I was at Burning Man's Global Leadership Conference yesterday - a gathering held to bring together leaders of regional Burns from around the world to the Bay for 3 days of sharing wisdom and knowledge - and I wanted to talk about one session in particular - Operation Citizenship (known internally in the Org as Operation Acculturation until a week or two ago). This session was premised on the fact that we're seeing a weakening Burning Man culture, and was led by Charlie Dolman - BM's Operations Manager - and Jim Graham - a key member of its communications team.
Charlie opened by talking about how things they'd been seeing the last few years really came to a head last year, including:
Now, none of this is new to anyone paying attention - it's pretty obvious the culture is in trouble. Charlie (the BM Operations Manager) said that when they came back from Burning Man this year they realized that what their #1 focus this year has to be isn't anything to do with improving gate operations, or whatever: It has to be addressing the slow dissolution of the culture that made Burning Man what it is, or was. I was really shocked - pleasantly - to hear this, as it was the first time I'd heard the Org so forthrightly admit that there's something slowly going rotten in the culture.
Ultimately, the worst case scenario is that we end up with an event dominated by idiots like this (not sure where this was taken or who took it, but it's not at BM....yet.)
What is the Org going to do to combat this?
The good news is the Org has clearly put a lot of thought into this, and correctly, I believe, it's a diverse, multi-faceted approach.
To begin with, they've got four high-level areas of focus:
Ultimately, most of what they're going to do boils down to communication and education, focusing on about 75 different ways they have to reach individuals, and getting better at boiling down their messages into short, digestible chunks.
Individually, all these (and they're just some of the tactics that will be used) probably don't seem that impressive, but there's no silver bullet here. This has to be a communication and education war waged on as many fronts as possible, because we're ultimately talking about influencing peoples' attitudes. We can't force people to give a shit about our culture, but I do think that most birgins would, if they understood what the culture is, enthusiastically participate. There'll always be some we can't reach, but we shouldn't let perfect by the enemy of good. Let's do what we can!
What Can We Do?
Correctly, Charlie and Jim also pointed out that this isn't just the Org's problem. It's the problem of everyone who doesn't want to see Burning Man's culture further deteriorate, meaning we veterans. How can we help? Some ideas from the session included:
I'm hoping the Org provides some suggested action items for individual Burners to take too, as I think there's a not-insignificant population that would respond to that with passionate action.
I'm really happy to see the Org taking this growing threat to the culture of Burning Man seriously, and I hope that as they start to get the message out to the veteran Burner community, we respond by, collectively, enthusiastically joining in the fight to save our culture. I also hope this is only the beginning of action by the Org, because this will not be enough.
So...are you with us?
Finally got around to updating it! Check it out here!
As I wrote about a month ago, I had the chance to visit a small portion of Fly Ranch during Burning Man this year. In that same post I asked the community to comment on what they'd like to see the property used for, gathering feedback from this blog, Facebook, the ePlaya forums, private messages, and on Reddit.
I got quite a bit of feedback, organized into 10 rough categories. One of those categories is what I'd categorize as 'cynical', though I make no judgment as to whether rightly or wrongly cynical. Those responses generally expressed the belief that Fly Ranch will be for friends of the Org, VIPs, and those with money. Personally, I hope they're wrong, and I've been repeatedly assured by those in the Org that they are, but only time will tell.
It's also worth noting that a number of responses spoke to the need to preserve the land of Fly Ranch, not trash it, and act as responsible stewards for it.
Onto the responses, without comment from me, along with a sample quote for each category:
As you can see, there was quite a variety of responses! It'll be pretty interesting to see what comes out of Fly Ranch, but I wouldn't hold my breath on them moving quickly. My understanding is they intend to move in a slow and considered fashion on this, which I think is wise.
What is Fly Ranch?
It's a 3800 acre property near the playa that hosted Burning Man in 1997 (just a few miles past the turn-off you make every year into Black Rock City), though only for that year, and back when the event was 10,000 people. You can read more about the event in 1997 here if you'd like.
The Burning Man organization has tried to acquire it four times-ish over the past 20 years, finally succeeding this year, with $6.5m in funding completely gifted by wealthy Burners.
The ranch has a diverse ecosystem, with one part of it dominated by swimmable hot springs that are pretty amazing. They're huge! The first thing we did on getting there was to strip off our dusty clothes and hop into the water, which is, I'd guess, between 99 and 101 degrees F. The bottom is delightfully muddy in a good way, and my god it was a pleasure to be there, soaking with other Burners.
