The Dark Side of Burning Man
Okay, lets start with and quickly dismiss the most obvious points. Burning Man is completely unsustainable. Even the significant efforts of the Alternative Energy Zone sustainable energy theme camp do very little to mitigate the huge ecological footprint of the camp. Does this event use more power than a nuclear aircraft carrier (which supports 1/10 the population) ? No it certainly uses less, but we are an even longer way away from the discussion about a sustainable military. If sustainability is your personal primary objective, you can bail on this post here.
The place is dirty with cops. My last visit to BM in 2009 was ruined by the police busting in and busting people in our camp almost all these charges were dropped in the end, after tremendous hassle. One of the design constraints of the Transformus regional Burning Man event is that it had to be fewer than 2000 people, so they could have their own security, rather than the police from outside. The 50,000 plus person event in the Nevada desert does not have this luxury and correspondingly there are police of all different stripes at the event, spying, entrapping and otherwise ruining the event which is not running over anyone elses rights. There is this scary acceptance at BM that the police are there and nothing can be done about them. To me in this Burning Man has given up its political power and said “We need to integrate the police state into our party.” There are dozens of things either organizers or participants could do to reduce the police presence at the event, these things are not being done. The wikipedia entry on BM gives a very low number of arrests and citations in the hundreds, but this does not include the Nevada State police arrests, which is a much higher and unreported number.
BM is sexist. Okay, it is much more complex than this. There are lots of women taking organizing and leading roles in this event, including lots of women doing very serious construction work and getting seen and appreciated for it. Burning Man is also a liberated zone, where women can go topless should they want to and it is not a very big deal. And the stereotypical beauty models and the objectification of womens bodies runs pretty fierce thru the camp. There is a bit too much of a frat party feel to Burning Man for my tastes. The type of partying which happens at BM does not lead me to believe it has a good consent culture.
Burning Man is classist. The tickets run between $240 and $420, plus the location necessitates travel, housing and food expenses which are significant. Add ot this the cost of costumes, art cars and their registration, desert protective gear and so on. And of course, no one is requiring you to go to this remote expensive event. But because it is so pricey, the people who go represent not the 1%, but certainly a more affluent class. Funologically, BM is often contrasted to the Rainbow Gathering, which is also often remote, but has free admission and a much more generous internal culture in which all kitchens give food to all comers. Part of the magic of BM is the spirit and generosity of the event, and there is a way it can go to be more inclusive, especially of less affluent participants.
Burning Man Inc. Burning Man is a big company with uses lots of volunteers to make money for themselves. Certainly millions gets turned around into art projects and critical infrastructure. But BM advances a DIY effort, it is the ultimate crowd sourcing event. I wonder if BM were more like the Rainbow Gathering, if they would keep sticking with this piece of desert which costs them $1 million/year – but really less than a month of the year casts that over half a million, there has to be an equivalently wonderful piece of desert (perhaps privately owned) which costs less. But even more important than the land, there is something slightly problematic for me about this basically anarchist organized event has a bunch of paid staff making decisions about the event some of which are irreversible. The latest fiasco around this is the problem with getting tickets, Bureau of Land Management which rents the site restricts BM to about 50K tickets, now that the event is regularly selling out how to fairly distribute the tickets if hugely problematic. BM Inc is bad for democracy.