Lessons For Long Beach (And Everywhere) Direct Via Burning Man

1:30pm | I am just back from my first Burning Man, and no, I have not been transformed. Neither am I about to write a primer on "the Burning Man experience" or to get all new age on your ass. I will say, however, that Burning Man may have a lot to contribute to the discussion of how we might better create and evolve our community. And I hope that's worth hearing.

For those of you who don't know, Burning Man is a week-long... 'festival' is not the right word. From its modest beginnings 25 years ago as a Bay Area gathering of 20 people, Burning Man has evolved into an annual migration of 50,000 souls to a mammoth dry lakebed in high-desert Nevada the week before Labor Day and the creation of a full-fledged ephemeral metropolis, complete with a city grid, a newspaper, a DMV, radio stations, cafes, clubs, parks, bars, art installations and venues, etc. Yes, there's nudity and drugs and dancing and a 24-hour, dazzling cacophony of light and sound the likes of which you cannot find anywhere else on the planet (imagine a Frankenstein made from Amsterdam, Las Vegas, Mecca, Haight-Ashbury in 1968, and the tales of Carlos Castaneda); but to focus only on those aspects is to miss quite a bit.

You see, Burning Man is something of an experiment in libertarian society (re)creation. It's not that there are no rules1, but it's that the structuring of this society is supported by only a skeleton of authority and top-down control, leaving community members to flesh out the muscle mass of Burning Man however they see fit, from the grass roots2 up.

This might sound like a blueprint for chaos, but things turn out quite otherwise. Never have I been part of a more uniformly civil society at large. Discord at Burning Man is this side of nonexistent, while aid of just about any sort is proffered freely to anyone in need. No matter the time of day or night, you can count on finding something to eat, somewhere to sleep, fellowship. Almost nobody locks their bikes because almost nobody would think about stealing them. In fact, most of the problems we might cite regarding city life in general are non-issues in Black Rock City. Thirst, heat, and exposure are the kind of things that might hurt you if you don't take care; your fellow anthropoi seem only to want to help, to make your life better, to serve you in the most literal sense.

Why the difference? Part of the explanation must lie in a difference of focus. The "default world" (as Burners call the day-to-day existence that even most attendees inhabit the other 51 weeks of the year) traffics heavily in concepts such as image and advancement, in being well perceived so as to get ahead. Society, Social Darwinists and their descendents will tell you, is by nature competitive. But many Burners will tell you that that society as we know it is at least somewhat of a perversion, that we have strayed from nature—ours and Earth's—in just about every way possible. Personally, I don't put a lot of stock in essentialist talk on any side; all I can verify is that out there at Burning Man the focus is shifted, and that shift yields different results.

No doubt Burning Man is something of an unsustainable fantasy. People can give only what they have—and when it comes to material goods, you can give only what you have somehow acquired. I was given some lovely cold beer in that 100-degree heat, but those who gave it to me acquired it in the "default world" with cold, hard cash, which they earned by way of gainful employment3. No workaday reality, no cold beer at Burning Man. This example is a simple answer to Burners who believe that the world at large can just be like Burning Man if only we let it. Things are nowhere near that simple.

This is not to say our society doesn't often make things unnecessarily convoluted. Consider the following slogans: "If you have more than you need, give"; "Respect Mother Earth"; "Take only what you need from it"; "An it harm none, do what ye will." While among these you might recognize the Wiccan Rede or a line by MGMT, surely you also recognize that these are not guiding principles of the United States. Is this because these principles would make life worse if actualized in our society, or that it is impossible to be guided by them? Of course not. It's just that, for reasons that would take a socio-anthropological tome to explore, our world has been organized around a different set of rules. And we continue to play along.

But Burning Man helps frame society as a continuing human endeavor, an ongoing act of self-creation. If you don't like the game, stop playing it. And since the game is nothing but the players, change the behavior of enough players and you change the game entirely.

Burning Man is a crucible of modeling behavior that is counter to the status quo. Take littering, for example. Walk the streets of Long Beach and before taking too many steps you will come across garbage on the ground, waste in the water, even fellow denizens simply dropping their refuse to the sidewalk. But in Black Rock City, even though the only places for trash disposal are those brought in by the Burners themselves and every shred of garbage is supposed to be taken with you when you leave (which is a pain in the ass, to be sure), littering is relatively non-existent. In fact, it is commonplace to see people picking up whatever garbage they come across and pocketing it back to their camps. Imagine the instant, cost-free beautification of Long Beach were that the custom here.

Part of the difference in Black Rock City is because the people there tend to be much more willing to engage each other—not only positively, but also correctively. I experienced this first-hand shortly after my arrival. While waiting in line to pick up my ticket, I inadvertently dropped a piece of trash to the ground when I pulled some paperwork out of my back pocket. "Hey," said someone a few places back, "you pooped some MOOP4." It wasn't accusatory, just letting me know about a mistake I didn't want to make, and I thanked him for the heads-up. A related moment occurred at the end of my trip. "These are the last hours of daylight we'll have here," the most experienced Burner in our camp (call him C) called out to the rest of us as dusk approached on Sunday. "Take a last look around for MOOP." And to be sure, although we had been fairly diligent all week, there were plenty of little bits to be found, some of our own making, some from those who had preceded us on that patch of ground. Because of C's gentle instruction, we left our campsite no worse—and perhaps better—than we had found it.

