What Happens at Burning Man: The Good and the Bad
Every year, tens of thousands of people converge in the Nevada desert. Under a sweltering sun, and during the freezing nights, they enjoy a week of community, art, counterculture, free expression, and celebration of identity. The party culminates in a symbolic burning of a large wooden effigy, after which all the attendees meticulously clean up after themselves. Then they return to their normal lives, with 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 literal orgy of wanton sexual encounters and substance abuse.1 The two perspectives may seem dichotomous, but that tension could be the best representation of what the Burning Man gathering is, and what it represents to people who partake and to people who don’t get it. What happens at Burning Man – both the good and the bad – can seem confusing and exciting, dangerous and liberating, and everything all at once.
The Basics of Burning Man
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 70,000-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 (or, in the parlance of the event, gifted). At Burning Man, everything is gifted, from the design materials used to construct encampments and stages, to the whiskey bars, food gardens, and workshops; from the many art installations, to a bike tent set up on the desert floor by a team of mechanics who offer free repairs on brakes, chains, and anything else that needs work. Everything you would find in Black Rock City is gifted, free of charge, by one or more attendees.
Marian Goodell, a founding board member and CEO of Burning Man Project, tells The Guardian that the “radical self-reliance” of everyone at Burning Man looking out for each other is the spirit that drives the event.2
Perhaps the best example of this is the directive to “leave no trace.” At the conclusion of Burning Man, attendees scour the ground for trash and debris – both their own and whatever is left behind by other so-called “Burners.” There are no trashcans in Black Rock City, so Burners take everything they brought with them. Marian Goodell explains that the practice “changes the way you look at litter, yourself, and what you’re bringing into the world.”
Burning Man and the Real World
A writer at The Huffington Post explains that after Burning Man, 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.”3
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.
This helps people who go to Burning
Man relate to each other on a more authentic level than they do in that real world, Marian Goodell says. Devoid of the trappings of luxury and comfort, everybody comes to rely on one another, and 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.
Simply put, Burning Man encourages (one might even say that it forces) Burners to be nice to each other and to be nice to the world at large. A mass of people coming together in the middle of a desert, at the height of summer, may have no choice but to look out for each other’s best interests.
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 Atlanticwrites that the event is the busiest time of the year for Reno-Tahoe International Airport, more so than Thanksgiving, Christmas, or the 4th of July.
The airport, which is the biggest point of entry for people flying into Nevada, receives a very healthy boost from the 70,000 people – as many as the Bureau of Land Management will allow on the playa, the dry lake bed that makes up Black Rock Desert – who load up on supplies and resources before they head out into the desert (and who avail themselves of the facilities and services upon their return).
Every year, writes The Atlantic, Reno-Tahoe International Airport makes $10 million from Burners. Gas stations and grocery stores around the airport, and on the way to Black Rock Desert, sell out of bottled water, hats, duct tape, and other resources that Burners would need to thrive and survive in the arid conditions. The local transportation industry also enjoys the show, as tens of thousands of people buy or rent bikes, motorhomes, or big trucks to not only haul their art projects and displays to and from the event, but also to simply traverse Black Rock City, an encampment so big that it has its own streets. Even as the Daily Mail writes of the “24-hour delights of America’s most hedonistic festival,” the publication nonetheless praises the “meticulous planning that goes into building the city” every single year, with numerous roads and streets that stretch out for miles.4
The state of Nevada sees Burning Man-related transactions totaling $35 million every year. In 2013, 66 percent attendees reported expenses in excess of $250 to and from that year’s festival – 18 percent spent over $1,000.5 And despite the expected complaints about prices, Burning Man’s popularity is a long way away from declining. In 2015, 40,000 tickets were sold in an hour, causing hackers to try and cut in line (they were caught, and their ticket orders cancelled).6 For the 2016 event, 30,000 tickets (each costing $390, before taxes and fees) were sold within 30 minutes.7
CNBC explains that 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 partake for free, and the ritual burning of “the Man” became the totemistic finale. Now, Burners pay as much as $380 to Black Rock City, LLC, the organization that manages Burning Man (and which has Larry Harvey as its executive director), to attend the gathering.8 The event has attracted the attention of tech entrepreneurs and businessmen like Amazon.com founder and CEO Jeff Bezos, Google cofounder Larry Page, and Facebook CEO Mark Zuckerberg – who, in 2012, flew in on a helicopter, pitched a tent, handed out some sandwiches, and helicoptered away, all in one day.9
Burning Man has attracted a great deal of mainstream and establishment interest (much to the chagrin of long-time Burners), but the “anything goes” reputation still makes it a source of controversy.12 The Verge refers to Burning Man as a “drug-addled” event; in an article about the “debauchery in the desert” (featuring “orgy tents”), the Daily Mail writes of “hallucinogenic drugs on tap” that compels Burners to dance the night away on top of the famed “mutant vehicles” – while completely naked.13, 14 The Huffington Post writer relates that when he tried to rent a car to take him to Burning Man, an employee at the rental agency expressed his belief that the event was “just a lot of naked people running around on drugs.”
