Listen to this article now
Over the years, Burning Man, once a scrappy, free-spirited desert gathering, has undergone significant changes, raising questions about its original ethos. This transformation came to the forefront during a recent weekend event marked by chaos, rain, and mud that stranded 70,000 participants, serving as a symbol of the festival’s departure from its roots.
Many critics argue that the influx of billionaires and the ultra-wealthy have played a significant role in reshaping the Burning Man experience. What started as a small beach gathering in 1986 in San Francisco evolved into a gritty countercultural community of “Burners” who emphasized anti-commercialism within their temporary city constructed each year on a desiccated lake bed known as the playa.
Central to this community was the principle of “decommodification” — the absence of monetary transactions on the playa. However, the presence of wealth has become increasingly noticeable within Burning Man’s ranks. For some, attending Burning Man is equivalent to conquering Everest or embarking on a transformative spiritual journey, often backed by significant privilege.
Prominent figures like Elon Musk, the world’s wealthiest person, have attended Burning Man, extolling its virtues. Mark Zuckerberg made a brief appearance in 2012, even setting up his own tent and serving grilled cheese sandwiches. In 2018, Elizabeth Holmes, facing federal fraud charges, sought solace in the desert and symbolically burned an effigy representing her failed startup.
One of Burning Man’s tenets is “radical self-reliance,” which encourages participants to bring their own supplies and rely on their inner resources for survival throughout the week. However, for the elite attendees, self-reliance can be conveniently outsourced. Some ultra-wealthy individuals have been known to hire personal chefs for the event and pay substantial sums, upwards of $50,000, for luxurious camping accommodations.
Reports have surfaced about extravagant camps around the playa featuring chandeliers, party rooms, and outdoor showers, further highlighting the contrast between different Burning Man experiences.
Critics have argued that Burning Man exemplifies how affluent individuals can recreate hardship for leisure while remaining insulated from systemic challenges. The recent influx of the jet set has triggered schadenfreude on social media, especially when videos emerged of Burners, some paying exorbitant ticket prices, navigating ankle-deep mud and road closures following heavy rain.
While the situation raised concerns and evoked a “Lord of the Flies” atmosphere for some attendees, many seasoned Burners adapted to the adversity by offering assistance, food, and shelter to those in need. Fortunately, the reported death at the festival was unrelated to the inclement weather.
As attendee Andrew Hyde noted, the recent challenges brought Burning Man back to its origins, reminding participants that the event was originally designed to test one’s mettle in a harsh environment, fostering resilience and resourcefulness.