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Steve Heilig

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Burning Man: Time to Be Truly "Radical" -- Clean Up Your Act, Be Socially Responsible -- and Show Us the Money?

Posted: 09/09/11 03:24 PM ET

Last week, over 50,000 people gathered in a Nevada high desert for a big carnival called Burning Man. "Why aren't you at Burning Man right now?" is a common question asked of those who are not there. Here -- "party pooper" alert -- is my answer.

"Tickets for Burning Man sell out!" ran the headlines, for the first time in the famed festival's decades of operation. I was not one of those who got a ticket. Or even tried to, even though some of my favorite people are "Burners" and love the event. Some of the art and installations set up there are undeniably amazing; I've just looked at some photos taken by one of my best friends, and briefly wished I were there. Torching the big Man at the end in a giant bonfire is a wonderful thing too. But I don't go -- I even once turned down a chance to be flown up there in a private jet, with a catered sheltered camp awaiting (OK, that might have been a dumb mistake). It's not because I don't much like heat, or dust, or techno, or that dogs are not allowed -- which is likely best for the dogs' sake. It's three other concerns that bother me. And since this year's BM theme was "transitions," I will herewith humbly offer a few suggestions that might help BM transition back into something truly "radical" -- or at least responsible.

1. Burning Man is an environmental disaster. As the Wall Street Journal recently noted, Burning Man "prides itself on being eco-friendly." Burning Man does have an "environmental statement." But just cleaning up after oneself and encouraging greener practices while there is far from enough. It is now a scientific consensus that human activity contributes to climate change (although, yes, there are still profiteers or ideologues who deny that -- just as there are still even a few outlier scientists who deny that HIV causes AIDS or evolution is a 'theory.") The time to ignore that is past.

At a minimum, the "carbon footprint" of BM would seem to be substantial, if not huge: with well over 50,000 people there, generously assuming an average of three people per vehicle means almost 15-20,000 vehicles show up, most from hundreds if not thousands of miles away, with much-lamented traffic jams to get in and out adding to the exhaust and fuel consumption. Once there, generators hum and spew 24/7. This makes the slogan of "radical self-reliance" something of a joke, as the whole thing relies upon the oil and coal industries, as well as supermarkets. What is done to mediate that impact? In fact, BM could not really mediate the impact of all that driving, no matter what practices occur at the event. How much BM cash goes to efforts and other groups to make up for all the spew, at least in part?

Proposal: BM should go "carbon-neutral" -- in total, not just at the event. That would be hugely difficult, and costly, but it's time, if the event is to approach true positive "consciousness" in this troubled transitional time for our economy and planet. Solar power, mass transport to/from BM, carbon offsets/credits, and much more might be a good start. There are plenty people who could help BM do this, but it would take real commitment.

2. Burning Man is a socially irresponsible missed chance: If you read the news, it is clear that our society is getting ever more unequal and unfair; that human and civil rights are under attack; that more and more people even in the USA are going hungry; and much more. Corporations have been forced to look at their "social responsibility" in this era; much of that is surely perfunctory, "greenwashing" or public relations, and so on, but many do try, and some do it well. BM does give some support to artists via its foundation -- about $50k/year recently, according to their website, and that's nice (albeit a very small percentage of the cash flowing through, so far as one can tell). But even with that, and putting aside the climate issue above, BM is less socially responsible than many for-profit corporations. BM attendees spend thousands of dollars getting their "camp" together for their time there as well; while some would likely be willing to donate to good causes while there, it would be better to make it simple and even mandatory.

Proposal: Burning Man should "tithe" to charity. Some defined amount, say $100, of each BM ticket goes into a fund to be disbursed to worthy groups -- environmental, food banks, civil rights, health, pro-choice advocates, etc. At 50k tickets, that's $5 million; divided ten ways, say, that's $50,000 per group. Very nice! The San Francisco-based credit card/telephone company Working Assets/Credo has done this for decades now and could show BM how this is done.


3. Burning Man finances are fishy. This is been the source of my discomfort with BM for many years, and I'm not alone. A "red flag" was raised for me many years ago when I had an assignment to cover BM for a major publication and was told by BM that I had to sign a long disclaimer and was not to ask about money. I refused to sign, as any real journalist would. More recently, two publications declined to print a piece such as this, as "we get free tickets" -- a time-(dis)honored way of heading off hard questions. As for photographers, a recent San Francisco Chronicle post said the BM rules on this were "fascist" and that seems a bit hyperbolic, but I can see both sides on that topic, as some people still do value their privacy. But they are extremely strict and legalistic (see below).

