The Problem with Burning Man— And a Solution

There’s a better way to channel all that loving energy.

burning hugging

Mind-blowing art installations. An inspiring culture of creativity and love and colorful self-expression. A sharing economy free of bureaucracy and discrimination. Endless partying and opportunities for psychedelic experiences and sexual exploration. A body-positive environment where clothes are optional but you’re not sexualized unless you want to be. Intimacy with strangers and all the hugging, cuddling, and oxytocin you could imagine. Breathtaking desert sunrises and dust storms that awaken your primal survival instincts. Hundreds of workshops on topics ranging from sexual kinks to transcendental meditation. A tribal experience burning a symbol of evil and corruption and everything that is wrong with the world.

All of this—the culture of Burning Man—deeply resonates with my own personal values. The experience has become wildly popular because it addresses serious problems we all face in modern life—isolation, monotony, conformity, consumerism, disconnection from nature. Most of my closest friends in San Francisco have spent months preparing for the week-long event that starts next week. They tell me it’s a life-changing experience that nothing else will ever come close to.

But I’m not going this year, and I don’t plan on going anytime soon.

Why not? The obvious reason is that I can’t afford it. After ticket costs, camp fees, transportation, and preparation expenses, it would cost me at least $2,000, which is way out of my vacation budget.

But even if I could afford to throw $2,000 at a one week vacation, I don’t think I would go. Here are some major problems I see with the whole festival:

1. It’s terrible for the Earth.

The Black Rock Desert is an inhospitable environment that is not fit for human habitation. I don’t know of any way to pack in all your own water, prepared food, and power supply (you HAVE to have air conditioning in the orgy tent!) without excessive amounts of plastic packaging and fossil fuels. On top of that, you have to buy all sorts of camping supplies that you’ll never be able to use again once they’ve been destroyed by playa dust.

I’m not sure how the eco-conscious hippies justify all the unnecessary waste and pollution, or how they sustain their serotonin-depleted bodies for an entire WEEK on cliff bars and freeze-dried dinners.

2. Talk about PRIVILEGE!

The culture of Burning Man preaches an all-inclusive philosophy that shares the love with people from every race, religion, and sexual orientation. Nobody talks about the minor exception made for everyone without $2,000+ and a week of vacation time to spare, oh and you have to know the right people to get those elusive tickets and you’d better find friends you can camp with who you’ll also have to trust to save you from a bad acid trip, and good luck finding a ride out to the middle of nowhere for you + 14 gallons of water.

If that’s not a way to discriminate against the under-privileged then I don’t know what is. I’d rather spend my time spreading messages of love and enlightenment to communities who don’t already have it all, contributing art and giving back to people who really need it. I’d rather cultivate intimacy with strangers who don’t have everything in common with me and put my energy into strengthening the relationships that surround me in my everyday life.

3. It doesn’t last.

Burners go through months of arduous preparation all for one week in a utopian city where they can escape the suffocating torture of the corporate grind and feel like they’re a part of something bigger than themselves. At some point during the week, they reach an epiphany about the oneness in everyone, recognizing isolation and greed and bureaucracy as the source of all the hurt in the world. They undergo a spiritual transformation as they burn the effigy of evil, and then promptly go back to their fluorescent-lit cubicles where they ignore their feelings and sell consumerism so they can climb the corporate ladder and buy themselves the newest luxuries to stave off the existential dread. Maybe the burning man inspires you to quit your job or experiment with kinkier sex, but you still revert back to avoiding eye contact with strangers, paying your taxes, and bickering with your significant other.

If so many people share these values, why can’t we use them to build a community that lasts? Why does it have to be a temporary experience that disappears after a week and forces you to return to a life filled with everything you hate? Why not devote our energy to creating a real solution to the isolation and monotony of modern life?

It would make a lot more sense to find a place in nature that’s more hospitable to humans and build a permanent enlightened community. That way we don’t have to destroy the environment in the process and we can make it accessible to people of all socioeconomic classes who share our values.

I know of numerous living spaces in the Bay Area that are attempting to create more permanent intentional communities based on these values. Some of them are very successful, but they’re missing out on the crucial factors of being close to nature and requiring primal survival skills (aside from being extremely overpriced). I’ve done some research online and even traveled to visit several communities around the country with no luck finding what I’m looking for.

This is what I imagine: A modern village surrounded by nature that is largely self-sustaining. There are minimalist private living spaces and large central areas for recreation and communal activities. As soon as you walk out your front door, you’ll see children playing in green spaces and spontaneously bump into your neighbors, who will also be your friends. Everyone must embrace shared values of radical honesty, nonviolent communication, and authentic self-expression. There is a culture of contagious creativity that welcomes nudity, polyamory, and psychedelic experiences. The community is full of music and sports and dancing and all sorts of activities so you don’t need to drive anywhere to find entertainment. There are people of all ages who participate in raising the children and sharing any skills they can contribute so that no one is left isolated or in need. I want it to be a safe, private place away from the pollution and stress of city life, but still within a short drive of an urban center and well-connected to the outside world through technology. Residents could work remotely or survive on a small budget since expenses would be low and most needs would be met internally.

My gut tells me that my vision is too idealistic to ever become a reality. There are too many complicated details, and if such a thing were possible then it would already exist. But the growing popularity of Burning Man and other festivals gives me hope. Clearly, people are starting to see the problems with modern American life. That’s why thousands of burners spend months in preparation just for the chance to escape it all for a week and experience the way humans are meant to live. If we could redirect even a fraction of that energy towards building a lasting solution to our problems, then we could make SO much progress. We could demonstrate that it’s possible to live in peaceful communities that fulfill each others’ needs and treat the environment with respect.

My goal is to settle down in a village like the one I described within the next 5 years. Instead of going to Burning Man, I’m going to devote my time and energy towards finding or building a community that will last.

The problem is, I have no clue where to start. Do you know of any places I can find what I’m looking for? Any ideas for how to make it happen? Would you be interested in joining me?

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