Why did they take us out to the ranch?
Our group of 14 (out of about 200 they took out to the Ranch in total during the week) included the regional contact for Burning Japan, artists like Bryan Tedrick who has built things like the giant boar sculpture on the playa this year, a meta-regional coordinator for the Midwestern regionals, someone leading a theme camp whose name I can't recall, me, and so on. It was a pretty diverse group of people in terms of what we do at and around Burning Man.
They explained that though they'd love to invite everyone, it's just not possible, which was clearly evident. There's simply no infrastructure there. There was one temporary shade structure, a couple porta-potties on a trailer, and a wooden pathway/viewing structure around the Fly Geyser. That's it. Plus, there are ecological concerns around the health of the pools and the surrounding grasslands. It's just not set up to deal with a flood of people.
While we were there, they just wanted us to get a feel for the surroundings, in order to get an idea of the kind of property it is, and start the creative juices flowing as regards what we might do with Fly Ranch.
We were also told a few things about their intentions for developing a plan for the ranch...
Why did Burning Man buy Fly Ranch?
Well, interestingly or recklessly (take your pick!), what was driven home to us while there, and what's been further emphasized in private conversations with people in the Org since then is that they do not have a plan for the land yet because they don't feel it'd be in keeping with Burning Man's mission to dictate a plan. Instead, they want to involve the community - us - in figuring out what should happen with it.
There are, however, some concrete reasons to have purchased it. Two, in particular, stand out:
How Can You Help?
Think about all the questions and potential Fly Ranch brings up. We now have a 3800 acre permanent home very close to the Mecca of Burning Man - the Black Rock Desert. Literally, just down the road.
The BMORG plans to take this slowly, and is taking inspiration and advice from multiple groups, like Esalen and the Long Now Foundation, with a focus on long-term thinking, but ultimately, the answers will come from all of us - the Burning Man community.
I have my own thoughts, but I'd really love to hear what you think. The Org seems serious about doing this with heavy community involvement, so let's take put that to the test. I'll funnel your feedback to them and do another post talking about the feedback I got, so please, share what you think.
I don't ask these rhetorically. Please, think about them and leave feedback either in the comments below, or in the reddit thread about it:
Below are some videos and photos I made of the landscape there, to give you a sense of what the portion of the property I visited feels like.
Those white dust clouds across the low mountains in the distance? Yep, that's Burning Man!
A lot of drama coming out of the Gerlach Regional (aka Burning Man) this past week. If you missed it, a larger, more funded camp was the victim of vandalism. A lot of finger pointing has been made, but the truth is there isn’t any. No arrests have been made, no motive has been released. Everything you hear is speculation.
What isn’t speculation is a vocal portion the burnersphere has jumped on the opportunity to point the finger at those who have more of the one thing that doesn’t buy anything in Black Rock City (except iced
lattes, of course). I’ve seen richer celebrities blamed for everything from ruining the burn to avoiding the exodus. (I’d also like to point out for you that haven’t been to an airport lately that planes wait in line, too.)
I also sat with a guy on the bus coming in from the airport who wouldn’t have been able to experience the burn (his first) any other way. He lived in South Bay five years, had immediately drunk the Kool-Aid and was finally making the journey.
If you’re sitting at home talking about whether Burning Man is inhabited by the proper ratio of rich and poor people – the have and have nots as I’ve heard them called plenty in the last few days – then you’ve completely missed the point.
Burning Man (and burner culture, which I’ll use synonymously from here out) isn’t about what you have, it’s about what you bring. I’ve seen huge contributions this year from those with very little, and clever, subtler conversations from those who had quite a bit more. Both of which we among my favorite additions to the burn.
Much of the art comes from smaller groups, and even a lot of the bigger art is volunteer based – the majority of those building volunteering. From deep playing pieces to the temple itself, it’s a labor of love.
Many of the biggest camps are out there to create the party. To bring something bigger and better to the burn. One of my favorite things about theme camps, art cars and art pieces is competition to out clever and out do the next piece. To bring the biggest plane, or the lighthouse with the most character.
Burners need only look to their neighbors to set the next bar, which is what we should be doing. This world spends too much time focusing on what we have and what we don’t, lets leave that out of the place where we’re all much closer to equal.
In Black Rock City, or whatever regional you may reside on a given weekend, we’re rich in so many ways that matter so much more – in cleverness, in ideas, in inspiration, in happiness, in love. Remember these are the things that are invaluable even in the places where money exists.
I'm Dr. Yes, Professor of Affirmatology. Just say yes, folks!