I didn’t go to Burning Man this year. One reason is that I’m in the East Coast, feeling concerned about the health of our planet. I also wanted to use this week to write; to finish this piece just it in time for those coming back from the playa* to read as they dust off their existences and open up the screens of the default world*. This article is my way of participating in Burning Man 2019.
The point of this piece is to explain why your burn matters in terms of the global climate situation. No, I’m not here to make you feel guilty for having one of the best weeks of your life. I’m here to discuss why it matters that you went, why it matters that you loved it, and to invite you on an intellectual journey to understand how your experience can contribute to the healing of Earth.
Throughout this journey, I’ll appeal to your felt senses by depicting scenes and moments you may relate to, to show how Burning Man is not only a social experiment, but a portal into a future way of being. I’ll venture to explain why life according to the Ten Principles* can feel fuller than life in the default world, and how this is relevant to the Climate Crisis.
If you’ve never been to Burning Man or something like it, I’ll do my best to show you what these spacetimes feel like. I’m adding footnotes to any terminology that’s Burner-specific* with the goal that even my grandfather, when he reads this (which I know he will, thanks Granddaddy!) will understand the piece. Storytelling sections will be in italics, so if you are only interested in the philosophical meat you can skip them.
Ultimately I want to highlight the unique gift you have been given in attending the Burn: the delicious felt experience of existing in an alternative society built on priceless economics. I do this to challenge each of us to imagine how we can start to bring that futuristic way of being into the present; to leverage this felt-sense in navigating towards a more sustainable future.
(1) In the Deepest Darkness, the Brightest Light
In the dead of the Nevada night, a truck rumbled down a small dirt road. It’s lonely headlamps illuminated the occasional shrub. Finally the truck rolled past the last little patch of grass, and the road began to flatten into a cracked powdery surface devoid of all life.
Turning a corner, seemingly out of nowhere, thousands of red lights appeared in the distance. These were countless vehicles, lined up as far as the eye could see in the absolute middle of nowhere, hemmed in on every side by swirling dusty darkness.
The two young men in the truck waited eagerly for about eight hours as the line of vehicles crawled forward before arriving at a massive gate. A woman in a cowboy hat told them to get out and roll around on the chalky ground. “You’re not virgins anymore,” she said, hammering a large gong. They both looked as if they had jumped in a bag of flour.
The truck rumbled on past the gate until a new light emerged — the entire horizon, glittering, flashing and sparkling in every imaginable neon color. The next moment they were within the city. Giant glowing insects rolled up along side the truck and revelers twisted flaming hula hoops as work crews hammered away, building art pieces that stretched towards the milky moon. It was a new world for the two young men — an entirely new flavor of experience.
Over the next week they worked, built, played, danced, shared, cooked, and thrived, falling deeply in love with the priceless spacetime of the playa.
(2) What We Feel is What We Know
Burning Man uses a set of rules called the Ten Principles. By collectively agreeing to live according to these principles for one week, participants create a spacetime in which priceless economics replace the money based socio-economic system of our default world. If you’ve fallen in love with Burning Man, not for its grand hedonic spectacles but simply for soul-filling sensation of working, playing, and surviving according to the Ten Principles, then you have understood the beauty of priceless economics.
Many people will point out that the priceless environment on the playa is a fantasy. That is true in the sense that the material goods which make survival there possible are imported from the consumerist default world beyond the trash fence*. And yes, going to Burning Man does entail a hefty carbon cost, from the countless last minute Amazon Prime orders to the millions of mile-gallons it takes to shlep a city to the middle of a remote desert. While these activities are unsustainable and planet-warming, viewing the Burn as a sunk cost is defeatist and unhelpful. Rather we must view the expenditures as opening a portal into the future that we can learn from.
Our current model of industrial capitalism is unsustainable, so it by definition cannot be the future. The future must feel different, it will be composed of a different flavor of spacetime. If we let it, the Burning Man experience can give us a taste of existing within a possible futuristic spacetime governed by priceless economics.
