The “Gift Economy” isn’t an economy at all, but that’s no excuse for your terrible, terrible gift

How many gifts can you spot in this economy?

I had to impose heavily on a friend of a friend at this year’s Lightning in a Bottle. Fluids, an outlet to charge my cell phone, space for a nap … I was a pest. I apologized to him profusely, saying I hated to exploit his hospitality so much.


He gave me a puzzled look. “Well you’re a Burner, aren’t you?”

I nodded. “Yes. Yes I am.”

He shrugged. “Well then, all you have to say is: WHERE’S MY FUCKING GIFT, ASSHOLE?”

It’s funny because it’s pathetically true.

For all the good that it was supposed to accomplish, Burning Man’s “gift economy” frequently turns otherwise decent people into a plague of locusts with hair extensions and a sense of entitlement.

Some are just incompetent campers like me who never manage to get “self-reliance” right (I have to keep my produce cold?). But others genuinely believe they are entitled to your food, booze, and those crappy little plastic images of the “Man” you covered in glitter to make it “art” and are handing out like it’s something people might want.

If so many people think they can come to the desert without bringing sufficient water because somebody will “gift” it to them; if so many people think handing out glow-sticks with the word “Love” stenciled on them counts as “gifting” in a meaningful way, the whole notion of a “gift economy” may have gone horribly wrong.

But then the notion of the Burning Man “gift economy” might not have been so well thought out in the first place.

It’s not really an “economy” in a meaningful sense: it doesn’t actually generate wealth, the vast majority of which comes from outside Burning Man in the form of campers, tents, generators, and loin cloths. It doesn’t actually describe how resources transfer within Burning Man, because it can’t take into account the Center Camp Café, and Artica, and all those “pay for play” theme camps that hire people to cook their meals and wipe their asses.

(No offence, Ass Wipe Camp: we know you’re cool.)

If the “gift economy” doesn’t produce wealth or describe how resources move, what does it do? What is it for, besides fitting on a bumper-sticker?

Several crucial things, actually: but to appreciate what it does, we have to admit what it doesn’t do. The notion of a “gift economy” is too grandiose: we’re not there yet. Nobody makes it to and from Burning Man without either a day job or the suffrage of people who have day jobs. We’re nowhere close to describing, exhibiting, or participating in an “economy” that truly relies on gifting. Let’s stop kidding ourselves. A “gift economy” sounds great, and maybe we should try it sometime. But we still don’t know how to do it.

What we do have is a compelling gift “culture” – and it matters.

It matters most obviously because it is our affirmation of that culture, rather than any formal policy from the organization, that keeps Burning Man non-commercial.

Yes, the Org doesn’t accept sponsorships or commercial money – and God bless them for it – but the fact that there’s virtually no commerce on the playa happens because we … 50,000 individual Burners … have declared ourselves citizens of the gift culture. The social stigma attached to commerce on the playa is too strong to ignore: far stronger than any policing the Org could do, even if it had the resources. If you want to party with Burners, you put your wallet away when the party starts.

Keeping commerce out is a powerful thing, and incredibly valuable. But even more important, to my mind, is the impact that the gift culture … including, unfortunately, those stupid scrabble-piece necklaces … has on the way we treat one another during the burn.

I realized this, too, at Lightning in a Bottle – which has no gift culture. Walking from camp to camp, between tents and around RVs, was an unnervingly quiet experience. No strangers were stepping out to ask me if I wanted to play a game, or have a drink, or get my fortune told or … anything. And I had no excuse to step up to them and offer to read a story, or sing a song, or tell them a story about Chicken John.

Without that gifting culture there was no excuse to talk to anybody. If you wanted to meet new people, you pretty much had to hit on them. (Hi Victoria)

The gift culture, then, is most useful because it is a social lubricant – a legitimate way of reaching out to our fellow human beings that is non-exploitive and establishes a connection between people who have no other reason to talk to each other. It has nothing to do with an “economy” but everything to do with breaking down the barriers that isolate us as human beings.

Once you realize this, it ought to change the way you think about what a good “gift” is. An appropriate gift is not a trinket, a glow stick – or even food and water (though … thank you everyone who has kept me alive out there). An appropriate gift is tied to an experience: something that gives someone without friends a community, that connects unrelated biographies, that provides a story someone new can add to.

