Of the Ten Principles of Burning Man, my favorite may be Radical Self-Reliance. All the time people who have not attended think that Burning Man is a hippy fest. I think that it is closer to a libertarian fest. There are not handrails, monitors, safety warnings and thought police telling you what to do or look out for.
The moment that brought this home to me was at the art installation of a pirate ship sinking into the playa (pictured above). To enter the pirate ship, you walk up a pier over the dry lakebed and pass through a hole in the side of the ship that is about 4 feet high. There are no fences, no “mind your head” signs. Inside the ship, the floor slopes at about 30 degrees. You negotiate this on your own. I thought how the people who built this ship must have reveled in the fact that there were no building inspectors, no permits, no safety rules.
The principle that probably allows the spirit of radical self-reliance to thrive is Civic Responsibility. I must say that the self-policing of the event by its members and the volunteer Black Rock Rangers, makes the event very friendly and surprisingly orderly. People are picking up MOOP, matter out of place, without prompting. In fact the playa is always spotless with regard to trash. People who have over imbibed or need help are quickly assisted and when needed shuttled off to the volunteer staffed hospital.
I believe that when people know they must watch out for themselves, they take greater responsibility for their own safety and survival. People going to the event know that nothing can be bought or sold, except for ice and coffee. So when you attend, you are careful to bring what you need to survive the 100-degree temperatures, dust storms very dry air.
Of course the Principle of Gifting, means that if you have forgotten something, you can probably ask someone for it and it will be given. This is probably my second favorite of the provisions. The principal states: “Burning Man is devoted to acts of gift giving. The value of a gift is unconditional. Gifting does not contemplate a return or an exchange for something of equal value.”
People always bring more than they need. In my photo booth, I have a bottomless beer cooler. Nothing tastes better on a hot day in Black Rock City than an ice-cold beer. I brought about 200 beers. The fact that I take over 500 portraits during the week, and offer everyone a beer if they stay and talk, means I run out quickly. But all I have to say is that the cooler is running low and I never end up running out.
This year in our camp we had a couple from Portland volunteer to feed all of us dinner every night. They did this in the spirit of the burn and wanted nothing in return. We ate like kings getting lasagna, curry, daal and swordfish. I had never met these folks before, but they were friends with our camp organizer and said they wanted to feed us all.
Maybe with a little more of these principals in the default world, as Burners call the other 51 weeks of the year, would make life more rich and rewarding for us all.
Photos by Scott R. Kline, who regularly takes photographs and editorial portraits for InMenlo.