I calculate that my trip to Burning Man left a carbon footprint of about 10 tonnes. And yet, I’m quite certain that playing “post-apocalyptic hippie” in the desert with 70k fellow burners is by far the single most significant thing I can do about the looming climate crisis and all that will undoubtedly accompany it.
Transcendental experiences are just the appetiser
Many people go to Burning Man expecting to live the life changing, witness the transcendental, or capture instagram friendly “playa magic”. Burning Man is transformational – no doubt about it. Experiencing this week-long utopia in Nevada is much like getting to ride a unicorn; it will forever shift the foundations of what you think is possible and force you to change you accordingly. I took my wife this year. She accounts for 5 of those 10 tons of CO2. At some point, she turned to me with wide-open eyes and said – “I get it”. When I asked her what she got, she replied – “I’ll tell you once I find the words”. It’s been over a week, she’s still searching. Her shifted gaze is worth every cm3 of her 5 tons in my opinion.
But individual blown-away minds are transcendental “loose change” compared to what’s happening underneath the surface. I’ve been to Burning Man 4 times. I’ve had my fill of transformation. Now I’m committed to learning the recipe and communing with the master-chefs. My yearly pilgrimage is not fuelled by transcendental FOMO, but rather the need to commune with people with which we develop the collective art of holding transformative space. More importantly we are tacitly growing a culture (a collective operating system) for re-engineering communities, collectives and other social units where humans can be more human; spaces that create better people.
A social particle accelerator
In this sense Burning Man is a particle accelerator for humane collectivisation. And much like the particle collider at CERN that teaches us about the nature of the universe, energy and matter, so too is BurningMan a big and expensive experiment that reveals the potential of our social nature and our collective capabilities. The revelation of seeing first hand that we can co-create a 80k person strong city under a paradigm of kindness, generosity, and creative positivism, should be enough spark cognitive disobedience and embolden us to challenge stale status quo beyond the borders of the burn.
If you have been exposed to the culture, if it left it’s mark, you have a responsibility to spread it. Not because the world needs more transformed souls or opened eyes, but because we need more empowered people spreading the tacit knowledge and sharing how tribes assemble, communities are built, and movements are spun. This collective people-weaving skill is something you learn through practice. You get better at it through exposure, and it is vital for thriving in the XXIst century.
If we are to ever exit this socio-economic paradigm that is in nose-dive decline, we are going to have to remind ourselves of our social engineering skills; how to dream together ambitiously and remember, construct meaningful social narratives, and conjure better collective fictions. We have to play UTOPIA and get good at it.
Hatching feasible post-climate-crisis visions one party at a time
Nobody’s going leave the plane until they see a working parachute. Nobody’s going to jump ship unless there’s convincing life boats. Nobody’s going to leave this toxic game of monopoly until we see some people enjoying some other board-game. There is no change because there is a scarcity of real alternatives when it comes to post-climate-crisis realities – lifestyles, life-choices, collective existences. No one leaves an OK party at 2am without a good plan B. You scrape that dance-floor as long as the music is a playing. But once you get word that there is a group of people putting together an enticing after-party across the street – your minutes at Plan A are numbered.
Burning Man is not a plan B. It is however an incubator, a training ground, a boot camp for learning how to create plan B’s. Those plan B’s need to be seductive. Many think we gather in the desert to party like there’s no tomorrow, but the truth of the matter is that partying is what happens on the side, almost as a byproduct, as we beta-test a back-up OS for humanity post-civilisational collapse. As we remember how to assemble as a tribe – a unit that is more than the sum of its parts – we also execute the blueprints of our deepest fantasies, dream out loud collectively, and experiment with alternative uses of social LEGO blocks in ways the manual had not foreseen.
It’s not the drugs, naked bodies and electronic music that make the experience in the desert exceptional. They are the icing on the cake, the proof that we are not just getting by, we are in fact having an epic great time in the process.
Build an “art-car” instead of an arc
XIXth century industrial capitalism is the proverbial “box” we cannot think outside of, see beyond, or dare step out of. The socio economic paradigm, the current narrative of collective subsistence is too big to fail, is too comfortable to change, and far too entrenched to budge.
I’m past the point of flashing fingers at governments, corporations, myself. I don’t own a car, I don’t eat meat, i take cold showers, I recycle, I practice what I preach, I also work a job I feel helps shift people and organisational culture. I do what I can, but I’ve also stopped kidding myself. I know that I cannot change the outcome. I can however learn to create a tangible alternatives, fleeting visions of what a PlanB could look like when the music stops, the sun rises and sober up to the glorious mess we have made.
And so, in a sense, I’ve given up on saving the world. But I am inspired by creating pockets of exceptional reality that stand as seductive examples for all to consider how things could be. We probably can’t avoid the flood (both metaphorically and literally). But we can learn to build arcs; in the form of community, culture, theme camps and art cars. we can decorate them with pretty lights and fit them with proper kitchens that make delicious food and banging sound systems to make the cruise more delightful.
At the moment I am betting against civilisation and it’s ability to change fast enough to avoid a climate crisis. I am however betting heavily on people, our resourcefulness, and our ability to weave new, better, more sustainable, more meaningful, and more resilient collective fictions. Moving that knowhow beyond the desert, from the temporary “giant social-particle collider”will require more work, more learning, and more due diligence. And that is why after 4 times I will continue to work with “Burner Culture” off the playa, and repeat the annual pilgrimage to Black Rock City. Burning 10 tons of CO2 a year seems a petty price to pay.