To understand priceless economics, it’s helpful to examine the effects our existing model of currency based economics has on our way of life. While we feel the inefficiencies of the currency economy every day, we have become so used to these pains as to become numb. It is only when this oppressive paradigm dissolves in a spacetime like Burning Man that we have a point of reference with which to contrast our currency-based existence.
While the economics that prevail within Burning Man are indeed a type of fantasy, our use of currency in the default world enables a fantasy that is harder to recognize and therefore far more dangerous. This is the illusion is that we are paying the full price for the goods we purchase. In fact, the price we pay only covers the capital costs of a good. It ignores the time/effort (human cost) and global temperature impact (ecosystemic cost) that went into producing the good.
A currency that ignores the human costs of a good is structurally guaranteed to degrade humanity and create inequality. A currency that ignores the ecosystemic costs of a good is structurally guaranteed to degrade the Earth and increase the global temperature.
Today’s global economic system accepts these compromises so that we might pay a “cheaper” price for goods, adding fluidity to commerce while unwittingly opting us into social and ecological debt with every purchase we make.
(3) Immediacy of Work
It’s not just goods that are devalued by our use of money in capitalist economics, but also our work. We are not the beneficiaries of our work. We work for someone else, for something else, and this work is only “for us” in the sense that we are given some money in exchange for doing it. Furthermore, our work generally is not seen and valued directly by those in our community.
In this way, money contributes to a story of separation, facilitating detachment between workers, their community, and the products of their labor. The consumer of the work is also not as able to appreciate the labor because the money price they paid for it acts as a buffer to appreciation of the human effort that went into the work. The result of this inefficiency is that many in our society become depressed and feel unseen, in part because their money-based work is isolating and unappreciated.
Money also facilitates the ability of external interests to become involved in and profit from local financial transactions through lending, investment, and trading. At every step of the economic system where currency is involved, the end result is that value is hijacked from the local level by large corporations and the global financial system, leaving less of the value of goods and labor within the dense local networks where they were created.
Of course working for money has downsides, but what is the viable alternative? It seems like a paradox that to work without being paid could be more rewarding, but those who experience priceless labor immediately recognize it as so. In a context like Burning Man we feel magnetically drawn towards work. The fundamental human need to be helpful and appreciated are the only motivation we need to roll up our sleeves. While Burning Man nearly guarantees we’ll have this felt revelation, a trip to the playa is by no means necessary to experience the feeling of priceless work. Other examples can be seen in the operation of certain temples, organ exchange networks, Vipassana retreats, platforms (ie: Wikipedia), civil movements and volunteer-run organizations. In all of these cases, a set of social agreements in a buffered context create functional local economies.
(4) Just Came for Build
Build week* of 2015 was one long battle against high winds and furious dust storms. Rae came out for that week to help build her camp’s infrastructure. She spent her first two days helping her camp erect a large finicky dome structure.
On the third day the winds were particularly fierce. She describes a moment when the entire structure began to bow under immense pressure. It was on the verge of collapse when suddenly a man from a nearby camp appeared through the dust with a knife. He began slashing holes in the canvas walls of the structure, cutting certain lines, allowing the wind to flow through and easing the tension on the structure.
In the end their dome stood, thanks to this random act of engineering by someone none of them knew.
Rae describes these few days as having been her most meaningful Burning Man moments: simply living in the extreme conditions of the playa, building, working, and collaborating.
(5) Money is Hot
We’ve seen that a priceless system like the one at Burning Man can lead to greater fulfillment through more immediate realization of the value of goods and labor. It’s a beautiful experiment, but why does it matter?
