Dumpster/Fire: Traces of Burning Man

With guiding principles like self-reliance and self-expression, and a focus on an inclusive community of free exchange (decommodified gift economy), the event and culture of Burning Man is a great example of the phenomenon referred to as “contemporary spirituality.” Much of my research is concerned with relationships between religious communities/traditions and the ecological systems with which they interact. Insofar as it involves a massive amount of people (upwards of 80,000) converging on a desert ecosystem (Nevada’s Black Rock Desert) and turning it into a city oriented around the values of contemporary spirituality, the Burning Man event is a good example of the kind of phenomena I study. Basically, I want to understand the environmental ethics of contemporary spirituality, and Burning Man seems like a good case to study.

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Burning Man

People have varying opinions on the Burning Man festival and on Burner culture in general.  Every year, when the time comes for the festival, I’m happy to get an earful of those opinions.  I’ve found it interesting that most of my students live in a countercultural hotspot (San Francisco), yet they have little or nothing to say about Burning Man.  They treat it like it’s just one of the many big arts and music festivals that pervade their cosmopolitan lives.  Some folks don’t care, and other folks don’t even know about it.  My favorite statement this year comes from a friend’s mother, who asked him, “Why are so many people going to Birmingham?”

For the people who debate the value of Burning Man, the religious implications of the event often take center stage, with some deriding Burning Man as a symptom of civilization’s decline or as a New Age or Pagan festival that threatens the future of biblical values, and some praising the festival for cultivating a countercultural desert spirituality not unlike that of the early Christian church.  Here’s a thoughtful article that details the issues in this debate.

I think the festival is neither the decline of civilization nor a spiritual revolution.  It’s more banal than that kind of polarizing debate indicates.  It’s a diverse festival that has, for the most part, integrated well into mainstream society, hence the opinion of so many of my students: it’s just another arts and music festival.  That banality sounds good for Burner culture, making consciousness expansion and personal expression practices of everyday life, not a big deal, not a sensationalized spectacle.

If I were criticizing Burning Man, I would criticize the environmental ethics of the event.  Burning Man espouses the Leave No Trace ethic.  Maybe it’s better than nothing, but it’s stuck in managerial and recreational models of land use, and I’d hope that Burners can come up with something better than the status quo.  What bothers me most about Leave No Trace is that its adherents often claim that they are acting ethically, since they didn’t leave any traces, and that is blatantly false.

There are always traces, marks of our encounters with others.  Think of the carbon footprint of Burning Man: the event happens in a desert to which participants drive or fly, and the whole event is predicated upon burning.  That doesn’t necessarily mean we shouldn’t participate, but it does mean that Leave No Trace leaves a lot of ethical responsibilities unaccounted for or ignored.  Nothing bothers me more than a clean conscience.  I’m against antiseptic morality.  Cornel West’s injunction is pertinent here.  Don’t deodorize the funk!