What Does Burning Man Do for the World?

What does Burning Man have to offer the world?

This has always been a question with good answers that are hard to explain. 

Larry once told me that he was constantly asked, in the early days of the Burning Man LLC, why they didn’t found a nonprofit and exclusively fund Burning Man with grant money?

“Grant money?” he said. “We were being referred to as Satanists on cable news. Who was going to give grant money to the naked satanists?”

Burning Man couldn’t just explain what it was — it had to prove itself first. It had to show that it was worthy of support and grant money and being a nonprofit by doing. In 1996 they were just getting started. By the mid-2000s, Black Rock City had become a major center for alternative spirituality and culture; by the early 2010s, Burning Man was becoming part of major discussions on urbanism, culture-jamming, organizational leadership and decentralized planning; new approaches to disaster relief; even education. Burning Man was routinely being studied by academics and significant institutions to learn more about how we did what we did.

The world had unambiguously concluded that Burning Man had something to offer. But what … exactly … it … was … was still never clear. The question “what is Burning Man?” had been definitely answered (at least as much as such an answer was helpful) by the 10 Principles in 2004. But “what does Burning Man have to offer?” never had a 10 Principles moment. Even at the height of Burning Man’s influence, the answer of what it offers was always kind of vague, something that you gesture at with your hands and say, “You know, THAT,” and sound a little frustrated.

So now in 2024 we’re still trying to explain: what does Burning Man (not just “Black Rock City,” but “Burning Man” as a culture) have to offer the world? What’s the point? 

There is an answer. But it’s not the simple, “we make widgets” or “we build buildings” or “we solve racism” or “we disprove capitalism” kind of answer that people are looking for. The kind of answer that funders and grant makers are looking for. Burning Man doesn’t work that way. Which — and this is the point — is what makes it so important in the world. The world needs more institutions, more cultures, that don’t work that way.

Let’s talk about this.

And I want to start by asking the question: what if Burning Man is pointless? What if it had no practical impact in the world at all? Because that’s where the difference becomes most apparent.

Why Do We Do What We Do?

I’m asking this question seriously, not as a rhetorical device. I mean it. My book on Burning Man philosophy has a chapter called “Burning Man is Pointless.”

So what if it is? What if Burning Man doesn’t achieve or accomplish anything in the world? What does that change for you?

There are a whole lot of things in this world that, if they didn’t achieve something, I would stop doing.

If it turns out that recycling doesn’t help the environment? Screw that, I’m out: the only reason I recycle is to help the environment.

If it turns out that the job that I work for doesn’t actually pay me? Well then, screw that. No paycheck, no work.

If voting didn’t impact any outcomes, either locally or nationally, I wouldn’t do it. In fact, the biggest argument against voting is “it doesn’t change anything.” (I disagree, by the way, but that’s a different discussion). But no one says, “Hey, voting doesn’t change anything but it’s worth doing for its own sake.” That’s not an argument people make. The whole point to voting is that it achieves something in the world. If it didn’t, we wouldn’t.

There are many things in the world like that. We only do them because they get us money, or perks, or impact the world. We do them because they are transactional, and we want what is on the other side of the transaction. But if we could get what we wanted some other way, we would. 

But that’s not the way everything works. There’s a whole other kind of activity in the world that works differently … and Burning Man is a premier example.

Because, look, even if Burning Man doesn’t save the planet? I’d still want to do it. Even if it doesn’t bring peace to the nations of the world? I’d still want to do it. It might not solve racism, but I’m still into it. And I’m sure I’d still benefit from doing it, even if it didn’t have a benefit. 

Burning Man, in other words (and I don’t just mean “Black Rock City,” I mean “Burning Man” as a culture, and kind of cultural activity) is something I do for its own sake. It is an experience I want to have because I want to have it. Even if it doesn’t “achieve” anything. 

There are no conditions attached to that. It’s not a transaction. There’s no “I want to do Burning Man, but only if most participants have a transformative experience.” No “I want to do Burning Man, but only if the people who attend it share my politics.”

Burning Man is something I want to do for the sake of doing it.

End sentence. That’s it. 

This is actually reflected in the 10 Principles themselves, all of which Larry thought of as “unconditional goods” — things that we do because we value them for their own sake, not because there is some problem that we expect them to solve.

Consider: if we live in a world where everybody has enough and no one is lacking for material goods … we would still want to give gifts. There’s not a problem “Gifting” is meant to solve, it’s an activity (and a principle) we value for its own sake. You might not need anything, I might not want anything from you, but I will still delight in giving you a gift.

If we lived in a world (as we might well soon) where all the commercial art and writing is done by machines … where human beings simply can’t make any money off of art, and don’t need to make art to watch new TV or look at new paintings … we would still want to engage in acts of Radical Self-expression. The fact that somebody (or something) else can do it doesn’t mean we don’t want to do it ourselves. Radical Self-expression is something we value for its own sake.

