It’s costing more and more to escape capitalism.
Next week, 70,000 artists, spiritual seekers, and tech CEOs will throw on their 1960s faux-fur coats and join the annual social experiment of decommodification known as Burning Man. Though Black Rock City (BRC), the temporary metropolis constructed by the event’s participants in the barren Nevada desert, has no money, brands, or governance, it contains a surprising amount of the infrastructure we’ve come to expect from our cities, including a very detailed census.
The BRC census is a testament to the maxim “you can’t manage what you don’t measure.” Every year since 2012, a volunteer team of “information geeks, academic researchers, and general data nerds” survey BRC residents to get a sense of who, how, and why participants drop everything to live in an alkali desert for 10 days. Although not every Burner responds to the census, the survey’s rigorous methodology allows for estimates for the entire population.
According to the data, the median cost each citizen spent in 2017 to join the moneyless metropolis was $1,500, not including the $425 ticket price. But since 2014, the number of people spending over $2,500 on the event has increased every year.
This may be due to the event’s changing demographics. Burning Man started as just few friends who met on a San Francisco beach in 1986 to burn a nine-foot effigy, but today more and more attendees are coming to “the Burn” from abroad. The increased spending is likely due at least in part to airfare and the cost of purchasing supplies upon arrival.
Despite Burning Man’s emphasis on “radical inclusion,” the event is most accessible to those with financial means. In addition to the ticket price (Burning Man also has low-income ticket program), all participants are responsible for getting to rural Nevada for 10 days in August and providing their own food and lodging in the desert’s harsh environment. As Burning Man has become more popular, it has become an event for the highly educated who can afford the expenses and vacation time.
Though people are spending more money than ever to get off the grid, in some ways, Burning Man is becoming more diverse. It’s still mostly white—77% of participants in 2017 participants identified as such—but the share of people identifying as “people of color” has increased from about 7% in 2013 to over 9% in 2017, mostly due to an increase in Asian and Hispanic attendees. Blacks consistently made up only 1% of the population.
Between the transport, food, lodging, and extravagant costumes, attending the noncommercial festival requires a baseline level of privilege. Like any city of 70,000 people, BRC contains citizens of all stripes, but the population seems to be becoming more opulent each year, with wealthy Burners now bringing personal chefs and setting up luxury sleeping arrangements.
Even in the decommodified world of Black Rock City, the gap between the haves and the have-nots is growing.