Are we participants or spectators?

Chicken John and I each came under some fairly harsh criticism for raising questions about Burning Man’s transition to nonprofit control in this post, mostly ad hominem attacks on us rather than our points. And that got me thinking: do the citizens of Black Rock City want to have a discussion about the future of Burning Man? Are we participants in building this city and this culture, or mere spectators to someone else’s act of creation?
On Friday night at Books Inc. in Alameda, for a reading of my new book The Tribes of Burning Man: How an Experimental City in the Desert is Shaping the New American Counterculture, I led an interesting discussion of this issue with a couple dozen smart, engaged burners. After I read chapters in the book that provided background for this current moment, the debate that ensued showed how truly complex these issues are and how many unanswered questions there are. It was fascinating discussion that could have go on and on – as it should.
It was a week ago tonight that I wrote about event founder Larry Harvey’s speech talking about the years of internal turmoil and negotiations that led to the decision to create a new nonprofit entity to run the event, and his announcement of how that will take place slowly over the next six years, generally how they’re choosing the other seven board members that will lead the nonprofit with them, and how the six board members will cash out at the end. Even he acknowledges that there are many more decisions still to be made and a long, perilous road ahead.
I have a lot of respect for Larry Harvey, and I do think that he and the other five members have been good stewards of this event and culture. I’ve been happy to support their full-time salaries with my money and volunteer labor, and I do think they deserve a payout when they decided to relinquish control over the event. But I also don’t think they are the only stakeholders in Burning Man or the only ones who should determine its future and governance structure, at least not without hearing from us first.
Participation is central to Burning Man, its very raison d’etre. Nobody builds Black Rock City for us, we build it ourselves – developing our vision, organizing our crews, and raising the money to build our corner of this fabulous city. Of Burning Man’s 10 Principles, which Larry wrote and on which he says the new nonprofit will be founded, Participation is one of those principles and something that runs through most of the others.
“Our community is committed to a radically participatory ethic. We believe that transformative change, whether in the individual or in society, can occur only through the medium of deeply personal participation,” he wrote.
That notion and spirit also runs through the principles of Radical Inclusion, Decommodification, Communal Effort, Civic Responsibility, and Radical Self-Expression, the latter certainly being something that Chicken John believes in, and something he’s been practicing since the very early days of an event he helped create.
Burners of goodwill can differ over the next steps for our culture, and may have differing views about how much credit and cash the six board members deserve, and that’s fine. Like Burning Man itself or any of its greatest works of art, interpretation is a matter of perspective and people are going to see different things.
But this is a discussion that we need to have, this year and in the coming years, if we are to honor the principles of the community that we’ve chosen to be a part of. Otherwise, it really is just a big party in the desert thrown by just another corporation. So, criticize the points that Chicken and I make, but don’t tell us we’re being ungrateful for sparking a discussion and that we should simply accept what we’re being told by this corporation, because I don’t believe it is just another corporation or that its board members are the only owners of this event.
If you want to take part in the discussions that I’ll be leading, here are some upcoming dates:
April 14, 6 pm — Stanford University Bookstore, 519 Lasuen Mall, Stanford, CA, 94305

April 20, 6 pm — Maple Street Books, 7523 Maple Street, New Orleans

April 23, 1 pm — Garden District Book Shop, 2727 Prytania Street, New Orleans

May 11, 7 pm — Books Inc., 301 Castro St., Mountain View

May 12, 7 pm — Revolution Books, 2425 Channing Way, Berkeley

May 19, 7:30 pm — Pegasus Books, 2349 Shattuck Ave., Berkeley, CA 94704

May 25, 7:30 pm — Booksmith, 1644 Haight Street, San Francisco

July 19, 6 pm — Mechanics Institute, 57 Post, Room 406, San Francisco

July 20, 12:30 pm — Alexander Book Company, 50 Second Street, San Francisco, CA, 94105

Aug. 11, 6 pm — San Francisco Main Library, Latino Hispanic meeting room, 100 Larkin Street, San Francisco


  1. Just a thought. This reeks of commercialism to me. I have no issues with your book. In fact I bought three copies, one for me and two as gifts. But it seems to me that if you really want to have these discussions then you should separate them from your readings at book stores. Set them up in coffee shops, do discussions via Skype so people outside the Bay Area can participate, have discussions in bars, parks, wherever just separate it from the process of selling your book.


  2. That’s a valid point, Bobzilla, but I have a full-time job at the Guardian and promoting the book can be like another full-time job at times, so I really don’t have the bandwidth to facilitate discussions like that, nor is it really my role. It should be the Borg’s, or the new nonprofit’s. But as I read portions of my book that provide the backstory to this moment and take questions from attendees, it’s a good opportunity to have that discussion and the crowd at my reading on Friday really wanted to have it. I do think my book informs the discussion, but I hear what you’re saying and I’ll try not to so overtly link the two goals in the future.


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