This week, somewhere in the middle of Nevada’s Black Rock Desert, 50,000 people are gathering for the Burning Man festival, where they do…well, pretty much whatever they want. They trek in their RVs, buses, cars, motorcycles, and erect Black Rock City, where they live for a week in a state of “radical inclusion” and “radical self-expression.” The name “Burning Man” comes from a huge wooden effigy (‘The Man”) they erect at the beginning of the week, and which they burn at the end of the week—the Burning Man.
At the end of the week, no trace of Black Rock City remains. The whole city is built by Burning Man attendees, inhabited for a week, and then torn down and completely erased. (This is not as easy as it might seem—imagine your total water needs for a week in the desert. You’d have to bring that with you, and then carry out any waste and trash.)
Equal parts rave culture, paganism, TED, and Mad Max, attendees talk about it like a temporary utopia, and many in the tech and art community consider it a Mecca to which they make a yearly pilgrimage. I know a few Burning Man regulars, and the stories, mythology, and culture they bring back with them from Black Rock City is fascinating. It’s a temporary city based on inclusion, generosity, and participation, but with a heavy emphasis on self-reliance as well. Bring everything you need to survive for a week. And then share it freely with your neighbors.
If that alone doesn’t grab your interest, check out the 10 Principles of Burning Man (truncated below, but the full version is worth reading):
- Radical Inclusion
No prerequisites exist for participation in our community.
Burning Man is devoted to acts of gift giving.
We resist the substitution of consumption for participatory experience.
- Radical Self-reliance
Burning Man encourages the individual to discover, exercise and rely on his or her inner resources.
- Radical Self-expression
Radical self-expression arises from the unique gifts of the individual.
- Communal Effort
Our community values creative cooperation and collaboration.
- Civic Responsibility
We value civil society. Community members who organize events should assume responsibility for public welfare…
- Leaving No Trace
Our community respects the environment. We are committed to leaving no physical trace of our activities wherever we gather…
We believe that transformative change, whether in the individual or in society, can occur only through the medium of deeply personal participation. We achieve being through doing. Everyone is invited to work. Everyone is invited to play.
Immediate experience is, in many ways, the most important touchstone of value in our culture. We seek 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…
Do any of those sound familiar? If they don’t, I think they should. Almost all of those 10 Burning Man principles sound downright Christian, and none of them would be out of place in a United Order setting. Even the context is similar. We too are a culture founded upon a (perhaps now-nascent) form of utopianism. Mormons moved to the desert to be left alone to govern ourselves as we see fit, and to build the kind of society we want to live in. Whether we’ve succeeded is debatable. Whether we’re even still consciously trying is also debatable, I suppose.
We picked up and evolved the “let’s go build zion” philosophy from the Old Testament. It’s kind of strange to think that it’s been further evolved by a “Burner” movement full of, among other things, drugged-up hippies.
We might think we have very little in common with the colorful Burning Man crowd, and yet these folks are actively building a kind of open-but-closed community that we mostly just fantasize about. If the time comes to dust off our utopia-building heritage and put it into action, perhaps we’ll ask the Burners for guidance. And they’ll probably give it willingly.
So here’s the real point of this post: If anyone would like to put the principle of “radical inclusion” to the test, it’d be fun to have a Mormon village at Burning Man*.
* – This might be a really terrible idea. Or it might be just another nail in Burning Man’s sell-out coffin.