The Wonderful, Weird Economy of Burning Man

It matters, says Harvey, because it has potential to provide a meaningful counterpoint to the “default world’s” system.

“That spirit, if spread in the world and widely adopted, would condition how people, as consumers in the marketplace, behave,” Harvey says. “Whereas if all of your self worth and esteem is invested in how much you consume, how many likes you get, or other quantifiable measures, the desire to simply possess things trumps our ability or capability to make moral connections with people around us. There should be room in the world for both systems to flourish. If they did, they would inform one another.”

Embrace’s Matt Schultz is putting this into practice. He’s the executive director of a free-use warehouse called The Generator—the place where Embrace was constructed. Says the website, “We don't buy. We don't sell. We dream. We convene. We create. We make.”

“Inside The Generator, our gift economy, our decommodified environment, operates in a fairly simple way—it sounds like fantasy when I explain in, and it basically is,” he says.

The Temple of Transition, from Burning Man 2011, was the largest temple ever erected at the event, at 120 feet tall. It was constructed of wood and canvas by artists Chris Hankins, Diarmaid Horkan, and a loosely assembled collective from countries as far away as Ireland and New Zealand. (Scott London)

Donations cover the $330,000 in annual operating costs for the warehouse, which opened in 2012, and its users provide supplies, repairs and other necessities. Inside, fine artists and jewelry makers create beside computer tinkerers and car restorers. Nearby, an aquaponic lettuce and mint operation is under way, not far from an effort to turn a vehicle into a hot air balloon.

“We try to ensure that whether you donate an hour or $50,000, that your gift is taken with the same gratitude,” Schultz says, adding that the key to this formula is “that everyone gives back more than they take.”

The hope at The Generator is, Schultz says, at “to refine the economic principles of what a gift economy is and what a decommodified, year-round space is.”

There are various challenges with this. Everything is easier when there’s an expiration date, for example.  

“At Burning Man, your social interactions are for a week and you go home and reset,” he says. “There aren’t as many social repercussions. If you make your camp neighbor mad, they are only mad for a week. That’s been a challenge in bringing the principles to the real world.”

Unattainable as a true gifting economy might be, Schultz, like Harvey, believes it’s a custom worth incorporating into existing practices.

“We’re trying to find a way to make capitalism more equitable,” Schultz says. “Instead of saying one system is bad, or another is bad, we’re finding ways to make it function for more people.”

* * *

Years ago, overlooking a gathering of a few hundred people, a man asked Harvey if he thought Burning Man could ever grow to a thousand. He said he did. The man shook his head. “He thought, ‘That poor, deluded guy,’” Harvey surmised.  

Now nearing 70,000 in size, the event sold out for the first time in 2011 and has continued to since. This year’s ticket sale—its biggest ever—lasted 44 minutes before selling out.

The growth has fueled an ongoing and predictable debate over the subsequent “death” of Burning Man. (Reports that Grover Norquist is going this year don’t help.)

“Right now we’re thinking we could go to 100,000” if logistics pan out, Harvey says. “When people say ‘What if we get too big?’ I ask them, ‘[Too big] for what?’ They are worried we’ll become inauthentic. Because in their experience, when something gets bigger and bigger and bigger, it is alienated from its audience. But that’s if it’s just an item for consumption. They’re afraid it will be denatured by size. But it’s not about size. It’s not a quantitative problem. It’s a qualitative question.”

The question of access is heightened now that demand exceeds supply. Economic access has already been a backdrop issue for the community.  

For the wealthier denizens (the city attracts many of tech’s biggest names, CEOs, actors, and even, last year, Sean “Diddy” Combs), there is an on-site airport and luxurious—and controversial—“plug and play” camps where, for a hearty fee, one arrives to find a plush set up, amenities and catered meals.        

When asked if Burning Man is an even playing field, Harvey points out that its Low-Income Ticket Program is subsidized by hiked-up prices of pre-sale tickets. He also explains that gifts do not have to be material—helping one’s neighbors, or volunteering, are considered valuable contributions.

But access is an issue, regardless, now that more people want to attend than physically can. Burning Man’s imminent task is to pass the torch to its regional chapters, which carry the party on year-round in 28 countries, from Brazil and Greece to Russia and South Korea. Between these global outposts and a concerted effort by the organization to find Burning Man art permanent homes, the experience—once temporally and geographically limited to a week in the Nevada desert—is embedding itself into the everyday world.

“I hope that I can leave this world knowing that the event in the desert isn’t the lynchpin and that, if it were removed, it would falter,” Harvey says. “My biggest fear is that [the event] would be the be all and end all. We are racing to make it otherwise. It is going to be Rome to the empire, as it were—the great capital city for some time to come. But we can already see [a life outside of it] in these larger regional events.”

It is through this dissemination that Burning Man’s economic principles could take root.

“We don’t think the world can be Woodstock,” he says. “Who’d think the world could be a perpetual carnival? But we do think that the world could rediscover values that used to be automatically produced by culture but aren’t anymore because culture is subject to the commodification in our world. Everything is sold back to us, targeted to demographics. What we have to do is make progress in the quality of connection between people, not the quantity of consumption.” 

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Elizabeth Limbach is a writer based in Santa Cruz, California.

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