Another Daily Mail article reports that the FBI has been using Burning Man events to test prototype intelligence collection technologies. The FBI says that most significant threats presented by the “cultural and artisan event” are concerns of crowd control and of illegal drug use by Burners.15
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 easier to find than Halloween candy on October 31. Nonetheless, the writer of the Times piece says that his week at Burning Man was one of the best experiences of his life.16
However, a writer for Mashable angrily refutes the claim that drugs are widespread at Burning Man. That idea, says the Mashable 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. The Ionia Sentinel-Standard clarifies that possession of marijuana for recreational purposes (that is, without a medical recommendation) is illegal in Nevada, but people found with small amounts of cannabis will not be arrested.17, 18
Less Nudity, Plenty of Drugs
Notwithstanding Mashable’s passionate refutation of The New York Times article’s dismissive claims of drugs at Burning Man, the event has made news for Burners finding themselves on the wrong side of drug laws. The Reno Gazette-Journal reports that at the 2014 edition, local deputies and agents of the Bureau of Land Management (who are responsible for law enforcement at Black Rock City) arrested four people for narcotics violations. In 2015, some arrests were made even before that year’s Burning Man officially started. Tom Bjerke, the Pershing County Undersheriff told the Gazette-Journal that most of the arrests are for reasons of possession of controlled substances. He commented that a majority of the attendees arrested because of drugs “made a life mistake,” and opined that their actions did not tarnish the reset of the festival.
Espousing a relatively modern law enforcement approach to minor drug use, Bjerke said that between the choice of arresting someone or issuing a citation, it is usually more prudent to issue a citation. Nonetheless, Bjerke fully anticipated making more arrests as Burning Man progressed.19
To that point, News4Nevada reports that there is “less nudity [and] plenty of drugs at Burning Man.” Speaking to both Bjerke and Pershing County Sheriff Jerry Allen, News4Nevada writes that by the conclusion of the 2015 Burning Man, many attendees received citations for minor amounts of drug possession; and, confirming Bjerke’s predictions, a large number of Burners were arrested for possessing greater amounts of drugs and were driven from Black Rock City to county jails, over 100 miles away.20
Like Bjerke, Sheriff Allen pointed out that law enforcement’s job was not to stop the party (or to “bust everybody that’s naked”), but instead to ensure that illegal and restricted drugs do not make it to Black Rock City, and that disruptive and dangerous behavior is curtailed. Police officers were called on to assist emergency medical personnel in controlling belligerent drug users in need of sedatives to counteract the effects of whatever substances they were on when they were apprehended.
A Surprisingly Sober Affair
But despite the hysteria from publications that called Burning Man “America’s most hedonistic festival,” Allen felt comfortable that crime is not a problem at Burning Man. The majority of festivalgoers are law-abiding citizens looking to have fun and enjoy a unique gathering with likeminded people.
In that way, Allen says, 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.
As The Huffington Post writer says, 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.21 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.
Whether ironically or not, the image Vice chose for their article on “How Burning Man Culture Changed Festivals Around the World” shows two near-naked women on bicycles in the middle of the desert.22
Crime and Burning Man
Nonetheless, the numbers tell their own story. While Burning Man 2014 resulted in four drug citations, Burning Man 2015 saw over 126 citations.
