Can “Burning Man” Point The Way?

Here is something that may come totally out of the blue to you—as it did to me until my daughter and her boyfriend came to D.C. for the new Renwick show. It is clear now to me that we have been missing something exciting and important. So hitch up your pants, tighten your belts and get ready for almost anything.

In 1986, a man named Larry Harvey got together with some friends on a beach in California and burned an elegant, over-sized model of a man they had built.

From that simple beginning emerged “Burning Man,” and every summer since then hordes of people—now about 80,000—come together to camp out for a week in 100 degree heat on a flat plain covered with dust, evocative of nothing less than Mars. During their time together, people build many enormous, amazing, and fantastical sculptures of animals, people, and anything else you can imagine. At the end of the week, they burn everything to the ground and depart from the desert, leaving no trace.

Much of the focus during the week is on having a rollicking good time (often naked but for a pouch carrying “essential drugs”) and bonding with one another. It is, they believe, a model for working together to make a better planet.

Their guiding principles, 10 in all [more than even the most devoted followers can remember], offer superb goals for the best that humans can and should do:

  1. Radical Inclusion
  2. Gifting
  3. Decommodification
  4. Radical Self Reliance
  5. Radical Self Expression
  6. Communal Effort
  7. Civic Responsibility
  8. Leaving No Trace
  9. Participation
  10. Immediacy

The clear theme in these principles is the perfection of human behavior, focused on all people “getting along together.” It’s a concept Burning Man demonstrates wonderfully, despite the dust bowl of heaven and hell in which it occurs.

Outside of its adherents and attendees, most people know little of Burning Man, seeing it from afar as little more than a raucous week taken to extremes. Under the hood, though, there’s a lot more going on. What else have we missed?

The 30 year history of Burning Man has provided a bundle of important perspectives about humanity and our precious Earth, which can and should inform us all about our futures:

  • The roles of art and life are evanescent—they come and go and enrich each other while they exist.
  • The role of fire is to warm us, bring us together, and prepare us for tomorrow to rise from the ashes like a phoenix.
  • By coming together under agreed-upon guiding principles, humans can do almost anything.
  • Because our earth can no longer hold many more people, we have to learn how to “unbuild” ourselves peacefully in order to rebuild and extend our human urge to keep building and growing without, at the same time, destroying ourselves and our planet with the consequences of overpopulation.

I am almost positive that Larry Harvey and his friends never explicitly stated the above four concepts, but what they did unleash is a chain of ideas that has led to how we see their dream today. That must be an example of great genius!

The Renwick Museum, next door to the White House, currently has an amazing, scaled-down version of Burning Man called “No Spectators” (as in “Everyone Participates”). It is already attracting unprecedented crowds of young and old. For those of you who see this essay and who live in or visit D.C., I strongly recommend a visit.

The timing of this exhibit may, not surprisingly, have something to do with the current occupant of the White House. If so, I think I finally have something to thank the President for—namely, inspiring an amazing art exhibit which may bring to the world, albeit in a quiet, subtle way, antidotes to what he is trying to destroy in our lives and our Earth.


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