Burning Man – Radical Self-Reliance

From the Burning Man website: Radical Self-reliance: “Burning Man encourages the individual to discover, exercise and rely on his or her inner resources.”

People say that Burning Man will change your life. They say that you’ll go out to the desert and you’ll come back a different person. This is true for many people. After becoming a citizen of Black Rock City one button-up business-suit guy I knew became a wild and freaky traveler instead, with little money and no ties to a specific job or place. For other people, of course, nothing much changes. They enjoy Burning Man, but it’s a vacation. Other people say that Burning Man changed their lives, but when asked how, they can’t come up with something specific.

don’t claim that Burning Man changed my life. Where I am now is clearly a straight line from where I was before. Burning Man didn’t cause a gigantic veer in the road for me. However, if someone were to ask me, “How has Burning Man changed your life,” I could give a solid answer. Some of the things important to my life now were nurtured and augmented in the desert and I can easily see the marks that living in Black Rock City has left on the rest of my life.

Central to those changes is the principle of radical self-reliance.

Photo by Darcy McCarty

Radical self-reliance isn’t about having/being 100% of what you need 100% of the time. Humans are social animals, and we need our community/tribe/family/friends/lovers for all kinds of things all the time. Self-reliance isn’t an everything always proposition. Thinking of it that way makes the whole thing pretty daunting and less likely to make you happy.

Instead, here’s how I interpret the principle of radical self-reliance:

  • Understand yourself and your circumstances.
  • Think about the situations you’re likely to encounter and what you’ll need in them.
  • Do what you can with what you have to prepare for those needs in advance.
  • Trust that other people are doing the same.
  • Don’t hesitate to ask when it turns out you don’t have something you need.

In Black Rock City, the necessity for this ideal is apparent. It’s a harsh, radical environment with no resources except the ones people brought with them. If you need shade, there are no trees under which to seek shelter. If you need water, there are no public fountains, rivers, lakes, or convenience marts. If you need special medical equipment, you’ve got to bring it with you. If you know you need peace and quiet, there’s no off button, so you’re going to need your own earplugs or white noise machine.

I like the interplay between self-reliance and gifting: if you don’t have what you need, someone else will probably have it, since they also planned for everything they needed, and all you have to do is ask. There’s also the communion with decommodification – since you have everything you need there’s no need to sell to you, and since there’s nothing to buy you have to bring everything you need.

In the rest of the world, the need for this ideal is less apparent to most people. Whenever we want something or a need arises, we go to the store and get it. (This isn’t true for everyone’s financial situation, of course, but this is the ideal the system is based on.) There’s no particular drive to have a certain amount of food on hand, because you can just go get more. If it’s suddenly cold outside and you don’t have a winter coat yet, you run out and buy one. If you get sick, you go buy medicine. If you need to repair something, you go buy the tools or hardware you need to fix it.

However, times of greater need can and do arise, and I sometimes worry that they will increase with the effects of post-oil and climate change. There are relatively mundane times of need, such as ice on the road so you can’t shop for a couple of days. Or you need medicine/food/tools/etc but the car is broken down and you’re stuck at home. And there’s the possibility of actual emergencies – big ones like earthquakes and floods and smaller ones like a storm that knocks the power out for a few days.

The principle of radical self-reliance was powerful enough to me at Burning Man that I have drawn it from the world of Black Rock City back into my day-to-day life.

How has Burning Man changed my life? I own a gun. I own 3 fire extinguishers. I own a battery pack that can jump start a car. I dress for the weather when I travel by car so that I’m prepared if I have to walk. I keep flashlights strategically placed around my house. I’m learning to grow my own food. I’m learning to raise my own food. I try to do these things with as few inputs as possible. I’m learning how to preserve that food so that I have some of it in the off seasons. I have reduced my dependence on disposable products and instead use things that last. I keep a stocked first aid kit in the house. I buy work/farm tools that don’t require gasoline. I keep stored water. I know how to distill water. I know CPR. I make friends with my neighbors because sometimes one person is prepared in ways another is not.

As I said, Burning Man didn’t really change my life, because most of these things are a predictable path from where I was before (except owning guns – that has a much more direct connection). I would say, though, that Burning Man heightened or focused my life. It made the value of self-reliance more stark in my mind.

There’s a certain freedom that arises when you’re ready for what comes your way, and this is magnified when those around you are also ready. I enjoy this freedom in Black Rock City, and I enjoy it in the rest of my life as well.