Zoe MacFarlane: Why I have Burning issues with Burning Man

The legendary festival’s rapturous appeal and zeal is lost on Zoe MacFarlane.

I’m back from Burning Man and I’m irked. Expect no gushing commentary about how Burning Man changed my life, or that I miss “home”. In fact, if you’ve attended “the Burn”, you may want to turn the page now because my experience of a week in one of the USA’s most inhospitable places has me riled up.

This was my first time at Burning Man, an event famous for uniting a free-spirited community with deep reserves of creativity. After five years of “maybes” on attending, I decided to journey deep into the Nevada desert. I love festivals and the experience of camaraderie they bring, and Burning Man has long been applauded for its pioneering and innovative ethos. It’s the MacDaddy of events, drawing a crowd of 70,000 international participants. A place where festival organisers travel to pilfer ideas for their own events (not that Burning Man is a festival, how dare you utter the “f” word). So why did it disappoint?

Burning Man runs on 10 key principles. They are spouted forth eagerly and often by Burners, with the goal of ensuring that Burgins (Burning Man virgins), can learn these holy tenets before setting foot on the mythical dust that makes up Black Rock Desert.

New arrivals are lectured that it’s about “Gifting”, not “Bartering”. And that brands and advertising are not welcome due to Decommodification (tell that to Converse). There are rally cries of “Immediacy” and “Participation”. In truth: it’s like that manager who always told you what to do but then did the complete opposite. This was the Burning Man I experienced.

Radical Inclusion is one of the most popular Burning Man creeds. Hear tales of hugs with random strangers over free booze and grilled cheese, or deep and meaningful conversations at sunrise atop an RV roof.

Checklists and Google sheets exist with the purpose of aiding the Burgin on their pathway to Radical Self Reliance. Sure, some food, sunscreen, socks, and a packet of wet wipes will be helpful, but these sanctimonious lists advise packing items like vitamin chews (for stamina), enough LED lights to rival a Franklin Rd home in Auckland in December, two or three pairs of socks for every day, and so much more. I packed half of what they recommended and used half of what I took, and because I’d come from overseas, it immediately became waste on exit. I’d like to rename these principles: “Leaving No Trace Here”, and “Zealous Over-Prepping”. You can’t succeed in one without unbalancing the other.

I’ve attended events all over the world and excess waste, cliquish groups, and VIP attendees exist at them all. My gripe is not with the friends who prefer to hang with their crew, or the noble concept of ensuring the event space is left as it was found; it’s the hypocrisy from the Burning Man community to revere and sermonise the 10 principles but uphold so few of them. Whereas they may have once reflected the ethos and culture of Burning Man, the shift I experienced has morphed the event into one with a more shallow and self-aggrandising ideology.

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