How To Save the World

Caveat Magister has written a long piece at SF Weekly entitled “Out of the Wilderness. The future of Burning Man isn’t in the desert. It’s everywhere else”. You’ll have to read through more than 5500 words to find his disclaimer that he’s affiliated with BMOrg, having worked as a volunteer for 6 years. This is not a conflict of interest, he’s not directly on their payroll and merely has log-in credentials to their blog. Caveat told us that he was asked to write the cover story by SF Weekly because they know he is involved with Burning Man. He seems to have taken a fair and balanced approach to this story.

He starts out exploring how Burning Man is not about the Playa any more, it’s about all the great things they’re doing everywhere else in the world to spread Burner culture. Grover Norquist is welcome, Sarah Palin is not. 360 journalists will be there this year, but they turned down CNN.

Unfortunately, he runs into the same problems as everyone else who tries to dig below the surface of this: the Burning Man Project really aren’t doing much. Towards the end of his article, he starts to consider the reality:

confusionwith that growth has come institutionalization, bureaucracy, and hierarchy, making Burning Man a kind of paradox: The world’s biggest symbol of radical self-expression, self-reliance, and decommodification also has a human resources department and a team of intellectual-property lawyers.

This paradox has been pointed out and vigorously criticized at every stage of the organization’s development. Its most recent change, into a nonprofit entity called “The Burning Man Project,” is no exception.

This implies that “BMOrg has always been self-contradictory, so it doesn’t matter”. I disagree. That’s like saying “people have always killed each other, so there’s no point campaigning for peace”.

They can keep espousing Utopian values and preaching adherence to the Tin Principles, but actions speak louder than words. Sooner or later they will actually have to do something. You can’t call yourselves a do-ocracy when you only achieve a couple of things per year out of $30 million supplied to you by Burners.

‘One prominent member of the Burning Man community, who asked not to be named, was witheringly critical of the new organization. The change has served, this person with knowledge of the organization says, only to confuse and frustrate the people looking to it for leadership.

“Nobody knows what the fuck is going on,” the person says. “With the Black Rock Arts Foundation, until recently, or with Burners Without Borders, if you contributed, you knew what you were getting — it’s going to go to this. This is what they do. This is how they make the world better. Nobody has any idea what contributing to The Burning Man Project accomplishes. What do they do with it? How do they help?”

what in gods name“To be honest, I don’t know what The Burning Man Project is,” says Miriam Fathalla, an academic studying new cultural movements who was inspired by Burning Man to start an arts-based economic development effort in Jelong Geelong, Australia. “I read the website, I read the mission statement, but I don’t know what they’re doing — and it’s been three years! I’m not loyal to Burning Man, I’ve been inspired by it. And that distinction really seems to be an issue right now.”

Indeed, outside of people directly involved in some way with The Burning Man Project, not one person contacted for this article said they understood what The Burning Man Project does, or how it’s supposed to advance the culture. Many admit to being demoralized, and fear that this confusion hurts Burning Man’s ability to inspire others.

Thank goodness for that! I was starting to wonder if it was just me.

It seems that the owners of Burning Man admit they don’t know what they’re doing either. Send more money, to help them figure it out.

Told this, Burning Man Project leadership admit they have a problem.

“I’m not exactly surprised,” says Goodell.

“There’s a lot of gray,” says DuBois. “The vision is clear to myself and a handful of other people, but no one has ever done this before, so it’s difficult.

Done what? Started a non-profit? Tried to export something from one location to another?

Here is their vision for The Burning Man Project: In addition to producing the Burning Man event, it will serve as a facilitator for the activities that Burner communities and Burning Man-inspired movements undertake. It will offer everything from expertise and promotion to resources and networking for emerging projects and communities around the world.

But how does that function on a nuts-and-bolts level? They don’t actually know. Where other Burners say “It’s already been three years, how can you not have a plan?” leaders of The Burning Man Project say “It’s only been three years, how can we have a clear plan?”

youre lostSays Dubois: “We’re still learning as we go. There are a lot of best practices that we have to learn. How contracts should be designed, how we can work with other groups in such a way that everyone keeps their autonomy, when to partner with and when to share resources and when to just offer advice. Every time we take a step, we learn more.”

