Burning Man: Counter Culture or Social Utopia?

“Well it seems to me, that all real communities grow out of a shared confrontation with survival. Communities are not produced by sentiment or mere goodwill. They grow out of a shared struggle. Our situation in the desert is an incubator for community.”
Larry Harvey (Burning Man Co-founder & Executive Director)

I’m amazed to think that this will be my 6th consecutive year at Burning Man.  I can recall very specific memories of my first year attending as though it were yesterday.  Being a “veteran Burner”, I can assure you of one thing (another memorable quote by Harvey) – “Anyone can go out into the desert and debauch themselves.”

For one week of the year, Black Rock City rises somewhat magically from the Black Rock Desert playa.  Its reputation as Nevada’s other “Sin City” is well deserved.  Burners do become another persona, and in fact, do debauch themselves.

But “The Party on the Playa” is not what Burning Man is truly about at its core.  Consider this year’s theme, “Metropolis”.  As the organization’s website (www.burningman.com) describes it “Great cities are organic, spontaneous, heterogeneous, and untidy. They are, like Burning Man, magnetic hubs of social interaction. This year’s theme will function as a micro and a macro-scope, an instrument through which we will inspect the daily course of city life and the future prospect of civilization.”

Some may choose to believe that statement is hyperbole to cover the event’s core reputation for excess; but if you’ve ever attended Burning Man, you must know the festival is far more than an excuse to get naked, take drugs, and party through the night.  In fact, if that’s all you experience, you’ve actually missed the event entirely.

The lifelong relationships that I have developed help create a sense of anticipation that lasts throughout the year for Labor Day.  We call this sense of community, of participation, “home”.  Ask anyone who has been to Burning Man, and they will likely tell you personal stories about human generosity not influenced by social status, race, income, age or sex.  Black Rock City is much more than an excuse to party – it’s a social experiment that continues to develop in both richness and reach.

From its humble beginnings on the Baker Beach just outside San Francisco in 1986, to largest temporary city in Nevada with nearly 50,000 residents, the social experiment that is Black Rock City continues to be founded on the arts – and not the sophomoric binging of our human condition.

Burning Man is governed by 10 guiding principles, which in combination encapsulate what this culture is truly about: Radical Inclusion, Gifting, Decommodification, Radical Self-reliance, Radical self-expression, Communal effort, Civic Responsibility, “Leave No Trace”, Participation and Immediacy.  Consider those principles again, and imagine what it might be if they were the foundations of reality – what Burners call the “default world”.

In total, these governing philosophies lay the foundation for a social experiment that continues to flourish.  With each reinvention of the event comes a broader understanding of how we, as a society, can create a more productive system of co-existence without prejudice.  Burning Man is a social experiment where, for just for one short week, Utopia is actually within grasp.

From the humbly generous (and naked) couple in their late 70’s that I was graced to meet my first year, to the circling of friends that will gather once again at our traditional camp location – it’s the people that you meet, and the art that you experience that is Burning Man.  If, however, you do want to simply go to the desert to “party like a rock star” – that’s your choice…but you may actually miss the powerful, lasting personal transformation that Burning Man offers you.

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