It’s the Economy Stupid

Not since Adam Smith has an economic model been turned on its head so thoroughly.  Burning Man is a “gifting” economy.  There are only two things for sale – ice and coffee (or tea if you so choose).  Otherwise, everything is free – or gifted in the parlance of Black Rock City.  A lot of people misunderstand this approach and call it a “barter” economy.  Nothing could be farther from the truth.  Goods and services are given away at Burning Man, and nothing is expected in return.  Many people bring gifts with them in the form of trinkets or candy or (in our case) poems, but they’re given for pleasure and in appreciation, not for economic gain.

So what can you get for nothing?  Drinks (alcoholic or non-alcoholic), massages by trained therapists, yoga classes and even bicycle repair.  There are martini bars, margarita bars, Bloody Mary and Sangria parties – all for free.  If you want breakfast, several sites provide free pancakes, and all you need to bring is a plate.  People will stand in center camp and give away hundreds of bottles of water.  If you are out of sunscreen or forgot your toothbrush, you’re likely to be gifted what you need with a sense of joy and pleasure that is entirely unlike your local Wal-Mart.

One day, we were walking along a Black Rock City street and spotted a crudely built wheel of fortune sitting out on the side of the road.  We spun it.  Suddenly, someone from a nearby tent came rushing out to tell us that we had just won an apple martini.  As we left the surprise bar with our prizes, we came across a man barbecuing hot dogs on a grill in front of his tent.  He was giving them away to anyone who passed – including us.

Lest you think the food and drink are bad, dangerous or laced with drugs, we loved the free goodies and experienced no problems whatsoever from ingesting them.  Of course, the alcoholic beverages worked their magic as always.

Keeping It Clean

“Leave No Trace” is the hallmark of Burning Man.  The Festival takes place on a pristine plot of desert that is owned and managed by the U.S. Bureau of Land Management, and the BLM expects its land to be left in perfect condition once the party is over.  Considering that nearly 40,000 attend, restoring the desert to its original state seems like a daunting task, but the Burning Man organization does it year after year.  It is  one reason the BLM continues issuing a license to the Festival annually.

The secret of Leave No Trace may be the absence of trash cans.  Unlike the mall or any normal public site, the only thing to do with your trash at Burning Man is to store it up and take it home.  But Leave No Trace is far more complex than the “pack it in, pack it out” rule implies.  For example, no grey water is permitted on the desert surface.  When you wash anything, you must capture the dirty water in a container, let it evaporate, or take it with you for disposal away from the desert.

As a burner, you’re expected to clean your campsite completely – including the removal of any substance (such as oil from your car) that may have dripped onto the Playa surface.  But you’re also expected to give at least two hours of your time to general clean-up.  As with most activities at Burning Man, this “community service” isn’t organized.  You’re on your own on what to do and how to do.

The actual tear down and clean-up of the full site is handled by Burning Man’s small professional staff plus a slew of volunteers who usually arrive early to set up the Festival and stay late to remove all evidence of its existence.

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Alan Markow, president of AM Communications, has worked in marketing, public relations and corporate communications for more than 30 years. His experience includes senior management positions in communications and Investor Relations at companies as diverse as National Semiconductor, GTE (now Verizon), Praxair, VLSI Technology, C-Cube Microsystems and JPMorgan Chase. He is now a free-lance writer for newspapers and magazines, and a blog writer on politics and other issues. Prior to starting his corporate career, he had been a broadcaster, journalist, advertising and PR copywriter and speechwriter. He served as a Navy journalist and broadcaster during the Vietnam era, where he was television and radio news director for the Armed Forces Radio and Television Service station in Keflavik, Iceland.