Viva Las Xmas
A speech by Larry Harvey at the Cooper Union
in New York City
April 25, 2002
Hi everybody. Thank you. I usually talk about the flamboyant aspects of Burning Man. These are what attract attention. Black Rock City, as many of you know, is a hyper-connective environment. It's full of interactive art. It's very antic and it's a lot of fun. But I've decided to talk to you tonight about ecomomics, about the dismal science, because, in the end, doesn't everything come down to economics economics, at least, of one kind or another? I will begin by quoting Richard Jefferies. He is an almost forgotten author. His writings belong to a British literary genre called "country writing" that flourished during the industrial revolution in the 19th century. The piece I am reading from is titled The Absence of Design in Nature. More suggestively, it's subtitled The Prodigality of Nature and the Niggardliness of Man.
Jefferies talks about the law of natural increase. This describes the propensity of living things to reproduce themselves at exponential rates. "There is no 'enough' in nature," he says. "It is one vase prodigality. It is a feast. There is no economy, no saving, no penury, a golden shower of good things forever descending." Contrast this with the material economy of our world, in which each individual is compelled, in order to exist, to labor, to save and to compete with other people for control and possession of scarce resources. This is the iron law of economics in our world: the suberabundance of nature and the utter niggardliness of man.
This is the contrast he draws. It is as if we've fallen out of some happy Eden into a world where we must hoard and struggle to wrest what we can from the universe and one another. But I am more hopeful than Jefferies. He was writing about both nature and society in the midst of the first great phase of the industrial revolution, a time of massive social dislocation and widespread poverty. Think Dickens. The folkways of rural England and the networks of communal obligation that once sustained it were being brutally uprooted by the marketplace. An anonymous mass society with all of its attendent bills was taking form, and Jefferies came to feel that factories and the enormous cities of our industrial age represented a principle of evil and selfisheness. But I have had the opportunity to observe a very different kind of city with a very different kind of economy, and I've come to see that there is more of nature in the social world of human beings than he or any of us today have yet to fully understand.
I'm speaking, of course, about Burning Man and Black Rock City, the civic entity we annually create in the Black Rock Desert. I would like to start by describing the most radical and under-reported aspect of our city. It is under-reported because it's so anomalous. It's so very foreign to our current way of life. Reporters simply can't perceive this most of the time, because it just doesn't fit with what we're used to. They see a vitally creative world, it's filled with a superabundance of art, it's animated by an electric spirit, and it's full of a whole lot of eccentric and entertaining behavior; and that's a big story, and that gets reported.
But if they look at the little lower layer, if they peel off the onionskin and peer a bit closer, there is another story they are only just beginning to report. They find that Black Rock City is one of the most public-spirited places on Earth. We have, for instance, an incredible rate of volunteerism. We did a poll on the Internet recently. It was a 10% sampling, so it's pretty indicative, and the results were even more astonishing than we anticipated: 84.7% of our citizens contributes some form of volunteer service to our city. I challenge anyone to find another city in America that can equal that. We're the seventh largest city in Nevada for eight days, and our crime rate is negligible. Think what the police blotter in New Orleans during Mardi Gras must look like. And Black Rock City is a party that's certainly equal to that in intensity.
I understand you have some problems with solid waste disposal in New York City. I've heard that the mayor is even thinking about getting rid of recycling. Let me tell you how our civic entity has dealt with this problem. Black Rock City is built upon the pristing surface of a prehistoric lakebed. There is more nothing there than you will ever see, and in that context any little figment leaps to the eye like the rock of Gibraltar. It's noticeable. You see litter there. It's really obvious. And we're committed to a Leave No Trace effort. We say Burning Man is a disappearing act. We miracle up an entire city, it lasts for one week, and then it absolutely disappears. And I mean everything disappears: every sequin, every boa feather, every cigarette butt, and especially those damn pistachio nutshells. [laughter]
This wouldn't be possible, of course, if we didn't put great effort into it. Our clean up crews work hard. They grid the space once people leave. It takes them weeks to get it all. But our organization couldn't possibly cope with this task if it wasn't for the public spirit of our citizens. There are no trashcans in our city. Think about that: a city with no trashcans. We have actually told people that they should take all of their garbage and put it in plastic bags, cram it in their car and take it out of there. Pick up your own garbage. And they do it! Well, what would happen if you gave a wild party in your apartment? What would happen if your guests were dancing on the end tables and people were doing imitations of celebrities and somebody had their skirt over their head and the booze was running... Do you think they'd pick up afterwards? [laughter] I mean, do you think that when it was all over that they would leave your apartment cleaner than it was before they came? [laughter] That's almost inconceivable, but that's what happens in Black Rock City.
