Let’s not kid ourselves. You love Burning Man, but lately you’ve been asking yourself: “Is this important?”
“In a world that’s being destroyed by (INSERT WHOEVER THOSE PEOPLE ARE), does any of this really matter?”
And if it does – here’s where it gets really tricky – what exactly does it do that makes it relevant? After all, it’s still inviting (INSERT THOSE PEOPLE), and not demanding that they be educated about (INSERT THE THING THAT THOSE PEOPLE NEED TO STOP AND/OR START DOING). It’s not even shaming them! So how can it matter?
It’s a fair question because not every organization or culture that sees itself as fundamentally apolitical can still be relevant in a time of political crisis. I am going to make the argument that Burning Man is, in fact, not only relevant but vitally important in our current time. But first we need to admit, right up front and very clearly, is that Burning Man cannot be all things to all people. And honestly it can’t even be all of the things to some of the people.
If you’re asking “why doesn’t Burning Man take a stand on that, and that, and that, and that …” you’re in the wrong place. An attempt to have a position on all the issues of the moment will turn Burning Man into a political party, rather than a culture with soul and purpose. It is in pursuing that purpose, rather than in trying to respond to the issue of the day, that Burning Man is at its most relevant.
Part of that purpose has always been to inspire people to become active participants and citizens, rather than passive spectators – and it does this year after year. After each Burning Man event, new people are inspired to engage in activist efforts based on their own passions, not someone else’s (certainly not ours). Burning Man may be the most effective master class in social transformation anywhere in the world – but this is possible precisely because we don’t tell people what to believe. Creating the conditions whereby people can learn to become active participants in their lives begins with not giving them orders to follow.
People who have become active participants in their own lives are more likely to become activists –and more likely to be good at it. The more they practice, the better they’ll probably be. If you’ve ever wondered: “why don’t all those sheeple just WAKE UP and see what’s happening and DO SOMETHING!” … well, that’s what happens here. And honestly our “do-occracy” approach, where people decide what matters to them and how to get active, is much, much more effective than any thousand lectures, memes, or screeds.
It’s just that, at the end of the process (to the extent it ever ends), people get to decide for themselves what’s important to them and whether they agree with you about it. And … shouldn’t they?
But more basically, Burning Man is apolitical not because it thinks politics are unimportant (I don’t know that I’ve ever met a Burner who thinks that), but because it believes that politics are not – and should not be – the highest value of a community. Healthy communities do not have as their highest aspiration the struggle for political power (who wants to live in THAT community? Not even Machiavelli), but on shared values and mutual respect. On Radical Inclusion, on Communal Effort, on Radical Self-Expression, on Gifting … you get the idea. We’ve got 10 of them. You, personally, may have others. (Which is not only fine, it’s the point.)
This is not a trivial thing, because whatever your politics are, it’s very clear that things are so bad right now in part because our ability to create healthy communities has broken down.
No one, no matter what their politics, is happy with the communities they have: the American President’s slogan, “Make America Great Again,” is a roar of discontent. His supporters are not saying “we’re happy with the way things are,” but that something has to be done to make the places they live safe, prosperous, and whole. Meanwhile liberal enclaves are strangled by income inequality, soaring housing costs, segregation, and fear that automation is creating an economy unsuitable for actual people.
Our political polarization surely makes clear – we no longer know how to relate to one another. Surely, at this moment, experiments in inclusive and healthy communities serve an essential purpose.
Whoever “wins” the political crisis we’re in, there is going to be a desperate need for new approaches to creating communities that welcome new people and enable everyone to thrive. The only way we get past this crisis, instead of just falling into another crisis, is to figure out how such communities can be built and then doing it.
Black Rock City has been a long-running experiment in how such communities are put together. Every regional group is a test case. Every Burning Man affiliated community, every community that is inspired by Burning Man, or adopts its principles or terminology, is a beta test (or, okay, maybe an alpha test) in how we do this.
Burning Man will probably not be the only model for the better communities to follow. That’s fine. But the collected experience of participants, the development of new models and collective expertise, is vital to that process – and few places on Earth are doing it at the scale, or with the degree of innovation, of Burning Man.
That can’t be the only priority anyone has right now, but there will come a time – perhaps soon – when the world we want to build will rise or fall on how well we have learned the lessons of inclusive community building and whimsical communal effort that Burning Man is engaged with, every day and around the world.
That matters, and your engagement with it matters too.