Even if we lived in a world where everything could be done for us, at least some of us — and I think at some level most of us — would want some level of Radical Self-reliance. Even if we didn’t have to, we would want (as the principle says) to “discover, exercise, and rely on (our) inner resources.” Indeed, there are some views of human nature that say we can’t be happy unless we’re doing that. I tend to agree. 

Even if we lived in a world where everyone had a good place to go, we would still want to welcome the stranger … we would still want to be Radically Inclusive. 

Are you seeing the point? The 10 Principles are not things we do because they achieve something, and if that thing is achieved then we will stop doing it. The 10 Principles represent “unconditional goods,” things that we want to do for their own sake, without conditions.

And when you put them together, you get the experience of Burning Man, a culture and set of cultural practices that we engage in for their own sake, because they are worth doing whether the world is a happy place or on fire or fully automated by robot overlords. 

The Benefits of Doing What You Love

One can argue — many people do — that the world has no time for such frivolity! That there are big and important things to do and that if Burning Man doesn’t turn away from this nonsense then it is useless and should be discarded.

And, well, look, I half agree with that. Burning Man, as I’ve said, is pointless. But that’s what makes it so vital. The things that we do for their own sake are arguably the most important things in the world. And in a time where the world is dominated by growth mindsets and Key Performance Indices and every hobby has to be a side-hustle and every moment in life has to be optimized, just doing something for its own sake creates a blessedly different dynamic.

People get something important — I would say crucially important — out of doing things that they love for their own sake. I think it’s a very simple formulation, actually: the more people do what they love, the better they get at loving. And that matters. That matters a lot.

And really, where else in this world are people encouraged to just do what they love? To find their passion in a way that has nothing to do with money or politics and just try it, however silly or eccentric or massive the undertaking? Where else does that happen?

But … and this is the point … you have to give up control. You create an environment, you create opportunities, and then let go of outcomes. You can’t tell people what matters to them. You can’t invite someone to engage in Radical Self-expression and then tell them “when you’re finished, this is what you’re going to express.” You can’t offer someone an experience of Radical Self-reliance and then expect them to slavishly follow your 20-point plan. 

Because it is built out of unconditional goods, Burning Man creates an environment that encourages people, sometimes playfully sometimes roughly, to figure out what is important to them and then do it without any expectation of a transactional benefit. And when you give people an environment that is dedicated to intrinsic motivation, you create an entire different set of opportunities. Great things emerge out of this. Burning Man has inspired people to do disaster relief, support refugee centers, create support for the unhoused, build civic spaces, offer civic art, create education programs … so much good has come out of Burning Man!

It just so happens — and what a lesson for the rest of the world this is — that when intrinsically motivated people have a fun and meaningful time doing something that is important to a community, it often ends up going a lot better than if you put efficiency first. That’s a valuable insight — one that constantly inspires people, year after year.

But not because Burning Man told people what they had to do. It never lectured them to do good. It didn’t tell them what was supposed to matter to them. It gave people an opportunity to do things for their own sake. And that helped them discover what they wanted to do. It was about their passions all along.

But it only “works” because it can’t possibly “work.” Burning Man is an engine of possibility because it has no point. It’s what we do for its own sake that matters. Because Burning Man didn’t tell them what to be passionate about, there was plenty of room for their own passions. At which point, once you start doing that, it’s no longer pointless, but “pointful,” supersaturated with meaning and purpose.

The Perils of a Polarized World

That’s what Burning Man has to offer the world. Another kind of culture. A whole different approach to what it means to be in the world. One that, frankly, a whole lot of us like better. It’s not perfect, it’s not a utopia, and it doesn’t aspire to be. It aspires to be what it is: something we do for its own sake. 

And it just so happens that when people do things for their own sake, a whole lot of incidental benefits tend to occur. But they’re not the point. They’re never the point. 

I think the things that we do for their own sake are the most important things in the world. But it’s admittedly hard to put that on a grant application. 

And yet this is, I think, the most honest answer to the question of what Burning Man does that is worth supporting. By creating opportunities for people to do what they want to do for its own sake, Burning Man creates possibilities where none existed before. By removing transactions from those possibilities, Burning Man helps us connect, and find our passions, and get better at love.

The challenge Burning Man faces is that, of course, the world as it is can be fairly hostile to real alternatives — or at least it has significant blind spots to them. My recent forays into talking about Burning Man with people who only know it through the media has suggested that those blind spots have gotten thicker and coarser over the last few years. People have gotten aggressively skeptical again that any good can come from being different.

I think what Burning Man offers is harder to see in an increasingly polarized world, because a polarized world is a transactional world. Instead of welcoming a stranger, or a new idea, a polarized world asks “whose side are you on?” while a culture based on unconditional values avoids false dichotomies. Upon encountering something novel, a polarized world tends to react not with curiosity but with a hostile question: “what are you doing for us?” To which a culture based on unconditional values replies “we’re doing what we love.” A polarized world demands that you do what it says is politically necessary. A culture based on unconditional values does not accept those demands. A polarized world demands that its enemies be defeated or destroyed;  a culture based on unconditional values tries to give everyone reasons to live.  

