Duality of the Ten Principles of Burning Man
I have spent the last few days processing everything that has happened during my most recent trip to Black Rock City. This was my fourth burn in 9 years and something felt particularly different this time.
It was uncomfortable, lonely, liberating, transformative, spectacular & surreal. Not to be overly dramatic but I felt as if I had lived multiple lives in a parallel dimension, where we operated on a currency of kindness, generosity & loving sarcasm.
In most ways, this all felt very familiar. It was home. But it was also different. When you have a city of 70,000 people co-creating an experience of art, gifting, communal effort & participatory immediacy, no two years can ever be alike. For me, my fourth year was an exercise in letting go of expectations & a deeper pondering of the Ten Principles of Burning Man, a reflection of the community’s developing ethos, outlined by Larry Harvey in 2004.
Anyone may be a part of Burning Man.
Cycling around deep playa, I vacillated between moments of intense loneliness and absolute liberation. It took me a couple of days to remember the privilege of adventuring solo in the desert, where I could literally turn to anyone and start a meaningful conversation with them. I met some of the most interesting & talented minds from around the world, from artists to engineers and scientists, a fashion designer & his cohort of models. We were all dusty.
It was surreal. There’s also something to be said about finding one’s own tribe of weirdos. But this was a beautiful illusion, a temporary bubble that we had created in the desert for 70,000 of the most privileged people in the world.
Burning Man is devoted to acts of gift giving.
One of the biggest misconceptions about Burning Man is that it’s a barter economy or that everything is free. Far from it.
It’s a gift economy, essentially making Burning Man a love economy. This expression of love can be in material form, an act of service, a display of art, music, theatre or another variation of a love language. The scale and creativity of these gifts, from a Cirque Du Soleil show, to a Boeing 747 converted into a music venue, to The Orb, a 100ft in diameter silver helium balloon, to a foam party in the desert with a DJ set and live painting by Alex & Allyson Grey, were simply jaw-dropping. These were truly heart-centred gifts, a most generous expression of some of the most talented people in the world.
At the same time, there was also a bit of entitlement with a minority of participants. Some would complain about having to show ID for alcohol in bars when they were obviously over 21. Considering that “bars” at Burning Man are in fact, stranger’s campsites & by ordering drinks, you are actually asking complete strangers to give you alcohol they bought with their own money to you, for free, some people seemed to forget how absolutely privileged they were.
But most people do understand that your Burning Man ticket only pays for porta-potties, security, permits, administration & the effigy. The rest is a potluck of art, music & social experiences. Everyone is meant to bring something to share and each year I marvel that the concept works so absolutely brilliantly.
Our community seeks to create social environments that are unmediated by commercial sponsorships, transactions, or advertising.
On one hand, this is done quite well. It’s refreshing to experience a space where brands are not in your face. It was amusing to have a conversation with a participant from Dubai who was genuinely confused as to why there were no corporate sponsorship, as if something has to have a logo to have value.
But at the same time, there are plenty of reminders of capitalism. People stop at Walmart on their way to Burning Man, and millions of dollars are spent by participants in preparation for the event online & offline. And there are of course fashion brands who try to surreptitiously infiltrate Burning Man culture via Instagram. Fortunately, the focus is ultimately on art, music & creativity.
Burning Man encourages the individual to discover, exercise and rely on his or her inner resources.
The idea behind this is you are meant to bring whatever you need, in order to survive a week in the desert. My understanding used to be that this meant people needed to rough it out in the desert, Mad Max style. But as I have seen over the years, this has taken the form of throwing more money at a problem, from sleeping in a ShiftPod to coming down in air-conditioned RVs to joining one of the luxury camps for a more comfortable desert experience. Even theme camps have been upgrading their experience, joining forces with other camps to create villages, so as to provide potable water, grey water removal, meals, power & wifi. To be fair, it is a lot of work to survive a week in the desert, so I have no qualms against people spending more money. I guess just like in the real world, the more money you have, the more self-reliant you can be.
