No, jerks, Burning Man isn’t ruined

A surprise dance party at the port-a-potties.

Hello, I am back. Because I still think of this as sort of a science blog, first, I am proud to report that my weeklong sojourn from lab was not without science: I rolled up to the Phage camp just in time for “Ask a Drunk Scientist,” and as luck would have it, at that moment, I WAS a drunk scientist. “Help, I need a neuroscientist–they’re all asking how alcohol works,” one of the Phagelings said. PUT ME IN, COACH, I replied. Twenty minutes later we had covered endogenous opioids, the role of dopamine in pleasure and movement, the communication through coherence hypothesis, and why no, magnets will not heal you, hippie. Never trifle with an MRI researcher when pseudoscience is on the line.

I also spent a good amount of time on my favorite giant science-mobile, Dr. Brainlove (experience the magic through the power of sound here). And I enjoyed tons and tons of non-scientific programming, too, obviously. It was, in short, wonderful. There are pictures of some parts, while others will just have to live on in memory. But what I’m here to write about today is the way the burn has been covered in the media. I am very, very disappointed in it, and I will begin by letting someone I hate tell you why:

“My take, having spent 20 hours walking the streets of this place, is that if your takeaway from looking at the art and the participatory effort that goes into something like this is ‘there were naked people!’ then that’s a reflection on you, not on Burning Man.”

Grover Norquist

Some people are naked, but some people are penguins.

Grover said a smart thing, there. Where he bemoans the focus on naked people, you could easily substitute “dubstep” or “steampunk weirdos” or “fire poi dancers” or “tech bros” or whatever else you hate. For me, that thing is “white people in Native American headdresses.” But time spent complaining is a tragic waste. Seriously, have a coconut water and a nap if you’re cranky–you’ll be right as rain in a few hours. And if, after all of that, you still can’t find something to not hate, there is no hope for you in any world, on the playa or off.

But ok, Grover, that’s pretty much the only thing you’re right about. You and FoxNews really need to quit it with this “no taxes and no government” libertarian horseshit. It’s insulting. That ticket price, half a month’s rent for me, symbolizes trips to Europe I will never take, and I’m not even sorry. It goes to fund the building of fences to keep the event Leave No Trace, the medical tents, the wonderful Black Rock Rangers, and tons of other infrastructure that people arrive early and leave late to work and sweat for because they care. This is a city that stands ready to take care of its citizens, whether they end up needing it or not.

Special people in a special place.

Even so, Black Rock City is not, nor was it ever meant to be, a model for how the world “should” be. Most burners will tell you that, by day 7, they are in many important ways very ready to go home. Even the ones who refer to said home grudgingly as “the default world.” Because we know that this isn’t sustainable. Those port-a-potties are gnarly. You need to sleep at some point. You need a shower. You need to not be standing on what is essentially a giant battery during a lightning storm. There are many reasons why it All Must End. Grover’s championing this event as a model libertarian society misses the point in ways that even your dumbest, dirtiest, hippie understands.

Grover isn’t alone, though–know who else misses the point? The authors of every single article (here, I’m linking only to the mothership) bemoaning the demise of Burning Man due to its being overrun with the “tech elite.” Get your heads out of your asses. Dig deeper than the most superficial layer of your own crusty blogospheric navel lint. Grover couldn’t singlehandedly destroy something beautiful that seventy thousand people built, and neither can your expensive tech camp (and seriously, if it takes you $25,000 in camp dues to have fun at Burning Man, I feel sorry for you, you overmoneyed, hapless buzzkill). I met dozens of insanely friendly people and I have no idea what any of them do for a living (except that topless woman with a half-shaved head and a megawatt smile who turned out to be a nurse–we definitely got her address, since her camp was considerably closer to ours than the medical tent). Some of these people might have been tech douches. I will never know, I was too busy watching them become overwhelmed by something like understanding the True Meaning of Christmas, and it was beautiful.

Spotted around the neighborhood.

And in the meantime, all those touting Burning Man as tech’s logical innovation incubator? No. Burning Man is fun. That’s all it is. Plain and simple. It’s absolutely true that too many people find themselves with the job, money, and respect they’ve always craved, only to find their lives void of any meaning. The immediacy of this blessed event can be transformative. We’re not used to feeling like we’re exactly where we need to be, doing exactly what we need to be doing. The fear of missing out, in the default world, is crippling. Setting that aside can show you who you are and what it is you want out of life. The hedonism, in this way, is enough to change you. Knowing how happy you are capable of being is a great impetus for clearing away everything that holds you back in life. In that sense, sure, it is at least in theory possible that this silliness leads to innovation. But that’s hardly the point.

Putting aside the issue of what utilitarian good may come out of Burning Man, because it is gross, grosser than the port-a-potties, we turn our attention to the seemingly most anomalous spot on the playa: the temple. People leave all sorts of inscrutable mementos and memorials in all corners of this (nondenominational) sacred space. This week of hedonism requires homage to those who have helped us find our way but who cannot be there with us. When the temple burns, the enormity of the blaze reminds all in solemn attendance that they are not alone in their suffering, that the togetherness of our mementos and our time here on the playa can be a source of strength.

