Burning Man’s Gifting Economy and Its Effect on Mainstream Society

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It’s no secret that most festivals are a huge moneymaker for large corporations. North American companies are projected to spend $1.23 billion to sponsor music venues, festivals and tours in 2014. That’s a 4.4 percent increase from 2013, according to IEG, LLC. IEG also charted out the most active companies sponsoring music festivals in North America with Anheuser-Busch topping the list alongside PepsiCo, Inc. and Coca-Cola Company. Microsoft Corp. (in what’s said to be the company’s first deal with a non-endemic property) sponsored Coachella Music Festival on behalf of its OneDrive storage service, while Samsung and Honda are among the sponsors for the Austin City Limits Music Festival. These corporations will undoubtedly receive a huge return on investment given the growing popularity of music and arts festivals around the world.

Burning Man, an annual arts festival and temporary community based around radical art, radical self-expression and radical self-reliance, stands in stark contrast. Participants who attend this event provide everything they will need for their weeklong adventure except for the main infrastructure. Infrastructure includes necessities like port-o-potties, medical tents, the effigy (which is burnt to the ground at the end of the festival), center camp, land and insurance. Organizers and participants intentionally succeed in creating a setting where decommodification and gifting are part of the core principles of the event.

Decommodification means absolutely no corporate sponsorships of the event, no advertising allowed, and definitely no transactions. Commodification is viewed as exploitation of the Burning Man culture and is frowned upon by most people involved, while at the festival. Many burners (people in the Burning Man community) believe that in many developed countries commodification has gone too far, has reduced people to abstractions and is taking away part of what makes us simple and human. Members of the community are very protective of this principle and will try their best to wipe all corporate influence from the event. This includes covering any visible brand names on the side of box trucks, bicycles, and… well, anything. People at Burning Man want to forget about branding, business, money, and the greed that comes along with it… and just for one week create a space where our humanity is not divided into “quantifiable bits suitable for trading”. What do people do when they want to exchange goods or services? Enter “gifting”.

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Gifting is the act of giving a gift out of the goodness of ones heart, and not expecting anything in return. The Principles Guidelines page of their website says that, “Burning Man is devoted to acts of gift giving. The value of a gift is unconditional. Gifting does not contemplate a return or an exchange for something of equal value.” Gifting is such, such an important part of what makes Black Rock City (the city created during Burning Man) such a magical place. When gifting is the currency, rather than money or bartering, a strong sense of community evolves. Think about how you feel when you receive an unconditional gift. You feel an instant connection to that person, and a sense of gratitude. You feel loved, because you know that that person is giving you the gift because they appreciate you as a person, not because they are expecting anything in return. It also feels satisfying to give unconditional gifts. “’Gifting with nothing in return’ I feel, is impossible. Only those who have not felt the satisfaction in making someone’s day [with a gift] could say there is nothing given in return” said Domo Delacy, a veteran burner. Domo has received and seen people receive all sorts of amazing gifts on the playa. “I’ve been gifted tickets. I’ve also gifted a couple back to will call. You know someone loves you when they gift you a ticket” said Delacy. “My good friend Capt. Jim was gifted an art car! Under the Oasis was a 67 GMC with brand new running gear… is that a good one or what? Another friend got a naked plane ride.”

Playa gifts can come in many forms, which don’t necessarily have to be physical. “[I received] the gift of expansion and compassion from my fellow camp mates my virgin burn. They taught me what the 10 Principles were with love and compassion,” said Starfire Serendipity Jones, a 10-year burner. Other gifts have included, “bacon, grilled cheese, ice cold melon and fresh espresso from the coffee stand across from camp (fucking heaven), homemade absinthe and banana booze… YUMMMM!” Jones goes on to explain, “I loved & shared many things openly in love [on the Playa]. It was primarily things I could use on Playa or things I “needed”. The people that ‘get it’ are so free and in-flow that we share with out even thinking, it is just part of us. The most beautiful thing is that there is no “us and them”. No scarcity, just sharing… because it is truly a gift to the giver to learn that frame of mind. Giving something just to give it. Not because they expect something in return.” She says, “It breaks the old adage of ‘you can’t get something for nothing’. It also creates a new paradigm for being in the universe and here on terra firma. That off Playa we can live like that in our daily lives. There is enough for everyone to share.”

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Another way gifting enhances the experience at Burning Man is that it acts as social lubricant. It gives you an excuse to walk up to a stranger and strike up a conversation when you otherwise wouldn’t. Walking through the streets of Black Rock City it’s common to be pulled aside and invited to partake in a cold adult beverage, a game, a tarot card reading, a meal, or a hug. That underlying fear of rejection that most of us unconsciously harbor isn’t a factor at Burning Man because it’s unlikely that anyone would reject a heartfelt gift. Burners feel safe and confident interacting and building connections with others through this system that serves to further strengthen the sense of community.

“The Burning Man Community is […] inspired to create, participate, and celebrate in the world without many of the conventional restrictions of the modern paradigm,” says Zac Cirivello, Burning Man Media Relations Coordinator. “Through exploring the values of our 10 Principals, the Burning Man Community has become a “do-ocracy” where the individual is empowered to directly participate in their surroundings to make the world the way that they want it to be, whether that world is our longtime home of Black Rock City, or the urban environment in which they live.”

