What Happens at Burning Man: The Good and the Bad

Every year, tens of thousands of people converge in the Nevada desert to  enjoy a week of community, art, counterculture, free expression, and celebration of identity. The event culminates in a symbolic burning of a large wooden effigy, after which all the attendees meticulously clean up after themselves before returning to their everyday lives, leaving no discernible trace of their presence. This is the essence of the Burning Man festival.

The event has been called a beacon of hope for humanity and a spiritual journey, and a festival full of the usual hedonistic trappings you might expect, like drugs and alcohol. What happens at Burning Man – both the good and the bad – can seem confusing and exciting, dangerous and liberating, and everything all at once.

What Is Burning Man?

The first Burning Man event took place in 1986, when an artist named Larry Harvey and a friend built, and burned, an 8-foot-tall figure on a beach in San Francisco for that year’s Summer Solstice. Over the next four years, more and more people came out to watch the now-annual event, until local authorities expressed their concerns about the large masses and the fire hazard caused by the burning man-like figure made of wicker. The festival moved to the desert, where a few hundred people turned up to participate in the festival where the ritual burning of “the Man” became the totemistic finale.

Today, Burning Man takes place every year in Nevada’s Black Rock Desert. Specifically, it takes place in Black Rock City, a temporary community erected by the 80,000-strong crowd who construct the gathering’s infrastructure with their own tools and equipment. Barring coffee and ice, nothing is sold at Burning Man; every transaction of material goods and services is bartered, traded, or gifted. Everything you would find in Black Rock City is free of charge, a gift from one or more attendees.

Burning Man’s multi-decade success is largely rooted in its 10 Principles:

  1. Radical inclusion (everyone is welcome).
  2. Gifting.
  3. Decommodification (no advertising, corporate sponsorships, transactions, or commercial exploitation).
  4. Radical self-reliance.
  5. Radical self-expression.
  6. Communal effort, cooperation and collaboration.
  7. Civic responsibility.
  8. Leaving no trace (respect for the environment).
  9. Participation.
  10. Immediacy (no idea can replace the value of experience).

Marian Goodell, a founding board member and CEO of Burning Man Project says that the “radical self-reliance” of everyone at Burning Man looking out for each other is the spirit that drives the event.1

Burning Man Beyond Black Rock City

People who go to Burning Man tend to relate to each other on a more authentic level than they do in that real world, Marian Goodell says. At an event that is devoid of the trappings of luxury and comfort, everybody comes to rely on one another. In the same way they take their trash back with them, they take their skills and lessons with them as well. Goodell speaks of Burners who get involved in community work, such as volunteering in soup kitchens and disaster relief, as a result of their experiences at Black Rock City.

An event promoter who put together his own festival modeled after Burning Man explains the gathering resonates with so many people because the “real world” encourages hard work and greater accumulation of material goods, but offers no answers, no meaning, and doesn’t enrich and fulfill people’s existences.

One writer observed that after Burning Man, some people change their names, their professions, and even their entire lives, because what they experience at Burning Man expands their horizons to the extent that their existences in the outside world seem pale by comparison. The event, says the writer, makes Burners “question the assumptions […] about how we’re supposed to live our lives.”2

Debauchery in the Desert?

Burning Man has attracted a great deal of mainstream and establishment interest, but the “anything goes” reputation still makes it a source of controversy.3 Plenty of news outlets have reported on the “debauchery in the desert” which includes the likes of “hallucinogenic drugs on tap” that compels Burners to dance the night away on top of the famed “mutant vehicles” – while completely naked.4,5

The New York Times says that the public perception of “50,000 stoned, half-naked hippies” being representative of Burning Man is mostly accurate. Drugs are “technically illegal,” but are readily available. Nonetheless, the writer of the Times piece says that his week at Burning Man was one of the best experiences of his life.6

However, a writer for Mashable angrily refutes the claim that drugs are widespread at Burning Man. That idea, says the writer, is what causes naive Burners to get arrested in Black Rock City; for how out-of-this-world Burning Man is and claims to be, it is still subject to federal and Nevada state law.7

Burning Man Is a Sober Affair

But despite the hysteria from publications that called Burning Man “America’s most hedonistic festival,” crime is not a problem at Burning Man. The majority of festival-goers are law-abiding citizens looking to have fun and enjoy a unique gathering with likeminded people.

In that way Black Rock City is no different than any other community in the outside world. There will always be troublemakers who have the potential of ruining the experience for everyone else, and whose crimes and excesses are what get the most media coverage.

The “very, very liberal” culture of Black Rock City encourages people who are inclined to take their clothes off and get high to do just that, and those are the Burners who make for the most scandalous and condemnatory stories about Burning Man.

The people who don’t indulge their desires – and The Fix reports that there is a small, but strong, community of sober Burners – don’t make for titillating headlines.8 It’s a point made by an eight-time veteran of Burning Man, who told Vice that the festival is the victim of an image problem perpetuated by inaccurate or misrepresentative myths. The reality, he says, is that Burning Man is “more of a sober affair” and would surprise a lot of people.

