Burning Man: The Playa is green.

Photo: Anda Lupascu

Photo: Anda Lupascu

By the time this story comes out, I will have attempted to demystify Burning Man many times over from the mainstream media’s repeating insinuation of the event being an oasis for desert-hippie-ravers. While it is definitely that in one part (there is absolutely nothing wrong with desert-hippie-raves), the culture of Black Rock City (BRC) extends eons beyond that. But it is difficult to describe empirically. Even after a few weeks of decompression and slowly parachuting into the motions of my daily life, I have not been able conjure up enough poetic bravado to articulate what the last week of August was like.

Burning Man, fundamentally, is a social experiment in building community. For a period of one week using the very best characteristics of humanity – creativity, resilience, technological prowess, altruism, environmental responsibility, and respect – a flat lake bed nested in the valley of the Black Rock Dessert is transformed into BRC, a temporary settlement housing almost 70,000 ‘burners’. Here all it’s citizens are free to paint themselves in any shade, exploring all extensions of their physical and spiritual selves.

In my experience, Burning Man curates a number of key ingredients requisite to what I imagine a good society to look like - if not in individual attributes, then in the overall sense of physical, emotional, spiritual security that it awakes in its participants. Firstly, the event embodies boundless creativity. If the desert dust is its skin, then the art is the vein through which Burning Man’s life pulsates. One of the central pieces for this year’s Caravansary was ‘Embrace’, a 72-foot high wooden sculpture of two figures cradled in each other’s arms. The interior of Embrace consisted of two cavernous cathedral-like spaces, one inside each body, sheltering ornate elements that symbolized the human heart. Matt Shultz, the lead artist on the project, built the sculpture as an ode to his stepfather, whose sudden passing in 2011 inspired Matt to reflect on the moments in relationships when people know they are loved. The installation was composed of 160,000 lbs of wood and took about 10 months to build even with the aid of many volunteers. 

But at sunrise on the 29th of August, upon triggering a ceremonial migration of thousands of burners to its circumference, Embrace was set on fire. As the flames scaled its walls and pierced its eyes, foreshadowed by the rising sun transitioning from a translucent pink to a warm yellow glow, I understood why, despite the monumental achievement that Embrace was, it had to be burnt down. Because only in its incensed demise, did Embrace embody the impermanence of love, and companionship, and celebrated the transience of life’s fleeting relationships. 

Photo: Duncan Rawlings

Photo: Duncan Rawlings

And so went with this year’s temple, the latest in a long line of temples going back to the year 2000 when the tradition of building the temple as the spiritual heart of Burning Man started. This year’s masterpiece, named the Temple of Grace, was a 70-feet high monolith, nested in a square, low-walled courtyard measuring about 150 feet by 150 feet. Its central interior dome and 8 altars, including every graceful curve, were composed of intricately cut wooden panels with embellishment reminiscent of the holiest shrines. The Temple of Grace stood as a sacred space for memorials, reflection, and celebration. It mirrored the ephemerality of the very social experiment that birthed it, commemorating its jovial birth and inevitable demise. I read a lot about the temple in my preparatory research for Burning Man, but nothing prepared me for the solemn yet overwhelming energy that subdued every individual walking through its reverberant room. The temple was a spiritual refuge where citizens abandoned their inhibition and emotional discretions, where each engaged with its walls, columns, and altars in his or her own way. Standing at the temple, I sensed the cathartic sighs of BRC and the elevated spirit of every person exiting its courtyard. The Temple of Grace was completed on August 24th 2014, and like Embrace, was immolated one week later.

