Have you ever thought: “Wouldn’t it be great if we had a place where we could do Burning Man 365 days a year?”
Well, so have a lot of the European Regional Contacts. About a fourth, by my admittedly unscientific and slightly drunk poll, were in some kind of active conversation – or looking for one – about whether or not they could purchase land to create a permanent Burning Man “settlement.”
At a session devoted to exactly that topic, there were discussions about buying land in South Africa, in Spain, in Scandanavia, in the U.S. … there wasn’t a single dissenting voice suggesting that this is not an idea whose time has come. As Burners Without Borders director Christopher Breedlove put it, “land sharing is the remark of a mature community.”
But for all that, the discussion never really veered into practical territory: how to fundraise or what governance structure to use or community recruitment. Instead, the question up for discussion was still theoretical: yes we want a permanent Burning Man settlement and community, but what the hell is that exactly?
No one labors under the delusion that you can simply have a party in the desert that never stops – that idea was a non-starter. Instead it was recognized that, as session leader Bjorn Westerberg Naucler (of the group Burning Land) put it, that “Having a permanent basis presents a unique set of problems and may require us to rethink our expectations.” That is to say: a permanent Burning Man settlement isn’t Burning Man. “We’re talking about two different manifestations born from the same culture.”
Several participants suggested that we should look at combining the 10 Principles with permaculture techniques to create sustainable communities – but others were suspicious of any approach that got too close to a traditional commune. That’s exactly what they want a Burning Man permanent community to move away from.
Kibbutzes failed, said a participant who had lived in one, “because of human nature. I don’t think Utopia is fit for mankind.”
The greatest danger to potential Burning Man communities, most people agreed, was the potential for them to “turn into a commune of weed smoking hippies.” How, Bjorn asked “can we ensure active community engagement and growth, and not just slack off?”
One approach frequently suggested was to reconsider what “permanent” means. Perhaps the idea of simply buying land and starting a 365-day-a-year settlement there is too ambitious: perhaps it should begin with a community that lasts two weeks instead of one, and then a month instead of two, gradually building up to some kind of year-round presence?
Or perhaps the issue of what “residents” are should be re-examined. Perhaps, suggested author Alexander Bard, we need to consider a system that permits different levels of residency – with some residents who live there year round to manage the property, some residents who return regularly to work on projects, some residents who return sporadically, and an open system for visitors who want to drop by?
Thinking creatively beyond just the ideal of “let’s all live together and make art” was seen as vital – and that requires a larger question to be answered: what, exactly, are we trying to accomplish? Yes, at some level, we’re talking about year round Burning Man settlements just because we want them – because we are drawn towards this culture and want to make it a greater part of our lives – but that, participants seemed to agree, is probably not enough to make it work. Some common vision, still lacking, of what success would actually look like, is necessary.
If we do this right, what have we created?
Personally I am far less interested in the idea of building an alternative civic structure out in the wilderness than I am in finding ways to make the civic society we have more amenable to artists and doers.
It’s a truism of economic development efforts at this point that artistic communities can on the one hand lead to a revitalization of neighborhoods and cities, and on the other hand be quickly priced out of those same places – losing access to the fruits of their own labors. I’d be far more impressed if Burners could design or implement models that made neighborhoods of San Francisco or New York City sustainable for artists to live in – or even created vibrant enclaves in mid-sized cities where artists and burners can live with as much emphasis on the 10 Principles as market forces, and not be forced out when derivative investors want a piece of the action.
Models of common or joint ownership have been proposed; innovative approaches exist that we could aim for, build on, or redesign for our own purposes. Breedlove belongs to one such successful group that has taken over various warehouses in Chicago developing not just residences but studio and production spaces. I’ve visited them a few times over the last few years, and they’re extremely impressive. Is that a model we could super-charge to create bigger communities in other cities?
An Urban Institute report (PDF) , from April, recommends “shared equity” programs, where local entities (like governments or non-profits) essentially co-purchase homes with lower-income residents, allowing them to buy homes they couldn’t otherwise afford. The houses can only be sold as lower-income housing, and the owners divide the profits – creating a revenue stream and keeping low-income housing stock. Small studies have been conducted in nine separate areas, including Nashville, Seattle, and – yes, San Francisco – and researchers say it shows promise. What if Burners were to create their own pilot programs to dedicate housing stock in various forms to our own intentional communities in existing urban spaces?
That at least is my vision – but there’s room for everybody’s vision at the moment because right now all we have are questions, not answers, and it’s likely we won’t have answers until more groups begin the process of actually putting their money where their mouths are. We are probably entering a period where we’ll learn what the best practices are after people have committed to the experiments and made something work – much like Burning Man itself did.
In nearly every case, however, some kind of land-ownership is the first step. The ELS meeting ended with Burning Man “social alchemist” Bear Kittay suggesting that the time has come to buy some property, and call it “Pragmatopia.”
“It’s better than Shittopia,” he explained.
I suspect that’s exactly the right spirit in which to begin this next step towards a mature community.