Burning For Social Change


By Trevor Neilson

In just a few days, nearly 80,000 people will gather in the Nevada desert to celebrate creativity at its most extreme.

Tens of thousands of “burners” will do pretty much whatever they want, and in the process will build incredible pieces of art and architecture, make beautiful music, and express themselves in almost every way possible.

Most people plan months – and some even years – in advance of the event. It’s the topic of conversation weeks leading up to the late summer expedition. Costumes are envisioned and carefully crafted. Materials for survival, art, bartering, and entertainment are curated and packed up.

It’s not easy venturing out to Black Rock City – even for the Silicon Valley crowd with all of their on-demand apps promising simple travel. A huge amount of fossil fuels are burned getting to the site, and once there, thousands of generators are constantly powered up to keep people cool. RV rentals can run more than $10,000. Expansive camps on “the playa” are set up by subcontractors, who are often paid more than $100,000 to manage a camp and its facilities.

An enormous amount of time, energy and money goes in to bringing Burning Man to life. And when adding an approximate 10,000 new attendees each year, the impact keeps growing. In addition to being a cultural phenomenon, Burning Man is a massive opportunity to galvanize citizens to combine their passions for artistic expression, sharing and acceptance, and social good.

Imagine what we could accomplish collectively if each act of expression at Burning Man was aimed at creating social change.

At its very core, Burning Man is based on a culture of giving, as stated by its principles, but more importantly, as embodied through the burner experience.

This is not to say I don’t appreciate art for the sake of art – expression is critical and expands consciousness, encourages peace and happiness, and overall makes the world a better place. But the point here is that Burning Man has the unique potential to do more.

If each act of expression triggers a conversation – or even just a thought – about changing society or lending a helping hand, the world will notice. Burners have the opportunity to refocus their innovative thinking and artistic talents toward making meaningful change. By introducing this kind of one-for-one model, participants could use their art to illustrate an important concept and then make a commitment to taking action upon their return from the playa.

What if instead burning a giant sculpture representing humanity, we instead burn symbols of oppression like tanks and guns? What if leaving no trace lived beyond those two weeks in the desert and became a social movement year-round? What if radical inclusion became a mission statement for activism beyond the event itself?

My challenge to burners is to think beyond just the desert this weekend. Think about how you can carry the principles and community you cherish at this event into an ongoing cycle of social change.

This article originally appeared in RYOT