The Wonderful, Weird Economy of Burning Man

Burners spend thousands preparing for the money-free event. But just as the desert community cannot fully escape capitalism, neither can capitalism remain untouched by the "gift economy."
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A replica of a Spanish galleon, sinking into the desert sand. Price tag: $64,000. (Grant Kaye)

The busiest time of year for the Reno-Tahoe International Airport is not Thanksgiving, or Christmas, or any of the other major national holidays. It’s Burning Man.  

Every year in late August, the 66th busiest airport in America becomes a doorstep to the annual festival, which manifests and disappears a week later in Nevada’s nearby Black Rock Desert.

The terminals are swarmed with jovial, sometimes costumed travelers from dozens of countries. The occasional roving art mobile (“mutant vehicles” in Burning Man parlance) pulls up curbside to ferry pilgrims to their mecca.

A week later, the returning crowd is weary and coated head to toe in a film of fine, stubborn white dust—an inevitable souvenir from the dried lakebed location, known as the “playa.” They doze in chairs and on the floor, sometimes huddled in heaps, and wash up in the restrooms. Extra airport staff is deployed, including janitors who, if a particularly dusty person is spotted, “will follow them and clean up behind them as they go,” says Brian Kulpin, the airport’s vice president of marketing and public affairs.

Departure day at the Reno airport (courtesy of the Reno-Tahoe International Airport)

The airport tolerates this amusing bedlam—embraces it, in fact—because these people (70,000 are expected next week) provide an annual stimulus to the airport’s micro-economy.

In recent years, the airport has taken to displaying Burning Man-style art and offering a welcome table to festival attendees. Once, the airport held a celebratory parade throughout the terminals, complete with small art cars and performers.

“Every single seat we have coming into this airport the weekend before will be filled and every single seat we have leaving on the departure weekend will be filled,” Kulpin says. He estimates that the airport reaps $10 million a year from Burning Man-bound flyers.

“How could we not embrace that?” he asks.

* * *

Similarly lively scenes unfold elsewhere in Reno, and everywhere along the route to Burning Man’s ephemeral “Black Rock City”: lines of filled-to-the-brim cars tangle around gas stations, grocery stores are emptied of their bottled water, and parking lot marketplaces pop up to hawk duct tape, hats, and other gear in high demand.

These pit stops, hotel stays and last-minute purchases equal $35 million spent by Burning Man participants—“Burners,” for the uninitiated—in Nevada each year. Sixty-six percent of respondents in the 2013 Burning Man census (yes, it has a census) reported spending more than $250 in the state on their way to and from the event. Eighteen percent spent more than $1,000. In putting the event on, the Burning Man organization adds to this stream, from $301,660 given to local law enforcement agencies in 2013 to $4.5 million spent on Bureau of Land Management and other usage fees.

“This event has a huge, month-long, positive impact on our local economy,” says John Slaughter, county manager for Washoe, which includes everything from Reno to the closest towns to the event, the 200-person-each desert settlements of Gerlach and Empire. “Our stores, restaurants, gas stations, and car washes see an incredible influx of traffic, providing a great boost to the Northern Nevada economy.”

The bustling business pulsing in and out of Burning Man is the overlooked inverse of what occurs inside the Black Rock City gates, where the whirl of commerce comes to a halt. Burning Man famously eschews conventional market systems at the event itself.

One of the community’s 10 guiding principles is Decommodification—a shunning of transactions, consumerism, sponsorship, and advertising. With the exception of ice and coffee sold by the organizers, there are no vendors. Burning Man swag isn’t peddled from a merchandise booth, and all logos are taboo. It’d be a major faux pas to charge a fellow Burner for something.

What fuels the kaleidoscopic pageant of art, music, and play, instead, is another of its principles: gifting. In the gifting economy, participants provide everything but the festival’s infrastructure (which includes the eponymous wooden effigy that perishes in a much-photographed tower of cathartic flames at the end of the week). Whiskey bars and grilled cheese stands, workshops and hair-washing stations, DJs and art installations, are all there as gifts, provided by one or more Burners—free of charge—for the enjoyment of others.

As it grows in both size and global recognition, so too do the gathering’s economic impacts—both in direct dollar benefits to Nevada and beyond—along with questions of whether its experimental economic principles have potential in the world beyond Black Rock City

* * *

Burning Man had seen many summers in the desert before the organization dispensed its list of 10 principles in 2004, each based on a custom that had organically grown out of the event. Gifting, says founder Larry Harvey, emerged as the preferred system because “participants were unwilling to distance themselves from others through economic transactions.”

“Burning Man is like a big family picnic,” he told me. “Would you sell things to one another at a family picnic? No, you’d share things.”

The curious fact that a lot of money goes into creating a week that is free of money is not lost on Harvey. But those who peg this as a contradiction, he says, misunderstand the intent of the experiment.

“People get confused sometimes,” says Harvey, who unleashed Burning Man on the world with a foretelling bonfire at San Francisco’s Baker Beach in 1986. “They say that because we have a principle of decommodification, that we’re against money. But no, it’s not really about money. It would be absurd if we said we repudiated money. In order to assemble a city, we have to use market economics.” 

