Radical Inclusion vs. Radical Self-Reliance at Burning Man
I’m sure many of you have come across the ongoing debate that is heating up right now around the idea of wealthy individuals paying to have a provided experience at Burning Man. There have been some great write-ups on the topic on both sides, but I wanted to offer my personal experience since I haven’t seen much representation yet by “the 1%” themselves. Last week was my 5th year on the playa, and my feelings on the subject have radically changed as my relationship with the festival and the community has deepened. I’ve gone from feeling like an outsider to becoming a judgmental veteran and back again, more than a few times (sometimes in the same week). Nearly every day, I am reminded of the feeling that I’m on the wrong side of a never-ending class war that sadly divides us, but I’ve gained a lot of perspective and acceptance thanks to specific experiences related to being a burner. And I’m still learning, no matter how many times I think I’ve reached the end.
My first year, I felt totally clueless. I was dependent on my camp (Shady Waffle <3) for everything from water to the knowledge that I couldn’t leave my bike unlocked when I went out. I didn’t know how to help out with the chores that needed to be done every day and made far more messes than I fixed. The clothes I brought were all wrong and I ruined two jackets that (my now close friend) Cezar made by hand because they were too small. I still wince when I think about that. I only knew two people on playa for most of the week and was ecstatic when four more of my friends showed up on Wednesday. I was sure the “real” burners wanted nothing to do with me. That was probably true of some of them, but years later I understand that the experience only becomes amplified when you get to see it through a virgin’s eyes. Never build a camp without one, trust me.
The second year, I did as much as I could to counteract those feelings. I read endlessly about how to prepare and even founded my own camp (Short Stack) because I wanted to prove that I could and to ensure that I would be less alone. I brought everything I needed and spares for everyone else. We had our own camp gift: an oatmeal bar with delicious toppings that ran Tue-Friday. It brought much joy to our neighbors, including more than a few awesome little kids. I knowingly informed n00bs that they couldn’t wear jeans because “the costume cult people will literally yell at you with a megaphone if you do”… but my own clothes were still all wrong. My bike — and generally our entire camp infrastructure — was too new. And I decided I wanted to learn how to spin fire, because the people who did were clearly the most “authentic” group on the playa. If wealthy people are the snobby rich kids of burning man, then fire spinners are most definitely the jocks. Motherfucking fire jocks. “How can I gain credibility?”, I thought over and over. How can I become someone who belongs?
In 2011, my third year, Cari and I organized a village comprised of 5 different camps, The Chillage. I also founded a second camp for a different group of my friends (Om Skillet), and we even formed a third camp for some of our parents: The Dislocated Hipsters. We’d met someone at Mystopia the prior year who gave us the idea. My parents are absolutely not hippies, but they are open minded, and by this point I understood that anybody could have a good time on the playa. I had taken to describing it as a “buffet of experience; there is something for everyone.” This was a transformative experience for all of them and I highly recommend it if you are considering. Still, as a 3-year veteran, I wondered whether I was giving as much as I was taking. Did I violate the principles by paying an assistant to help me with preparation off playa? Was I yet a member of the community, or still just a leech? Or worse: a tourist.
Last year, number four, was extremely difficult on a number of levels. Villages turn out to be damn hard to run and I poured endless hours of physical labor into making it work, before and during the event. I couldn’t sit down for more than a few minutes without someone coming up to me with a question. Regardless of what I contributed to the community that year, which was a lot, I knew I had given more to our camp than most of its members, in sharp contrast to my first year. Worst of all, for the second time, we almost ran out of water mid-week (for 130 people!) due to a poorly managed vendor. We were saved by a friend’s camp, however, and this was an extremely important lesson for me on accepting dependence, both because it was clear we had formed a reliance on the vendor and that we were inextricably reliant on our friends when that vendor fell through. It’s ok to need to borrow a cup of sugar or, say, 200 gallons of water, every once in a while.
Going into this year’s burn, I thought I had learned everything there was to learn. I smugly read the Verge piece about startups “invading” Burning Man, knowing full well how unbalanced the perspective was. It includes a reference to Mark Zuckerberg “helicoptering in to serve grilled cheeses.” I’ll go ahead and confirm the rumor, since it’s clearly out there now anyway. The implication in the article is that he paid into a turnkey experience, but I know he was a guest in the camp I built and no money changed hands. Along with its other inhabitants, he helped pitch his own tent. I wanted him to experience the city and to experience gifting because I thought it would make him grow as a person and the world better off as a result; I believe that’s exactly what happened, however marginally (he was already a pretty great person). I’ve seen this occur countless times. Burning Man is a direct contributor to Cari’s and my decision to start Good Ventures, and to my Asana co-founder Justin’s realization that all the companies in the world are really part of One Project. I know many of the entrepreneur invaders and, without exception, they come back from their first year with a decreased interest in zero-sum competition and a deep appreciation of the fully connected and mutually supportive community. When I hear about anyone going for the first time, my immediate thought is “that is so great for them” and when they are a person who has pooled power or capital around them, it is usually followed by “that is so great for the world.”
I was reminded of this truth I already knew when I happened to run into Tyler and Cameron Winklevoss near the Temple crew camp on Esplanade. In spite of our tangled history, I had never actually met them; we only communicated through lawyers. These guys are among the only people on earth I might describe as real antagonists in my life or even enemies, but on playa my first instinct was that I quite obviously needed to introduce myself and start with hugs. They had just arrived so I wasn’t sure how they’d react, but they were very gracious at the time and I knew they’d understand more deeply by the time they left. Almost immediately when I got back, I had a Facebook friend request from Tyler and we started a thread mutually extolling the virtues of the festival. In no uncertain terms, he described a spiritual experience. I had created all kinds of dark fantasies about how meeting them would go (Tyler assures me it would have been cordial regardless), but on playa it was laughably clear. There, we were all part of the same community. We were always part of the same community.
The animosity towards wealthy burners is supposedly based on the concept that they are violating the core principle of Radical Self-Reliance. People too often lose sight of the fact that this is a directional stance and not something actually achievable. Self-reliance is a fully continuous spectrum that extends in both directions forever. Did you build your camp by yourself? Did you pave the road that led to it? Did you grow your own food? Did you weld the frame of your bike? Did you raise yourself as a baby? Every burner is as radically dependent on the community as they are on themselves. When the Dislocated Hipsters came, most of them lived in RVs. Though this would be considered a cop-out by average burning man standards, it was still incredibly adventurous for them, and they learned e.g., how to start a generator and how to wash your hair with only a few ounces of water. I imagine the experience is somewhat similar for the “turnkey” folks; no matter how much assistance they get, at the very least they still need to learn how to keep themselves hydrated.
The founder of Burning Man, Larry Harvey, has left no room for doubt that he sees the world similarly, and all writings by core members of the org are consistent. Burning Man is for absolutely everyone. Everyone. That’s what Radical Inclusion means. If you’re a starving artist, you should go. (if you want to, of course!) If you’re a plumber, you should go. If you’re a billionaire, you should go. If you’re a Saudi Prince that can only go if a turnkey camp is provided for you, please, please come. I’ll make you a sandwich. If you believe you’re a member of the class of people who actually deserve to be there, well then I definitely want you to keep going. One day, you’ll get it. Elitism in all forms distracts us from the truth of our common humanity.