My first encounter with the Burning Man “gift economy” was upon leaving the Reno airport with a friend of a friend who had come to pick me up. We had randomly scooped up two young people who arrived hoping to hitch a ride to Black Rock City, the Burning Man locale, and agreed to take them to the Wal-Mart to find a car that could fit them. In our ten minute ride together, one of these people mentioned that she didn’t yet have a ticket for the event and would have to buy one at the door, which was difficult because she was broke and had saved up all her money in order to get a flight out there. My new friend then “gifted” this young girl a $300 ticket. She jumped with joy, we arrived at the Wal-Mart, and she thanked us both for the ride, jumped out, and gave us each a Blow Pop. This must be the Burning Man way, I thought, that a $300 for $0.10 trade could leave both sides of the transaction happy.
Of course, through my week on the “playa” I learned that trading is not the point at all. It really is an economy based solely on gifts. The generosity of strangers at Burning Man is overwhelming. Random giving occurs constantly, from the small – I witnessed a guy smoke his last cigarette while the guy next to him, unprompted, took 5 cigarettes out of his own pack to replenish his neighbor’s – to the large – one camp ran a daily steam bath that utilized many hundreds of gallons of water (a critical commodity in the desert) to provide any burner who wanted one, a hot bath and shower. No exchange is equal, yet somehow it all works out collectively.
For a market lover like me, this was a radical concept: nothing has a fair market value. Only 2 items are available for purchase: ice and coffee. Any other commerce is expressly outlawed. Sharing a bottle of wine may gain you a string bracelet or maybe nothing at all. Everyone rejoices in generosity and if you give more than you receive, that feels good rather than annoying. The spirit of giving so permeates your being that you seek the opportunity to give away the most valuable item that you possess there that you do not need for your own survival. All transactions involve the highest level of personal choice.
I left Burning Man refreshed and optimistic about humanity, but a friend of mine described the experiment well: it’s “a perfectly unsustainable utopia”. Back in Reno for my first meal post-playa, we experienced terrible service at a sushi restaurant, demanded to speak to the manager, and ended up with the meal comped. Alas, it took me less than a day to adjust back to my normal self … in the real world, we only pay what things are worth.