Inside the temple.

This year, I watched two burly men use a power drill to affix some sort of golf tournament plaque to a temple wall, in remembrance of someone they had lost. They let deep, ribcage-wracking sobs escape as they hugged each other fiercely. As they patted each other on the back, I heard affirmations murmured, bubbling up through gobs of snot and heartbreak. “It’s you and me now, buddy. We’ve got each other. I love you.” I wasn’t sneering at them for their choice of golf, a blueblooded, eco-horrific pastime. I didn’t tell them their bro hobby was ruining Burning Man. Nobody was laughing at the sight of two grown men crying and hugging. These big dudes were hurting. They had come to the desert to face their hurt together, and to eclipse it for seven days with a happiness too big to torpedo with rumination, regrets, or fear. I snagged a few squares of toilet paper from a woman next to me as my boyfriend assured her friend, “It’s ok, you’re in good company. We’re all hot messes here.”

We are all hot messes here, even Grover and the tech douches. It’s absolutely worth it. It doesn’t ruin it. Mess is, of course, the price of fun.

At long last, I meet Dr. B in person.

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28 Responses to No, jerks, Burning Man isn’t ruined

  1. burnersxxx says:

    Reblogged this on Burners.Me: Me, Burners and The Man and commented:
    Sarah shares her perspective: Burning Man is not the logical place for tech innovation.

  2. Joe says:

    “no taxes and no government” libertarian horseshit.”
    No taxes, minimal government is a core value to me. It arises from a grounding as a pacifist. Violence (taking without consent in the case of taxes) never achieves a good end. Government worldwide is generally out of control, and none is more wasteful than that here in the USA. Education and persuasion are key to sustainable social change; redistribution and taxation by government results is all sorts of nasty.
    Look again please.

  3. Annie Mac says:

    Education, yes! Requiring taxes actually.

  4. Matthew Pouliot says:

    THANK YOU for posting! Dr. Brainlove was awesome, so are you! SPOT ON!!!

  5. Mama Cass says:

    My hero! Thank you. While the negative attention leading up to the this year (thanks, NYT) never crushed my spirit, it sure did convince a lot of people they were experts on the subject…even though they’d never been. The sad part was the amount of comments from people who had always wanted to go, but “now that’s it’s jumped the shark” have changed their tone. So much potential happiness lost to some jerks who don’t know what they’re talking about. Hopefully this reaches those folks and their intrigue is restored. Much love!

  6. Zeke Man says:

    This is perfect. Thank youe

  7. Zephyr says:

    The tech douches or fire hippies or whatever have you are not ruining burning man. But the tourists are. The kids who treat it like coachella are. With no respect for the environment or the people around them. I hope some of them were changed by their burning man experience this year. But all the people dropping cigarette butts on the playa and beer cans in the porta-potties, walking around without lights, biking with no regard to others on the road, all the people who came to look and not give back, they’re the ones that are going to drag us all down. The city felt like it was full of weekenders from day one this year. I saw like two ambulances a day(and I don’t think I’ve ever seen one on playa before). All this definitely soured my experience this year. I still had a great time, don’t get me wrong, but I worry about what this influx of irresponsible people is going to mean for our city.

  8. Jelly says:

    Zephyr, I couldn’t agree more. I found numerous beer cans all over the playa…and SO MANY FEATHERS! That headdress comment is so true because they’re the worst. I was thinking that maybe every person that purchases their ticket, has to take a quiz in order to complete their order. A quiz that would consist of, “where do you leave your empty cans of beer? why do you carry a personal cup? what will blow away and potentially negatively affect the environment wherein we are visiting for the week? why do we use lights on ourselves at night? what is your gift to community?” or something along those lines. I don’t know, but it hurts my heart to see so much oversight. And, it felt kinda’ cliquey the way the RV camps set themselves up. Instead of facing the community, it seemed like the camps wanted to keep community out.

    • Zephyr says:

      OMG my brother’s girlfriend was saying the exact same thing when we were discussing how we could remedy the influx of disrespectful individuals haha. Either that or attend some sort of orientation but I don’t know how that would be feasible with the current population. I know there are all kinds of resources and information available, but I got the sense not a lot of people actually sought them out and read them pre-playa.

      • effenewton says:

        I really was struck by the darkwads (Almost literally). I wanted to change their behavior somehow, and also yell at them for being clueless. I thought about it, and tried to do the right thing. I ended up gifting lights, that I had found and kept from the playa (moop), to unbeknownst or irresponsible darkwads, in the most sincere way possible. I really do want them to learn for theirs, and our safety.

      • I love loading up my neck and wrists with cheap glow necklaces before I go out and stopping festoon the darkwads as I go. It allows me to radically self-express my passive aggression while disguising it as “gifting.”

