The 2023 Burning Man gave us a glimpse into the power of community under climate duress.
For a brief moment in August, the world news was captivated by the story of Mudpocalypse at Burning Man. The instruction by the Burning Man organization to “shelter in place and conserve food and water,” released over BMIR radio to the inhabitants of Black Rock City, was picked up by the media and raised the specter of 70,000 individuals, (many of them privileged, educated, and white), starving and freezing in muddy sewage, unable to access supplies. The Black Rock Desert—in the middle of which the Burning Man is built—is 1000 feet of alkaline silt, and it did what it does when wet: became a lake of clay slip that is completely impassable for vehicles, bicycles, and most walking.
As it happens, I was there, watching the story unfold from the high ridge of Cassidy Mine on the edge of the Black Rock Desert where I had gone to camp and watch the Man Burn with my partner and our dogs. We watched as the rain fell (and fell and fell) and a spectacular double rainbow rose over the city, enclosing it in what felt like a spiritual halo that would put them to the test. We are, at this point, veteran Burners—my partner has been since 1997 and I for 10 of the last 12 years. As we saw the long shiny reflection of the rainbow in the desert, we realized that something special was up.
I had been to the Burn this year but left the event on Friday just before the roads became unnavigable, before my weekend work shifts in the psychiatric ER in Carson City, Nevada.The Burn had been its usual serendipity and spiritual magic for the 4 days I was able to attend. I was gifted a last-minute ticket to camp with the Earth Guardians, one of the thousands of camps that Burners organize themselves into to provide something to others and take care of their own. Over the years, I have camped with BMIR (the “on-playa” radio station), Saints and Sinners, and several art projects, and volunteered for everything from the psychiatric support team, to Census data collection, to coating myself in dust and painting myself blue for art projects. Having less time this year, I picked up a shift with the Leave No Trace team, golf-carting around to teach others where to store their generator fuel so as not to blow up their RV and to help from the Bureau of Land Management (BLM). Environmental self-policing is written into the contract between the government and “the org,” as those that manage the event are known. Later, I took an 11 pm to 3 am shift for another group, the Temple Guardians—holding space for people to meditate and grieve at the Temple. This is a cherished place at the event for people to place art, relics, and memorials to parts of themselves, to grieve losses, social ills, and past traumas they want to release. At the end of the week, these are burned in a silent gathering of 70,000 individuals, so quiet that you can hear the crackling of lit paper.
The Burning Man Community
Burning Man, which started when Larry Harvey burned a wooden man on Baker Beach as part of a quest for authenticity, is so many things at once: an intentional community; an experiment in artistic, creative, philosophic, social, and sexual expression; an exercise in sustainability and environmental neutrality; a decommodification of normal exchange; a place of profound personal and spiritual transformation; and the best party in the world. It is also held in a deeply challenging physical environment that requires careful preparation to survive: a desert. Almost every year someone dies and many are injured; you sign away the organization’s liability for your death when you buy a ticket. As temperatures have risen with climate change, dust and dangerous heat have increased.
The 10 principles that organize the Burning Man community are as sacred as they can be given that they are upheld by a group of individuals who are by nature anti-authoritarian in the extreme, often having the explicit goal of breaking rules and deconstructing existing institutions of all kinds. The principles have emerged from the practices that have seemed most to help the burner community thrive, and include immediacy, participation, communal effort, civic responsibility, radical inclusion, radical self-reliance, radical self-expression, gifting, decommodification, and leave no trace. At the core, the goal is unconditional full frontal authentic engagement with the self and other stripped of corrupt motivations or future promise; confrontation with the transience of one’s existence and with the fleeting nature of all opportunity and pleasure is at the core of many of the rituals of the event.
By participating in Burning Man, you learn how to do a lot of things—build a wide variety of camping and climbing structures that can withstand 70 mph winds and 100+ person loads, prepare and preserve food, navigate without maps, use any number of hand tools, and ways to manage water and power, including greywater and fuel management, solar farms and deep cycle batteries, and various forms of information transmittal and their associated waveforms. Participants, a disproportionate number of whom hold advanced degrees, also synthesize, grow, and use designer drugs and psychedelics. They work alongside skilled labor technicians and artisans in glass, metal, neon, and other media to create, build, and explore deeper aspects of themselves. Many who have been to Burning Man come away transformed by the amount of love they have experienced.