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.23
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.
The MDMA Party
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, depending on the chemical variations, the Substance Abuse Rehabilitation journal explains that MDMA gives users an experience of euphoria and reduced inhibitions, and creates a sense of emotional closeness with those around them.24 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 is illegal to own and use for recreational or medical purposes because of the high likelihood of users developing physical and psychological dependence on the substance.25, 26
Law and the Man
If there are people who are going to make “bad life choices” at Burning Man, and if there are police officers to step in when they do, then there are lawyers who ensure that those people’s rights are protected. Lawyers for Burners is a group based in Reno that has represented Burning Man attendees for decades. On a yearly basis, the organization works with federal prosecutors to reduce charges for around 60 defendants every year.
Federal prosecutors may be easier to appease than state attorneys since, as The New York Times reports, Nevada has sizeable mandatory jail sentences for drug possession of even minute amounts (when the police decide to arrest, instead of simply citing). However, like the police, judges are not inclined to rule too harshly against Burners.27
One case being handled by Lawyers for Burners is that of 35-year-old Pamela Jenkins, who was arrested at the start of the 2015 Burning Man. A sniffer dog alerted police at a traffic stop outside Black Rock City, where officers found “significant quantities” of psilocybin and DMT (another psychedelic drug) in Jenkins’s car. Among the many charges Jenkins faces, she could be found guilty of Level 3 drug trafficking, a felony with a sentence of 25 years to life in prison. The severity is also due to Jenkins’s 7-year-old daughter being in the car with her and the drugs at the time.
Better Human Beings
The Jenkins case highlights the curious position in which police and law enforcement find themselves when it comes to Burning Man, an event that appears to flout many conventions of normal behavior and civilized society, but that is not inherently lawless (although it often finds itself at a tenuous crossroads). A spokesman for the Bureau of Land Management said that the official policy of the bureau is for agents to accept invitations from Burners to participate in Burning Man activities, as long as the behavior is “appropriate to the uniform.” One BLM officer went so far as to join a performance art exhibit on the topic of bad advice; he spent his shift encouraging Burners to do drugs.
It’s humorous, but on the other side of the story are people like Pamela Jenkins, who released a statement through Lawyers for Burners that she never meant to break the law or endanger her child; only that she, her friends, and her family go to Burning Man to “awaken [their] consciousness and become better human beings.”
Being Sober at the Burn
A sober Burner – they do exist – says the gathering is “probably the slipperiest place on the planet” for someone looking to avoid the temptation of indulging in their every indulgence. 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, Vicewrites that Burning Man (and the dozens of worldwide festivals it has spawned) represents “the ultimate departure from reality.”
But The Fix explains that 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.
Burning Man itself offers resources for abstinent Burners, such as offering suggestions on how to stay safe during the climactic burning of the Man at the end of the festival: stay close to sober friends and supporters, as it’s very easy to get lost and disoriented in a crowd of over 50,000 people raucously celebrating the end of the event. Such advice is good form for anyone looking to stay clean in a high-pressure environment; it is exceptionally pertinent for a situation like the conclusion of Burning Man.
Surviving and Thriving at Burning Man
The strange dichotomy of the organizers of a festival so beloved by recreational substance users (a site called “High Existence” has a list of “25 Reasons Why You MUST Go to Burning Man Once in Your Life”) also having space for sober people to find friends and support is an appropriate summary of the gathering.28 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 to (as they see it) broaden their minds and perceptions. 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. 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; and have a healthy frame of mind to go with the experience.29 In that way, Burning Man – for all the crazy art exhibitions; for all the sex and drinking and partying and music; for the new ways of looking at the world; for the friendship and connections that can be made; for the watchful eye of police and the federal government; for the blistering heat, freezing nights, and sandstorms; and for the 70,000 people coming together to burn down “The Man” – for all of those things and for so much more, Burning Man can feel like home.
- “’I’m Not a Virgin Anymore’: The Best Overheard Quotes From Burning Man 2013.” (September 2013). OC Weekly. Accessed April 22, 2016.
