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Burning Man, a weeklong festival in the Nevada desert, was started by artists and radicals in the late 1980s as an escape from capitalism’s worst excesses. It is now an embodiment of those excesses: the libertarian tendencies, the pop-up airfield for private jets, the billionaires and multimillionaires staying in fancy camps but pretending to be devoted to the festival’s communal spirit.
Torrents of rain turned this year’s edition of Burning Man into a swamp. The attendees, many of whom had reached the venue by circumventing activists protesting the environmental ruin of the event, were trapped for days by this climate disaster. Some, like Chris Rock and Diplo, escaped by hitchhiking for miles out of the mud. Others squabbled and fought among themselves; one person died. When Burning Man finally allowed people to leave, the fleeing thousands found themselves stuck in a traffic jam on the way out.
The parable’s lessons are obvious. Libertarians will call on the state to help them as soon as they’re in trouble. The rich may try to insulate themselves from climate change, but they cannot avoid it entirely. (And when disaster does hit the wealthy, they tend to suffer relatively trivial hardship and find ways out.) The hubris of Americans knows no bounds. The counterculture is, to its own detriment, forever in danger of being co-opted. The assessments are almost too easy. All accurate, mind you—but still, easy.
Perhaps the more meaningful reading of this small disaster lies in looking beyond the wealthiest Burners. The 99-percenters across the world have been tricked into thinking their daily actions will save or doom the planet—that an individual’s carbon footprint is as important as that of BP (the corporation that invented the term) or that the choice of paper straws over plastic somehow matters as much as the personal planes of the 1%. There is increasing awareness, though, that climate change is disproportionately caused by the wealthiest countries and classes, and has disproportionate effects on more vulnerable populations. Yet in the emergencies to come, the 99-percenters will be forced to show unity and strength, and to resist the further depredations of the rich and powerful.
Solidarity was, in fact, the very point of the original Burning Man, and it was present this year, too. While Chris Rock and Neal Katyal fled, lesser-known Burners cleaned up, shared food and water, gifted ponchos to those who came unprepared, and repaired each other’s bicycles. Spirits remained high for the most part, and the big Man was eventually set on fire. (The wise writer and historian Rebecca Solnit, let us remember, argues frequently that catastrophes tend to bring ordinary people together, rather than driving them to selfishness.)
If Burning Man 2023 was some kind of unplanned trial run for a climate crisis, it showed not just that the rich will remain unmoved and untouched, but that the rest of us must—and can—band together.
103°F (40°Celsius): The highest temperature at Burning Man 2022, the kind of heat that feels even worse in the aridity of the Nevada desert. The closest city to the venue is Reno, which is the fastest-warming city in the US. At the moment, Reno has roughly 20 days a year of “dangerous” heat. By 2050, that will likely rise to 30 days.
Adam Met, who plays bass in the multi-platinum pop band AJR, didn’t attend Burning Man this year. But he thinks about festivals in the climate change age all the time, particularly since he wears another hat as the executive director of the research and advocacy nonprofit Planet Reimagined. As Met wrote for Quartz this past week:
It isn’t just Burning Man, of course. Festivals around the US and the world have been affected by extreme weather events. It was more than a coincidence that I finished writing this article on my way to Greece, where my bandmates and I ended up having to drive through a flash flood in Athens to reach our performance venue as the rooms back at our hotel took on several inches of water. If musicians continue to tour, we clearly need to work around a changing climate, and we need to employ more sustainable ways of doing it.
But what happened to the Burners at Burning Man this year also gives me hope, if only because we are finally witnessing a wake-up call that we—and they—have needed...
Of course, as Met also noted, there are wake-up calls all over the place these days:
As a realtor on Netflix’s Selling Sunset recently pointed out, a $19 million mansion in the Hollywood Hills is a lot harder to offload when insurers need an additional $200,000 a year for coverage against wildfires—if they’ll offer insurance at all. And rather than reading the signs, like warnings that sea-level rise will destroy $100 billion of beach-front property within the next 20 years, those who can afford fortified luxury housing in flood-prone areas like Miami are still moving in, driving housing prices higher as mobile homes are washed away.
And what about that get-away weekend to Tulum, or Turks and Caicos? As local communities in vacation destinations have said for years, and as the tragic fires in Lahaina on Maui recently demonstrated, tropical paradise may be short-lived even for the most undiscerning tourists. That bottle of Champagne you’d like to enjoy in the hot tub while on vacation? That will be gone, too, as heat and drought damage vineyards and flavor profiles. Climate change is coming for it all.
Read the full piece here.
A quarter-century ago, almost to the day, Sergey Brin and Larry Page decided to take some time off from their small startup to attend Burning Man. By way of a wry out-of-office message, they placed an effigy behind the second “o” in the logo of their website, Google, to signal where they’d gone. It was the first Google Doodle ever.
Brin and Page returned to Burning Man again and again over the years; according to one account, they even took Eric Schmidt there to see if he had what it took to be CEO of Google. “They wanted to know: Was he going to be able to let go of his ego, merge with the team, or was he going to stand in its way?” Steven Kotler, the author of a work culture book called Stealing Fire, told Business Insider. Schmidt passed the test.
Brin was back at Burning Man this year, and he is, as much as anyone else, a symbol of the transformation of the festival. Once Brin was part of an upstart counterculture in the corporate world, and Burning Man then was a place for people like him. Now Brin is one of the world’s wealthiest men and very much part of the establishment—and Burning Man today is a place for people like him.
Thanks for reading! And don’t hesitate to reach out with comments, questions, or topics you want to know more about.
Have a cool, dry weekend!
—Samanth Subramanian, global news editor