The people who hand out trinkets are better than nothing, but that’s weak tea. They’re thinking about *the things* they’re giving rather than *the people* they’re giving it too. It sort of serves the purpose, but it absolutely misses the point.

I, unfortunately, am a terrible gifter. But some people have been getting this right – brilliantly right – all along. If you’ve been to Burning Man, you probably owe them big-time. I know I do.

The greatest playa gift I ever received was a five foot tall copper staff hand made by Oakland artist Kenneth Griswack – a world-class copper smith (who I’d never met before).

Ken had originally created it as a communal staff for BMIR, something that would hang around the station and be used in dramatic moments. But I’d been coming by the station at night and holding impromptu sing-alongs, and somebody had pushed the staff into my hands while I was singing. From then on, whenever I came back, somebody gave me the staff when they wanted me to sing.

Finally, one night at 3 in the morning, I waved good-bye and started to put the staff back. “No,” Ken said. “You keep it. You have to keep it: it belongs to you, it just does, it’s obvious. BUT … this is the condition. You have to hold that staff high, and walk out into the desert, and sing your heart out. You have to sing to the desert, for as long as it takes – and then the desert will answer you. That’s the condition. ARE YOU UP TO IT? WILL YOU SING TO THE DESERT UNTIL IT ANSWERS?”

I lifted the staff high. I sang a war song. I carried it out into the desert. I marched through the phalanx of art cars, staff held high, now singing a song about ships lost at sea as I crashed into the darkness.

The voice came out of nowhere. “Caveat?”

The desert had answered.

The connections cemented that night have lasted. That’s the bar we should be aiming for.

Caveat is the Volunteer Coordinator for Media Mecca at Burning Man. Contact him at:

About the author: Caveat Magister

Caveat is Burning Man's Philosopher Laureate. A founding member of its Philosophical Center, he is the author of The Scene That Became Cities: what Burning Man philosophy can teach us about building better communities, and Turn Your Life Into Art: lessons in Psychologic from the San Francisco Underground. He has also written several books which have nothing to do with Burning Man. He has finally got his email address caveat (at) burningman (dot) org working again. He tweets, occasionally, as @BenjaminWachs

44 Comments on “The “Gift Economy” isn’t an economy at all, but that’s no excuse for your terrible, terrible gift

  • great stuff Caveat. a reminder that the best gifts come with a state of mind of giving of yourself and for a brief and beautiful moment putting a stranger’s needs ahead of your own, not the trinket or super special object itself. my best gifts offered and given were completely selfless acts of compassion and sharing when the person needed it the most. these turn out to be the best gifts of all because we can give them at any time, on or off the playa. cheers!

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  • Brody says:

    I fucking LOVE your posts here at the Burning Blog. You are rad and thank you for being you.

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  • Kanizzle says:

    Excellent piece.

    Ken is a god amongst men.

    I believe you were also gifted copious amounts of Jameson that evening.

    BMIR loves you!

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  • Laura says:

    Your gift to us all is quite clear.
    The most wonderful and meaningful connections are made when
    you are willing to fully give of our energy without exception and
    that act is it’s own rich reward. With just one gift, the world is won!

    And this what Burning man is, a gathering of these vibes. It is a tribal calling,
    why we choose to write, make music, art, make Love to the world
    and all its creatures. For when we burn, we burn eternal.

    BLESS up, peoples of the positive planet!

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  • Caveat says:

    Kanizzle is so right … so much Jameson that it probably deserved a mention of its own.

    While we’re on the subject, BMIR (my beloved home away from home on the playa) has at various times also gifted me with crash space on its couch, crash space on the floor of its studio, crash space on a variety of comfortable chairs, blankets, pillows, a battery powered radio, the chance to ask ActionGrrl embarrassing questions live on air, fruit juice, several really high quality hugs, a megaphone, a hat, beer, Jameson, beer mixed with Jameson, beer mixed with Jameson in a hat (I think it was a hat), the chance to get preferential seating on art cars because I’m “with” BMIR, eggs, bacon, vodka, vodka mixed with fruit juice, vodka in a hat (I think it was a hat), a wingman, two wingwomen, a brown liquid, a cup, and a place to crash.

