Burning Man 2011 has proven me wrong.
After a certain point, watching people horde, hide, and lock their “yellow bikes” gets downright embarrassing. And the more “radical” their lifestyle, the worse it looks:
- People who do an hour of yoga every morning, recycle like a socially conscious hoarder in a box factory, and visualize world peace so often it’s taken out a restraining order, will spend a week hiding a bike that doesn’t belong to them.
- People who advocate for an overthrow of the corporate oligarchy, speak so much truth to power that it erodes the enamel on their teeth, and march with any group that has the word “anti-“ in their mission statement, will put a lock a bicycle that they’re supposed to give away.
- People who are unafraid to walk around naked, are so polyandrous that anthropologists are studying their mating habits, and are so sex-positive that sex has asked them to tone it down a little, will clutch a yellow bike to their side all week and get offended if you look at it funny.
In some ways, Burning Man’s bike share program may be a better measure of our community than all the high-minded rhetoric and big gestures we make.
High-minded rhetoric requires no sacrifice: just think of Martin Luther King Jr. and open your mouth. Then go to lunch. Big gestures are surprisingly easy: corporate executives and corrupt politicians make them all the time. They generally involve other people’s labor and money you’ll never miss.
But giving up a bicycle that you want to use later, just because you’re supposed to share it? That’s a personal sacrifice – even a major inconvenience. As burners, we’re happy to tell corporations to put people before profits and lecture about the need to decommodify … but decommodification is about putting people before a commodity – especially when it’s inconvenient.
Burning Man has created an environment where it is easy to live according to the principles we claim to espouse – they even bought the bikes. At the time I saw it as a nice civic gesture, but now I see it as a more fundamental challenge: do all the hair extensions we wear actually signify something real, or are they just hair extensions? Does all our talk about decommoditization actually lead to more sharing in ways that aren’t glamorous?
Having an environment in which it’s easy to live up to our principles doesn’t mean much if we’re still not doing it.
I’ve asked myself what Burning Man can do differently to make people share the shared bicycles … which is absurd. You can’t make people share. Burning Man, in addition to being a huge party and an extraordinary psychological challenge and somewhat magical, is an opportunity to become better than we are. To be the people we want to be. For many of us that involves big gestures drenched in nudity and sex; for many of us, it involves single-minded dedication to an art project. But the future of our movement will also depend on the small gestures that determine whether burners really make good neighbors.
As a “festival,” these small gestures are irrelevant to Burning Man’s success. The event was amazing without a bike share program, and it’s still great with a bike share program that’s widely abused. But Burning Man’s success as a cultural movement hinges on whether Burners make compelling cultural ambassadors … especially to people who have already been burned by crooks with soaring rhetoric and big gestures
The world doesn’t care (beyond a tabloid fashion) how much yoga we do or how much sex we have or how lofty our rhetoric is. The world’s been there and done that. But the world desperately needs people who are serious about decommoditization in all the small ways.
Is that us? It’s certainly some of us. But in the big picture … I don’t know. I look forward to finding out.
Caveat is the Volunteer Coordinator for Media Mecca at Burning Man. Contact him at Caveat (at) Burningman.com