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Growth and Change - Burning Man 2001

Growth and change in Burning Man reflects the growth of primitive cultures into civilization.

An essay by Phil Stripling
NOTE: I wrote this essay after returning from the Burn in 2001 -- The week preceding September 11, 2001, in fact. I neglected to post it to the Web site, but it seems still to be true after the 2002 burn, and it still is in my files, so here it is.

Burning Man started small on Baker Beach in San Francisco, California in the late 1980s, and its beginnings are already the stuff of legends. About twenty people are reported to have dropped by the first burn. In a few years, it attracted crowds that outgrew the beach, and the event was moved to the Black Rock Desert in Nevada, where several hundred people participated in the event for several more years, growing into the thousands and tens of thousands. The official timeline is available on the Burning Man Website, along with what are considered to be the top Burning Man myths.

Larry Harvey has (very astutely, I believe) never attributed a meaning to Burning Man. This allows the participants to vest the event with their personal concepts, dreams, and ideas and to give Burning Man meaning which is completely their own. I believe this is one of the reasons Burning Man has been so successful, and it is one of the reasons that people find that Burning Man is "better" in years past: The event has grown and changed over the years, and for many people that change modifies their ability to make the event their own every year, leaving the impression that it was "better last year."

Louise's and my first year was 1996, which I think I am safe in saying was the last year where the only rule was not to let your good time impinge on someone else's. I likened that year to being at a carnival sideshow gone horribly wrong. There was a delightful cacophony of sound and music, creating the kind of dissonance cheap movies use to create an atmosphere of horror. (You know, the kind of movie where the heroine wears a straight skirt, stockings, and heels to a carnival and then falls down after running two or three steps.) Everyone seemed to be involved in the event. Although we refer to costumes, I would rather say that people stopped wearing their work costumes and donned the apparel that really reflected who they were. Our page at Just Nice Folks shows many of the people who dressed for the event as they would like. Other photos from 1996 show people more outrageously attired.

This was also the last year people appreciated being photographed. To ask someone to take their picture showed that you understood what they were saying through their appearance. In 1996, people lived artfully, not only in their clothing but in their camps. Most of the camps had art of some kind as part of the design, sometimes paintings on particle board, silk screened banners, decorated shade structures, and the like. There was no esplanade, and there were no official theme camps. Spontaneous activity ruled the event, with pranks and games bringing people together for fun and entertainment.

The Man with arms raised during the day of the Burn.

In the past, the Man was lowered to the ground before the burn so it could be packed with explosives and accelerants. This was accomplished by a call to the village for people to come out by the hundreds and lower the Man with a huge rope, then raise him again. Before the Burn, the Man had his arms lowered. On the night of the Burn, there was a procession to the Man in the dark, and his neon- lighted arms were raised as the procession approached, in apparent welcome of the approaching villagers and his imminent immolation. The villagers always cheered as the arms came up. These rituals helped bind the community and enforce the spiritual order of the totem clan that Burning Man represents, providing a common experience, a unity.

This year, there seemed to be fewer individual efforts at camp and clothing creativity. The esplanade was ruled by what I can only call corporate theme camps which reminded me more of Las Vegas than of a carnival. There are requirements to get a camp on the esplanade, and these requirements demand a huge effort, more than an individual can mount, requiring a group to get together to fund, construct, and run what is essentially a small theme park. The result is similar to the boardwalk at a beach town in the summer. Spectators stroll the esplanade looking at the attractions. Instead of individuals expressing themselves through their clothing, piercing, tattoos, and so on, groups roamed the playa at night with EL wire animations, obviously well-planned and well-executed, but not the spontaneous activity we found in 1996, and much more costly as well.

This year, the Man was shorter to comply with restrictions concerning burn scars on the playa. The village did not participate in raising and lowering the Man in preparation for his immolation. When we went out to get photographs of the Man at sunset on the day of the Burn, his arms were already raised, well before the sun had set, without welcome, without ritual, without neon.

The growth and change surrounding the event strike me as paralleling the growth of civilization to a remarkable extent.

It is my understanding that precivilized societies were small, usually family- based, and that everyone in the village (a few hundred people) knew each other. This is how I understand things to have been in the early years of Burning Man. (I found a Web site, now gone, by a woman who said she stopped going to Burning Man when it got so big that she didn't know everyone there.) Primal cultures consisted of small bands of people who hunted and collected food; no one was able to specialize in one activity because each person had to be able to do it all to survive. Any trade was usually in nonessential items. Art existed for its magical or spiritual value, not for the sake of art.