This is where radical self-reliance plays an important part. While food, drink, shelter, and friendship are given freely in most cases at Burning Man, all participants are expected to also provide enough for themselves for the week (and maybe enough to share!) Those who show up expecting gifts, or expecting to be ‘taken care of’ are frowned upon. Buying or trading at Burning Man is also extremely taboo, and those who attempt to are reprimanded. “A critical part of the gift economy is how it differs from a barter economy. A barter is still a direct transaction: it assigns a value to an object or act and in turn commodifies it. A “thing” will still then have a “value”. At the core of bartering is the attempt to still create an exchange of equal value. This is the same as “default” world transactions but only with cash removed from the equation,” says Cirivello. “Gifting, on the other hand, is an unconditional offering – an offering with no expectation of return. This removes the assignment of traditional object value (or “price”) and instead puts the emphasis or value on the act of generosity itself. It becomes part of a circular abundance loop where Burners provide for others without the expectation of return because they know that others are there to support them in kind.”

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In reality, the gifting economy at Burning Man is not an economy at all, and is somewhat of an oxymoron. Economies are generally self-sustaining and generate wealth for a population; this is not the goal at Black Rock City. The gifting economy at Burning Man is more of a “gift culture”. A gift culture that actually supports and depends on the economy outside of Burning Man. Zac Cirivello states, “While the culture of Burning Man puts a lot of emphasis on our principals of gifting and decommodification, that does not make it a world entirely free of commerce. We have some very real costs associated with the creation of Black Rock City each year including permitting fees, staff support, and a long list of resources required such as vehicles, porto potties, lumber, signage, fuel, etc.” The festival stimulates Nevada’s economy by contributing millions of dollars to rent the land and use the facilities for the festival. Additionally, visiting burners stimulate the economy from which they buy the food, drink, and materials to make their Playa gifts. They also support the economy of the cities surrounding Black Rock City when they purchase their last minute items, gas, and food before the burn.

This culture works at Burning Man because the community makes it so. All participants willingly take part in gifting because they understand it’s part of what makes Burning Man different from everywhere else. There is no need for organizers to enforce or police a gifting economy, because the people uphold these values on their own. “One of the great things about the Burning Man Community is that Burners are incredibly passionate about preserving the integrity of our culture. We, and BMORG, do not have to run around policing our values because they are ones that are strongly shared by a vast majority of citizens in Black Rock City,” says Zac Cirivello. “The gifting economy is a demonstration of a shift in conventional thinking away from a “scarcity mindset” towards an “abundance mindset” – where people recognize that they have enough and want to put their energy towards a betterment of the community as opposed to a betterment only of the self.”

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While creating a temporary utopian community in which a gifting culture flourishes is an accomplishment in itself, Burning Man and it’s supporters are always looking for ways to share this abundance mindset with the masses. “There is certainly a lot of potential for the Gifting Economy to start impacting the ‘default’ world, and there have been a number of projects that are looking to spearhead that change,” says Cirivello. “One of those projects is [freespace], an experimental project looking to see what is possible with the gift of a physical space to a community, and [this] is also the recent recipient of a financial grant from Burning Man.” [freespace] began in June 2013, and started with a two-story building that was donated to San Francisco’s creative community for a dollar. Since it’s inception, [freespace] has hosted over 300 free events including free bike shares, maker classes for people in homeless shelters, and a community garden.

Nation wide corporations are catching onto the popularity of the gifting mindset, with Panera Bread launching “Panera Cares”. This campaign consists of opening “pay what you can” Panera Community Cafés in Saint Louis, Dearborn, Portland, Chicago, and Boston. These cafes offer dignified dining experiences, without judgment to customers who may not be able to pay. While companies like this are obviously getting publicity and public favor in return for their gifts, it’s definitely a start!

The Internet has made it easy to gift in modern society with online resources such as WikiLinks, Wikimedia Commons, and Creative Commons. People from around the world share their functional work, artwork, or other creative content with others. Participants can use and benefit from shared work, study this work, make and distribute shared content, or build upon shared content to create something new. On the Internet one can also find free and open-source software, free or donation based music, art, and collaborative works. Creative Commons, a non-profit organization founded by Lawrence Lessig, has released several copyright-licenses free of charge to the public. These licenses allow creators to communicate which rights to their content they reserve, and which rights they waive for the benefit of other creators. Many times, the only stipulation involved with the use of this shared content is that works created from said content must also be shared freely.

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Burning Man Organization spreads the message that a gift culture promotes through its many regional burns. “The Burning Man Regional Network is a global network of Burning Man inspired events that help to promote the values and ethos of Black Rock City throughout the world,” says Zac Cirivello. “One of the things required to be included as an Official Regional Event is having an event that embodies the 10 principals, including that of gifting. In much the same way that folks look out for and support each other in Black Rock City, the participants of these events have the opportunity to practice a decommodified existence for a few days at a time and participate in a world where generosity and unconditional gifting are core components.” More than 75 regional burns are held throughout the world at different times of the year. These events change the lives of people who may or may not have been to the “big burn” yet. Regional burns allow people to experience the selfless beauty of a Gifting Economy, and the freedom of decomodification if only for a long weekend. Many burners are inspired to attend the larger Burning Man in Nevada after years of experiencing the positive affects of these local burns on their communities. Zac Cirivello says that one goal of the regional events is to share the Principles with others “Through these events, as with Burning Man, folks are taking the spirit of gifting home with them and promote the global spread of the Gifting Economy.”

Would a Gifting Economy be sustainable in everyday culture? Society would need to experience a major shift in attitude. Many say humans are inherently competitive, egotistical, and even greedy. Problems could arise with determination of value: what may be valuable and a wonderful gift to one person may not be as valued by another. Humanity would have to get past their learned ideals of worth, value, and fairness in order to genuinely place others before themselves. While this kind of economy might seem idealistic to most, the idea is very real for many. The Internet is full of writings on the subject, many of which call for major change. However you stand on the subject, there is no denying that what the Burning Man Organization creates out in that Nevada desert is a beautiful thing.

 


 

Written by FestPop Staff Writer
Karli Jaenike
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