Burning Man might sound like a big party in the desert, but it’s also a huge undertaking requiring careful planning. The cost of attendance per person is often in the thousands of dollars, and difficult weather conditions are the norm.
Criticizers have been talking for years about the event’s negative ecological impact. And don’t forget the legendary hard-partying, in-your-face, and sometimes annoying social dynamics of the event.
Do these sound like red flags to you? Keep reading to learn more about Burning Man and why it may be a scene you want to avoid.
About Burning Man
Today’s Burning Man came from humble beginnings as an annual summer solstice bonfire ritual shared between friends. When the original host decided to step down, one regular attendee named Larry Harvey volunteered to take the reins.
Harvey worked with friends to create a wooden effigy, which was burned on Baker Beach in San Francisco, California, on June 22, 1986. This was the beginning of the event’s long-standing effigy tradition.
Harvey coined the name Burning Man in 1988. Losing the Baker Beach location in 1990 due to city permit and zoning issues was a hurdle. However, he teamed up with his friend John Law to move The Burn to Nevada’s Black Rock Desert. The event grew steadily over the years and, in 2019, hosted nearly 80,000 attendees.
Today, Burning Man’s purpose is to create an intentional community governed by a set of rules known as the Ten Principles. These principles focus on ideas such as inclusion, decommodification, self-reliance, self-expression, communal effort, and participation.
Attendees are encouraged to participate fully by collaborating on a group art project, sharing food or drinks with community members, or simply making new friends.
Burning Man is known for its incredible art installations, immersive theme camps and events, and, of course, the traditional effigy burn. People travel from around the world to witness this one-of-a-kind social experiment. Who wouldn’t want to experience the magic?
Not so fast! Before you pack your bags and head out to the playa, take a moment to consider a few reasons why Burning Man might not be for you.
#1 Burning Man’s Environmental Impact
Although one of Burning Man’s Ten Principles is that participants should leave no trace, it’s nearly impossible to prevent litter and pollution at an event that hosts up to 80,000 people. Residents of nearby towns have complained for years that as the burners arrive, so does the litter.
According to an article on NPR.com, trash from the event often finds its way to Gerlach, Nevada, a small town more than 20 miles from Black Rock City.
But physical trash isn’t the only factor affecting the environment. While the main event at Burning Man is the effigy burn, participants are also permitted to conduct smaller fires across the desert, releasing untold toxins and chemicals into the air.
Even Burning Man’s website warns of the danger of playa fires, encouraging children and people with health issues to steer clear.
To make matters worse, high attendance numbers cause massive traffic jams at The Burn’s gate. It’s not uncommon to wait several hours to enter or exit Black Rock City. On the last day of the event in 2016, organizers reported a nine-hour gate traffic delay as officials searched for a missing underage attendee.
Fortunately, they found the 17-year-old, but imagine how much gas was burned that day by idling cars! Needless to say, if you’re concerned about your carbon footprint, Burning Man may not be the festival for you.
#2 It Can Break Your Bank
Aside from a few necessities offered for sale onsite, the event is cashless, and organizers expect attendees to prepare accordingly. Gifting and assisting others is commonplace at the event. Many participants sign up for volunteer shifts to help The Burn run smoothly.
Burning Man’s gift economy is one facet that makes the event special. In a society where it’s common to spend hundreds or thousands of dollars on drinks or merch at a festival, the idea of a gift economy is downright refreshing. You may think, “At an event where nothing’s for sale, how much money could I possibly spend?”
Unfortunately, the answer is that you’ll spend $575 just to get through the gate. That’s the cost of admission per person at this year’s Burning Man, a more than $100 increase from ticket prices in previous years. Vehicle passes are $140 per car, meaning one driver in one car will spend more than $700 just to get in.
Keep in mind that these fees aren’t all-inclusive. One of the Ten Principles, radical self-reliance, dictates that every participant comes prepared to feed, shelter, and enjoy themselves without assistance from festival management.
How much does it cost to live in the desert for a week? That number varies from person to person, but ensuring you have the correct supplies to survive harsh desert conditions in a primitive campsite isn’t cheap.
