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Inspiration from Burning Man

Rajni Bakshi

Take a break from your worries about the Indian economy and spare a moment for those who are worrying about civilisation itself, as at the Burning Man Festival


We are in the midst of a season of lament. As the rupee continues its sharp downward spiral a mood of gloom and doom has settled in. When pessimism strikes in this manner, it is imperative to step back and take a wide and long-range view of things.

So take a break from your worries about the Indian economy and spare a moment for those who are worrying about civilisation itself.

While we in India were celebrating our Independence Day in a subdued mood a few hundred people gathered in Hampshire UK for the little-known The Uncivilisation Festival.  This is a ticketed event for people who want to come up with new ways of looking at how our world may be falling apart and how we can adapt to multiple crises – environmental, social and financial. Over two days people participated in discussions, debates, storytelling, went for walks, made music, and more.

A far more famous transformation-oriented gathering happened in the desert of Nevada, USA, in the last week of August. The Burning Man festival, at Black Rock, has acquired legendary status – attracting artists and a wide assortment of professionals including CEOs, like Eric Schmidt of Google. It is half-jokingly said that so many venture capitalists attend Burning Man that it is the worst week to go fundraising for a new business.   

Such events are driven as much by concern about the state of our world as by creative restlessness and curiosity.

The Uncivilisation Festival was born out of the Dark Mountain Project, a network of writers, artists and thinkers who, according to their website, have stopped believing the stories our civilisation tells itself.

Participants in this project share the following beliefs and principles:
One, we live in a time of social, economic and ecological unravelling.

Two, it is time to reject the common belief that the converging crises of our times can be reduced to a set of ‘problems’ in need of technological or political ‘solutions’.

Three, instead we need to challenge the stories which underpin our civilisation: the myth of progress, the myth of human centrality, and the myth of our separation from ‘nature’.

Four, assert the determination not to lose ourselves in the elaboration of theories or ideologies.

While this is a small-scale fringe event, the Burning Man gathering, now in its 28th year, attracts an estimated 60,000 people. They gather on land that has no water or tree cover and build a temporary city dedicated to community, art, self-expression, and self-reliance. One week later, the ‘city’ is dismantled leaving no trace whatsoever. Those who attend have to carry along all the food, water and shelter they will need and make a commitment to carry away all their trash.

Part of the fun is to create an artwork on site and, says the festival’s website, “build your own sturdy shade structure, turn your car into a giant spider, or paint your body to look like ... well, that's up to you.”

The question “what is Burning Man?” has been deemed to be too difficult to answer. But the festival is based on the following 10 principles which are not intended to dictate how people should behave but rather to reflect the “community’s ethos and culture as it had organically developed since the event's inception”.

The principles are as follows:
Radical inclusion -- everyone is welcome.
Gifting – though there is an entry fee the gathering itself it known as ‘commerce-free’. The only things on sale are coffee and ice.
Decommodification – creating social environments that are unmediated by commercial sponsorships, transactions, or advertising. 
Radical Self-reliance – encouraging individuals to discover, exercise and rely on his or her inner resources.
Radical Self-expression —  no one other than the individual or a collaborating group can determine what is said or done. 
Communal Effort — valuing creative cooperation and collaboration. 
Civic Responsibility — community members who organise events should assume responsibility for public welfare and endeavour to communicate civic responsibilities to participants.
Leaving No Trace – respecting the environment by leaving the place same or better than before the gathering. 
Participation – interactions based on the belief that transformative change can occur only through the medium of deeply personal participation. 
Immediacy – seeking to overcome barriers that stand between us and a recognition of our inner selves, the reality of those around us, participation in society, and contact with a natural world exceeding human powers.

Over the last few years Burning Man also includes a TEDx conference with talks by ‘Paradigm Shift’ speakers. Topics include -- How social networks and big data can be leveraged by doctors to provide effective treatment for many diseases. How regenerating cities requires regenerative humans. How creativity and innovation are replacing physical redevelopment planning and capital investment as drivers of community development and urban revitalisation. DIY (Do It Yourself) education for every person on this planet to “…dismantle unjust and cruel systems in just a few years by supporting each other’s growth in a global DIY maker movement”.

The point is not to replicate an Uncivilisation or Burning Man gathering anywhere. But dwelling on these kinds of events can be salutary for us.

India’s economic and environmental challenges are indeed daunting. But the volume of lamentation is still disproportionately high. 

That same energy would be better spent in endeavours – events and networks – which enable us to see the bigger picture of our times. This may release us from crippling anxiety and inspire flashes of ideas that help us navigate the short- and medium-term.

We have no shortage of creativity in India – whether in the artistic, activist or business community. What we lack is any platform or event where people from these diverse communities come together to expand their imagination and just have fun.

(Rajni Bakshi is the author of Bazaars, Conversations and Freedom: For a Market Culture Beyond Greed and Fear and Bapu Kuti: Journeys in Rediscovery of Gandhi)

Infochange News & Features, September 2013