Has someone hit you up for tickets yet?
Man … this is brutal.
I’ve been getting slammed with requests all day even though my relationship with Burning Man is so small that, if you were to look at Burning Man’s organizational chart, you’d need an electron microscope to see my name. Which would be misspelled. For people who are actually on the inside, I’ve been told, it’s been a flood of biblical proportions – one that might go on for 40 days and 40 nights.
Meanwhile the scalpers have sharpened their scalpels: Burning Man tickets have been selling for north of $800 on eBay. It’s as if Jerry Garcia had come back to play one more concert, with Justin Bieber. Admit it: you’d feel terrible about shelling out $800 bucks to see that, but you would.
Some of the people left out of the dust are newbies who planned for everything but the gate. They bought their airfare, they got the time off work … but just never got around to buying a ticket. Some are old Burning Man hands who ignored the warning signs: months of rumors, a special note in Jack Rabbit Speaks, and constant questioning from friends about whether they’re in or out this year. Either way, their disappointment is understandable but the reaction seems outsized: things sell out, right?
Maybe. But on the other hand, why wouldn’t people assume that they can get in? Burning Man is founded on the notion that there’s a place for everybody: it’s the kind of event where people just show up. It grew from a rag-tag party where all 100 people knew each other to a 50,000 person happening because people just kept showing up unannounced. Hell, a small legion of assholes showed up every year at the gate without a ticket, food, or water, under the assumption that the most hostile environment in the world will provide. And it did.
That’s just the way it works: you show up and if you run out of something you know the people at the next camp will let you use theirs. Or there will be a theme camp giving it away. Or a naked hula hooper will want you to have it. For over a decade now Burning Man has been a culture of abundance. The Man never runs out.
What we’re seeing now may be 21st century Burning Man’s first serious encounter with a culture of scarcity.
It’s surprising that a culture so focused on sustainability issues wouldn’t have already been bracing for this: scarcity is *the* problem that the sustainability movement is trying to solve. If there’s no scarcity, there’s no need for sustainability. It’s only when you have limited resources, limited energy, limited … space … that you ask “how do we best preserve this?”
If this isn’t a one-time thing … if this is part of a trend … then Burning Man can no longer be the place where a San Franciscan in a tuxedo goes out for drinks in the city with friends, gets in their van, passes out, and wakes up at Burning Man the next day. (Yes, this really happened). That time is passed.
The reaction to the closed gate is so severe, in part, because a closed gate is incompatible with our understanding of what Burning Man is … a place of abundance for all.
Much in the same way that, about 15 years ago, Burning Man had to incorporate to address the fact that there were too many people and too little organization, Burning Man must now develop a response to the fact that there are too many people and too much demand.
Reaching the attendance limit for ticket sales is not an existential threat to Burning Man, but it is an existential crisis. It forces both the organization and its attendees to ask: who are we, and what do we value?
Does Burning Man become an organization with a closed gate – or does it become something else?
Right now I don’t get the impression that it knows. All options are … theoretically … on the table. What do we do?
My advice, for what it’s worth: believe in abundance.
This doesn’t mean going out to the desert without a ticket or a plan. That’s crazy. The bad kind of crazy. IT’S A DESERT! NATURE WANTS TO KILL YOU! HONESTLY NOW, PEOPLE!
But it does mean that we work to transcend today’s limit.
We can’t throw open the gates and let more people in this year, but we can work to prepare for this eventuality next year. Does Burning Man need a second site? Does it need to purchase its own, bigger, site in the desert? Does it hold participatory events in its San Francisco offices for Burners who can’t get on-site this year?
Burning Man doesn’t owe people who can’t get tickets anything. Let’s be clear on that. And then let’s do something about it anyway.
Think of it as gifting taken to the next level: we encourage people to be self-reliant enough to bring water, but many of us give it to them if they don’t have it. We encourage people to bring costumes, but many of us give away costumes to people who don’t have them. People should still be self-reliant and buy tickets. But let’s ask ourselves: How do we give a burn to people who can’t get one?
A gift of this size – gifting at the next level – will need your help. Ask yourself what you can contribute. Ask yourself what kind of experience you’d like to have if you couldn’t get a ticket. Ask what you’d like to see happen, and start talking about ways it can get done. And for crying out loud: Instead of buying an $800 ticket from a scalper, stay home this year and save the cost of a ticket to donate to any effort Burning Man makes to expand.
An existential crisis is an existential opportunity. One of my new volunteers on the media team, who will be going to Burning Man for the first time next month, sent me a note today. She said: “So tickets are sold out? That’s kind of exciting. And sad for some. What is that weird thing where something big happens like someone predicts it’s the end of the world and you should be devastated but you’re kind of excited and you’re like why the heck am I excited? That’s sort of how I felt when I read that. I was omg omg omg omg.”
I think that’s about right. Let’s figure out how to be abundant for 2012.
Caveat is the Volunteer Coordinator for Media Mecca at Burning Man. Contact him at Caveat (at) Burningman.com