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Mucked Up

Burning Man becomes a hot, muddy mess

In 2023, the attendees of the Burning Man festival finally got the rebuke they deserved. “Burners,” as the festivalgoers like to call themselves, found themselves confronting rare torrential rain last week in the dried-up Nevada desert lake bed where they gather each year. The rain turned the fine silty dust-like sand into clay. The clay in turn made it near impossible for anyone to get around, and local authorities issued an order asking the eighty thousand festivalgoers to shelter in place. All exits from the site were closed and social media spilled over with Burners complaining about the terrible conditions they were having to confront instead of the usual wild bacchanal they had come to enjoy.

There are many troubles with the Burning Man Festival but one particularly noxious one is how oblivious Burners are of their privilege and of their exploitation of what was once a pristine landscape, the Black Rock Desert.

There were clues to this even as the Burners were arriving to the festival site this year. In the week leading up to the festival, protesters from a climate action coalition called Seven Circles Alliance used a trailer to put a roadblock on the single road leading to the festival site. They sat down in the middle of the road and put up signs like “Burners of the World Unite” and “Mother Earth Needs Our Help.” The protesters wanted Burning Man to put an end to the ever-larger number of private jets used by celebrities and the ultrarich to get to the festival. The protesters were also demanding a ban on unlimited use of diesel-guzzling generators, propane, and single-use plastics.

Their pleas were not well received. As traffic backed up, someone called the tribal police force that has jurisdiction over the Black Rock area. Law enforcement responding to the call were so furious at the persistence of the protesters that one of them used a pickup truck to drive through the barrier set up by the protesters and pulled a handgun on them. That officer is being investigated for his actions. His behavior managed to disperse the protest, and the miles-long parade of giant RVs and campers and luxury vehicles poured into the “city” that is created by the festivalgoers every year. Nothing could stand in their way.

To such critics, the rains and the consequent transformation of Black Rock City (which is what the temporary settlement is called) into a clogged bog with rows of overflowing Porta-Potties seemed like Mother Earth’s revenge. When the festival first began in 1986 on a beach in San Francisco it was supposed to represent an act of radical inclusion and connectedness. Those idealistic initial intentions seem to serve a single intention now and that is to absolve all current attendees from thinking of themselves as hedonistic polluters. In recent years, an ever-richer group of attendees bring gas-guzzling RVs, erect ever larger air-conditioned domes, and use more and more generators without any concern for the climate impact of their actions.

The protesters wanted Burning Man to put an end to the ever-larger number of private jets used by celebrities and the ultra-rich to get to the festival.

This is not the only hypocrisy ailing Burning Man. In the early years of the festival, only very limited cash transactions were permitted between festivalgoers. The idea was that everyone exchanged goods and services in the spirit of gifting one another. This principle is still followed, but the availability of credit card transactions that take place over virtual networks means that it does not carry the same import. The tickets are expensive: $575 just for attendance (although there is a “ticket aid program” which sells tickets for $225) and then additional costs for transportation, camping, food, and water. So while maintaining a veneer of being anti-commodification, the festival shuts out people who do not have disposable wealth to fritter away for a week in the desert.

In effect then, the much-touted spirit of gifting and sharing end up enacting a vision of what rich people think it is like to be poor. The build-it-yourself, over-hyped costlessness of Burning Man suggests a mockery of the actually poor who do not have the choice to alter their economic situation on a temporary vacation from reality. This kind of dynamic, where the rich willingly pretend to be living the simple life in an ephemeral idyll seems risible to those who have neither a breathtaking landscape nor a way to escape the requirement to cough up actual money for goods and services.

When the rainstorm hit and the exits were closed, the Burners no longer had a choice in their habitation in the cash-free idyll. The RVs could not leave nor could anyone in them; there were even rumors of viral diseases including Ebola. Without the constant thumping techno music piping through the “streets” of Black Rock City, the environment became fetid and unbearable. With the toilets overflowing, buckets had to be used, and drinking water began to run low. The fine powdered silt of the lakebed stuck to expensive footwear until they looked like moonboots, and the only way to move, for some, was to wear giant plastic bags over their boots. The Burners known for breaking out into dance at any moment could barely move out of their tents and campers.

The Burners hold up the principle of “leave no trace” as evidence of their environmental awareness but do not account for their use of generators, private jets, and RVs because they pollute without leaving any visible trace. Similarly, the cashless economy and spirit of gifting and sharing is presented as an embrace of human connection and goodwill without acknowledging the condescension inherent in “pretend poverty.”

It should come as no surprise then that “radical inclusion,” another core principle, is similarly a stretch. In effect, the inclusion has meant that even reactionaries and absurd Washington elites are welcome to let loose for a week and imagine a society that looks nothing like the one that made them rich. In 2022, roughly 80 percent of attendees self-identified as “white/non-Hispanic.” When festival cofounder Larry Harvey was asked about this in 2015, he replied, “I don’t think Black folks like to camp as much as white folks,” adding that “we’re not going to set racial quotas.” That response ignores the glaring fact that being “radically inclusive” would mean making changes to a festival that has largely been created to serve an all-white audience. Changes, others than those meant to make white festivalgoers more comfortable and the whole event more spectacular, do not seem to be welcome. The wide appeal of the festival for white people is because they have come up with what they believe is a uniquely radical and egalitarian event. The possibility that the smug self-righteousness of white Burners may be interpreted as a lack of sensitivity to other races is not something people at Burning Man want to consider.

The rain last weekend washed away the utopian veneer from the Burning Man festival. The whining of spoiled and rich white people, all of them searching for a way around the rules (the shelter in place order) exposed how a festival that may at one time have been a radically inclusive counter-culture extravaganza has become yet another elite fete for the deep-pocketed. Burning Man will likely endure since so many techno-dreamers, libertarians, and well-off libertines seem to love it, but this year’s debacle should at the very least expose it as climate unfriendly, radically self-involved rather than inclusive, and annoyingly self-congratulatory.