What about when the corrective is unwelcome? Such an admonishment gave rise to literally the only conflict I witnessed all week. Unfortunately, this conflict was between two of my campmates. On our third day at Burning Man our camp was augmented by some latecomers, and as C and I rode with them out from our camp to the Esplanade (the main drag within Black Rock City) it quickly became apparent that these new arrivals (whom the C and I had never met) were here more to exploit than to contribute to the communal experience. When one of these "yahoos" (as C later justly labeled them) began snapping pictures of a naked woman as she showered—a big no-no at Burning Man: one rule is that you ask permission before photographing anyone5—C quite calmly let Yahoo #1 know that this was not cool. Yahoo #1 walked away mumbling something about not wanting to be policed at Burning Man. A few minutes later he extended a hand to C with some talk about agreeing to disagree and attempting to justify his actions with some twisted logic about how if a woman had "rock-hard body" and was nude out in the open it was okay for him to photograph her. C refused the olive branch on the grounds that he did not wish in any way to condone such yahoothink, which led to Yahoo #1 getting in C's face and Yahoo #2 prattling that he knew how to "jump in" if that's what was needed.

In this space I once wrote a column that touched upon whether peer pressure is always a bad thing, and this is just the type of situation I had in mind. In our society we are too often willing to let bad behavior pass without comment. But if we want to change the bad behavior of others, we need to make it known to those in question that their behavior is not acceptable. If enough of us are willing to do so, there is no doubt that we will see a reduction of bad behavior. Humans are social animals, you see, and while there are true sociopaths among us, most people will desist in a behavior that continually meets with disapproval6.

Of course, at Burning Man you find very little bad behavior. Quite the opposite: acts of altruism are normative. I suppose one might conjecture this is because Burning Man tends to attract a disproportionately large number of people embodying an altruistic ethos (whatever that might mean), but quantifying such a claim—if doing so is even possible—is certainly beyond the scope of what I'm interested in here. Rather, a simple truth of Burning Man is that, despite living for the week in minor-key privation, fairly extreme environmental conditions, and perhaps spending a bit beyond their means for the privilege7, the people in Black Rock City are disproportionately happy. And it's easy to see why: X) what is available is more or less available to all, Y) you are free to do more or less as you like, and Z) everywhere you go people are nice to you.

The phenomenon in play at X is egalitarianism. Black Rock City is a classless society. There is no systemic gap between the rich and the poor; there is no bottom rung of have-nots looking longingly up at the opulence of the haves. If it is offered at Burning Man, it is offered to all. Whatever resentment exists in society at large due to a lower socioeconomic stratum being barred from enjoying the privileges available at the top of the ladder is absent out there on the playa.

Y is libertarianism—or more straightforwardly here, freedom. Without getting into a discussion of human nature, it's safe to say that people tend to enjoy freedom. Ceteris paribus, the less freedom, the less happiness. Black Rock City is for the most part a free society, which helps it to be a happy one.

The reasoning of my including Z is a bit circular, but the point is important to make. Treating others well is a virtuous cycle, an ouroboros of positive social engineering at a grass-roots level. Were we all to take the first step of treating each other well, we would find ourselves in a transformed social milieu8.

A summary lesson: More frequently than any other activity, I continually found myself drawn late at night to the middle of the deep playa, from a distance beholding the scope and spectacle that throbbed with life for miles around. And each time I did so, I was struck by the transitory nature of everything before me. It was a good life metaphor. We humans have been tremendously successful at proliferating ourselves and our technologies, at creating communities, at transforming our environment. But for all the seeming permanence of our countries and metropolises, all of it will pass.

I can't say I am comforted by this reality. But the upside of impermanence is that everything with us is malleable. For most intents and purposes, there is nothing we cannot refashion. We create, and indeed are, landmarks by which our fellow citizens orient themselves. But at any time we can begin to re-create and re-orient ourselves, creating new relations between the multifarious elements of our community.

And really, change happens no matter how much we ignore or resist it, because all is flux. The world of tomorrow cannot be the world of today. Let us recognize that and take an active, conscious part in shaping that change rather than insensibly letting it shape us. Society is ours, and we are society. You have arrived, but have you really staked your claim?

Footnotes
1Sadly, the act that will most likely get you busted is marijuana use. That goes even for medicinal use, as Black Rock City is federal land. The feds go so far as to plant undercover agents in the guise of "Burners" to solicit drugs, hoping that the generosity within the Burning Man ethos—it's considered a "gift economy"—will lead unsuspecting individuals to offer a joint or what have you, which will immediately earn the giver at bare minimum a $500 ticket. One evening just such an undercover agent approached our group (though we would have known better if we did have something to offer). "Hi, officer, nice to meet you," said one of my companions, extending a hand. "That's cool. Game on," said Officer Getalife as he bicycled away.
2Not literally: there's not a bit of flora out there.
3Or via inheritance, etc.
4'MOOP' is an acronym for "matter out of place."
5As an example of the degree of respect for individual privacy that reigns at Burning Man, one morning in Center Camp—the most public place in Black Rock City—a gentleman approached me and gently asked permission before snapping a series of pictures of me doing nothing more compromising than sitting cross-legged on a bench reading the newspaper.
6I confess to oversimplification on this point; nonetheless, the point holds. All you have to do to verify the veracity of the principle in question is to spend some time observing how children acquire their ethics.
7All told, a week at Burning Man probably will run you a bare minimum of $800, while the BRC Weekly estimates that 58% of attendees earn less than $50,000 per year.
8As freely as I admit to being overly simplistic with phrases like "treating each other well," I have little doubt every reader can by and large easily distinguish for herself a difference between treating others well and treating others poorly. Uncontroversial example: If I find your wallet and return it to you with the cash inside, I am treating you well; if I take the cash and dump the wallet in the garbage, I am treating you poorly. N'est pas?

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