The secrets of Black Rock City civic life

We understand what separates us better than we do what binds us together

The recent riots in London got me thinking about what it means to be connected to a community.

Until recently Americans didn’t think of “riots” when the thought of “London” – we generally thought of sketch comedy.   The most violent London could get, we assumed, would involve a Python reunion.  Terry Jones and Michael Palin would wheel out Graham Chapman’s coffin and hurl it at Eric Idle in drag, only to be arrested by John Cleese in a policeman’s uniform.

“Do you have a license for that dead comedian?”  He’d ask.  “You’ve got to have a license!  We can’t just have any old person jumping to the head of the line to dig up W.S. Gilbert’s corpse and fling it at French tourists!  There’s a waiting list!  It’ll take you six months to get to the front of the line for Gilbert,  eight months for Benny Hill, and Peter Sellers’ skull is on permanent display at the Victoria and Albert Museum, although we can get you his right arm in about 12 – 15 months.  Pity, though: Yes, I know his left arm was the funny one.  Is that … is that Lenny Bruce’s testicle?  That’s a foreign import, that is!  Right!  You’re going appear before judge, you are!”

Then maybe they’d do the “Dead Parrot Sketch,” because people can’t get enough of that one.  It’s funny, you see, because the parrot’s dead.

Well, so much for that.  London has joined the ranks of cities no longer on the list of “it can’t happen here.”  It appears that, when you pry open the lid, an awful lot of people in an awful lot of places have no civic ties strong enough to say “I’m not going to put a brick through that window,” or “I’m not going to tell my friend not to light that car on fire.”

It’s terrifying to realize just how common this is becoming.  Most of us feel increasingly isolated from the political process and atomized out of civic life:  we have Twitter, but don’t know our neighbors.  We voted for Obama, but there’s still no sense of shared sacrifice.  We bowl alone.

I’ve been contrasting this with the passionate sense of engagement people have for Burning Man … and wondering what we did so right.  “Civic Responsibility” isn’t just one of the 10 principles – it’s a fact of life in Black Rock City.

I’m not patting us on the back for not rioting at Burning Man.  That’s no big deal.  Hundreds of thousands of people go through Disney Land, and they don’t riot either.  And even if Burning Man doesn’t have an army of rent-a-cops and a state of the art surveillance system, that’s still a low bar to set.  I mean … when we’re talking about “not rioting,” we’re talking about passivity.  Every time I visit Disney Land I want to fucking burn Mickey’s castle to the ground.  Die, mouse!  Die!  I don’t do it because they’d arrest me and I’ve already eaten too much sugar – not because I feel a sense of civic engagement.

But Black Rock City has affirmative, positive, civic engagement all over;  the kind that makes people spend all year preparing an art car, drag it across the country, and still pay to get in, just so that they can have the privilege of offering a ride to strangers.  The gift economy binds us together, but it is also a result of the way in which we are so tightly bound:  there is a service ethic at Burning Man that I’ve only otherwise seen in very small, tight, communities where everybody knows each other.   People line up to help … in no small part because they really feel that Black Rock City belongs to them.  Or, rather, that they are a part of it.

It’s a civic pride that any city in America should envy.  What’s our secret?  In a time when we desperately need people to make real sacrifices for the sake of our common good, does it offer a model we can follow?

Certainly part of people’s connection to Burning Man has to do with the fact that Burning Man can be so goddamn fun.  People, let’s face it, are more likely to get involved when they’re enjoying themselves.  When Chicken John ran for Mayor of San Francisco he said he intended to have jugglers perform at city council meetings.  It was a joke (I think …) but maybe it wasn’t such a bad idea.

Maybe if government wants people to be more involved it should try to be a little less boring.  “Not boring” equals engagement (Another name for this might be “Immediacy”).

Burning Man’s DIY ethic also serves to connect people to Black Rock City, ironically because it encourages people to solve problems on their own.  (Another name for this might be … wait for it … “Radical Self-Reliance.”)

The ethic of radical self-reliance means that people believe they can make a difference if they put their mind to it.  So much of our culture today is defined by a sense of learned helplessness.  It’s not that we don’t care about environmental degradation or soaring federal deficits or the collapse of the American educational system – but what can we realistically do about it?  Some of us try … I’m sure many of us reading this are engaged activists … but there is a clear cultural impression that unless they’re rich or powerful, one person can’t really make a difference.  The problems are too big.  The levers of power are intangible.

In Black Rock City, one person can make all the difference.  If you don’t believe that, you’ve never been here.  That knowledge … that you can have an impact if you put your mind to it … connects us all to this community.

Most importantly, I think, is the fact that by now civic engagement has become a cycle of positive reinforcement:  people are engaged because the people around them are engaged.  We applaud people who get involved, even if it doesn’t benefit us individually:  we mock people who try to sit back and watch.  One could even say there is an ethic of “No Spectators.”  (Or, if you like, “Participation”)  Unlike in the default world, we don’t admire each other for our wealth and privilege – we admire each other for our contributions.  That’s a huge difference.

It’s clearly a model that works … fur us.  But how much of it can be exported to the world at large?

There’s value to the idea that government should be fun … but it’s a lot easier to keep that going for a week of dancing than it is for a whole year of meetings of the Planning and Zoning Board of Appeals.

Likewise, expanding Burning Man’s DIY ethos to general society raises all sorts of questions about appropriate levels of government intervention and social safety nets … questions that are politically relevant but cultural poison.  Burning Man asks people to voluntarily be self-reliant for a week – and to opt out you just don’t show up.  There’s no similar mechanism to opt out of civil society, and it can be fairly argued that we have a duty to make sure everyone is taken care of.

Creating an expectation of “no spectators” in the default world is just as difficult:  people have a right to be apathetic.  Indeed, the ability to be apathetic is the hallmark of a free society.  A society that refuses to allow people to mind their own business is intrusive, even dictatorial.  Burning Man can set high standards precisely because people take them on voluntarily.

But one thing we can do in the default world is value people for their contributions rather than their wealth or power.  If we can take that with us, and make it stick … if we really can begin to disentangle social status from money … then we won’t turn the world into Black Rock City, but it will be a hell of a step.  If we can have fun doing it – well that really might just change the world.

“No spectators” might be Burning Man’s most exportable message.  It can’t be a rule in the default world, but it can be a movement.

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

3 Comments on “The secrets of Black Rock City civic life

  • Dusty Rusty says:

    Oddly enough, there WAS once a bit of a riot at Disneyland. It must have been late 60s or early 70s. I was there the day the Yippies took over the Shooting Galleries in Frontierland as part of a peace protest that was a bit less than peaceful.

    Disneyland was shut down and all the people present were marched out down Main Street that was lined with : Riot squad guy, Riot squad guy, Goofy, Riot squad guy, Riot squad guy, Dopey…..and so on all the way to the front gate. It was a pretty funny sight.

    So even Disneyland….

    (love the Python comeback sketch!)

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  • Joanna Sunshine says:

    I love what you had to say, thank you I needed to hear that. I always feel like I’m not important enough to make a difference in the world even though I want to. I do make a difference at burning man though, and maybe through those experiences I really could make a difference in the default world as well. It’s worth trying anyway!

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  • Mac Johnson says:


    why don’t you invite Barry & Michelle, they could come incognito. Dogged as it is where they live, it would be inspirational for them to see this, and boy would that make a difference!!!

    you could change the whole wide world….

    Mac J

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