Is Burning Man Activism?

– by The Shitty Activist

Burning ManFor those who don’t know, Burning Man is a massive shindig in the middle of Nevada’s Black Rock Desert, a sort of modern day bacchanalian festival for those seeking an outlet for repressed energies built up over the course of our humdrum lives.

Art, music, and a sense of community are central to Burning Man. And while sex and drugs aren’t Burning Man’s only draw, they’re obviously a major part of the festivities.

Of course, a party atmosphere doesn’t disqualify an event from being considered a form of activism. In fact, some would argue that activism these days could use more celebration, as was more common in the 1960’s. However, while the 60’s counterculture indulged in a lot of sex and drugs, they were also out protesting the Vietnam War, fighting racial and gender inequality, and speaking up on environmental issues.

While Burning Man seems to embody the hippie aesthetic when in its vibrant costumes, creative body decorations, and encouragement of sensual pleasures, the hippie ethic of changing the world seems not to be as well represented.

Now, there’s nothing wrong with partying. But seeking stimulation isn’t the same thing as activism. When fraternities and sororities throw a kegger, they’re not under the illusion that they’re doing anything but blowing off some steam and having a good time.

What about Burning Man’s dedication attention to artistry? If you’re a burner yourself or are friends with any, you know how much time is spent planning camps, decorating vehicles and bicycles, creating art installations, and costuming, hairstyling, body painting, and accessorizing oneself. Art that seeks to send a message can be a form of activism. And while there are definitely some examples of activist art at Burning Man, much of the art seems less to be about making changing the world, and more about psychedelic spectacle and eroticism. Both great things, mind you, but are they activism?

Burning Man’s gifting economy – you’re not supposed to sell any goods, just trade – is probably the most activisty part of the event, a novel effort to prevent the rampant commercialism of most other festivals. Unfortunately this effort is somewhat compromised by the $400 ticket price and limited availability. Rainbow Gatherings remain an alternate example of a festival that seeks to shun money, where admission is still free.

While some burners may disagree (and I’d love to hear your opinions in the comments), I’d have to argue that it’d be a stretch to consider Burning Man a form of activism. But that in no way takes away from the event itself, which is a unique and extraordinary experience.

The only problem with Burning Man is when people tell themselves that attending the desert fest equals doing their part to make the world a better place. Imagine if the amount of time, energy, and money burners spent on preparing camps, embellishing cars and bikes, and dressing themselves up as scantily-clad Mad Maxes–all for a week of giddy debauchery–was focused on their own communities.

Instead of a temporary rave, burners could cultivate land to grow food, start sustainable businesses, launch activist campaigns, and experiment with new ways to live in balance with one another and the Earth.

Perhaps if more of us invested the effort in improving our actual day-to-day existences we wouldn’t feel the need to play-act a fantasy as a mere simulation of what it might be like to feel whole. Instead of pretending to be someone else for a week, we could truly transform ourselves and our communities into something more conscious, more satisfying, and ultimately, more real.

By all means, go to Burning Man, whether it’s for the first time or the fifteenth. But when you get back home, consider directing those creative and celebratory energies beyond just a flash in the pan party, into long-term, place-based evolution.

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