The idea that the Burning Man organization has hypocritically crossed a line and alienated the population is one they’ve heard before: When Burning Man added roads, when firearms were banned, when a speed limit was imposed … each time, people screamed that the Man was falling, and each time the culture only grew bigger.

So bigger is better? I think many Burners would argue that the culture is actually under threat from this “expand at all costs” mentality, driving population towards 100,000 while somehow maintaining 40% Virgins. When only 29% of people at the party have been more than twice, how can you claim that the culture is improving? You think these newbies even know anything about the culture?

When you’ve been doing something for 30 years, and the latest aspect of it for at least 3, how can you say “we’re still learning as we go” with a straight face? Seriously, how much more could there be to learn? How much more time do they need? Do they think they’re going to figure it out with even more think tanks and discussion groups?

What about actually spending the money, actually supporting 100+ projects, and reporting honestly about the highs and lows they experience?

Claiming credit for work that Burners do around the world is more likely to spread resentment than respect. Putting the founders on various panel discussions is not an adequate use of our funding contributions for the purposes of spreading Burner culture. If you’re going to promote an organization as a shining example of your non-profit achieving its mission, then how about your non-profit slush fund writes a check to that organization? Shouldn’t that be a given? Who are BMP writing checks to? We know that Burners Without Borders is one, but isn’t that just moving money from one company in the group to another?

critics say this time is different: The Burning Man Project’s goals are less concrete than simply building roads.

Meanwhile, the organization has made several decisions that have been especially controversial. Offering Burning Man-branded scarves as premiums to $150 donors and offering Burning Man tickets to high-level donors strike a sour note among people who have long defended the principle of decommodification.

Critics warn that, if this keeps up, a substantial number of Burners might form their own organizations, inspired by what Burning Man was rather than what it is, and try to change the world on their own.

Burning Man’s leadership has consistently responded: “That would be great! How can we help? Do you need support from our new nonprofit?”

What support is available? Whatever it is, it seems a legal contract is a pre-requisite. Will they give their non-profit donation money to these new ideas that they claim to be so supportive of? Or are they only going to support regional events that sign a contract with BMOrg?

the truth is that they haven’t yet figured out how, outside of San Francisco, ordinary people can fully live their lives as Burners. But they fully believe it’s possible. Their idea, their hope, is that someone out on the frontier of Burning Man will figure out ways to make this culture sustainable and scaleable that they haven’t thought of yet. They believe that the next generation of big ideas in Burning Man culture that are most relevant to people in Arkansas and Lithuania and China are most likely to come from Arkansas, Lithuania, and China, not San Francisco.

They say that what looks like a lack of leadership is, in fact, an attempt to make San Francisco less dominant and more supportive. And if they actually can help — if they have the organizational clout, know-how, and resources to offer support that people in Indianapolis, Japan, and New Zealand need — then they’ll be right.

But they have yet to demonstrate it to much of their community’s satisfaction.

Can BMOrg do anything meaningful to help people in other countries? Well, they sent two people to Israel for ranger training. Which Midburn had to pay for. Has that spread Burner culture in the Middle East? We didn’t get so much as a report on the event at the Burning Man blog.

As usual in the world of BMOrg, there are all kinds of numbers flying around that don’t hold up to a cursory fact check:

burner distribution 2012

where Burners are from, 2012

In total, Burning Man has 248 official representatives, known as “Regional Contacts” (RCs), in 123 different locations. In addition to the kind of efforts listed above, the regional groups put on about 56-60 officially sanctioned Burning Man events (the parties) each year across 13 different countries. As of this year, about 30 percent of “Burning Man” events are held outside the United States.

According to Burning Man’s own web site, there are 20 official regional events in 4 different countries. 7 are outside the United States, 4 of those are in Canada.

But hey, don’t ever let truth get in the way of a good story – right, BMOrg?

Spreading the values of Burning Man to an uninitiated world is not easy. People struggle to understand why they should change their behavior locally, because of a remote desert rave in Nevada.

Miriam Fathalla agrees. The hardest part of her economic development work, she says, was the first year, when she was the only person in the local community who had been to Burning Man or a regional event. “The essence of this culture is experiential. It was very challenging to get people who hadn’t had that experience to understand the vision.”