And that's one of the problems reporters have. Burning Man is this wild and abandoned party on the one hand, and it's the most public-spirited city in America on the other. And this leads to a kind of cognitive dissonance. How do these two facts fit together? It doesn't make any sense to them, and that's because reporters often don't understand the really big story: the story that lies behind all of this, that is the cause of these two things conjoining. And the reason that this doesn't get reported is because it's so profoundly foreign to our current way of life.
The essential cause of all this is the giving of gifts. We've intentionally designed Black Rock City to foster what we call a gift economy. We allow no vending, no advertising, no buying or selling of anything. We discourage bartering because even bartering is a commodity transaction. Instead, we've originated both an ethos and an economic system that is devoted to the giving of gifts. This is a radical departure from the marketplace that we're accustomed to, because, of course, the marketplace invades every crack and corner of our lives today. A gift economy is founded on principles that are diametrically different from those that dominate our consumer culture.
Let me draw a contrast between the market and a gift economy. I will begin with the marketplace. The value of a thing in the market is based on its scarcity in relation to demand. And capitalism itself is based on the competition to aquire the scarce resource of money. The great utility of this system is that an organized market supremely serves individual desire. A simple act of purchase allows me to command the resources of the world. With a single expenditure, the magnesium of South Africa, the oil of Arabia and the labor of China can be fetched from around the glove and delivered into my hands as if by magic carpet. All that's required of me is a sum of money that contributes to this process. There has never been a better method for the productive allocation of wealth and the distribution of goods and services. As a result, we live today in a large-scale global economy that continues to expand into every area of human activity. Adam Smith, many years ago, rightly regarded this as a kind of miracle. The market, mated today in our modern system of mass production and mass distribution, has produced more wealth and distributed it more widely than in all other epochs of human history. This has liberated us from toil, but more importantly, it has freed us to independently pursue uniquely personal visions of happiness.
This is the version of our modern market that is constantly extolled in our society. But I would like to point out that this economic revolution that has occurred so recently in human history has a darker side. The social contract we have signed contains a hidden clause, and we have failed as a people to read the finer print. And this is because the very virtues of our system represent its liabilities. The great efficiency of the modern marketplace depends on the fluidity of value as it flows in one form of commodity to another. If I should buy something from you, no relationship and no moral connection is left to relate us to one another. The value of the money I have spent speeds on to take new form as further goods and services. This is the fuel that powers our economy and produces a flow of never-ending capital around the world.
But what this transaction does not necessarily produce is connections between people. It does not produce what Robert Putnam and other writers have described as "social capital." Social capital is a very different concept. Social capital represents the sum of human connection that holds a society together, and it is fostered by networks of personal relationship. It is social capital that a culture is made of. In a recent book aptly titled Bowling Alone, he objectively charts what all of us intuitively know. During the last forty years, and particularly during the last twenty years, the social capital of American has begun to disintegrate.
Putnam talks about two kinds of social capital. First, there is "bonding" social capital. This consists of our intimate ties with our family and friends. These are communal relationships: that close circle of people around you whom you know well. Usually, it doesn't consist of more than 100 people because you can't keep up intimate rapport with over 100 people... nobody can. And these circles tend to be exclusive. Not intentionally, but when you are huddled with your friends, you turn your back on the world and it's hard to let the stranger in. So they tend to exclude the stranger.
He also talks about another form of social capital called "bridging" social capital. This refers to looser ties within a broader social circle, and it encompasses larger social networks. It could be people you meet at parties or work, people you exchange cards with. Here's the difference: if you get sick and you need chicken soup, you'll call someone you are bonded to because they'll care. On the other hand, if you get fired and need a job, you are probably not going to talk to your brother or your close pal. You're going to talk to someone who is part of that bridging network because you know they are connected to a circle of friends beyond your circle, an extended network that moves out into the world. If you're looking for an opportunity in that world, this is whom you'd go to.
