How a high-minded countercultural experiment ended up on everyone's bucket list
Today, almost every bucket list on the Internet — those things that everyone is advised to do before they die — includes Burning Man. It has become the ultimate commodity, a product that everyone, from all walks of life, is encouraged to consume. Doing so is easier than ever these days.
After tickets sold out for the first time ever in 2011 — and a flawed new ticketing system unilaterally created by the LLC in 2012 triggered widespread criticism and anxiety — the company opted to just increase the population of Black Rock City by more than 20 percent, peaking at 69,613 last year.
Everyone felt the difference. Popular spots like the dance parties at Distrikt on Friday afternoon or Robot Heart at dawn on Saturday reached shit show proportions, with just way too many people. And this year will be more of the same.
In the old days, going to Burning Man was difficult, requiring months of preparation with one's chosen campmates to create internal infrastructure (shade, showers, kitchen, etc.) and something to gift the community (an art car, a bar, a stage and performances to fill it, etc.).
But with the rise of plug-and-play camps in recent years, those with money can fly into Black Rock City and buy their way into camps that set up their RVs, cook their meals, stock their costumes and intoxicants, decorate their bikes, and clean it all up at the end. Such camps have become a source of employment for entrepreneurial veteran burners, but they cut against the stated principles of Participation and Radial Self-Reliance.
While LLC board member Marian Goodell told me that "we're big into listening mode at the moment" as they decide what's next for Burning Man, she also claims to have heard no concerns from burners about the event's current size or direction, and she denies the nonprofit transition was ever about loosening their grip on the event.
"We've never talked about turning Burning Man back to the community," Goodell told me last week, accusing me of misinterpreting comments by Harvey when he announced the transition, such as, "We want to get out of running Burning Man. We want to move on."
This is the world that Grover Norquist will enter next week, after being personally encouraged to attend Burning Man by Harvey, as Norquist told the National Review last month. Norquist was drawn to the event's libertarian image rather than its stated communitarian values, a dichotomy that its leaders have never sought to resolve. Norquist even compared Burning Man to his right-wing Americans for Tax Reform, which has pressured most Republican politicians to sign pledges never to raise taxes.
"There's no government that organizes this," Norquist said of Burning Man, an event held on federal land, accessed by public roads, and actively regulated by local, state, and federal agencies. "That's what happens when nobody tells you what to do. You just figure it out. So Burning Man is a refutation of the argument that the state has a place in nature."
Yes, kiddies, the shark has been jumped. But I hope all my burner friends still have a great week in the desert.