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Markets at Burning Man

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.

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Reader Comments (10)

One should realize that Burning Man consists primarily of people who have the leisure and the means to attend.

It is an unsustainable utopia, sure, but that's pretty close to a tautology: in a society consisting only of people of means, scarcity is no longer the primary driver of decisions. It's the logical equivalent of saying that we can eliminate poverty by excluding poor people from the economy.

September 13, 2010 | Unregistered CommenterMatt

Matt, It is true that most people I encountered there were high-achieving and relatively wealthy. I'm not implying that the behavior found at Burning Man can be transferred to the real world, but I do think it's interesting that people who in normal circumstances insist upon fair market value can completely abandon those principles for a week.

And I somewhat disagree regarding your point on scarcity. While it's true that in the outside world, most of these people have everything that they need, once they arrive, they are stuck with what they brought. Money buys you nothing. It's a difficult environment at times and one that requires that you rely on your neighbors more than in normal circumstances.

September 13, 2010 | Registered CommenterMelody

Do you hear yourself?

Back in Reno for my first meal post-playa, I experienced terrible service at a high-end sushi restaurant, demanded to speak to the manager, and insisted on getting the entire $350 meal comped. It took me less than a day to adjust back to my normal self …

September 13, 2010 | Unregistered CommenterKurt

Sounds snappy I know. I was being a bit ironic...

September 13, 2010 | Registered CommenterMelody

Someone should nuke the burning man next year! Fuckin' yuppie scum.

September 14, 2010 | Unregistered Commenterthe mon

I guess it just surprised me to hear you call that your "normal self"

September 14, 2010 | Unregistered CommenterKurt

I agree an unsustainable utopia... but still interesting to experience... a blow-pop for a 300 dollar event? Interesting point there about what is value anyway? Its nice to be reminded that in the end value is usually in the eye of the beholder...not just as a life principle but as an economics and markets principle.

September 14, 2010 | Unregistered CommenterBen

Kurt - In retrospect, I'm realizing how my previous generous Burner self quickly adjusted to a sense of entitlement. Not proud of it (I don't generally demand free meals).

September 14, 2010 | Registered CommenterMelody

Ben - Great point. My friend clearly perceived value in providing the ticket that did not have to be matched by any physical object in return. At Burning Man, there is definitely a sense that improving the burn of your neighbor improves your own. Not a traditional expression of finding value.

September 15, 2010 | Registered CommenterMelody

Great post! Burning Man provides many of us the opportunity to experience real humanity without the influence of any kind of market system.

To Matt's point, the folks who run Burning Man provide low-income tickets to those who are not well-off. Additionally, on the ePlaya forums, Burners who do have the means will purchase several tickets and offer the extra at deep discount or free just so that more people can experience the culture.

What I found really interesting this year was that because of that lack of exchanged goods and perceived value, volunteerism is lauded far more than it would be in the normal world. If that can be harnessed and brought back from Burning Man, it becomes a powerful motivator for the perpetuation of good in society. Just look at Burners Without Borders.

The gift economy certainly is not sustainable, but it is an incredible thing to experience and certainly colors transactions and interactions for me back home. I'm still wearing a prayer bead bracelet that someone gifted me this year and it helps me remember the Playa and the associated good feelings.

September 23, 2010 | Unregistered CommenterBadier
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