“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.