- “Burning Man Chief: “It Helps People Connect More Authentically.” (April 2016). The Guardian. Accessed April 24, 2016.
- “The Truth About Burning Man.” (November 2009). The Huffington Post. Accessed April 25, 2016.
- “Burners Feel the Heat: Black Rock City Festival Gets Into Full Swing As Crowds Experience the 24-hours Delight of America’s Most Hedonistic Festival.” (September 2015). Daily Mail. Accessed April 24, 2016.
- “The Wonderful, Weird Economy of Burning Man.” (August 2014). The Atlantic. Accessed April 24, 2016.
- “Hackers Cut In Line at the Burning Man Ticket Sale — and Get Caught.” (February 2015). Wired. Accessed April 26, 2016.
- “Burning Man Sells Out 30,000 Tickets in Half-Hour.” (March 2016). Reno Gazette-Journal. Accessed April 26, 2016.
- “Burning Man Ablaze in Nevada Desert.” (August 2015). CNN. Accessed April 24, 2016.
- “The Booming Business Behind Burning Man.” (August 2014). CNBC. Accessed April 24, 2016.
- “Mark Zuckerberg Helicoptered into Burning Man for One Day.” (September 2013). The Huffington Post. Accessed April 24, 2016.
- “Burning Man, Bigger? Attendance May Grow.” (April 2015). Reno Gazette-Journal. Accessed April 24, 2016.
- “Burning Man Too Big? Division in Nev. Desert.” (February 2012). AZCentral.com. Accessed April 24, 2016.
- “Burning Man Is So Anti-Capitalist It’s Threatening to Sue Quizno’s for Mocking the Festival.” (September 2015). The Verge. Accessed April 24, 2016.
- “Debauchery in the Desert: Wife-swapping. Orgy Tents. Drugs on Tap. How Billionaires and Hollywood Stars are Flocking to a Festival that Makes Glasto look SO Tame.” (August 2014). Daily Mail. Accessed April 24, 2016.
- “Undercover FBI Agents Spy On Burning Man Festival To Prevent “Terrorism” And Test Out New “Intelligence Collection” Technology.” (September 2015). Daily Mail. Accessed April 24, 2016.
- “A Line is Drawn in the Desert.” (August 2014). The New York Times. Accessed April 24, 2016.
- “The Word on Weed: A Look at Marijuana Laws Around the U.S. and the Globe.” (April 2016). Ionia Sentinel-Standard. Accessed April 25, 2016.
- “Burning Man Isn’t What You Think, And Never Has Been.” (August 2014). Mashable. Accessed April 25, 2016.
- “Expect More Burning Man Arrests, Pershing Official Says.”(September 2015). Reno Gazette-Journal. Accessed April 25, 2016.
“Less Nudity, Plenty of Drugs At Burning Man.” (September 2015). News4Nevada. Accessed April 25, 2016/.
- “Burning Man! A Sober Guide to the World’s Hottest Party.” (April 2011). The Fix. Accessed April 25, 2016.
- “How Burning Man Culture Changed Festivals Around the World.” (March 2016). Vice. Accessed April 26, 2016.
- “Arrests at Burning Man 2015 Up 600 Percent From Previous Year.” (September 2015). Your EDM.Accessed April 25, 2016.
- “3,4-methylenedioxymethamphetamine (MDMA): Current Perspectives.” (2013). Substance Abuse Rehabilitation. Accessed April 25, 2016.
- “Molly Isn’t Who You Think It Is: A Deeper Look at MDMA.” (July 2015). Playboy. Accessed April 25, 2016.
- “Methylenedioxymethamphetamine (MDMA, Ecstasy).” (n.d.) National Highway Traffic Safety Administration. Accessed April 25, 2016.
- “Burning Man Ends, and an Event for Law Enforcement Begins.” (September 2015). The New York Times. Accessed April 25, 2016.
- “25 Reasons Why You MUST Go To Burning Man At Least Once In Your Life.” (n.d.) HighExistence. Accessed April 26, 2016.
- “Burning Man: Inside the Bizarre Annual Festival in the Nevada Desert.” (August 2015). AOL. Accessed April 26, 2016.