When you look up images of Burning Man, what do you see? If Google’s algorithm is showing you the same results as I, your images tab is flooded with pictures of 20-something white women and 40-something white men, many of whom are dressed in some amalgamation of textiles from the global south with the occasional thread of glitter. You can almost hear them now.
“The playa is my home, man,” they declare, trailing off into a silty vocal fry. “It’s all about radical self reliance.” Pay particularly close attention to the olfactory sensations of this thought exercise and you’ll detect the stench of French cigarettes, soured espressos, and tech industry libertarianism.
After six years in the Bay Area — living in housing cooperatives, working in cannabis, and frequenting landmarks of our local artists scene — I’ve met my fair share of “Burners,” or people who attend the nine-day desert music festival, Burning Man. Most of them are lovely people. Many more of them fulfill the stereotype described above so accurately that one wonders if they’re following a script. It’s no coincidence that media portrayals of Burning Man depict a crowd that is disproportionately white, often upwardly mobile, and frequently subscribing to Silicon Valley’s strange mix of performative eco-consciousness, social media progressivism, and the barely concealed fetishization of John Galt.
In 2021, this is what Burning Man has become: a brash bachanal of drugs, sex, art, and most importantly, money.
On Tuesday, April 27, Burning Man organizers announced the annual Black Rock gathering would be cancelled, yet again, on account of the coronavirus. In doing so, they walked away from somewhere around $43 million in ticket sales, judging from 2018 tax documents. A nonprofit without a clear cause, Burning Man’s parent organization — known as the Burning Man Project — puts some of the money they make back into grants for artists, port-a-potties, and equipment rental. They also put that money back into salaries of over $250,000 for top execs and a rainy day fund that runs in excess of $10 million. The vast majority of “donations” paid to the nonprofit are generated through the sale of festival tickets, which cost between $210 and $475. In other words, if Burning Man is a charity, it’s a charity who’s benefactors are almost exclusively the donors themselves.
But the dubious nature of The Burning Man Project’s status as a non-profit is merely a thin layer of grimy playa dust compared to the festival’s darker side. Burning Man is known to have a rampant sex crime problem, not to mention people who die from drug overdoses and violence at the festival. It’s a scenario that shows up all too often in liberal counter-cultural spaces; a belief that, because these communities speak so openly about safe drug use and consent education, people begin to believe these things don’t happen or, worse, deny them when they do. One woman, assaulted at Burning Man, told Salon that though most people she met offered words of support, they also uttered phrases of surprise, like “this doesn’t happen here, this is a safe space.” According to Salon, hundreds of women are assaulted on the playa each year, facing considerable risk and a poorly trained security workforce that silences and dismisses the few victims who are able to both find them and gather the strength to report.
Burning Man organizers are also routinely criticized for a lack of diversity at the yearly party — something that the festival’s founder once ignorantly told The Guardian he thought was because Black people didn’t enjoy roughing it outdoors. According to 2018 Burning Man data, 77 percent of those who attend The Burn are white. It’s also worth noting that, though they are often praised for collecting this demographic information, the Burning Man Census only conducts voluntary polling, rather than requiring attendees to submit demographic information at the time of ticket purchasing. The demographic data from 2018 is based on only 12 percent of attendees.
Many Burners like to attribute these problems, as well as the focus on wealth, to the idea that “Burning Man has changed” since its pure, anarcho-communist genesis. In reality, the Burning Man of today should come as no surprise. The festival’s legacy is firmly rooted in the fantasies of it’s white male founder, Larry Harvey, who created the first Burning Man in 1986 when he decided to burn the effigy of a human with a few friends on Baker Beach in San Francisco.
Many online forums allege that this initial “burning man” effigy was in fact not a man, but a sculpture meant to symbolize Harvey’s ex-girlfriend. The stories from Burning Man’s early years don’t exactly paint a picture of some heady gathering peaceful philosophers attempting to imagine a better tomorrow. Rather, tales of shooting high caliber firearms into the desert air, driving cars as fast as they can go on the flat expanse of the playa, and intoxicated soaks at nearby natural hot springs simply sound like what the rest of the world calls “camping.”
The glitz and glamor of Silicon Valley that we see on our Instagram feeds is not that new either. In 1996, trailblazing tech magazine Wired dedicated a cover story to Burning Man, calling it the “new American holiday.” Google decorated it’s home page two years later with an out of the office message that was meant to signal their employees were playing hooky in the Black Rock Desert. Jeff Bezos, Elon Musk, and Mark Zuckerberg’s love for Burning Man is far from pioneering. Rather, they’re simply fulfilling their destiny of cultivating “humanness” out in the desert once a year — you know, so they can continue manipulating nearly everyone on the planet the other 356 days of the year.
By 2014, tech execs’ camps cost upwards of $25,00 a person, and often brought with them staff that outnumbered campers nearly 2-to-1. By 2019, influencers were taking photos at their luxury Burning Man campgrounds in matching bikini sets and branded accessories. For all of us that don’t attend, this is the Burning Man we see in our Instagram feeds. Those highly curated portrayals are what we’re taught a “good” experience at Burning Man is supposed to be.
What makes this all significantly more offensive than the average celebration of excess is that it’s everything Burning Man, and Burners themselves, pretend it’s not. Nobody can survive the second week of September in San Francisco without someone who works at Uber or Google pontificating upon the outpouring of ecstasy-induced empathy they felt on the Playa. The exchange of money is outright prohibited at Burning Man, and attendees love musing about the frivolousness of fiat currency upon their return. In response, I often offer to connect them with my friend who lives a minimalist life in a van by choice, or introduce them to organizers of mutual aid programs. Shockingly, there’s rarely any interest.
If you’re a Burner reading this, you may be thinking something along the lines of “but those people aren’t me. My friends don’t wear appropriative clothing, or say ignorant things.”
Elon Musk had the same thing to say when he spoke to Re/Code about the event in 2014. “If you haven’t been, you just don’t get it,” he said. He also predicted that the United States would see “close to zero” coronavirus cases by April of 2020, so I’m not taking his word for it.
After 23 years, Burning Man has been cancelled for the second year in a row. I’m praying it never comes back.