Polarization isn’t always wrong — sometimes it’s a necessity on some issues. But polarization brings out the worst in us. And we desperately need things that bring out the best in us. Burning Man isn’t guaranteed to bring out the best in any given person … it’s not a one-size-fits-all solution that works for everybody. But it has a remarkable track record, which it achieves precisely because it is a culture where people can listen to the parts of themselves that transactional partisanship demands that they abandon.

Practically speaking, Burning Man has two options. The first is that it can try to adjust what it actually is so that it will be easier to talk about. It can become more transactional so that it becomes more obvious to people who can only think in transactions. 

This is incredibly tempting to people trying to write grants and run fundraising, but it always ends badly. 

The second option is that it can keep trying to come up with new ways to explain what it does, generally by finding new ways for people to experience it. Proving ourselves through doing, again and again, just like we had to do the first time around. Sometimes this fails. But sometimes it works miracles. Which is the point. 

And it’s worth it.


Cover image of “Earth and Beyond” by Karel and Marie Machalek, 2023 (Photo by Jane Hu)

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

8 Comments on “What Does Burning Man Do for the World?

  • Frederick Heim says:

    I read your article with interest. I first heard about Burning man around 2003 from an artist who took her art there and was deeply affected by it. I finally go to go in 2022, and had a hard time explaining to people why I wanted to go (at 73) my new partner was 70 and without reservation said,”Lets do it!”. As Burgins I /we tried not to expect much, I knew We could not see it all, Certainly Covid-19 played a part in it. I got a lot out of it but cannot say exactly what! In the end I’m glad we went, am a little better person for having done it.

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  • Nancy Jo Pucci says:

    Exactly.

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  • Witchy says:

    This makes me wish that I had kept track of all the good things that the Coffee Shop created, just by being itself & operating from a place of love , support, and caring.

    Like, I should have counted the people who left us and went to school and got a degree that they wanted & then got a job in that firms.

    I should have counted the people who left us and started their own businesses and became self-supporting & successful & were finally able to quit their jobs!

    I mean, sure, we used a lot of resources. I get that. Maybe too many resources for what we *actually* produced… That still exists. Resources are finite. Expressions of self in the world of business are not.

    But what if our product wasn’t *ever* coffee? What if coffee was the frame and the stage and the cauldron?

    What if the real product was empowerment and community all along?

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  • John Finn says:

    As Philosophical Director for Coney MacConeface I appreciate your thoughts on doing something for the sake of it. And how difficult that can be to explain at times. With the Coney project there is fun, also depth, the depth seems to be in peoples appreciation rather than anything I can describe. Although it seems we need language for the depth of doing things for the sake of doing.

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  • Surfer Girl 101 says:

    Mr. Caveat! What a piece. Thank you so much!

    My goal for this year was to bring my sister to her first BM, and it would be my third, and she is hesitating so much, and I am trying to convince her. Last night I wrote and wrote and wrote trying to explain BM, the good, the bad, the ups and the downs and surely the description and the answer is always changing, never one certain definition.

    BM is one of the most magical spaces in the planet, if it even is inside this planet. BM opens people’s hearts and minds at a very deep level and I really want to bring her to that space for many of the reasons that you write.

    BM has transformed me and inspires me everyday. It’s so weird to be in the real world, daydreaming about that space / reality and trying to have words to explain it because words and programming in the real world are so plagued with yes, transactions, vices, polarizations.

    The freedom and love I feel when I am biking out there is really hard to explain. It’s so liberating and so pure, and so in the freaking moment that I struggle to describe. The barriers that are broken and bended allow for any human to enter a humbling reality, an ego check in, and then boom, so much magic and happiness.

    Thank you for taking the time to write and describe what BM is and can do for each and every human that visits. Hopefully my sister comes out and is transformed.

    Pura vida,
    Surfer Girl 101

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  • Stuart Mangrum says:

    Well said my friend.

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  • Lara says:

    This: “And in a time where the world is dominated by growth mindsets and Key Performance Indices and every hobby has to be a side-hustle and every moment in life has to be optimized, just doing something for its own sake creates a blessedly different dynamic.”

    I was at a high school graduation and I asked the graduate what he was going to do now that the ceremony was over.

    He answered that he didn’t know what his career would be yet but the next step was college.

    But that’s not what I meant. I meant NOW, as in today, as in to celebrate the moment with his family and/or friends. (He was going to a pool party.)

    It made me kind of sad for him though that that was his default answer.

    I would love to bring him to Burning Man and just let him experience people doing what they want to for no reason other than this:

    “Burning Man creates possibilities where none existed before. By removing transactions from those possibilities, Burning Man helps us connect, and find our passions, and get better at love.”

    More next gen at Burning Man activities and gatherings!

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  • Torrey “Sarge” Smith says:

    Burning Man helped me to rip off the band aid of my old life, and become a company founder instead of an employee making other people’s dreams come true. Burning Man taught me how to swing for the fences, to network, to build teams, and to fundraise. Burning Man taught me ingenuity and perseverance.

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