Burning Man

Generation Dobler

The fight to avoid buying, selling, or processing in a wealthy modernity

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Seven years ago, I wrote a cover story for reason called "Burning Man Grows Up." I remained fascinated enough in that peculiar art festival/experimental community that I expanded the article into a book, This is Burning Man.

This month, the tech business mag Business 2.0 cops the title of my original reason article to tell a different story about Burning Man's evolution.

Both are indeed about Burning Man growing up. My story was about Burning Man growing from its origins as a mostly anarchistic intentional community of artist/boho buddies gathering in the distant, eerie, and empty Black Rock Desert in Nevada (where the celebration had occurred every Labor Day since 1990, after it outgrew its 1986 birthplace on a San Francisco beach). I chronicled how Burning Man was growing into a more complicated set of entanglements with and responsibilities to government entities, and making tentative steps toward imposing order and rules on fiery chaos.

The story in the July issue of Business 2.0 is instead about Burning Man shifting into collaboration with corporate forces in the service of modern progressive eco-politics, while trying to maintain its identity—one could even say its "brand identification"—as an "anti-commodification" social movement.

Event co-founder Larry Harvey is smart enough to have told me "try to live without commerce…..you'll be dead in a week." But he argues a distinction between the commerce and division of labor that keeps us all alive and what he sees as a corrupt modernity in which too many human relations are reduced to the impersonal trading of commodities.

Burning Man has heretofore, as stated in its "10 principles," strived to keep anything to do with commerce and advertising (except sales of ice and coffee at stations it operates, already a topic of some derision in "Burner" circles) out of its sacred space.

As Burning Man's "principle three" states: "In order to preserve the spirit of gifting, our community seeks to create social environments that are unmediated by commercial sponsorships, transactions, or advertising. We stand ready to protect our culture from such exploitation. We resist the substitution of consumption for participatory experience."

But things are changing. The Business 2.0 article explains that something very different will be happening at Burning Man this year:

The fact that the organization sells coffee and ice is controversial enough. Imagine the reaction, then, when Burning Man makes the riskiest business move in its history: It's going to allow companies to exhibit products at the 2007 event.

Each Burning Man has a different theme, chosen by Harvey. This year's theme is "The Green Man." Burning Man, an extravaganza characterized by the consumption of huge quantities of fossil fuel, has discovered environmentalism. It is attempting to offset the 28,000 tons of carbon it estimates the event generates. Most controversially, the organization wants to bring as many green-energy companies as possible into what Harvey calls a world's fair of clean tech. Google is going to help produce an online 3-D search service called Burning Man Earth.

Burning Man officials stress that no money changed hands for the companies to have their place in this alt-energy pavilion. I was also assured that the strictures Burning Man placed on preventing the companies from doing any actual branding or direct marketing were so severe that 80 percent of companies that showed initial interest eventually backed out, figuring there was nothing in it for them.

Still, many Burning Man fans are not mollified, thinking that even without branding or explicit marketing it's still an influx of what they consider commercial commodities in the heart of their sacred space. See, for example, this 300-plus message Tribe.net thread, or these threads on Burning Man's own web site message board, "Eplaya."

One sample from the Eplaya: "This is one of the most disheartening things I've ever read about Burning Man….Talk about going into the temple and turning over the tables of the money changers….It's not going to be a trade show, but….there is going to be a pavilion where unbranded products are going to be shown by unbranded reps. Bullshit."

Another aspect of the story pissing off the cognoscenti is Burning Man bigwig Marian Goodell's perhaps injudicious use of a certain sort of language in referring to her…. constituents? People? Customers? (That identifying the right word can be a struggle exhibits the strange, confusing edge that Burning Man the business/festival/social movement teeters on.) From the Business 2.0 article:

"This community is a dream for anyone looking at demographics….We have kids who work in coffee shops and we have billionaires. To ignore the value of our brand, the buying power it has, is silly. But it's a ritual for these people, which is why it's going to be hard for them seeing businesses out there."

People suspicious of markets and marketing bristle at the word "demographics," but it can mean something as innocent as "people who are into the same things."

Emotionally, I don't understand why so many people get so upset at being marketed to, or at gleefully acknowledging the good that comes from crafting a social world that is dominated by people willingly exchanging skills, services, and goods. These types could be called Generation Dobler, after the famous quote from the sad sensitive man-child character, Lloyd Dobler, played by John Cusack in the 1989 film Say Anything.

