The Irony of Burning Man
What better place to illustrate the contradictions of climate change than Burning Man.
Burning Man is a social phenomenon. It was established in 1986. Lots of people like it, lots of people are involved with it and as a social event it has been relatively harmless, artistically educational, and lots of fun. Sort of a playtime fantasy event for millionaires.
Burning Man was founded with the following stated principles: radical inclusion, gifting, decommodification, self-reliance, radical self-expression, communal effort, civic responsibility, leaving no trace, civic responsibility, participation, and immediacy.
All valid moral principles but at the same time there are contradictions like the use of private jets by privileged attendees, single use plastic, widespread use of private gas-powered generators, and a very liberal use of propane for displays.
To be fair, the organizers are well aware of these contradictions and strive to address the issues without compromising the ambiance of the festival. It’s not easy.
One of the principles that Burning Man holds, in fact, the first principle of eleven principles is radical inclusion. The third principle is radical self-expression.
On Monday, August 31st, there was a demonstration by climate change activists on the road leading into the desert site where the festival takes place. The protest organized by the Seven Circles Group and Extinction Rebellion staged a classic non-violent protest by blocking the road with a trailer, signs, and their bodies.
As the line of cars began to back up for miles, many of the attendees became quite angry. The police were called, the protestors were roughly handled, and the blockade was removed.
None of this was unexpected by the protestors. Getting busted and roughed up by the police is not unusual for climate change activists.
What I found shocking however was the vitriol and rage expressed by people who were temporarily inconvenienced with a bevy of people posting social media comments complimenting the police for roughing up the activists, demanding they be jailed and even shot.
How dare they protest Burning Man?
What I did notice is that vehicles could easily have driven off the road slightly and around the protestors. Or they could have waited it out and even considering the cause, supported the action as a legitimate form of social protest in the spirit of Burning Man.
In fact, of all the displays and participation, creativity, and art, the blockade by Extinction Rebellion and Seven Circles was perhaps the most valid and real for this year’s Burning Man.
The protest fell neatly into the principles of radical inclusion and radical self-expression. It also fits perfectly with the principles of communal effort, civic responsibility, participation, and immediacy.
The attendees should have embraced the protest, applauded their action, and expressed their anger at the police who were roughing up the activists.
They did no such thing. Not one of the inconvenienced people came to the defense of the activists. Many were outraged that anyone would protest a festival that proudly acknowledges climate change and ecological values.
The angry Burning Man attendees did not want to hear about or think about the message. Instead, they directed their anger at the protestors, some of whom were active Burning Man participants themselves.
Blocking the road in the name of climate change made people angrier than the recent devastating fire in Lahaina, the floods in California, the fires raging through Spain, Greece, and Italy, and the stronger hurricanes slamming into coastal communities.
Those things were somewhere else and that is how most people think until it hits their community.
What was hitting the Burning Man community on August 31st was a road blockade and attendees were pissed. Thankfully according to many of the attendees, the police intervened just like they have done against pipeline demonstrators and forest defenders. After all Burning Man is big business for local communities.
The police became the heroes and the activists the villains.
Fast forward a few days to Saturday, September 2nd.
Tens of thousands of Burning Man attendees are stuck in the desert, unable to leave as torrential rains turned their desert into a swamp of thick sticky mud. A half an inch of unexpected rain in the desert grounded the entire event and shut it down.
Climate change just kicked Burning Man in the ass. Vehicles could not move; the nearest airport was closed. The event itself was shut down. It took three days for a mass exodus of thousands of vehicles to work their way through the muck.
“Rain over the last 24 hours has created a situation that required a full stop of vehicle movement on the playa,” the U.S. Bureau of Land Management, the agency that manages the land on which the event takes place, said in a statement. “More rain is expected over the next few days and conditions are not expected to improve enough to allow vehicles to enter the playa.”
This is exactly what Extinction Rebellion and the Seven Circle Group were protesting against.
Climate Change is real, floods in the deserts are real. This is the first time since the festival began in 1986 that the fires of Burning Man have been extinguished by water and mud.
But hey, those heroic cops showed those demonstrators the business end of a nightstick much to the joy and amusement of people whose sense of moral self-righteousness had been challenged by a message they all agreed with in principle but refused to acknowledge in practice.
Climate change is serious unless it interferes with business as usual. A great many people want change but they themselves don’t want to change until a hurricane, tornado, fire, or flood flattens and destroys their home.