To listen to the media (or your cousin Fred, who called to ask if you were still alive), Burning Man’s “Animalia” theme might as well have been “Lord of the Flies.” It was definitely a moment, and more eyeballs were on us for a few days than we’ve seen in a long while. Until, of course, nothing bad happened, and the mud dried, and we burned the Man.
The sensationalized coverage that inundated the social feeds failed to capture the magic that convenes, fuels and inspires the Burning Man community — on the playa and out in the world. And they totally missed it when it comes to explaining what Burning Man really is: a global nonprofit supported by a network of humans inspired by the 10 Principles, and united in the pursuit of a more creative and connected life.
Still, it’s nice to be noticed, so I’m going to take the win here and celebrate our moment: everything that didn’t happen, and all the things that did. Because, make no mistake, this was a point in our history that affirmed who we are, as a community and as a nonprofit. A group of people defined not by rain and mud but by generosity, civic responsibility, and communal effort. Because the truth is, and you know this if you were there, that we crushed it.
For more than 35 years the Burning Man community has been producing outdoor events under the open skies in all kinds of climates around the world — over 100 of them annually at last count. Being out in the great outdoors in random weather is baked into the Burning Man genome. Sure, you can Burn on an urban beach or in a sylvan glen, but there’s something special about sharing a weather event and living to tell the tale. It’s a feature, not a bug.
“All real communities grow out of a shared confrontation with survival.”
As for the Burning Man Project staff, you know we train for this sort of thing, right? In order to get our permits for the event, we’ve had to write a bookcase full of contingency plans, and we play them out alongside our government agency partners every year in what are called tabletop exercises. And sometimes, like this year, in real life. Which in the case of a rain event like this one, consists mostly of staying cool, making sure everyone has all the things, and waiting for the mud to dry. Not to brag, but we are actually so good at this now that government agencies and NGOs have studied our methods. And it’s not just the staff, it’s all about amazing participants who consistently embody our 10 Principles by staying prepared and taking care of each other when things get weird. After Hurricane Katrina ravaged the Gulf Coast in 2005, a group of Burners drove straight from the Nevada desert to Mississippi to help out. That’s the origin story of Burning Man Project’s Burners Without Borders program, and we’re still hard at it doing community resilience work around the world.
At a certain level the 10 Principles can’t really be taught, they can only be learned. When it comes to either personal growth or positive social change, nothing is ever going to change unless you do. No assemblage of words and pictures, however lyrical and persuasive, are going to trigger that kind of transformation. You can’t read about it, or watch a video; you have to live it.
Take Radical Self-reliance, for instance. There’s a big difference between reading in the Survival Guide that you should bring extra trash bags and duct tape, and actually getting to use them to make a pair of stylish mud boots. Or taking the full recommended amount of water with you even though it seems like way too much, and then being able to gift a jug or two to your neighbor on day six of what he thought was going to be a four-day trip.
“When the going gets weird, the weird turn pro.”
–Hunter S. Thompson
At this year’s event, it’s safe to say that a lot of this sort of experiential learning took place. What we’re hearing is that people loved it. That it was the best year ever because of the deep and profound relationships they created or strengthened with their neighbors in Black Rock City. Because any year you go home with more friends than you came with is a win for everyone.
That’s what turned our quirky little desert camping trip into a cultural movement in the first place, and what keeps us moving forward. Twenty-five years of Burning Man Regional Events around the world don’t exist because we franchised the Burn, but because people teamed up with their friends to make more Burning Man happen in more places more of the year. To make more art, and create more opportunities for more people to step out of their comfort zones and realize their potential as humans. To keep growing the community and our global mission, to extend the culture, friend by friend by friend.
So as we chisel the last bits of dried mud from our boot-bottoms let’s keep telling cousin Fred that we really truly are ok, and maybe even better! It’s up to all of us to spread our stories of resilience and thriving out into the world — whether you were at the burn this year or not. Our moments of cultural connection, wherever we are in the world, define who we are as a community, and bond us to each other in enduring ways. Let’s go out and make more Burning Man happen, everywhere and all the time.
Because this is what we do.
Cover image of a double rainbow over Black Rock City, 2023 (Photo by Dr. Tre DPW)