Is Burning Man Big Business?

Despite the massive crowds, elaborate artwork, and trendy music, commercial transactions are not how things are done at Burning Man. Nonetheless, Burning Man is big business. The event has attracted the attention of tech entrepreneurs and businessmen like Amazon.com founder Jeff Bezos, Google cofounder Larry Page, and Facebook CEO Mark Zuckerberg. Despite its ethos of decommodification, it is not uncommon to find the likes of Silicon Valley millionaires and social media influencers setting up super luxury camps and hosting elaborate swag-filled parties.

During its formative years Burning Man was a free festival, but as it has grown so has the cost.  Today, the average Burner will pay $725 (the cost of the ticket, plus car pass fee) to Black Rock City, LLC, the organization that manages Burning Man to attend the gathering.9 Some Burners can pay upwards of $2750 for a single ticket. However, most of the revenue that Black Rock City takes in goes to running the business of Burning Man (e.g., permits, rentals, etc.),  salaries, and charitable giving.

Crime at Burning Man

Overall, there was a 600 percent increase in arrests at the 2015 event over 2014, which is nearly more than in the five previous years put together. Your EDM writes that in 2015, “trafficking of a controlled substance” was the cause for arrest for a majority of people at that year’s Burning Man. The second most frequently used charge for arrest was possession of a controlled substance for the purpose of distribution.10

News4Nevada had no details of sexual assault, but many unconfirmed reports of such crimes were made. Allen and his deputies arrested 21 people for charges ranging from domestic violence, to battery, to assaults with deadly weapons.

MDMA and Burning Man

Undersheriff Bjerke told News4Nevada that while the numbers of domestic violence or sexual assaults were down, there was a rise in the instances of use and apprehension of controlled substances, particularly MDMA, LSD, and psilocybin.

The use of a dangerous drug like MDMA at a Burning Man event is not surprising. Also known as ecstasy or Molly,  MDMA gives users an experience of euphoria and reduced inhibitions, and creates a sense of emotional closeness with those around them.11 This has made the drug (and its derivations) very popular among people who frequent nightclubs, since the atmosphere of music, expression, and openness in dance clubs is exactly what makes MDMA such a popular substance among that crowd. For that reason, it is also of interest to Burners who are willing to break the law.

As a Schedule I drug, MDMA has no currently accepted medical uses, and has a known risk for misuse and addiction. Possession or use of MDMA is illegal.12,13

Addiction Recovery at Burning Man

A Burner in recovery says the gathering is “probably the slipperiest place on the planet” for someone looking to avoid the temptation of indulging in their every whim. Such people should stay very far away, he says, because the free alcohol, free drugs, and free sex will make Burning Man an extremely difficult place to be. Indeed, Vice writes that Burning Man represents “the ultimate departure from reality.”

Burning Man also offers many activities that would be of interest to people in recovery or for people who are looking for healthier pursuits: yoga, massages, hobby workshops, creative outlets, and even 12-Step meetings. In the same way that Burning Man encourages people who are inclined towards hedonistic and impulsive behavior to follow their urges, attendees who want to enjoy the experience with a clear head will find a space to do that.[/callout]

Burning Man itself offers resources for abstinent Burners and individuals in recovery. According to its page, “Sober on Playa” the sober community at Burning Man is growing. Tips include:

  • If you follow a 12-step program, review The Big Book and talk to your sponsor before you go.
  • Make time to get to extra meetings, especially in the lead-up to attending a festival.
  • Make sure that people staying at your camp know about keeping your space alcohol-and-drug-free. Or feel free to move to one of the many sober camps on site.
  • Attend meetings while in Black Rock City. There are over 10 daily 12-step meetings on the playa.
  • Remember to eat.
  • Develop a routine while at the Burn. Things like heading to Center Camp, finding workshops or classes, or volunteering can be helpful.

Surviving and Thriving at Burning Man

The strange dichotomy of the organizers of a festival so beloved by recreational substance users also having space for people in recovery to find friends and support is an appropriate summary of the gathering.14 Burning Man is many things to many people. For some, the event is a sanctuary for art, music, expression, and creativity; for others, Burning Man represents a ground for chemical and/or sexual experimentation. And for yet others, Burning Man can be a celebration of their sober identity, writing a vivid and unconventional chapter of their life in recovery.

As with any event of the size and scale of Burning Man, standard precautions should be taken:15

  • Do a lot of reading and research before the trip.
  • Go with trusted friends and family members.
  • Know what to expect, but be prepared for challenges and surprises.
  • Have fun.
  • Maintain a healthy frame of mind to go with the experience.

In that way, Burning Man – for all the crazy art exhibitions, experiences, music, and new ways of looking at the world — Burning Man can feel like home.

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