The organization, which recently transitioned from an LLC to a nonprofit (Harvey says he is now the CPO—Chief Philosophical Officer), had a total of $26.8 million in expenditures for 2013. At the individual level, attending the event can easily run $1,000: the $380 festival ticket, camping necessities, a bicycle for getting around, food and water, transportation, etc.

“Even though you need no money out there, which is great, you need to do all of this shopping beforehand—all of your camping gear, food, shade, duct tape, body lights so you don’t get hit by a car,” says Karla MacGregor, proprietor of a personal shopping service called The Burner’s Market. “People using my website”—mostly Burners flying in from distant locales—“spend $700, easily.” MacGregor is part of a crop of “Burnerpreneurs” who have turned their love for Burning Man into businesses that cater to like-minded customers. The Morris Burner Hotel, a new “member-based hotel for the Burner community” in Reno, is another example.

And that’s just getting the basics. Participating—the “Participation” principle is key to creating a vibrant, fleeting city—can mean more of an investment. Some participate by donning elaborate costumes. Others form theme camps like Silicon Village, a 220-person group camp with an annual budget of $20,000, according to the camp’s former mayor, Rupert Hart. Expenses include a generator and a bar that offers happy hours.

Hart is also familiar with what it takes to bankroll another big-ticket Burning Man item—a mutant vehicle, or “art car.” His, called Joyism, has been to Burning Man 11 times and requires annual repairs, storage fees, and gas. And its small size means a relatively low outlay compared to many of Burning Man’s art cars, which take the form of massive covered wagons, seven-headed, fire-breathing metal beasts, and peculiar Victorian homes that Tim Burton would be proud of. A meandering tropical isle called Tiki Island debuted in 2013, fashioned with a second-story DJ tower and third-story lookout platform, thanks to $24,750 fundraised on the crowd-funding site Kickstarter.com.

Burning Man is best known for its abundant art, including large-scale installations that protrude from the monotone earth like surreal trees in an unruly forest. The organization dishes out art grants to nourish these expensive projects ($825,000 to 66 installations last year), but many builders also turn to crowd funding.

“Crowdsourcing effectively removes the power from large money groups to decide what gets made and what doesn’t,” says Matt Schultz, the artist behind several behemoth Burning Man pieces, of the crowd-funding phenomenon. “It enables the power of individuals to decide. It allows us to find the resources we need to make something amazing. It democratizes the act of production.”

Schultz and his team, the Pier Group, first made waves at Burning Man with a 300-foot-long wooden pier-to-nowhere in 2011 that cost $12,500 to build. They returned with the pier in 2012—this time with a life-size, $64,000 Spanish galleon sinking at the end of it. They outdid themselves once again this year, both in size, scope, budget and fundraising abilities: The group’s 72-foot-tall wooden sculpture, called Embrace, has been, perhaps, the most buzzed-about piece in the lead-up to this year’s festival. Picture two entwined figures proportional to the Statue of Liberty bursting, mid-waist from the ground.

Artist's rendering of the Embrace sculpture (The Pier Group)

The sculpture, which took shape in a Sparks, Nevada, warehouse with the help of around 200 volunteers, had a budget of $210,000. Its 140,000 pounds of wood, alone, required more than $70,000, says Schultz.

Like everything else that’s free to behold inside of Black Rock City, it took donations—or gifts of labor, skill, and time—to make Embrace happen.

What drives this giving, this willingness to pool resources to create something for collective reward? Burning Man is only possible because of it—a full-bodied example of the potential fruits of the sharing economy.

“People invest in the joy it will bring to other people,” says Schultz. “We’re trying to tell people to invest in things not because they’ll get a profit, but because it’s beautiful, because it’s compelling.”

In a world of tech-driven isolation and high-speed consumerism, Larry Harvey believes giving acts as a much-needed antidote to what he calls “capitalism on steroids.”

“People give because they identify with Burning Man, with our city, with our civic life,” he says. “The idea of giving something to the citizens of Black Rock City has enormous appeal to them because it enhances their sense of who they are, and magnifies their sense of being. That’s a spiritual reward.”

He says gifting—defined as the act of giving without the expectation of anything in return—alters the notion of value.  

“What counts is the connection, not the commodity,” Harvey says.

* * *

As Burning Man culture and ethos seep out into what the community refers to as the “default world,” can a gifting economy survive the transfer?

“The term ‘gift economy’ is and isn’t an oxymoron. Certainly, the world couldn’t be run through a gift economy,” Harvey says.

This is because a gifting economy is more idea than reality—one that is practiced and pondered, but not fully realized. Writer Benjamin Wachs, who blogs for Burning Man under the name “Caveat Magister,” has pointed out that calling it an “economy” at all is a misnomer—for one thing, he says, it can’t be a self-sustaining economy because it relies on other markets to exist.

“It doesn’t actually generate wealth, the vast majority of which comes from outside Burning Man in the form of campers, tents, generators, and loin cloths,” he writes.

“Nobody makes it to and from Burning Man without either a day job or the [labors] of people who have day jobs,” he goes on. “We’re nowhere close to describing, exhibiting, or participating in an ‘economy’ that truly relies on gifting. … What we do have is a compelling gift ‘culture’—and it matters.”

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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