      • Zephyr says:

        THAT’S BRILLIANT! Stealing that idea for next year. 😀

      • Zephyr says:

        I just starting yelling at every one I saw. Something along the lines of “PUT SOME FUCKING LIGHTS ON YOU’RE GONNA GET KILLED.”

        I don’t know if anyone listened. >.>

      • effenewton says:

        It’s just that yelling at darkwads, and not offering them a solution is not going to change their behavior. I would have loved to go the aggressive route, but that only would have pleased myself, and they still would have been dark, and endangering themselves, and others. I think it’s gifting in the most practical and helpful way, to offer them lights.

      • Anne MacNaughton says:

        How about gifting beer can disposal barrels?? At the portapotties perhaps?

        Anne MacNaughton Taos NM 87571

      • Anne MacNaughton says:

        OK, I guess then we’d need to find volunteers to haul the barrels off, but maybe they could get $ from recycling to make it all worth it?

        Anne MacNaughton Taos NM 87571

      • Zephyr says:

        Would that I had had some lights to give them! Next year I’m bringing 6 billion glow sticks.

  9. Rex says:

    As somebody who likes the earth I live on and the life apon it….. I ask this question. Why do you find it necessary to buy Tons of Wood, construct magnificent pieces of art and Architecture, with that wood(that took a cconsiderable amount of time to grow), and disrespect the trees you have sacrificed (for enormous profit) by burning it to the ground? I find the festival to be a waste of natural resources and just another way,(for the stupidist animal on earth), to destroy more of the living things here in the name of FUN?????? That to me isn’t divine…its not spiritual, its stupid and gloriously disgusting….just another example of the idiosy of the human animal….rage on burn outs…maybe next year the tickets will be 600.00 for a week of over excessive self gratification and fun , at the cost of another section of a forest near you….I’ll pray at home under my living trees, and donate the amount of money spent on a ticket to camp out in the Nevada “cat box” , to Green peace in hopes it can serve a truly noble purpose….

  10. A Critic says:

    “You and FoxNews really need to quit it with this “no taxes and no government” libertarian horseshit. It’s insulting.”
    Taxes eat up 75% or more of the ticket price!!!!!!! and all we get for those taxes are the cops who wouldn’t let me use my anti-seizure medication and some drone attacks in foreign lands.
    The Bureau of Needless Bureaucracy could wage the drug war for free and we could just strap some foreign looking kids to the Man before he burns and then we’d all save a lot of money with the same results.

  11. 3 things:
    1) Yeah, there are a lot of irresponsible beer can chuckers out there. That sucks, I agree. Will mull over some methods of forcible enculturation for next year (anyone from Death Guild want to weigh in on this?).
    2) Environmental critiques of Burning Man are, imho, the most valid by far. My first year, a friend tore at his hair and yelled “THESE ARE ALL FOSSIL FUELS!” So yeah, Burning Man is pretty un-green. People are finding ways of making it better. Perhaps we tack some carbon offsets onto the ticket price someday, like airline peanuts. For now, while you can pry our flamethrowers from our cold dead hands, it’s also true that most burners are religiously respectful of the Leave No Trace ethic, and the other 51 weeks of the year they’re part of one of the most biking, recycling, composting etc. demographics out there.
    3) Don’t send your money to Greenpeace, their business model of paying desperate job-seekers $100/day to get people on the street to sign up for monthly gifts is wasteful, exploitative, ineffective, and raises only PETA-style awareness (read: notoriety). I should know, I was one of those kids for 2 days, which is the amount of time they let you stay before they fire you for signing up zero people.

    • Annie Mac says:


    • ringadingding says:

      burning man has never claimed to be a model green event. that being said, they *are* a model Leave No Trace event, and part of the ticket price does go towards purchasing carbon offsets for each burn, which is something i bet other events of a similar size don’t do.

  12. Damn right, we are all hot messes. Thank you for an incredible article.

  13. frosty says:

    fantastic write-up!

  14. Danimal says:

    This is a great article, thank you Sarah. This mirrors my experiences from the last four years. Burningman is a truly amazing community and Black Rock City is my favorite city on the planet by far. Yes, there are some problems within our culture, and there are a fair amount of Douches out there, but for me they are far outweighed by the positives. Burningman has been an unparalleled source of personal growth for me, and continues to inspire me. Haters gonna hate, and you an stay the fuck home. Burners gonna burn, and I look forward to seeing you on the playa.

  15. exixx says:

    Thanks for a great article! We were frustrated by the darkwads last year and so decided to gift lights this year. Cool blinky ring lights and bracelets, not just glow bracelets. There were people who wouldn’t take them, or wouldn’t even talk to us. By the end of the week we were making it clear we were talking to them with a rechargeable spotlight. Still had some people ignore us. Even had one completely unlit woman tell us she didn’t need lights. I too ended up yelling at a couple people by week’s end. Going to try harder next year.

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