Photo: Duncan Rawlings

Photo: Duncan Rawlings

Beyond the art, BRC functions on 10 core principles that informally codify the massive social experiment. These aren’t rules or commandments that require strict allegiance, but rather are pillars that highlight what the Burning Man community values the most.  The principles range from immediacy (spontaneous participation in body and/or soul), radical self-reliance (metabolites spiked water and salty snacks are your best friends on the playa), to radical-inclusion (absolutely anyone, and everyone is welcome to BRC). But in addition, one of the most notable and admirable attributes of Burning Man is the pursuit environmental stewardship that is etched into its consciousness. Burning Man Organization (BMO) is required to buy permits (over $4.5 million spent for the 2013’s permits) from the Bureau of Land Management (BLM), the federal agency that administers American public lands, which sets strict pre-conditions for environmental preservation prior to renewing eligibility BMO’s ongoing eligibility. Consequently, BRC manages its environmental footprint very effectively and successfully, and is recognized by BLM for hosting the world’s largest Leave-No-Trace event and setting high standards by which other recreation events are measured. This feat is made possible by the fervent MOOPing ethic that permeates the burner culture. MOOP is BRC’s colloquial term for Matter Out Of Place, annotating anything from ash, cooking oil, cigarette butts, to loose boa feathers. At my camp, following breakdown and clean up, my campmates lined up side by side to create a human vacuum, picking, scooping, and tweezing every last bit of stray matter off the playa ground until the only evidence of our presence were our shoe prints.  BMO makes available a rich library of resources that outline best practices and guidelines to curb the environmental impacts of the burn. Solar power is ubiquitous across the playa and is used to light art installations, campsites, and major landmarks (including the temple in 2013). Because of the negative affect of water on the non-absorptive playa floor, greywater is strictly managed and monitored; participants can have patrolling trucks empty out greywater tanks once full and any illegal dumping is fined. Although all burners are encouraged to ‘pack-it-in-pack-it-out’, BRC hosts a Recycle Camp for aluminum cans which collects, crushes, and bags recyclables for donation to the local community school.  Recycle Camp is run completely by participants and volunteers who meander through the city every day riding patented bicycle powered recycling trucks.  The trucks make it possible to collect 10 times as many cans as the old shopping cart version in each trip.  According to the Afterburn report published every year, in 2013 BRC recycled nearly 3 tons aluminum, and diverted around 24 tons of organics from landfills.

Burning Man’s citizen lead initiative is significantly complemented by BRC’s Department of Public Works (BRC DPW), the group that plans, surveys, builds, and takes down the temporary infrastructure including the roads, light fixtures, and mini airport. DPW’s Restoration Teams, comprising of a hardy crew of volunteers, stay long after the event wraps up to return the playa and it’s surrounding areas back to their pristine condition. Despite best efforts from burners, due to the scale of BRC, a lot of MOOP ranging from tent stakes to bicycles is inadvertently left behind. The Restoration Teams do an extremely good job of processing residual MOOP not only on the playa but also across Highway 34 and highway 447 that stretch away from BRC, picking up everything from garbage bags, to loose trash that has fallen off vehicles during ‘exodus’. Additionally, the Restoration Teams also publish a live MOOP Map that is updated regularly following the weeks of Burning Man and visually charts the MOOP Impact Trace as systematic MOOPing progresses. The MOOP Maps illustrate the consistently hardest-hit  areas (those with greatest foot traffic, including the Esplanade, Center Camp, and the 2:00 and 10:00 radial streets), which require more concerted, focused and organized clean-up efforts.

But after everything is said and done, I don’t think BMO’s pursuit of environmental stewardship stands in isolation as some CSR activity, but something that has arisen organically from the internalization of the complete Burning Man ethos (in form of the 10 principles) as citizen participation evolved. For example, Decommodification is part and parcel of Leave-No-Trace, and vice versa. Decommodification speaks to the lack of money exchanged - no one can buy or barter at Burning Man. In fact the only things that cash can buy at BRC is ice and coffee from the city’s center camp. Everyone is simply expected to participate wholeheartedly in the ‘gift economy’ where offerings regardless of their form (food, water, beverages, hugs, shade, massages, music etc) are simply given away without expectation of reciprocity. This is a paradigm shift away from the Coachellas and Glastonburys. It is not necessarily about flagging the evils of money, but more about creating a context where the act of giving occurs through other forms of cultural currency. Gifting, as opposed to purchasing or bartering, evokes a level of vulnerability and openness conducive to the free expression and exposition. One can walk, bike, or hitch a ride on an artcar all around BRC and be showered with gifts as diverse as the ornamentations adorning burners. Gifts ranged from a giant plexiglass enclosure housing a human carwash come dance party, full body massages using car buffers, to endless variations of thirst quenchers (the absinthe bar alone had 50 types of home-made absinthe drinks), to even organic coconut ice cream. The limitless generosity of burners may seem confusing at first, but it is ultimately infectious in its pay-it-forward butterfly effect.

From a sustainability perspective, I think the gift economy highlights a very important pre-requisite to any ideal society where sustainability and environmentally responsibility is codified in its social fabric. This is because the act of giving without expectation of reciprocity elicits a state of mind in both the giver and receiver that is most true to our commonly shared vulnerabilities and aspiration, a state of mind that can allow us to break away from the tragedy of the commons. In the end, Burning Man is only an event, and a very short lasting one at that. But the ideas and culture that it nurtures in the dessert is unlike the art that is immolated there. Just like any experience or ideas that leave an everlasting impression, Burning Man plants the seeds of possibilities and the alternative society that can be built if the right energy, ideas, and willingness is allowed to blossom.