This might be a group of people who get together to play cards or hold softball games. More formally, it might consist of civic organizations or other sorts of clubs. As a rule, these groups are inclusive. If you belong to a club that is devoted to some kind of transcendent ideal, anyone who is interested can gain entry. You don't have to have an intimate tie with other members. If you're interested in making ships in bottles, then anyone is welcome because every member is really excited about building ships in bottles.
Putnam is a sociologist. He's looked at these two forms of social capital, and he deals in a lot of statistics. I find these statistics fascinating because you can use them to ask questions. Here's what he's found. In America today, bonding social capital is beginning to erode rapidly. The average American household spends seven hours a day watching television. They are not necessarily watching it, but it is turned on. A lot of people just turn it on to listen to the laugh track so they feel that they are not alone. The average American household possesses 2.4 television sets. And that means that husbands, wives, teenagers and toddlers are all watching television independently of one another. If you could take the roof off the average suburban houes and witness what is going on there, you would see each separate family member in a separate room watching a separate TV that has a separate set of commercials on it hawking a separate lifestyle. And if you looked more closesly, you'd see that they're surrounded, barricaded, by all this stuff they've bought to support these lifestyles that are being sold to them. This is hardly connective. 81% of Americans say they spend most eveninsg watching TV, but only 56% report that they talk to family members.
There are more cars in America than there are drivers, and 90% of our citizens drive to work alone. In 1992, we spent 19 hours per year stuck in traffic jams. We spent 40 hours stuck in traffic in 1997, and I'm sure it is much more than that now. So here you have a whole nation on the freeway, trapped in the metal carapace of an automobile, completely isolated from everybody around them. I think I'm an affable guy. I think I bond with other people. But when I get into a car I become demonic. "You jerk! Cut me off?!?!?" You know what's pathetic? He's found that people report that they like being in their car during these long commutes because it's a time to think. To think, as they sit in these isolation booths cursing their fellow citizens! [laughter] Here's another statistic: Putnam has found that each additional 10 minutes of daily commuting reduces involvement in community affairs by 10 percent.
This leads us to an even darker picture. For when we get to bridging social capital, we find that membership in clubs and civic organizations has fallen by half since 1975. Half! He calls his book Bowling Alone because bowling leagues, which are a form of bridging social capital, have declined so precipitously that, if you follow the curve, in another ten years everyone even though there is a retro fashion in bowling everyone will be bowling alone. This applies to informal social activities; card games, picnics. But it particularly applies to more formal organizations: organizations that address some kind of transcendent principle, the ones that do good works in the world. It could be the Lyons or the Kiwanis. And at the back of the book he features charts that are really quite interesting. Chart after chart, he has, and they crest at the height of civic involvement in America in the last century, around 1950, and then it starts a fairly steep decline until it reaches a point about twenty years ago, and then it makes a beeline for the drain. It resembles one of those mass die-offs when asteroids hit the Earth, and that is what is happening to the civic tissue of our country.
Now, toward the end of his book, he talks about some of the causes of this and objectively charts them. But I think we all intuitively know what some of these are. Certainly cars have changed the social landscape. The growth of metropolitan sprawl has transformed America. In a land of mega-malls, cineplexes, gated communities, anonymous fast food outlets and retail chain stores spread our serially on four lane highways, it's difficult to connect with anyone or anything. If you live in Los Angeles you probably drive your car to the grocery store a block away. TV has also had a huge impact. Television is essentially a solitary and passive recreation. I was born in 1948, and I have seen all of these changes over the span of my lifetime.
But I think if we take a larger view and look at the character of modern day capitalism, we can diagnose an even more essential cause for this. It is in the nature of our modern system of mass marketing to cater to the desires of the individual. Indeed, it's not surprising that the social ills Putnam describes have accelerated during the last twenty years, because it is during this period that capitalism has perfected many marketing techniques that isolate us even more radically from one another. They represent a late-blooming and monstrous flower of our capitalist system. During the last two decades, while marketers have identified thousands of new market niches, manufacturers have learned to gratify each sector of the population. In other words, we have been sorted by age, class, income and other demographic categories much as cattle might be herded into stalls within a feedlot. And the best minds of the generation aren't writing books like Putnam's, they're doing market research and working for ad agencies. This is applied science.
