Finding a Good Society in the Mud of Burning Man

Humans Are Human—And Governments Need to Help Them Achieve Self-Reliance and Avoid Panic in the Face of Disaster

When torrential rains and mud befell this year’s Burning Man, many fled. Policy researcher Micah Weinberg stuck around, and pondered what the event can teach us about compassion, community, and governing wisely. Courtesy of Cory Doctorow/Flickr (CC BY-SA 2.0).

Since leaving Burning Man, I’ve spent a lot of time thinking about the role that principles play in a society, and what to do when people don’t live up to them.

Burning Man attracts more than 70,000 people each Labor Day weekend to an inhospitable dry lakebed called “the Playa” in northwestern Nevada. Burners marvel at incredible art installations, boogie to electronic dance music, and create and engage in hundreds of different participatory experiences at camps with a staggering variety of themes. These activities range from walking the catwalk after picking out a new (free) outfit at a pop-up thrift store to hanging from bungees attached to a geodesic dome.

But this year, there was another unexpected activity: waiting out two-and-a-half days of rain and the thick mud it formed on the Playa’s surface. News networks ran breathless stories about how the participants were “trapped,” and interviewed people who fled instead of listening to the requests to stay until the lakebed dried out again.

What really happened, and what lessons can we draw from it given that the event is trying to create a particular type of culture?

The non-profit organization that runs Burning Man was chartered in 2011 to better manage the event, and promote its principles throughout the year. It is very clear about its theory of a good government for society, and that vision is basically libertarian. Among its 10 key principles are “radical self-reliance” and “community effort.” Many of the other principles have to do with the event itself, including a focus on its gifting economy, the immediacy of experiences people have there, and leaving no trace of participants’ presence on the Playa.

For those of us who take these principles seriously, the two days of mud were simply a challenge to be embraced and overcome, even enjoyed. “You get the Burn that you need,” a common saying about the experience goes. The vast majority of people who came this year took the opportunity of the massive rainstorms to connect more closely with their campmates, to create clever art from the mud, and/or to keep on partying their faces off through the deluge.

There’s a growing contingent at Burning Man of newer folks, though, who seem to see it as another version of the Coachella music festival—even though it is held in a patch of desert that might be the most inhospitable place for human life in the lower 48 American states.

I ran into two such party people as the storms were rolling in, and the ground was becoming impassable. “Pretty soon it will be every man, woman, and child for themselves,” one of the women warned me. “This happened before, and people were stuck here for 10 days.”

This precise kind of weather had not, in fact, happened before (at least not since I first came in 2000), and people were not, in fact, stuck for 10 days, nor were we at all likely to be. But two things struck me about her sentiment.

What is the obligation of a government to its citizens when the terms of the social contract, so to speak, are so clearly laid out but not followed by many?

First, in spite of all of the pervasive propaganda around the 10 Principles, the woman had absolutely no idea where she was. Over the course of the next three days, I was overwhelmed with the generosity of the people who were constantly checking on their neighbors, opening up their StarLink WiFi for people to contact their families, or offering an unending stream of food, water, and booze to strangers that became new friends. (Even though very few people actually needed anything since most of us took the radical self-reliance part seriously.)

Had the woman simply asked for anything, she would have gotten more than she needed from a giving community. But she didn’t. Instead, like thousands of others, she and her friends fled or tried to, turning a fine, even fun, situation into a risky one. After folks who waited out the mud finally exited when it was safe to do so—generally no more than a day later than they were planning to leave anyway—they passed a Prius half submerged in the mud. Its driver had ignored all the warnings to just chill out and have fun with what life was presenting us with, and the result was a ruined $30,000 vehicle.

As it’s been reported, the people who fled were generally among the most well-off. I’m looking at you Chris Rock who apparently thought the event was going to descend into cannibalism after one day of rain. Many of those who stayed were the Burners of relatively modest means who make up a big chunk of the event’s attendees, people who spend some or all of their disposable income for the year on a week or two’s escape from the “default world.” And my experience has been that people with disabilities are the very picture of radical self-reliance on the Playa. But a minority of primarily able-bodied well-off folks did panic and the world picked up on that panic, magnifying it.

The second thing that struck me was how much the people who run Burning Man stuck to its view of a good society, especially the fostering of radical self-reliance of the denizens of the Playa. All of the information that we were given over the radio for the better part of a day was to “shelter in place and conserve food and water.” We were eventually directed to find more information on a website that most people couldn’t access.

I do think that the folks who run the event could have put out a less sensationalistic announcement that would have cut down on the panic. “Shelter in place” makes sense as your verbiage if there is an active shooter on the loose or if a tornado is on the way. Less so for what to do during a rainstorm that creates some thick mud. They could have reassured people and told them to reach out to their neighbors if they needed anything.

But the people who run Burning Man are very, even willfully, bad at different elements of event management, including entrance and egress to the Playa and communication during the event. Perhaps this is an intentional call for people to practice those principles of self-reliance and community effort on their own, without their “government” giving them any more additional specific instructions on how to do so when the mud hits the fan?

It got me thinking: What is the obligation of a government to its citizens when the terms of the social contract, so to speak, are so clearly laid out but not followed by many?

In terms of the event itself, I believe Burning Man could do at least a little more to ensure that it has prepared attendees. If you fled the Playa this year, you probably should not have been there in the first place. This may seem to be a violation “Radical Inclusion,” the first principle of the event, and people argue for the importance of acculturation of those who are not long-time Burners into the ethic of the place. Asking people to attend an online seminar or ensuring that they have enough water when they enter the event, however, would not be a major violation of this principle. I do a lot with the Scouts, and the event can probably help folks traveling to this inhospitable wasteland to be at least as prepared as the 11-year-olds that we send to sleepaway camp.

But here’s the rub: societies generally cannot and really should not choose only self-reliant people committed to community effort as their citizens.

This leaves us with the challenge of what to do given the extreme humanness of humans. Libertarianism, like communism, is an interesting theory that is problematic in practice. You can have all of the principles you want, but some people make idiotic decisions and these decisions can have tremendous negative consequences for themselves and those around them. And even though this rainstorm did not actually qualify as a disaster, we clearly need governments that are capable of responding to true crises in a more organized and effective fashion.

Pondering all of these things, I stuck it out to see the climactic “Man burn,” which happened two days late, on Monday. It was a tremendous moment of catharsis for those of us who stayed to see this 70-foot-tall art installation go up in flames after a massive fireworks display. Only the following morning, muddy and tired, did I make my way out of a desert of possibility and back to a world of practicality. In this world, governments generally attempt to take care of us rather than holding us to a standard of self-reliance that most people are not even trying to achieve.

But I hold on to the dream of Burning Man’s governing principles.

You may have heard that Burning Man was a disaster but I “got the Burn that I needed.” The compassion and community spirit modeled by those who stayed behind will remain an inspiration to me. As for those who fled, I will stay curious about how societies can work to help people achieve more self-reliance and avoid panic, in crises both real and imagined. And I will keep working on rebuilding trust in a society that believes that even the minor challenge of a couple of days of mud will quickly lead to people turning on—and potentially eating!—each other.

Micah Weinberg has worked at and run a series of think tanks and policy advocacy organizations, including New America and California Forward, and is writing a book on political reform. He first attended Burning Man in 2000, which means he gets grief about not having been there in the ’90s.


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