Clean Up Your Act, Burning Man; Show Us The Money

by Steve Heilig, September 15, 2011

Burning Man 2011, courtesy avramc via Flickr

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 — once I even 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 even naked people (depending upon who they are), 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 — and they are applying for a permit for up to 70,000 now — 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 50,000 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 has 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 piece 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 at a minimum.

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 not 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 organization. But first, as noted in BM chronicler/groupie Steven 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 right-wing 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-commercial 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”?

Perhaps the message is simply this: it's time for Burning Man to grow up and face the real world. It's an amazing event which needs to live up to its own convictions. Not easy to do, for individuals or 50,000 people, but worth a try.

15 Responses to Clean Up Your Act, Burning Man; Show Us The Money

  1. anon Reply

    September 15, 2011 at 12:49 pm

    Steve –

    I find this article to be highly negative. The tone is condescending, and your “facts” are nothing more than third party observations. After all, you have never even been to the Burning Man “carnival”.

    TBH – Many participants flock to Burning Man to get a brief escape from negative-ninnies such as yourself. It’s a fantastically positive place and with all the war and death and destruction we see all day every day, it’s nice and refreshing to travel to the desert with 50k people and just “hang out” for a little while.

    Perhaps you are simply trying to beef up your readership by publishing an article on the ever-controversial “Burning Man Festival”.. and I don’t blame you – the entire internet has been doing it for years.

    – Peace.

    • calaverasgrande Reply

      September 22, 2011 at 2:57 pm

      Burning Man has, for quite a while now, been an escape that only the privileged can afford. It is nice to have that escape, but you really can’t cry foul when they are called out.

  2. -Out Reply

    September 15, 2011 at 9:32 pm

    the theme was ‘rites of passage’, not ‘transitions’-that was the temple. you sure know your stuff!

    • Steve Reply

      September 16, 2011 at 4:41 pm

      Picky, picky. Guess I had misinformation from a Burner. But: how does that effect any of the points I tried to make? It doesn’t. But thanks for reading/writing anyways….
      SH

  3. Steve Heilig Reply

    September 15, 2011 at 10:44 pm

    Hello anon – thanks for reading, and writing, but: (1) It’s not ‘negative’ to point out some negative impacts and where reality diverges far from the high-minded rhetoric of BM; (2) As stated I am not against BM and as stated more than once, think it’s a wonderful thing that just needs to live up to its own hype; (3) you did not address any of the points I tried to make, including those based on, yes, ‘facts’ supplied from BM sources – altho yes, those could be questionable; (4) not sure why you assume I have not been, as I have; (5) why don’t you be brave enough to use your real name? Not doing so seems, well, negative.

    peace back!
    SH

  4. Jessica Ehlers Reply

    September 18, 2011 at 10:59 pm

    thanks for posting this article.

    • nate c. Reply

      September 18, 2011 at 11:20 pm

      Steve, thanks for the article, thought it was a great twist for you to go out on that limb of taking exception to what many people you know find completely acceptable. It is the examined life that is worth living and I personally find some of this hedonism that gets hyped and celebrated to be counterproductive to the causes of social justice to say the least………..AGAIN great article.

  5. nate c. Reply

    September 18, 2011 at 11:24 pm

    ……..and I don’t know if I can link the article BUT I believe I was trying to do the same thing with Reggae On The River in an article I wrote for the AVA several years back. Like you Steve, I was trying to penetrate that high minded rhetoric and get more to the essence of what’s actually taking place.

  6. Brooks Reply

    September 22, 2011 at 11:32 am

    Steve,
    You are right on target with the gigantic environmental impact this supposedly “green” event entails. Having been for several years, I am continually amazed at the sheer amount of petroleum products and generators used on the playa. On average, there are probably a hundred flame throwers going at night simultaneously, not to mention the sea of lights run on inefficient generators. To deny that the Burn is not Babylonian and garish is to simply turn a blind eye to the nature of the event. It truly functions as a Las Vegas for the affluent sphere of the counterculture.
    There’s nothing wrong with celebrating excess and the luxury of being able to create a fully functioning city in a hostile environment (albeit for the sake of “hanging out” for a week). However, festival attendees need to be able to approach the event with some skepticism, because it has changed drastically in recent years, and has turned from an exhibition of radical self reliance to radical excess.
    Along with that, this event has become a financial juggernaut, far beyond the scope of anything the founders probably ever imagined. Transparency in the management of this supposedly non profit event is not asking too much. It seems only logical, if the much beloved spirit of the event is to be maintained.

  7. Kevin Hoover Reply

    September 22, 2011 at 10:41 pm

    The riddle/flaw of this event is its stupendous carbon production, and the lack of any compensating effort to offset it. It’s 2011 folks, and you may have heard something in the news about how our atmosphere is kind of impaired right now.

    I wrote their unconvincing “cooling man” website to ask what they were doing about the thousands of tons of carbon this event creates. No reply.

  8. Yippiekayay Reply

    September 23, 2011 at 6:32 pm

    Continually amazed that such an environmentally conscious group thinks digging trenches, laying electrical cables and pumping the environment with electromagnetic energy for weeks is “non impact” I think the micro organisms, desert flora/fauna struggling to live and adapt in the terra firma would tend to disagree that their lives aren’t being impacted. Just saying….

  9. Dickey Weinkle Reply

    September 23, 2011 at 11:15 pm

    So what?

    • David Gurney Reply

      October 8, 2011 at 12:34 pm

      Anywhere I can go and not see the fat guy in the American Flag thong bikini, I will go.

  10. Ehrin Davis Reply

    October 22, 2011 at 12:51 pm

    Anything that requires the flow of so much capital to create, such as the Burn, is creating an environmental impact somewhere in the world. All events, even ones that are carbon neutral, depend on resources from somewhere else.

  11. rgdavis Reply

    October 22, 2011 at 7:07 pm

    Is Burning Man anything like Disneyland? Isn’t the total festival wherein you get to be yourself rather then Mickey Mouse just great? And after all the original idea of going to the “desert where there is nothing there” is as good as Disney Lands invitation to be inside a movie. If Bill Graham was alive he would invest, and certainly if this can be parlayed into a running event — in other locations –it might be the challenge to Disney World, Disney Paris, Disney uber allas. Don’t think negatively about this “hang out.”

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