If mom and dad, teenagers and toddlers are planted in front of different television sets, it is also certain that they are each watching a different set of commercials. And each of these commercials is designed to represent a lifestyle, a customized way of being in the world. Of course, these artificial visions that we watch in a hypnoidal trance do not provide us with a way of life. They merely offer us commodities that are presented in such a way that they simulate states of being. It is the sin of simony: an unhallowed trafficking in sacred things. The only thing I know of that is sacred in this world is being. I am an iconoclast by nature. But the only thing I know that is sacred is the immediate experience of being, of belonging to your self, belonging to others, belonging to the world, belonging to the cosmos. This is a sacred thing [applause] And all this stuff that we acquire in place of our being, and all of these images that stand between us and our deepest needs and our innate capacities. They stand between us and a world beyond ourselves. They muffle our being. The spiritual damage that is caused by living this way is difficult to document in statistics, but this is what has worked the greatest evil in our world.
In a final statistic, Putnam finds that Americans born and raised in the seventies and eighties are three or four times more likely to commit suicide as people of the same age were at the middle of the century, but that's not surprising. If you are a latchkey kid and you're watching TV in your separate room, and your only way of belonging to other people is through stuff that simulates your being, and you're feeling really lonely, you might be willing to kill yourself. That's when people commit suidice, when they feel absolutely isolated. Their being becomes unreal and then they are willing to take their lives.
Well, having painted for you a rather dismal picture of what is wrong with our world, let me now return to the gift economy of Burning Man and Black Rock City. You see commodities are not very good conductors of social capital. But gifts are very good conductors of it. Let me illustrate. If I should give you a gift, this represents a very personal gesture. This is a bonding experience, unlike buying something from someone, where the great convenience of it is that we aren't connected. In a market transaction, value flows on to produce more things in the economy, and the people who are party to it feel no further sense of human obligation. They have received what they wanted. But interactions that are based on gifting operate quite differently. In the words of Lewis Hyde, who wrote a wonderful book called The Gift, "When gifts circulate within a group their commerce leaves a series of interconnected relationships in its wake, and a kind of decentralized cohesiveness emerges."
What he's saying is that everybody begins to feel like they belong to one another. You see value in a capitalist system is transmitted through commodities. It passed from thing to thing, from hand to hand. But value within a gift economy passes from person to person, from heart to heart. It is as if it draws on the soul, on some unconditional, some inexhaustible source of value. To put this another way, gifts are bearers of being. Think about a gift that you loved giving. Didn't it feel as though it already belonged to the person you gave it to? Didn't it feel as if it was just flowing through you? And when you saw it in the store, wherever you found it, didn't you say to yourself, "That's him! That's her!" It is the gift as it consumes you, not as you consume it that matters.
Now Black Rock City is devoted to the giving of all sorts of things, the sharing of survival resources, interactive artwork, all of our public service roles. The whole tissue of our city is one vast gift. In fact, if you look at our budget, our little bit of hoarded wealth, it amounts to five million dollars. That was our budget last year. But if you want to understand what makes our city come alive as a civic entity, then look at the gifts that all our people give to us. It would run into the millions. I cannot begin to estimate it. That city is created out of gifts, and we've actually created much of our civic infrastructure out of gifts. We have people who volunteer to greet every person who comes into our city. The policing of the environment, the work of the Black Rock Rangers, is done by volunteers. The lighting of the lamps that illuminate Black Rock City, another public utility: that's a gift that is donated to our city.
But I particularly want to call attention to a special kind of gift that we call a theme camp, because it best illustrates the gift giving process. In Black Rock City, this begins with a concept that we call radical self-expression. We ask participants to commune with themselves and to regard their own reality, that essential inner portion of experience that makes them feel real, as if it were a vision or a gift, and then project this vision out onto the world. Now artists have been doing that for a long time. And it is an almost irresistible impulse out there in the Black Rock Desert because the environment is a blank slate. It's like a screen whose context is no context. There is nothing to contradict you there. You can create your own world... quite plausibly. You can project your inner vision out onto the world as if you were projecting a movie. And that is what makes radical self-expression so radical: it reaches deep, it ventures wide.
