Burning Man: 10 Principles

Burning Man’s Ten Principles help to prevent the common violences of ordinary people toward each other and the planet. Korten (2009) says that there are just two main issues that we face: one, the “wanton destruction of… earth that sustains us and is our home” and two, “the unjust division of what remains of that abundance between the profligate and desperate in our society–a division perpetuated by widespread, ongoing, and self-destructive violence.”

1. Radical Inclusion.
“Anyone may be a part of Burning Man,” writes Harvey on the Burning Man website. “We welcome and respect the stranger. No prerequisites exist for participation in our community.” Primo Levi, in his essay “The Gray Zone” points out that the ascent of the priviledged…is an anguishing but unfailing phenomenon: only in utopias is it absent” (in Schepper-Hughes & Bougous p. 85). For many, Burning Man is that sort of utopia, a place where the Ten Principles provide a code of conduct that maintains a greater equality on the playa than anywhere else they know. While it is true that certain members of the monied classes fly in to stay in RVs and enjoy private art cars to get around the playa, for the most part, celebrities and the wealthy at Burning Man mix it up and get as dusty as everyone else.

             2. Gifting.
“Burning Man is devoted to acts of gift giving,” wrote Harvey (2004). “The value of a gift is unconditional. Gifting does not contemplate a return or an exchange for something of equal value.” Burning Man is the opposite of Wall Street “which holds that greed is good and the interests of society are maximized when we each relentlessly pursue our own financial advantage without regard to social or environmental consequences” (Korten, 2009). This 2011  photo of us in front of the Temple was taken as a gift from a man who did a professional photographic set-up on the playa; after the Burn, he emailed us this photo.(The photo below was taken by someone while we were waiting). The bandanas around our necks we tiedyed and silkscreened and gifted  in 2009. In 2009 and 2011, we also gave out stickers with Ganesh riding a bike that had the year and “Burning Man.” This year, I have already received a brilliant playa gift from Beveler Bill Odbert who has been busy all winter and spring making and gifting leather key chains, purses, and lidded beverage containers using scraps from his fine leather business. He also sent me bracelets to share in Kidsville (more on his and other gifts soon!) Check out this photo by my friend Absinthia of the beautiful beverage containers he sent her which I’m sure she will put to good use by putting some of her own brand of Absinthe in it!

             3. Decommodification.
“In order to preserve the spirit of gifting,” continued Harvey, “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.” According to Korten (2009), this is not strictly a Utopian idea: “we can create a new economy devoted to the service of life.” At Burning Man, where you can only buy coffee, cocoa, tea, chai or ice, the difference between wealth and money becomes clear to people: wealth is “anything that has true intrinsic value: land, labor, knowledge, food, education” (Korten 2009). While a ticket to Burning Man in 2013 is ten times more expensive than it was during my first few years to pay with the costs incurred by Burning Man’s shadow, once someone makes it to Black Rock City (and, admittedly, many people spend a small fortune getting there, renting RVs, and buying costumes), the event is really about intrinsic experiences, not about money. “Most valuable of all,” said Korten (2009), “are those forms of wealth that are beyond price: love; a healthy, happy child; a job that provides a sense of self-worth and contribution; membership in a strong, caring community; a healthy, vibrant natural environment; and peace.”

             4. Radical Self-reliance.
“Burning Man encourages the individual to discover, exercise and rely on his or her inner resources,” wrote Harvey (2004). This Principle can also be applied outside of Burning Man: “rebuilding local supply chains; supporting local, low-input family farms; developing local financial institutions; reversing the trend toward conversion of farm and forest lands; concentrating population in compact communities that bring home, work, shopping, and recreation in easy reach by foot, bicycle, and public transportation; and retrofitting their buildings for energy conservation to become substantially self-reliant in regard to food, energy, and other basic essentials” (Korten). The Burning Man community does put up with “sparkleponies”: attractive and often elaborately costumed members of the community who rely on the support of the community to survive.

             5. Radical Self-expression.
“Radical self-expression arises from the unique gifts of the individual,” wrote Harvey (2004). “No one other than the individual or a collaborating group can determine its content. It is offered as a gift to others. In this spirit, the giver should respect the rights and liberties of the recipient.” Korten described how the spirit image is how “we recognize the face of God in every human being, animal, insect, and grain of sand-leads to a politics of community, shared purpose, and mutual service. Everything in creation is both manifestation and agent of a great spiritual intelligence seeking to know itself through the creative exploration of its possibilities… We see ourselves as agents of that creative journey and find our ultimate fulfillment in devoting ourselves to it.” The Burning Man community, however, frowns on “darktards”: members of the community who neglect to light themselves or their bikes, and who then risk being run over by art cars or bicycles.