Our global capitalist economic system is destroying the Earth. Take for example, the current situation in the Amazon, where recent forest fires have garnered international attention. From the perspective of the cattle ranchers who are starting these fires, the land is more lucrative when it is not covered in jungle. They can use the cleared land to raise animals and grow crops that will allow them to better provide for their families. Their forest-burning may appear violent, but they are no more responsible than we would be in making the decision to take a job that requires frequent cross-country flights. The rancher’s participation in a globalized system in which holding currency is the only means of security, stability, and utility all but guarantees that sooner or later, they will make the decision to turn forestlands into farmlands, to degrade native ecosystems and replace them with economically productive agricultural space.
There might be ways to reconfigure capitalism so that it heats the Earth less: drawing energy from renewable sources or taxing carbon emissions. While these changes are critical, and can slow the process of global warming, they cannot bring us to a place of truly healing the Earth. The incentives of the money system are fundamentally misaligned with that goal. Because of this, if we are serious about course correcting, we must explore entirely different ways of being such as those offered by priceless economics.
Finally, we might ask, while we can see how the money system is structured to degrade Earth, how can priceless economics perform better? In a priceless system creating and consuming value locally is highly incentivized, requiring less transport costs. Less physical goods are available to consume and more emphasis is placed on self expression and even work itself to generate joy and meaning in life. Because there’s no incentive to overproduce in order to accumulate money, a priceless economy encourages the production of only what is needed.
Ultimately moving to a priceless economy means embracing a simpler way of life, but it does so in a way that can theoretically improve our felt quality of life. It aligns a healing of what is sick in our society with a healing of the Earth we inhabit.
While a better life with less material comforts may seem unthinkable to many, those who have experienced Burning Man or other priceless economic spacetimes know it is possible. That is why we must become leaders in navigating humanity towards sustainability. This is why it matters that you went. This is why it matters that you loved it.
(6) Bringing the Future Now
I got to Prospect Park in Brooklyn around 6pm on Saturday. Near the entrance I found a group of my friends clustered up having a picnic. As the sun set we were about to head to dinner when someone in our group proposed, “Should we go to the Burn?” Prospect Burn was happening somewhere deeper in the park, timed to coincide with the night of man burn* that was happening thousands of miles away from us in Nevada.
Not exactly sure what to expect, everyone agreed to check out the Burn before dinner. As soon as we agreed to go to the Burn the feeling in our group began to change. We started walking into the woods and darkness enclosed us. We walked down the path shining our cell phone lights and dancing as we bumped music from a portable speaker. After about a mile of dark urban wilderness, we saw a little cluster of lights in the distance.
The first thing that struck us about Prospect Burn was its tiny size – just a few dozen people clustered around in a park. But there were some large piece of art, and people wearing glowing lights. I immediately felt a sense of having entered a new flavor of spacetime. I was quickly split off from my friends, helping a man named “Party Bear” deconstruct a pop up shade canopy.
All around us people were practicing decommodification, gifting, immediacy. For many of my picnic friends this was the first time they had experienced any kind of Burn. Wandering around the tiny but secluded area of the park, striking up conversations with strangers and participating in collective art experiences, I forgot for a moment that I was not in Black Rock City.
I want to thank Vienna Looi for her enlightened conceptions of priceless economics, which formed the primary inspiration for this piece. I also want to mention that I recently read “Climate: A New Story” by Charles Eisenstein and that book was also relevant to my thinking in creating this.
The Burn - Another word for Burning Man.
Playa - The playa is the name used to describe the area of Black Rock Desert where Burning Man takes place.
Default World - Burners use the term default world to refer to the regular world outside of Burning Man.
Burners - Attendees of Burning Man.
Trash Fence - This is a large plastic fence that wraps around the entire Burning Man event for purposes of keeping trash from blowing away into the playa. Everything within the trash fence is Burning Man.
Build Week - The week before Burning Man officially opens its gates to attendees, many Burners are already on the playa helping to build the infrastructure that will make the event possible.
Man Burn - The large event on Saturday night of the Burn in which the eponymous Man is actually burned.