It is through this loving hive mind of wisdom, talent, and shared hardship of constructing large events and projects in the middle of the desert that “the community” is built. The smaller communities of camps at the event and geographical regional networks that sustain connection through the year have incredibly tight bonds and operate by self-designed individual civic structures that often aim for decentralization, devolution, and deconcentration of power to empower individual expressiveness and participation. Within the community, there is a high expectation that members will look out for each other, handle each other’s psychic and medical crises, and manage interpersonal and larger conflicts, and do so in a spirit of transformational possibility, and of aligning one’s own goals with what the community can do for both individuals and society at large.
The Flood of 2023
And so the great flood of 2023 came, and as we watched from the ridge, it became clear that it was to be a test of the community that has sustained this extraordinary event for the last 33 years. What would happen on the stranded ark that Black Rock City had become? Was this Atlantis in the making? Would those community dig into their principles under duress?
The media was hungry to inflame the emotions of its audience with a story of powerlessness, suffering, and loss. For a moment, the National Guard was on call. For another, a false rumor of an Ebola outbreak circulated. And bad things did happen—by report, someone died by electrocution running generator cables through the water. A family with small children got stranded and hypothermic in an art project because the ice-cold rain came up so fast. There were medical emergencies with limited hospital transport. Those in tents had a very hard time: 2 inches of water soaked everything through a cold night. The porta potties almost overflowed with urine and feces. A few thousand individuals jumped ship, and a few of those left RVs, couches, and garbage. I know all this because I and others gave the first walkers a lift out, when they hiked to the edge of the playa with no plan, a 30°F night incoming, and the roads closed for a hundred miles. We took care of them.
But for the rest of the 70,000 individuals there, there is a different story for how it went down, a story that may strike you as idealized but is not. In this story, 70,000 individuals took care of each other (civic responsibility). They shared their supplies, generously (gifting). They piled into the RVs of strangers that are now friends (radical inclusion). They cleaned up after themselves so well that the residual garbage on the playa overall was the best that it has been for years (leave no trace, communal effort). They partied hard. When given mud, they made mud games and built huge dragons and hands giving the middle finger out of it (radical self-expression). They laughed at the idiots who got stuck trying to drive in the mud and cheered the idiots who tried and made it through.
A Psychiatric Perspective
I think, as a psychiatrist, that it is worth asking how this happened: what was the center that held. Perhaps the first thing is trust. There was some hysteria and panic. But for the most part, individuals had a deep trust in themselves and their ability to cope, and a trust in those around them to rally together: we got this. They were also able to self-soothe, to focus on what was going right and where the signs of safety were around them, and to sit back, with patience, and wait for the mud to dry. Part of what enabled this patience was memory. Experienced Burners have the memory of past rains and hail and dust storms so intense you cannot see a yard. They pass. The other part of it is the ability to face a storm head on. Almost everyone has had the experience of a camp blown to pieces, a cooler go off and lose a week’s food, or an art project they spent a year working on break on day 1. Lowering expectations and rousing the pirate within are important skills.
Another big piece of the response was pride. You can call it moral narcissism if you want. Burners are cool. They do not let anyone mess with their pride and if you are acting bigger than your boots, they enjoy playing around with how rudely they can let you know it. I have been put in my place more than a few times for my wannabe skills. Burners are hoping to get knocked down hard and hoping you will to, because through failure comes growth. So confronted with Mudpocalypse, they dug into their principles and showed the world that we mean it when we say Leave No Trace and Civic Responsibility. It takes grit and courage to face tough situations.
And then there was a final piece, and that was the re-emergence of the community. Mudpocalypse made Burners feel like Burners again. We all may be able to learn from this. The truth is, Burning Man got a bit lost in the last few years. It is too big, COVID-19 kept everyone apart, and the influx of rich technocrats and celebrities has decreased the community participatory feel. The weather in 2022, which was a constant 105°F dust-storm, pushed individuals into a place where they really had to decide whether to come back or not. And they did, and it was even more difficult. As the transformational growth and ritual literature tells us, it is at that point, where the first adjustment has failed, that true transformation will either happen or not. It happens by digging into your core values and self: I am cool, I have got this, I trust you, let’s play for good. The Burning Man community did that, and it was awesome.
Dr Haase is physician director for Carson Tahoe Regional Center and chairs the climate committee for the Group for the Advancement of Psychiatry. She is also the climate editor for Psychiatric Times.