If the essence of the culture is experiential, shouldn’t more emphasis be put on spreading the experience? Just promoting the Principles does not seem to be actually extending the culture, instead it is just extending the rules and the confusion.

Burning Man is trying to become an incubator for its own culture, rather than its center. If Burning Man is to continue to grow, to continue to be relevant, its center of gravity will have to move to its frontier.

“The frontier for Burning Man is to help people get more connected to their communities,” Goodell says. “Not ‘our community,’ but their communities: their neighborhoods and their towns and their organizations. The idea is that people will say ‘I feel inspired, I feel connected, I feel empowered. Now I want to go and do something in my community.’ We know that if people are inspired, they can replicate what happens in the desert out in the world.”

And what, exactly, should they be replicating? Art cars? Effigy burns? Gifting? Nudity? Orgies? Psychedelic culture? Dust storms?

stop and think cartoonBMOrg say “here are Ten Principles, these are the essence of what it means to be a Burner, if you want to spread our values in your community then your event has to comply with these”. But do they really capture what is great and inspiring about Burning Man? What about creativity? Whimsy? Decadence? What about the music? Art? To me all of those are very important elements of the Burning Man experience.

Many Burners don’t care. Some say “if you don’t like it, don’t go”. But the problem is I do like it. I really like this city built by Burners. And I care that the suits have been messing with the culture for three years in the name of altruism, and still don’t know what it is they want to do.

It is possible to think that America is great, but disagree with the President’s policies. Similarly, it is possible to think that Burning Man is great, but disagree with BMOrg.

What do you think, Burners?


4 comments on “How To Save the World

  1. Regionals aren’t listed on the events calendar unless a Regional Contact lets BMORG know the dates for it each year. There are certainly more than the 20 listed; neither of the official regionals in my state is listed this year. The fact that more than half the official regionals don’t bother to seek inclusion in the calendar just highlights how little BMORG does for the regionals.

  2. Pingback: HuffPo vs NYT – Mainstream Media Battles Over Burners | Burners.Me: Me, Burners and The Man

  3. Some great thoughts here. I didn’t realise that BMP didn’t know what they are doing, re: plan etc!
    The best description I have seen about what this movement is about is in The Bloom Documentaries. But that is not specific to Burning Man, but to how Transformational Festivals create a change in people. If they want the Burning Man culture to spread, the BMP project needs to focus on the aspects that make that transformation happen.
    For me it’s not about the art cars, the music and the sculptures. These are all amazing, awesome and incredible parts of the culture, and what attracts a lot of people to go in the first place, but it is not the essence of what makes the Burns so amazing.

    For me there are four key aspects to Transformational Festivals that are the most important:
    1. They allow you to fully participate (rather than consume the experience)
    2. The principle of Radical Self-Expression and Inclusion – allowing you to experiment being your whole and true self while temporarily living in a community that embraces that freedom.
    3. Living in a money-less society and how amazing that feels.
    4. The ritual of burning and letting go.
    These are four Experiences that are near-impossible to experience in your day to day life. And there is something about experience that which triggers the Transformation in your life.
    You can create events/experiences very cheaply that uphold the above aspects without the decadence of the desert (indeed, I personally have done so). I believe if the culture is to spread then these events are to be focussed on (especially since the kind of decadence seen out in the desert is completely unsustainable). However, as Miriam Fathalla describes this is hard and exhausting when there are very few people around you who ‘get it’.

    Back to BMP – For me, trying to make money (and lock people into contracts!) around spreading this transformational culture morally repugnant. It goes against the whole point. The transformational culture will seep across the world, and helping support that would be great (like supporting people in hosting events), but this would be better done with ordinary participants helping each other, with a centralised data base of resources. You can force this change that is happening, and you certainly shouldn’t be trying to make money out of it. That’s like trying to gain peace from war. You’re just bringing in the old energy that ought to be left behind.

    • thanks for your considered response, Harmony. If barter was a bigger part of the festival, would it still satisfy #3 for you? I guess what I’m asking is if “lack of money” is the important thing, or “gifting”.

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