In 1986, at the very first Burn, a crowd of complete strangers gathered around the Man once it was lit it on fire. Nobody had invited them. They didn’t know anything about the 10 Principles, or understand what The Man was about. They just saw something cool and wanted to participate. They had no gifts. Strangers ruined Burning Man.
In 1989, the Cacophony Society first publicized Burning Man. Now people who weren’t Larry and Jerry’s friends (or random strangers on the beach) could hear about it and show up, which was a betrayal of everything that an open event held in a public place stood for. The Cacophony Society ruined Burning Man.
In 1990, Burning Man was now a public spectacle. Hundreds of people who heard about it through media accounts crowded around Baker Beach, trying to see something outside of commerce get lit on fire. People who had been there the year before were disgusted by all the new, uninitiated, wanna-be, Burners. Local residents ruined Burning Man.
In 1992, the first sound camp (then a “rave camp”) appeared at Burning Man, introducing amplified music to what was not yet Black Rock City. Music, as everybody knows, is not art, so those kids and their damn music ruined Burning Man.
In 1993, some Burning Man attendees became concerned that uncool people might show up, and in particular wanted to keep “fat frat boys” away. Though none were ever sighted, the very idea that they might come incited a small panic. Fat frat boys (in absentia) ruined Burning Man.
From 1991 – 1996, the population at Burning Man (now in the Black Rock desert) grew from 250 to 8,000 people. Nobody knew who the hell they were, and everybody was complaining about how much art they were creating. Friends of Friends of Friends ruined Burning Man.
From 1997 – 2001, there was serious concern that “Yahoos” – local Nevadans who liked guns and trucks – were coming to an event where, for years, people had used trucks to transport their guns. Obviously these people who lived in Nevada year round wouldn’t understand the culture we had created at all. Yahoos ruined Burning Man.
From 2003 – 2006, “weekend warriors” – people who only came for the latter part of the week – were considered an existential threat to Burning Man, and concerned Burners were certain that, if direct action weren’t taken, Burning Man wouldn’t be worth going to anymore. Weekend Warriors ruined Burning Man.
In 2007 a dissatisfied “old time” Burner, who believed Burning Man had been ruined too much, burned the Man down in order to save it. This marked the first time someone who ruined Burning Man did any actual damage. Old time Burners ruined Burning Man.
From 2008 – 2012, Turn-Key Camps were ruining Burning Man by creating circumstances in which some people didn’t have to set up their own tents or cook their own food – which had been happening with other camps for years, except that money wasn’t involved, except when there were camp dues. But … clearly the new people brought in by Turn-Key Camps knew nothing about the 10 Principles, or understood what the Man was about. They just saw something cool and wanted to play. Critics knew they could never be educated or be a contributing part of Black Rock City. Turn-Key Camps ruined Burning Man.
In 2013, Burners were horrified by accounts of vapid and worthless celebrities crawling across the playa. Though virtually none of the 60,000 people in attendance actually encountered one of these celebrities in any way, their very presence cast a retroactive pall over the year, so no one could enjoy the very good time they’d had. Worse, these celebrities had had the gall to take pictures of themselves. Honestly, who takes pictures at Burning Man? Celebrities ruined Burning Man.
From 2014 – 2016, Plug and Play camps … which are like Turn-Key Camps, but different, since the most problematic Turn-Key Camps had been successfully acculturated into Burning Man and now welcomed strangers and emphasized giving and participation, something Plug and Play Camps could obviously never do … were covering Burning Man like a plague. Well, a small plague – they actually represented a small fraction of Black Rock City’s total population and like the celebrities before them were rarely seen by others. But critics knew that unlike the celebrities, many of whom were starting to support art projects and engage in acts of gifting and participation, Plug and Play camps were hopeless and could never possibly get what Burning Man was about. Plug and Play camps ruined Burning Man.
- Burning Man has been ruined 27 out of 30 times.
- On two occasions, it was ruined twice in the same year. (This is a conservative estimate. Other models suggest Burning Man has been ruined three or four times in a single year.)
- In total, 12 different groups (that we know of) have done the ruining.
- The only actual physical damage done to Burning Man was committed by people trying to protect it.
A closing thought:
It’s easy to get paranoid about something you love.
Most people “get” Burning Man very quickly. But it can take time for new people, and hence new communities, to fully integrate into Burning Man’s culture precisely because it is difficult for people who haven’t experienced it to understand how to relate to art and community outside of commerce. It takes exposure to understand what’s possible, and then time to get good at doing it. (On a personal level, it took me about six years of practice to get really good at offering participatory gifts to strangers.) We all get better with practice. But once people experience it, they want to get good at it.
The best defense of Burning Man’s unique culture is to do exactly what you’re doing: Relate to it in ways outside of commerce. Engage and participate and create community instead of consuming. Give gifts. And yes, play with strangers. The 10 Principles are at their most powerful when given to strangers.