Burn it all down
Rituals are important. So is knowing when they should end.
The memes relentlessly flooded social media: Burning Man was a disaster, and people were loving it. Few things seem to unite blue checks and progressives as their mutual disdain for Burners and everything the spectacle represents.
I understand the sentiment, though I can’t write off the ritual. Humans crave meaning, and that quest is often expressed through the communion of gathering. As a two-time attendee, I recognize the value in festivals. I wouldn’t go so far as to claim they’re “transformative” (as many modern spiritual-oriented festivals market themselves), but they certainly can provide a shared sense of meaning.
Yet—on my very first evening at Burning Man in 2007, taking my first three-sixty on the Playa, it hit me that this entire ecologically-minded festival (the theme was “The Green Man”) was powered by fossil fuels.
I’m not going to pretend it wasn’t an incredible experience, though when I returned six years later (theme, again fitting: cargo cults), the environment seemed off. Not the desert itself, though as many have pointed out, that too is an issue:
And when that rainfall lands on the 4,000-acre dry lake bed that hosts Burning Man, it causes problems. The ground underfoot “consists of the sort of soil that easily creates a layer of mud when you add enough water,” says Mann. Campers know that: The launch of the event was delayed in late August because of rainfall from Hurricane Hilary. And research shows that the Black Rock playa, where Burning Man is based, turns into a mud bath in winter months when rain traditionally falls, “making the central portions almost entirely inaccessible for recreation.”
Beyond the increasingly frenetic weather patterns, the camaraderie at the festival had changed. Some camps were invite-only. Freedom to wander was limited. More alcohol, less MDMA, in spirit and practice. I found myself more insular, less engaged, less interested. I’m sure others had the time of their lives, though my observation has been repeated by more experienced Burners.
Some 2023 attendees will cherish their radical self-reliance in the face of adversity (even as they leave behind record amounts of trash, counter to the founding ethos of the festival). Despite the environmental conditions—for some, because of them—this festival will leave a permanent emotional imprint.
Still, it’s time to leave this ritual behind.
Burning Man generates about 100,000 tons of carbon dioxide. That’s more than about 22,000 gas-powered cars produce in a year.
Festival organizers plan to severely reduce that imprint by 2030. Maybe even become carbon-neutral. Such claims are hard to take seriously given the air and land travel required to get to Black Rock City. Requiring that attendees … what, all buy electric vehicles? … seems antithetical to the organization’s libertarian underpinnings. Even if they cancel pyrotechnics and blow the man over with a windmill there’s no way to curb the massive amounts of energy required to arrive to the desert, packing in all those supplies that were inevitably produced and shipped from elsewhere.
Yet this year was truly something to behold, even from the distance of this screen. Climate protestors being dragged away by police and the mud-strewn garbage pit the desert has become provide images we can, and very much should, heed as a warning that it’s time to create new, less destructive rituals.
I still believe rituals are necessary for the wellbeing of individuals and societies.
It’s just that this one has run its course.