But as for the money: at least 50,000 tickets were sold this year, for $210-360 each. BM defends the ticket price by comparing it to other big festivals such as Coachella. But there's an obvious difference there. For years I worked with music festivals who not only set up big venues but paid many staff members, paid for lots of advertising, and, most importantly and expensively, paid for many top-notch musical acts to perform -- while still making a surplus, which was for a nonprofit cause. For something on the huge scale of BM, think of a stadium show by a big band, selling over 50,000 tickets at $100-200 and making a big chunk of surplus change for both performers and promoters while paying hundreds, if thousands, of staff and a fat stadium fee to boot. If you paid for a sold-out show, went there and no bands played, at a minimum you might surmise that somebody made some cash.

BM doesn't "advertise" and once there, you get... well, no big bands, for one thing. And not much else, other than some security and so forth (but just as in San Francisco, best not to leave your bike unattended). That's part of the point -- "radical self-reliance" out on the "playa." To their credit, BM doesn't do corporate sponsorships (yet). The BM organization is run by a board and executive staff who tell a lot about themselves on their sites, which is also nice. But for all the disclosure online -- there is more high-minded "policy" and so forth posted there than any organization I've ever seen -- some important info is missing. The 2010 financial report lists about $17.5 million in total expenses, about $7.2 million of which was for salaries. Fair enough. But BM's financial report is not really one at all -- income is not listed, so there's not much to compare those figures to. The numbers one can find don't really add up.

Now BM is going to go "public" -- as a nonprofit. But first, as noted in BM chronicler/groupie Stephen Jones's recent pieces in the San Francisco Bay Guardian, "... the six board members also want to cash out with significant financial payouts." Jones has estimated about a $12 million inflow in recent years, but that seems low -- and must be if they are really paying out $17.5 million now, while also buying property and planning some payouts. Jones also quoted BM founder Larry Harvey -- seemingly an admirable, likeable guy -- in an article earlier this year as saying that BM's honchos had indeed long operated behind "a veil of secrecy" and that looking to put a dollar value on BM in order to sell it "was against everything we stood for, everything we had practiced. How could we sell our life's work like a commodity?"

How indeed? Apparently something has changed at the top, but the promise of a payout can do that. As for their future plans, beyond cashing out, Jones also writes, they have expressed "vaguely stated goals coupled with appeals for financial donations and volunteer help." In a recent New York Times piece about Burning Man's "growing pains," BM's appointed media spokesperson, when asked about matters financial, offered some New Age obfuscation worthy of any corporate flack: "When you're in the middle of a storm, if you're going to explain all of how you got there, and how you're going to get out, it often sets more panic among the survivors than if you just sail the boat out of the darkness."

Which, if translated into something stated by an oil or chemical industry representative, would translate into "Screw you -- it's our money and we'll do as we please." But one of BM's self-proclaimed "useful ideas" is that "Burning Man is an alternative to mass culture and consumer society." I'm down with that, as anybody who has seen my old car, clothes, and furnishings could attest. Mass consumer society is dirty in many ways -- but is BM too? I know I'm not the only one wondering. There have long been grumbles in the ranks, and reporters have long been discouraged from asking questions about money, such as: What is BM's bottom line? How much of a payout are the "owners" asking for? How much are staff paid, compared to the people in the top/inner circle? How many volunteers put in how many hours and what consideration might they get? In other words, how equitable is the BM financial structure, in this era of ever-increasing inequality, both within organizations and in general, and how will the potential payouts reflect that?

As one longtime attendee put it in the NYT piece:

I feel like transparency is always the best, and when you move from being very open and transparent about something to being vague, it always seems like the intent is nefarious... Especially when you see the economy tanking on a worldwide scale, it seems very self-serving... You say you're a counterculture organization, but then you're funding your retirement on the backs of attendees.

Many others would agree that BM ceased being truly "counterculture" in any real away long ago. One blogger has even called the event "the ultimate celebration of capitalism." Which is nutty, but maybe BM never was all it's been held out to be. Maybe it's fine that BM will turn out to have been a "radical capitalist" business proposition for a few "owners" all along, despite all the high-minded rhetoric. This is a capitalist society -- Harvey now clarifies that "Burning Man is not anti-capitalist," which requires some logical gymnastics given their avowed non-commerce stance. But it's a (relatively) free country, and many people love going to the unique big experience that is BM. So, other than the enviro-disaster aspects, who am I to complain? But still, the seeming secrecy, the potential for a few capitalists cashing out, coupled with the proclamations of being outside and above all that, can rankle a bit. Call me a party pooper, or worse, but something seems fishy at Burning Man, and there ain't no fish on the playa.

Proposal: Radical Transparency. Come on, Burning Men (and Women): Everybody says honesty in relationships is best. You've sold out in terms of tickets; might that happen soon in another way? Has it been the case all along? Can you turn into a truly environmental and socially responsible event and organization? How about showing some "radical transparency"?

Thanks for listening, and hopefully all Burners had a great time this year. I'll enjoy the stories, and the photos, even though I just wasn't able to make it. But maybe next time, when some ideals might be translated into something approaching reality.

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Burning Man's rules for media:
http://www.burningman.com/press/pressRandR.html