    But my point is that the list of specifics isn’t important (though it is impressive): what’s important is that all this happened because they reached out to me. They found a way to connect with me despite the fact that *I had nothing to do with BMIR*, and it changed my life. That’s the gift. The rest is incidental. Anyone who looks at this experience and thinks “Eggs in a hat! That’s a great gift!” is missing the point. They didn’t give me a gift and send me on my way, they gave me a new experience that changed the direction I was going.

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  • Jude says:

    Actually, Caveat, you’re high on my list of great gift givers. You once gave me a sandwich when I was unorganised and got trapped away from my camp needing to pump my blood sugar levels. That was one of my favourite gifts ever, gratefully received.

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  • Camila says:

    Amazing, enlightening post, especially for a first time burner like me… I’m really glad that I’ll be volunteering at Media Mecca and got such a cool coordinator to work with! :D

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  • Zhust (Jason Olshefsky) says:

    I live in the U.S. and it is often the monetary economy we have that permits my interaction with strangers. For instance, talking to a bartender is a purposeful interaction that is allowed, but talking to anyone else in the bar that I don’t already know is not allowed. Or, all interactions are necessarily purposeful, so I must declare my purpose (hitting on, joining an existing conversation) and there’s something amiss if I cannot declare a purpose.

    I think there’s something outside the gift culture of Burning Man that permits purposeless interactions. I’ll have to think about it more, but it’s something I deeply miss when I am not there.

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  • Andie Grace says:

    Purposeless interactions…it’s like an excuse for improv with anyone around you, for eight days straight. Heavenly, really.

    Great post, Caveat.

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  • Kitty Dingo says:

    This essay brought tears–literally–to my eyes. I’m amazed and grateful every year at BMan for the incredible ways people share their true selves:
    The woman at the shrine who gave my sister and me smudge sticks and blessed us.
    The 36-person spontaneous hug.
    The margaritas and showers from the neighbors my first year out.
    The man who bought the whole Center Camp line behind him coffee one morning.
    The woman who gave me her awesome handmade cape.
    The people who decorated the “special” porta potty and made it beautiful.
    The man who stayed out in the dust storm to help fix my generator.
    The people who wrote beautiful words on the Temple that have stayed in my brain ever since.
    The woman who just came up without a word and put her arms around me when I was crying at the Temple.
    And, you know, even the doodads and trinkets I’ve been given sometimes have deep meaning for me. Especially when they were given with a warm smile and a hug.

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  • Sue says:

    I have to admit that I have never been to Burning Man but am constantly fascinated at the talent and the love that flows from this event. I always wish I would go and then quickly realize I am just too damned old. My son works this event every year and I am lucky enough to live my adventures through his eyes. Your writing takes me to such a wonderful place in my mind. A place where a hug has true meaning. Where a gift can bring such love. Where smiles are sincere and not something given out of a desire to have something in return. You are a fantastic writer and I would like to say thank you. Thank you for taking me to such great places through your words. you have given me a fantastic day as a nurse just by having the pleasure of reading this article.

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  • “They’re thinking about *the things* they’re giving rather than *the people* they’re giving it too. It sort of serves the purpose, but it absolutely misses the point.”

    Amen! To me, gifting is a way to shift perspective from “How can I make my experience better” to “How can I make your experience better.” And in the process we learn that the same action does both.

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  • Diana says:

    I have gotten a ton of cool necklaces from people over the years, and I ALWAYS end up losing them at the orgy dome : (

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  • Bear says:

    fantastic article, love the wit and charisma.

    … also kitty dingo you totally took me somewhere beautiful with your nostalgic rememberances <3

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  • M Vlasic says:

    Loved this blog, it made me think of things in a new way, and I thank you. I hope to meet you at Media Mecca this year, where I will give you a big hug, and yes, a special piece of bling. I understand it is just a “thingy”, however for me, the marvelous bling-things I’ve collected have memories attached, and THAT is the important thing. I think it is all about the intention behind the giving. When I look through my little Burning Man trinket box, I remember the experience attached to when I received the gift much more than the gift itself, bringing a smile to my face, a warm glow, and a longing to play with delightful Playa friends again.

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  • Charlie Potts says:

    No matter how “crappy” a gift is on the playa, I’m always tremendously surprised and impressed. But I guess I’m not jaded yet.

