International Burning Man, 2008

I am a Burning Man regular. I’ve been going regularly since 1995. On that first visit I took my daughters, then 6 and 8, and have taken them frequently since. Last year, I went with one of my daughters and her senior high school friends. No matter who I go with, it’s a blast. 

Every year Burning Man has a theme. This year it is nationalism. Larry Harvey, the original character behind the festival, has unveiled the podium for this year’s Man. It’s a wonderfully strange, ugly, brilliantly extreme obelisk. I think the international theme is appropriate because over the years I’ve noticed something remarkable; the number of “foreign” visitors to Burning Man has skyrocketed. A very large percentage of attendees each year are non-Americans. Many are European. 

Pavilion08 Lg 

Here’s their drill. The Europeans book an RV rental in either LA or Las Vegas. They set off on their month-long company-paid August vacations touring the American West and its many national parks in RV style. This is a favorite fantasy of many northern Europeans, especially Germans. With the plunging dollar rate, this is almost as cheap as a third-world vacation. After tooling around the West, they climax their trip in northern Nevada for a once-in-a-lifetime truly American holiday extravaganza: Burning Man! 

My fellow citizens. It’s wonderful the rest of the world is enjoying this national treasure, but you should to. Burning Man is still the cheapest ticket to an exotic off-planet experience you can buy.

I go almost every year for several reasons. 

1) Burning Man offers the best art experience in America. I’m not talking just about the commissioned art in the center of the playa. I mean the thousands and thousands of little creations that issue from the camps. I mean the never-ending creativity in structures, sculptures, costumes, and performances that occur 24-hours a day in Black Rock City. There is a surprise a minute. The city is sort of a surprise machine. I can’t tell you how many times I’ve seen a creation, or gesture that has made me smile, and feel utterly glad to be alive. 

2) Burning Man offers one of the best courses in urban planning and community design anywhere. It’s a libertarian community. There are rules, but a minimum. I’ve watch the number of rules grow over the years, as the number of participants grow. When there was only 2,000 people there, it was possible for everyone to help erect the Man with ropes, and few needs for streets. WIth 40,000 people, just coordinating the toilets takes a department of people, and a budget and bureaucracy. The rules to prohibit cars from the main city and transform it into a bicycle and pedestrian town has worked. Sleeping at night is safer because now there are streets and some isn’t going drive over your sleeping bag. Keeping guns out was a good idea; there is still plenty of other things to explode.

Every new rule is resisted fiercely, and chaos has been embraced. Burning Man is what happens if you have only a few fundamental rules and allow disorder to self-assemble the rest. So far it has worked brilliantly. In part this is because Burning Man has a delete button. Every year the entire city is deleted and undone. Erased. Gone. And a new city is rebuilt from zero. This gives this particular city — alone among all the cities of the world — a fantastic learning rate. It can implement what it learned last version and make changes in the next updated version. Black Rock is the eternal beta city, an urban center (Nevada’s third largest city) run according to software logic. 

3) Burning Man provides a thriving case of the gift economy. If you would like to see how the gift economy and open source might work in “real life” Burning Man is it. Commercial transactions are barred in the city (with the exception of ice and coffee at Center Camp — to bring people to the Center), so everything else runs on gifts. Not barter, as in if you give me this, I’ll give you that, but actual gifts. Like, here’s free snow cones. Enjoy. Or a free beer. Or a free bike repair. It’s the FREE economy in the flesh, and it works. I believe the same motivation that has produced the Wikipedia, or Linux, is also behind the reason why people will spend a week in the dust repairing bicycles for free, or cooking up free pancakes in the morning. It’s refreshing, mysterious and powerful. My hunch is that the experience of seeing a gift economy in action at Burning Man has influenced, and will guide, the philosophy of those creating and coding the new economy. 

4) And then there is the Burning Man extreme environment. White outs, sand storms, stealthy dust, mad mud, unrelenting heat, and surprising cold, blank vistas, vibrant stars, the long pilgrimage there, the necessary survival mode. You get out of your head and live in your body. Build a huge city, go crazy, and leave no trace. It is practical environmentalism. Eco-pragmatism. Full of contradictions (all the transporting of stuff), but none-the-less a reverent respect for a place. 

At least once in your life you should visit. It is as least as interesting as Disneyland or Paris.


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