Ultimately, no matter how much you pay for your experience, the great equalizer is the harsh desert environment. It’s not for everyone. The days are hot, the nights are cold and it’s dusty as fuck. You will still need emotional resiliency to adapt to such an experience.
Radical self-expression arises from the unique gifts of the individual.
I had a moment of hilarious disbelief during my first sunrise at Burning Man this year. There were throngs of beautiful people each trying to capture the perfect sunrise selfie for social media, while dressed in their brand new designer Burning Man outfits. I did not know whether to be sad or to laugh at the theatrics.
And then, I caught myself being judgemental. It really didn’t matter what everyone else was doing. I was in a dusty old costume, which I’ve worn to too many festivals, riding a janky ugly bicycle, carrying a broken mug and enjoying one of the most beautiful sunrises I could remember. Everyone is allowed their own experience & I appreciated that radical self-expression meant that a dusty old hippy like me is still allowed into the party.
Our community values creative cooperation and collaboration.
One of my favourite things about Burning Man culture is the work ethic. This is not a curated experience. People work hard to create and bring art, construct theme camps, design & build mutant vehicles & every other imaginable task to serve the community. Your labour becomes your art and by authentically pulling your weight to help co-create the experience of Burning Man, you too become an artist.
I have always enjoyed the privilege of arriving early to help with setup and this year I arrived three days early on the Work Access Pass to help setup our theme camp. It was hard work in the dusty, hot sun and so very worth it.
Community members who organize events should assume responsibility for public welfare and endeavour to communicate civic responsibilities to participants.
Considering the size of the population, there is remarkable respect for art and property. However, there are a few weird quirks, like the stealing of street signs, bicycle theft and the pillaging of trinkets left behind at the Temple, after the burn.
Laws are generally respected, of course but there is also the concept of Safety Third, eg. where climbing art is allowed because it’s fun, albeit potentially lethal. Then again, I appreciate personal responsibility over being parented.
Leaving No Trace
Our community respects the environment.
This is one principle I have the most discomfort with. One one hand, I appreciate that most participants clean up after themselves but on the other hand, it feels dishonest. The philosophy behind LNT is so narrowly focused on garbage (or MOOP) on the playa. What about the carbon footprint from everything that is burned? Or all the disposable items purchased? At least the recycling & composting efforts seem to have improved a bit over the years but it’s a bit ridiculous how much garbage is created. The excess food that is thrown away alone is heart-breaking enough. Not to mention the thousands of bikes which are abandoned each year in the desert. Disposable consumerism is still in full effect.
Burning Man participants may be much more conscientious than others about cleaning up trash but the reality is Burners create a massive environmental footprint.
Our community is committed to a radically participatory ethic.
Indeed, participation is one of the cornerstones of Burning Man culture. From working together to interacting with art to interacting with each other, I love that this is an active participatory experience.
Having said that, the perception of what is adequate participation can differ vastly among the denizens of Black Rock City. You have volunteers with the Department of Public Works who spend weeks before & after the event. You have participants who arrive early on Work Access Passes to help setup theme camps, art or to help staff critical departments. And of course, you have the weekenders who arrive just in time for the burning of the man. Who is a participant & who is a tourist?
Does everyone ruin Burning Man in their own way?
We seek to overcome barriers that stand between us and a recognition of our inner selves, the reality of those around us, participation in society, and contact with a natural world exceeding human powers.
One of the most powerful experiences at Burning Man is recognizing the power of now. At any one given moment on the playa, there are multiple simultaneous mind-blowing events happening, possibly never to be repeated again. I used to think that this simply meant letting go of FOMO and being satisfied with what you are doing in the moment. But I realized that it’s also about being in tune with your instincts and allowing it to lead you to where you need to be in that moment.
I had some of the most profound experiences from trusting my instincts & being beautifully present in the movement of in space & time.
Ultimately, the Ten Principles are an integral part of the evolution of Burning Man’s philosophy. When you have 70,000 people attend an annual event and so many more supporting it globally with regional events, it’s important to have a guiding mission. There is an incredible amount of light in this community & it will be interesting to see how it continues to move towards a vision of a more creative, cooperative, and generous world.
Have you been to Burning Man? How was your experience?