but certainly exists. The Burning Man organization has committed to making the event carbon neutral in the next decade which is an amazing goal!
Mass brain cell slaughter: The amount of drugs and alcohol ingested a Burning Man is not small. I have to believe it has a significant negative impact on the mass of participants, but who knows, it certainly contributes to amazing creativity and love.
While there is no question Burning Man is a fantastically fun party, that is not why people continue to come back. Sit down with an experienced burner and they will passionately talk your ear off about everything other than the pure party aspect. Everybody has their own opinion and take aways but here are mine:
Community and self-expression: Nowhere in the world have I ever come across a place where you can express yourself in any way, shape, or form you choose (provided it’s positive, not anti-communal, and respectful of others) with absolutely no judgment from people. Virtually everyone you meet wants only to give you a hug (a real, deep, genuine one), ask how your burn is going, and ask what they can do to make it better. It is truly amazing. The love and community that exists will change you, trust me. It is a community of inclusion, respect and support.
Zero Discrimination: While minorities are definitely underrepresented, there is almost no discernible line or differentiation between straight and LGBTQ communities and individuals, different faiths, or different ethnicities. On the playa we are all just people, burners, friends. It is wonderful and why more diversity would be great to see.
Zero Anger and Hate: In 7 Burns I have not once ever heard an argument, seen a fight, or experienced significant negativity and hate. Find me a place with people exhausted from days and days of no sleep who remain so positive. I can’t think of anything like that.
Art: The art at Burning Man is truly amazing and enriching. The revenue from Burning Man tickets provides financial support to help and encourage an unbelievable amount of visually stunning pieces, music, art cars, and outreach.
People: Find your tribe, you hear that a lot these days. For me I didn’t know there was a tribe I needed to find. I have lifelong friends from growing up and high school who are some of the most amazing people I thought I would ever meet. But at Burning Man I found my tribe (at least one of them). The people I go with regularly are only people I’ve met at Burning Man. I am very thankful that I have been able to meet such fantastic and fun people.
As you can tell, I have taken away some amazing lessons from Burning Man. That being said, I wonder how many more I will attend (my burner friends will remind me I have said that before…). While the experience has truly been positive and life changing for me, I find myself wondering what else is out there that can teach me more, and help me to continue to grow. One thing I know for sure though, I want to find ways to live the Burning Man lessons of positivity, inclusion, acceptance, self-expression, and joy more in my daily life. This is a lot easier said than done with all the pressures, stress, and negativity that exists in the world.
There certainly are things that could be improved at Burning Man and I hope the Burning Man organization and the community of burners continue to work hard to make it better and more inclusive in the future. Most importantly though, I hope that the negatives don’t obscure the beauty and amazing message of the event. Burning Man isn’t just a fun party, it carries a message of caring, community, and self-expression that we as burners are obligated to promote and live as fiercely as possible. If we can do that, even in the smallest way, we can change the world and pay back all that the experience and community has given us.
- Woody (my playa name)