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  • Writer's pictureVeronica Irwin

Bye-Bye Burning Man

The best way for burners to leave no trace on the Black Rock desert would be to leave it alone for good.


05/08/2021

SF Weekly

When you look up images of Burning Man, what do you see? If Google’s algorithm is showing you the same results as I, your images tab is flooded with pictures of 20-something white women and 40-something white men, many of whom are dressed in some amalgamation of textiles from the global south with the occasional thread of glitter. You can almost hear them now.


“The playa is my home, man,” they declare, trailing off into a silty vocal fry. “It’s all about radical self reliance.” Pay particularly close attention to the olfactory sensations of this thought exercise and you’ll detect the stench of French cigarettes, soured espressos, and tech industry libertarianism.

After six years in the Bay Area — living in housing cooperatives, working in cannabis, and frequenting landmarks of our local artists scene — I’ve met my fair share of “Burners,” or people who attend the nine-day desert music festival, Burning Man. Most of them are lovely people. Many more of them fulfill the stereotype described above so accurately that one wonders if they’re following a script. It’s no coincidence that media portrayals of Burning Man depict a crowd that is disproportionately white, often upwardly mobile, and frequently subscribing to Silicon Valley’s strange mix of performative eco-consciousness, social media progressivism, and the barely concealed fetishization of John Galt.


In 2021, this is what Burning Man has become: a brash bachanal of drugs, sex, art, and most importantly, money.

On Tuesday, April 27, Burning Man organizers announced the annual Black Rock gathering would be cancelled, yet again, on account of the coronavirus. In doing so, they walked away from somewhere around $43 million in ticket sales, judging from 2018 tax documents. A nonprofit without a clear cause, Burning Man’s parent organization — known as the Burning Man Project — puts some of the money they make back into grants for artists, port-a-potties, and equipment rental. They also put that money back into salaries of over $250,000 for top execs and a rainy day fund that runs in excess of $10 million. The vast majority of “donations” paid to the nonprofit are generated through the sale of festival tickets, which cost between $210 and $475. In other words, if Burning Man is a charity, it’s a charity who’s benefactors are almost exclusively the donors themselves.


When you look up images of Burning Man, what do you see? If Google’s algorithm is showing you the same results as I, your images tab is flooded with pictures of 20-something white women and 40-something white men, many of whom are dressed in some amalgamation of textiles from the global south with the occasional thread of glitter. You can almost hear them now.

“The playa is my home, man,” they declare, trailing off into a silty vocal fry. “It’s all about radical self reliance.” Pay particularly close attention to the olfactory sensations of this thought exercise and you’ll detect the stench of French cigarettes, soured espressos, and tech industry libertarianism.

After six years in the Bay Area — living in housing cooperatives, working in cannabis, and frequenting landmarks of our local artists scene — I’ve met my fair share of “Burners,” or people who attend the nine-day desert music festival, Burning Man. Most of them are lovely people. Many more of them fulfill the stereotype described above so accurately that one wonders if they’re following a script. It’s no coincidence that media portrayals of Burning Man depict a crowd that is disproportionately white, often upwardly mobile, and frequently subscribing to Silicon Valley’s strange mix of performative eco-consciousness, social media progressivism, and the barely concealed fetishization of John Galt.

In 2021, this is what Burning Man has become: a brash bachanal of drugs, sex, art, and most importantly, money.

On Tuesday, April 27, Burning Man organizers announced the annual Black Rock gathering would be cancelled, yet again, on account of the coronavirus. In doing so, they walked away from somewhere around $43 million in ticket sales, judging from 2018 tax documents. A nonprofit without a clear cause, Burning Man’s parent organization — known as the Burning Man Project — puts some of the money they make back into grants for artists, port-a-potties, and equipment rental. They also put that money back into salaries of over $250,000 for top execs and a rainy day fund that runs in excess of $10 million. The vast majority of “donations” paid to the nonprofit are generated through the sale of festival tickets, which cost between $210 and $475. In other words, if Burning Man is a charity, it’s a charity who’s benefactors are almost exclusively the donors themselves.


The glitz and glamor of Silicon Valley that we see on our Instagram feeds is not that new either. In 1996, trailblazing tech magazine Wired dedicated a cover story to Burning Man, calling it the “new American holiday.” Google decorated it’s home page two years later with an out of the office message that was meant to signal their employees were playing hooky in the Black Rock Desert. Jeff Bezos, Elon Musk, and Mark Zuckerberg’s love for Burning Man is far from pioneering. Rather, they’re simply fulfilling their destiny of cultivating “humanness” out in the desert once a year — you know, so they can continue manipulating nearly everyone on the planet the other 356 days of the year.

By 2014, tech execs’ camps cost upwards of $25,00 a person, and often brought with them staff that outnumbered campers nearly 2-to-1. By 2019, influencers were taking photos at their luxury Burning Man campgrounds in matching bikini sets and branded accessories. For all of us that don’t attend, this is the Burning Man we see in our Instagram feeds. Those highly curated portrayals are what we’re taught a “good” experience at Burning Man is supposed to be.

What makes this all significantly more offensive than the average celebration of excess is that it’s everything Burning Man, and Burners themselves, pretend it’s not. Nobody can survive the second week of September in San Francisco without someone who works at Uber or Google pontificating upon the outpouring of ecstasy-induced empathy they felt on the Playa. The exchange of money is outright prohibited at Burning Man, and attendees love musing about the frivolousness of fiat currency upon their return. In response, I often offer to connect them with my friend who lives a minimalist life in a van by choice, or introduce them to organizers of mutual aid programs. Shockingly, there’s rarely any interest.

If you’re a Burner reading this, you may be thinking something along the lines of “but those people aren’t me. My friends don’t wear appropriative clothing, or say ignorant things.”

Elon Musk had the same thing to say when he spoke to Re/Code about the event in 2014. “If you haven’t been, you just don’t get it,” he said. He also predicted that the United States would see “close to zero” coronavirus cases by April of 2020, so I’m not taking his word for it.

After 23 years, Burning Man has been cancelled for the second year in a row. I’m praying it never comes back.


SF Weekly Link: https://www.sfweekly.com/opinion/bye-bye-burning-man/

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