The villagers had the same way of doing things, the same values, and they had a strong sense of group solidarity. These villages were composed of one kind of people; often the word for stranger was also the word for enemy. Strangers were a rare occurrence and usually played no part at all in daily life. The people of a village had similar knowledge, had similar lives in the village, and had similar interests. Kinship was either real or manifested through friendship.

There was no market. Survival in precivilized times depended greatly on co- operation among the residents of the village. Exchanges of labor and goods were not for gain but for survival of the members of the clan.

The village had a moral and spiritual life which all members shared. The cave drawings which survive are rich attestations to a spiritual life we can only guess at, a life which transcended the daily effort to get enough food just to live. Many cultures have surviving totem figures which represent a clan's identification with plants and animals in the world around the people, a world perhaps more living than we know today, animistic and vital.

But things did not stay as they were with primitive peoples. One of the defining differences between animals and us is that we learn and pass the knowledge on to successive generations. Hunter gatherers discovered the art and science of husbandry and gave up the nomadic life in favor of raising crops and animals for food, labor, and transportation. The villagers were freed from the daily grind of grubbing for enough food to live that day.

Once the production of food stabilized and people no longer needed to follow herds of prey on seasonal migrations, cities appeared. With cities, specialists could not make a living by bartering their labor and goods for food, so markets sprang up to accommodate the need and desire for economic exchange. Residents no longer knew everyone, and the old order of relationship gave way to a new order of laws to govern interpersonal dealings with strangers. Moral order gave way to legal order, then to technical order.

As cities became the centers for learning, the old animistic ideas of living stones gave way to gods, then to an empty universe where God is dead (or at least indifferent to people). Ultimately, we end with today, when people attempt to construct society according to some design originating with human beings, rather than with a spiritual or moral order. We end with Las Vegas.

In the early days of Burning Man, with a few hundred, even a few thousand, villagers, there was a unity and cohesion of purpose, a moral and spiritual order which all shared. As the event has grown into a city of twenty thousand and more, that unity has necessarily disappeared. Where once the residents of the village of Burning Man shared common knowledge, experience, and beliefs, now the residents of the city are drawn more widely from other towns and cities, and they bring new expertise, skills, and moral order to the Man. Subgroups form for specific tasks which others have not the skill to perform; subgroups form to pool funds to purchase gear and technology which individuals can no longer afford. Now each individual resident of Burning Man no longer contributes a vital part to the success of all residents, and we can have people who specialize in spectating at the event, at consuming the production of the corporate groups.

Life in the Post Vegas world

Growth and change are inevitable and are neither bad nor good. Burning Man must continue to grow and to change. It is my belief that the people who complain that it was better before and who want to recapture their first experience are the most inimical to the survival of Burning Man. At meetings held in San Francisco between events, I have had the opportunity to hear people speak and offer suggestions; some have not yet been but are planning for the coming year, some have been once or twice, and some have been coming for years and years. The best, most creative ideas come from the ones who have not even been to Burning Man. They have no constraints on their spiritual order. The ones who have been coming for years are the ones who want to deny access to those who are not worthy and to constrain the event to what it was like their first time. They want to impose a legal or technical order on the event in an attempt to recapture a spiritual order from days gone by (and which days gone by varies according when they first attended).

Since ontogeny recapitulates phylogeny, perhaps the growth to Las Vegas was inevitable. Given that it occurred in maybe 15 years instead of 15,000, I will be very interested in seeing whether the continued growth of the Man predicts the Post Vegas world to come.

In any event, or in all events, the Burn this year was wonderful and without a hitch. I look forward to coming for years and years to come, and when I start talking about how it was better back in the Twentieth Century, just wheel me back into my long term care room and let me rant.

2002 Postscript

The 2002 edition of the Burn did not change my view. The Man was primed by a crew of properly ID'ed and card-carrying pyros without being lowered. The fireworks were safe. Before the event, last- minute calls went out for fund- raising parties and donations to finance the completion of several camps; I expect IPOs in the near future.

This is not the official Burning Man site. That Web site is located at Welcome to Burning Man.
The Burning Man Archives contain every Web site for the Burning Man known to Man. Please browse that site as well.

Copyright © 2001, The Civilized Explorer