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  • Pique says:

    Brilliant <3

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  • Thanks for that righteous post. It speaks the TRUTH! 2010 was my first burn, but I had done my research for several years before making my first trip out to the playa.
    Ive been to hundreds of jam-band-hippie-festivals… but the thing that always left me feeling defeated was the corperate presence and the shitty economy. 1 for $3, 2 for $5 veggie burritos, $15 t-shirts… for what? There was no real meaning of these products. My cash had no real meaning. The only time a stranger wants to talk to you is to sell you some bunk L or a gram of hash…

    When I got to the playa everything was so universal, the way we found our land plot, the way our neighbors taught us, the way we taught our younger neighbors, the meaningful conversation… it could have never happened without the gifting economy. I remember the day of the burn we were talking with a group of college kids and one had showed me a necklace, it was a wooden MAN that a fellow burner had given him. It was probably the most important gift that guy could have ever received. It was cool because it was so universal.

    Awwww Shucks’ all you burners know what im talking about. I love you people and I cant wait for Rites of Passage .


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  • The Milkman says:

    So well said Caveat.

    Gifting is such a beautiful human interaction, shall it never be tainted with the wickedness that Economies seem to inevitably attract.

    Reading this reminds me how blessed we are. :-)

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  • brian says:

    Thought provoking.

    A true gift is given with no expectation of a return gift. It is not given in the godfather sense of doing someone a favor so they will do one for you in the future.

    Anyone who reads this: please give the gift of art and creative experiences to everyone on the playa. Free drinks, and all that are cool but please…..blow my mind.

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  • andrew says:

    nice post.
    Might be of interest to folks here…I interviewed Larry Harvey a couple years ago on this very subject–the gift economy at BM. He actually mentioned your talking staff that you mention in your blog, although i cant remember if it was after I stopped the recording.
    But you can listen to it here:

    Up top is a short 5 minute version, and below is the longer, 45 minute in depth conversation.

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  • BGV says:

    Hi Caveat,
    Thanks for the thoughts. Made me realise I’ve been blessed. In all my years of burning, in enourmous theme camps, or “Camp Half Ass” (what we call ouselves when we just camp) I have not encountered anyone who acted or felt “entitled” to a gift. Plenty of newbies who needed them (been on the recieving end of a few of those myself) but they were allways greatfull and sometimes astonished at the communities willingness to help.
    You are spot on about the deeper meaning of it though. The process can serve to open us up to each other. I’ve allways felt enriched and elated by the act of busting my ass with a crew to pull off a theme camp (big & small) and watching people enjoy and interact with the experience we’ve provided for them. The buzz flows both ways.
    Now, about those scrabble necklaces… Oh well. People just trying to participate. They’ll refine thier sensibilities as they grow. Some people put a lot of thought into thier trinkets and hit a home run. My first year as a newbie, I busted my ass for a week with my crew near center camp. At the end of the week, the guys in the camp next door gave me a beautifull pendant of the man they had made for that year (thanks Bear Lair). It has become a treasured totem that has travelled with me for a decade now.
    See you on the Playa. I’ll be listening…

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  • Redman says:

    Very good except the part about LIB. If you aren’t gifting because you “don’t see” other people gifting, aren’t you missing the point? If we all waited around for someone else to gift, well…you know how that works, right?

    We were there at LIB. We gifted knowledge. We gifted the idea of gifting. We gifted by taking the time to share with an artist how their creations moved you. We picked up trash, and we invited people into our home and shared food, drink, and stories with them and explained how nothing was expected or even hoped for in return. So it wasn’t Burning Man. No excuse for not bringing the idea you embrace.

    So once again, much of what was said is fucking incredible and very insightful. I would argue that a glow stick to the right person at the right time is probably a better gift than alcohol ever is, but that debate is for another time. Thanks for sharing your weaknesses, strengths, and what you gained from the ongoing sum of your experiences.

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  • stuart says:

    LIB and Burning Man are fundamentally different: LIB is primarily organization driven. Burning Man is primarily participant driven. These create two very different temporary cultures at the respective events.

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  • johnnyxgames says:

    it will always depend on the situation. How it was given and how it was recived. No matte how big or small. I learned that at my virgin year at the end as a matter of fact.

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