And, along with radical self-expression, comes radical self-reliance. Most of our citizens pool survival resources - and they have to. This means they must prepare to survive in really drastic wilderness conditions; 100 degree temperature, hundred mile-an-hour winds. And what tends to happen naturally is that people respond communally. That is, they form organized groups and someone says you bring the shelter, you bring the food, you bring the boa feathers [laughter], and we'll survive together. And we didn't tell them to do this. They realized that they had to get communal: that is, they had to form bonding social capital in order to survive. That's how cultures developed originally, you know. They developed an ethos and a sense of belonging over long spans of time because people had to share resources and struggle to survive together in the world not quite like the economy of convenience that we live in today.
And again, what has organically evolved out of that is what we call a theme camp. People begain to create extensions of their living quarters that embodied some creative idea, some kind of art project that they were willing to share with everyone else. Now we have never dictated the content of radical self-expression because only the individual can determine what his or her true gifts might be. But we have done another thing. We don't create the culture, they do, but we create the societal vessel that helps to contain this creative, interactive, utterly uncontrollable process that simply happens in human populations when people are able to relate to each other for any length of time. So we've created a social context, created a few simple rules - and this is after observing how it really works best. We've said a theme camp must function as a public environment that is accessible to other people whom one doesn't know, and that it must result in some kind of social interaction. Now, I don't know if you notice what I'm saying here, but that's bonding social capital turning into bridging social capital.
Before I go further, let me describe a theme camp because it's hard to imagine in the abstract. I'll describe to you one of my favourite theme camps to show you how this works. I think my all time favorite theme camp, even after all these years, was Camp Fink. Camp Fink, I remember, I encountered by chance. I walked into this tent and it looked like a seedy sportsman's bar. There were crossed tennis raquets on the wall, and it had all these portraits of famous finks. They had Roy Cohn, Joe McCarthy, they had Richard Nixon because he finked himself out. [laughter] Well that was funny, but here's the intereactive aspect: Anyone could go in, so it was open to the public, it bridged the gap between their little communal group and the public world. But here's the interactive part. They had an ancient Corona typewriter out in front with an endless spool of paper, and they invited you to rat out your friends. [laughter] And you'd be surprised, it got really interactive, because everyone wanted to read what everybody else was saying! [laughter] Now that was a simple theme camp, and I like the little things. I spend a lot of time planning big things, that's why I like little things.
But, in recent years, many of these theme camps have become increasingly ambitious - and that's only a natural tendency because in a space where there aren't any physical limits your imagination just begins to grow larger and larger, and, well, what's to contradict what you're doing. I sometimes like to say a vision is not defined by the context of the world around it, but that it radiates reality outward: it defines the surrounding world. And people get these visions and they start to radiate mightily and end up incorporating two or three hundred people in some cases. Now all of these people are collaborating to produce a public service or an expressive theme of some kind. And they form large communal networks in which everyone is co-operating toward a common goal and this, as I've said, is what Putnam calls bonding social capital.
But observe what we've done. We've told people: okay, you've got your tight little world of your mates and your friends, and you're bonded together that's like a lot of sub-cultures in our world but we've said don't close the circle. You cannot close the circle. You've got to leave it open so you can bridge out to a larger world, so that you can credit the world outside your circle with as much reality as you see in those around you. And, indeed, so that you can feel that the great world has the same reality, the same sense of inner reality that you feel in yourself. And the shape of our city is like that. It's planned as a huge semicircle and the Man is at the geographic center and the streets come out like this [gestures in an arc], and one time they said "Larry why don't you just close that circle," and I said, "Good God, we'd go psychotic. Don't close the circle!"
So, theme camps are essentially collective gifts, collaborative acts of self-espression that are given to a civic world, and this, in turn, begins to generate gift-giving networks. I'll tell you how this works. We've found that when people join together for the purpose of producing a gift whose scope extends beyond the limits of their little bonded world it produces a kind of social convection current. It's as if the larger the gift, the more transcendent the chimney at the center, the greater the convection current. The hotter the flame, the more oxygen it will suck in. And these networks suck in a whole lot of resources. This begins in simple ways and no one plans this let me make that clear. This just happens because we are culture-bearing animals and we are adapted to do these kinds of things. Someone in a camp, for instance, always seems to know someone else a friend outside the group who possesses some needed resource and soon this person is drawn into the circle. You may not know him. You may know him. You may know him through two intermediaries. But if he's willing to give to the gift you don't exclude him, you say come on in. That's the principle of radical inclusivity we discovered many years ago.