6. Communal Effort
. “Our community values creative cooperation and collaboration,” described Harvey (2004). “We strive to produce, promote and protect social networks, public spaces, works of art, and methods of communication that support such interaction.” To evolve from being perpetrators and bystanders of destruction and to prevent further violence, Straub’s (1989) research showed the “the importance of learning by doing;” by encouraging “children to engage in helpful acts” he found that children later “helped and shared more…Learning by doing is a basis for developing values, motives, self-concept, and behavioral tendencies” (p. 80).

7. Civic Responsibility. “We value civil society,” Harvey advocated (2004). “Community members who organize events should assume responsibility for public welfare and endeavor to communicate civic responsibilities to participants. They must also assume responsibility for conducting events in accordance with local, state and federal laws.” Korten (2008) pointed out that our cultures and institutions “reward and celebrate our pathologies of individualism, greed, hubris, deceit, ruthless competition, and material excess” which makes us “doubt even the possibility that we humans, as a species, might have the capacity to cooperate in the interest of a common good.”  However, at Burning Man, a wealth of events morning, noon and night engage participation, connect individuals, and creates community that reaches beyond Black Rock City and that renew participants’ faith in the human species.

             8. Leaving No Trace. “Our community respects the environment,” Harvey maintained. “We are committed to leaving no physical trace of our activities wherever we gather. We clean up after ourselves and endeavor, whenever possible, to leave such places in a better state than when we found them.” Jung wrote that, “Through scientific understanding, our world has become dehumanized.” This Principle serves to connect participants more closely with their surroundings and requires them actively to pay attention with every material object that they bring to the playa. The result is that participants regain their “emotional participation in natural events” and are no longer “isolated in the cosmos.” Opportunities for symbolic meaning return, making it no longer true that “Thunder is no longer the voice of a god, nor is lightning his avenging missile” (Jung as cited in Sabini, 2005, p. 79-80).  The earth once again speaks—at least to many Burners. On this subject, Korten (2009) maintained that “collectively we act to increase phantom wealth even at the cost of destroying the real wealth of the earth’s abundance.”

9. Participation
.
“Our community is committed to a radically participatory ethic,” wrote Harvey (2004). “We believe that transformative change, whether in the individual or in society, can occur only through the medium of deeply personal participation. We achieve being through doing. Everyone is invited to work. Everyone is invited to play. We make the world real through actions that open the heart.” Here Harvey sounds as if he is channeling James Hillman’s book The Thought of the Heart and the Soul of the World and its discussion of himma and anima mundi. Through participation, people who attend Burning Man are transformed through their experience of the anima mundi: “that soul-spark, that seminal image …its sensuous presentation…soul is given with each thing, God-given things of nature and man-made things of the street” (Hillman, 1995, p. 101).  Straub (1989) wrote that, “Bystanders…can define the meaning of events and move others toward empathy or indifference. They can promote values and norms of caring, or by their passivity or participation in the system, they can affirm the perpetrators” (p. 87).

10. Immediacy
.
“Immediate experience is, in many ways, the most important touchstone of value in our culture,” explained Harvey (2004). “We seek to overcome barriers that stand between us and a recognition of our inner selves, the reality of those around us, participation in society, and contact with a natural world exceeding human powers. No idea can substitute for this experience.”  Again, Harvey sounds like he familiar with ideas from Hillman: “to recuperate the lost soul, which is the aim of all depth psychologies, we must recover our lost aesthetic reactions, our sense of beauty” (Hillman, 1995, p. 41).  For Hillman, beauty is not just “beautifying” or an item in a museum or a simply an object: true beauty is in an experience: “penetrating into the ancient notion aisthesis (sense-perception) from which aesthetics derives” (p. 42).

Attending Burning Man and becoming a Burner offers participants a journey into soul making; their experiences there show them new ways to live that combat the disease of the lack of Aphrodite as well as how we might create a new economy. Burners and non-Burners alike would agree with David Korten that “We must either heal our collective self or perish as a species. A necessary centerpiece of that project is to replace the culture and institutions of a failed economic system with the culture and institutions of a new economy.” Burning Man’s Ten Principles provide a road map as well as an experiment in how this can be done. Otherwise, “Civilized man…is in danger of losing all contact with the world of instinct—a danger that is still further increased by his living an urban existence in what seems to be purely manmade environment. This loss of instinct is largely responsible for the pathological condition of contemporary culture.”  C. G. Jung (as cited in Sabini, 2005, p. 15)

Originally published on Art Predator.

Part 3 of a 3 part series published July 2013. Complete references there.

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