And if you’re traveling internationally, that number only goes up. On the blog Hand Luggage Only, one couple from the UK reports that their Burning Man trips cost them, on average, nearly $9,000. That’s not pocket change!
#3 The Weather and Dust Are Formidable
Speaking of harsh conditions, don’t forget that the Black Rock Desert is an actual desert. That means extreme weather conditions are the norm. The forecast predicts highs near 100 degrees and lows below 50 degrees during this year’s Burning Man. Are you prepared to pack outfits for hot summer days and chilly nights?
Temperature isn’t the only environmental factor to keep in mind. Dust storms can create whiteout conditions, kicking up enough chalky silica dust to irritate eyes and lungs that aren’t adequately protected. The Survival Guide warns against walking or driving a vehicle during whiteouts since lowered visibility can cause accidents and injuries.
Playa dust can cause problems beyond the weather. Due to its alkali content, prolonged exposure to this dust can cause chemical burns, especially on improperly protected feet. This phenomenon is so common that it earned an unofficial diagnostic title: Playa Foot. If this condition sounds unappealing to you, consider sitting out The Burn.
#4 Burning Man’s Drugs, Parties, and…Orgies?
One of the Ten Principles is radical self-expression, and it’s the driving force behind the sights and sounds of Burning Man. When people have total creative freedom, they often make incredible things. And for some people, creative freedom translates to the freedom to do drugs, party all night, and have a lot of sex.
Of course, there’s nothing wrong with consenting adults engaging in these activities. But as Brad Bynum points out in an article for the Reno News & Review, it can be hard to determine the boundaries between public and private spaces at Burning Man.
This means you’re likely to be up close and personal with people on drugs, people engaging in sexual activity, and 24-hour party noise.
This level of radical self-expression is baked into the event. Burning Man is traditionally a clothing-optional event, meaning you should prepare for quite a bit of public nudity. And don’t forget about the Orgy Dome, one of the staple theme camps at the event and an open forum for people to hook up.
Sex isn’t the only form of self-expression on the playa. Drug use isn’t outright encouraged, but it’s not actively discouraged either. And people on drugs can, of course, end up in bizarre or dangerous situations, often roping bystanders into the fray.
Before you head out to Black Rock City, ask yourself: can I handle this kind of environment? Even if you decline to participate in the wilder side of The Burn, you’ll need to be comfortable enough to be near this activity.
#5 That New Age Vibe
Radical self-reliance doesn’t just refer to bringing enough food and water for a week in the desert. It also means that you’re responsible for your own experience at Burning Man: how much you participate, enjoy yourself, and get out of the event is up to you.
If you’re just looking for a wild party in the wilderness, that’s great! But be advised that you’ll run into a lot of new-age spirituality and themes of self-discovery along the way.
We’ve all met “that person”: the yoga enthusiast, the meditation fanatic, the enlightenment seeker. While there’s nothing wrong with taking care of your mind, body, and spirit, everyone knows there are some folks who take these themes to the extreme. And there are a lot of those folks at Burning Man.
Black Rock City is a magical place, so magical that the burner community coined a term to refer to everything that isn’t Black Rock City: “Default World.”
The event allows people to broaden their horizons, explore their authentic selves, and briefly forget about jobs, money, and responsibilities. Anyone who’s gone on vacation will tell you it’s always tough to leave the fun behind.
But for many, Burning Man is less a vacation and more a way of life. The specific culture of the playa can be alluring or obnoxious, depending on your perspective. Burning Man might not be for you if you’re easily annoyed by the namaste and love-and-light crowd.
To Burn or Not to Burn?
As Burning Man approaches its 40th anniversary, it’s hard to believe what began as a small beach bonfire has grown into a world-famous temporary utopia in the desert. The festival is an excellent source of fun and inspiration for many people, but it isn’t for everyone.
The Burn’s steep financial commitment, environmental risks, and social aspects can be intimidating and a total turn-off. If you’re thinking twice about traveling to Black Rock City, staying home is probably best.
Now that you’ve read some reasons to avoid Burning Man, do you think you’d ever attend? Let us know why or why not!
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