And as the greater gift imagined by the group begins to grow, this process starts to ramify and spread outward through networks of acquaintance. When everyone is giving to a greater gift and not merely to one another, this process will accelerate, connectiongs will multiply, and a new kind of superabundant wealth begins to assemble itself. A metal grate left disregarded in a basement would be the perfect devide to create a dragon's jaw, and some ancient string of Christmas lights forgotten in the attic forms the perfect accent for ts tail. Manifold resources stream in, only to be ressembled for new and productive purposes. It;s a super-conductive social process, and it's precisely the opposite of what happens in a capitalistic society in which a struggle for scare resources produces relentless competition. And what's interesting is that this process can actually rival the capabilities of mass production. Such social networks tend to grow on an organic principle. They can expand exponentially.
I'll give you an example of how we are growing. A group of New Yorkers came to our event last year. They are responsible for SEAL, the non-profit organization that, with the Black Rock Arts Foundation, is co-sponsor of our event this evening. Burning Man occurs over Labor Day, so that, of course means that when this group returned from Black Rock City in 2001 they encountered the events of September 11th. For days afterward a pall of dust and smoke drifted over the island of Manhattan as police manned emergency checkpoints all over the city. Now this group had lived communally at Burning Man, and so their most immediate instinct was to seek comfort in one another.
But they had also observed the process I've been describing to you tonight. They had seen their bonding world become a bridging world at Burning Man, and so they responded to this public trauma in a unique way. They began to craft burn barrels. These are oil barrels into which we cut designs. These objects are beautiful they look like jack o'lanterns and serve as fireplaces that protect the desert surface. They line our boulevards and public plazas and they create public space. So this group began to manufacture burn barrels and this didn't stop within their little group. They put the word out among their friends and acquaintances because they understood about forming social networks and soon they were joined by other people many of whom they hadn't known and all of them began to create designs, and they donated several of these beautiful pieces to the New York City Police Department. Now, emergency workers had a place to warm their hands during the long winter nights. There is a picture on SEAL's website: two burly policemen flanking a barrel. They are grinning like jack o'lanterns, and there's a Burning Man logo on it! [applause] And this is only one example. As I say, gift giving networks can produce massive amounts of social capital, and the rate of return on social capital is a lot better than the rate of return on normal capital investment in the market world. [applause]
This is the good news. All over this country, people are starting to organize. They're starting to form networks, and we're organizing to help them. We didn't tell the people in New York to do this. We don't dictate the content of radical self expression. That can only come out of you, from deep within you. But we are organizing to help people create the social circumstances that will sustain an ethos of gift giving. And I can tell you what's going to happen next because I have watched Burning Man grow from 2,000 to 4,000 to 8,000 participants in the span of three years. In fact, it only stopped growing at this rate because we slowed it down. We didn't want it to grown too fast. When you reach a certain scale you get overwhelmed by numbers in a city, so we took measures to slow down its growth so that we could culturally assimilate people, so they wouldn't just come looking for a party, they'd realize what our ethos was and that it really was about giving, it wasn't about consuming. We knew that they'd destroy us if we didn't slow it down. But what this growth represents is a rate of natural increase; it's how things grow in nature. And the next big story is that networks and little nucleus's all over this country are about to rapidly expand in scope. There have now been burns in several states, we have regional contacts in every place except Mississippi. [laughter] There's even been a burn on a boat in the Baltic Sea and one in Antartica.
But I don't expect people to go out and form cities of their own they will define the activity and it will spread by a rate of natural increase. And this returns me to Richard Jefferies who I started with and his essay on the prodigality of nature and the niggardliness of man. He said there is no enough in nature. It is all one vast prodigality. And he contrasted this with a capitalist economy in which each indivicual is compelled, in order to exist, to labor and save and to compete with other people to acquire scarce resources. But I believe that human culture as distinct from social institutions that surround it is a pure phenomenon of nature. Social institutions have the power to protect it and sustain it, much as any vessel a petrie dish or ceramic pot might help or hinder the growth of any living thing. But the innate vitality of culture belongs to the world of nature; it occurs spontaneously, it is without a plan, and when it is allowed to grow it has a power to effect our world in ways that dwarf our normal estimate of our resources.