Dobler certified his soulfulness by announcing that "I don't want to sell anything, buy anything, or process anything as a career. I don't want to sell anything bought or processed, or buy anything sold or processed, or process anything sold, bought, or processed, or repair anything sold, bought, or processed."

Which is lovely in its way, I guess, but the reason many people can indeed survive doing none of those things is because of the unprecedented wealth created by those who do. Most moderns, at least when pressed, recognize that commerce makes our lives richer in certain ways. What the Burning Man devotee wants is an opportunity to create temporary zones without it, for the entertainment value and for the (very real) additional (temporary) richness of social reality it creates.

But Burning Man is rife with the products of corporations, and always has been. And has always had to be. The prepared food items and bottled water we live on out there; the portajohns our wastes go in after eating that food and drinking that water; the tents we sleep in, the pipe and metal domes we lounge under, the clothes we wear, either exotic or normal—all sold to us not for fellow-feeling but by monied interests, usually corporate, who just want our cash. For Burning Man to be truly free of the products of corporate commerce, it would be a zone we could survive in for at most a few hours, and grimly at that.

Why corporate commodity's omnipresence bothers certain people in the first place is an interesting question. I got some insights into the ways to think about this common intellectual/emotional prejudice against dominant aspects of markets, commerce, and property from a presentation at last week's FreedomFest in Las Vegas.

Some of the brains behind the organization FLOW spoke at the event—Michael Strong, Jeff Klein, and John Mackey (a FLOW co-founder who in his day job is CEO of Whole Foods). FLOW's mission is to "articulate and animate an inspiring vision of a world with sustainable peace, prosperity, and happiness for all, catalyzed and sustained by entrepreneurial initiative and conscious capitalism."

In pursuing that mission, they stress that private property is often a means to developing virtues, character traits, and preferences that make people happy. They tell stories and spread information about how markets can and do solve problems and spread wealth. But they are aware that lots of people don't care about results as long as they see the means as corrupt, and thus also try to push an "entrepreneurship of meaning" to sell fresh ways for people to envision and react to the world around them, to develop and inculcate new "generative myths" about markets and culture and how they interact.

As this recent Burning Man brouhaha shows, such work, however difficult, is sorely needed. A popular progressive myth of markets, property, and commerce as largely tools of exploitation, despoliation, greed, and frequently impoverishment is still far too dominant in certain influential circles of American life. Burning Man is trying to do this year for its audience what FLOW tries to do—recast corporations and their products as not villains and despoilers, but as providers of tools and methods to solve problems.

The folks at FLOW might have been able to warn Burning Man that their many years of disparaging money, markets, and corporations constituted practicing an "entrepreneurship of meaning" that guaranteed that their actions this year were going to rile up part of their audience.

To use an analogy that could offend all concerned, what's happening with Burning Man could be seen as if Burger King, after years of assuring its customers that flame-broiling burgers was the proper thing to do and one of its special distinctions, decided to start frying them after all. Sure, many might not even notice or care. Some might decide, well, I've learned to like Burger King for lots of other reasons—the fries or the pies or the cool "King" icon. But some will feel betrayed.

What's so infuriating about market capitalism to those who want to hate it? We inevitably swim in it, and any attack on it threatens to involve us in a performative contradiction. We create, we trade, we buy, we sell—it is essential in the nature of any culture that wants to survive beyond the grimmest self-sufficiency.

What Burning Man is doing this year is an experiment, and possibly a dangerous one. As a long-term customer of the event, I confess I've been wary from the instant years ago when they began hyping "principles" beyond "come to an interesting place and do whatever you want. Lots of courageous, very active creative types will be out there too, most likely, and you maybe should try to be one yourself."

I doubt I'll be spending much time in their pavilion of green technologies this year, but an important message can be found in what they are doing: that the free play of creative action, even in a corporate market context, can be interesting and important, create win-win situations, and be engines of innovative and exciting new ways to act, to accomplish, and to live. Anyone lucky enough to live in America in the 21st century knows this in their bones, even if they are loathe to admit it out loud.

Senior Editor Brian Doherty is author of This is Burning Man and Radicals for Capitalism: A Freewheeling History of the Modern American Libertarian Movement.