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In this video, Chelsea dives into the dark world of Burning Man, and why it's not the anti-capitalist utopia Burners have long dreamed of it being.


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Hey, guys. It's Chelsea from The Financial Diet and this week's video is sponsored by Nuuly. And we talk a lot on this channel about how important it is to stay within your budget and really choose the things that matter to you when determining where to spend your money.

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Nuuly subscription clothing rental-- change your clothes. And today I am actually at the TFD office because there is all kinds of construction going on in my home-- or renovation, rather. And yes, I will be doing a video about that later.

It has taken me on a journey. I have been to the desert. I have seen the rain, and it is getting your kitchen redone. [LAUGHS] I have a lot to say, financially and otherwise, about that topic.

I'll do it later. But suffice to say for now, we're in ye old office, which luckily is just a short, little bike ride away from my home. And today we're going to be talking about something you maybe didn't expect to hear me talk about on this channel, which is Burning Man.

Now, I have to just share a really fun fact about me that you may never have been able to guess from knowing me through this channel, which is that I know multiple couples who've been married at Burning Man. It's the worst fact about me. I don't like it any more than you do.

It constantly makes me question every choice I've made in this life. But I have seen multiple couples, in all of their culturally appropriate garb, standing in that desert, doing a hand fasting on Molly. Yeah, and actually one of them's already separated, so goes to show.

But anyway, yeah, Burning Man is like-- although I'm definitely-- I used to go to some festivals. I wasn't a festival girly, but I did go to some festivals, mostly jam bands because I was dating a guy that liked jam bands-- the things we do for love. But I was never a Burning Man girly.

But it has been very peripherally present in my life. And actually, an even funner fact is that the litter that we adopted Mona from-- the people that we adopted her from, they gave the Instagram info of all of the adoptive pup parents so we could all follow the pups' journeys. And one of the pups was adopted by a Burning Man guy, and that dog has been to Burning Man, like, seven times.

And I'm like, free Pepper! Anyway, all of this is to say, Burning Man has been a little bit of a presence at the outskirts of my life. And it's also a bit of a presence on the outskirts of American culture.

And while I want to be clear that whatever your leisure time activity might be-- crocheting or going to Burning Man-- while there's nothing inherently wrong with these lifestyle choices, it's important to interrogate the dichotomy between how communities and organizations like Burning Man present themselves to the world and the impact they actually have culturally, economically, and financially. But before we dive into the nuances of Burning Man, especially as it pertains to the finances and ecological impact, let's talk first about what is Burning Man for those of you lucky enough to not know. To explain it simply, Burning Man is a temporary city that pops up every year at Black Rock City, an unincorporated spot in the desert of Northwestern Nevada.

And about 80,000 people are usually expected to attend. And here is a deeper if somewhat pretentious explanation from an insider article. "Coachella is a festival. Ultra is a festival.

Tomorrowland is a festival. Burning Man is a full-on event. More specifically, it's a 'temporary metropolis dedicated to community, art, self-expression, and self-reliance,' according to the Burning Man organization's website-- which is a little long-winded, so you can see why some people resort to simply saying 'festival.' But the term 'festival' implies that this is a show put on by one group to be enjoyed by another, and this is not the case.

At the Burn, as it's oftentimes called, everyone is expected to participate. Participation is one of the 10 Principles of Burning Man, a set of guidelines created by co-founder Larry Harvey that reflects the heart of the event. Whether it's by volunteering at a theme camp, making some kind of art, sharing a gift, tangible or not, Burning Man suggests many ways that people can take part." And re the COVID of it all, there was an unofficial Burning Man in 2020 and 2021, but this was the first year the event was officially back since 2019.

Now, if you look at some of the post Burning Man TikTok-- and it's all post because there actually is no internet connection at the event itself, which is probably for the best. You will admittedly see some pretty cool structures and art cars. But a huge focus of what you'll find on any of those hashtags is going to be around the partying aspect, which is not unlike most festivals.

You're also theoretically supposed to ask people permission to film them at Burning Man, which is clearly not happening on most of these TikToks. Let's just take a brief tour through this land. [MUSIC PLAYING] There is also, as I mentioned, a healthy dose of cultural appropriation, as one commenter aptly put it, a bunch of rich white kids cosplaying poverty. Now, here's the thing.

I, myself, knowing a fair amount of Burning Man people, know that not all of them are ultra wealthy, although many of them are, and one of the ones that got married is the son of, like, literally the ninth richest man in Europe. So you do the math. [LAUGHS] And some people, as with other festivals, do scrimp and save and tighten their budget in basically every other area of their life to dedicate most of their financial flexibility to attending Burning Man, which is totally their choice. It's no different from someone who saves up a lot of money for other lavish travel or really expensive clothing or whatever happens to be their personal outlet.

But it should be noted that for those who would want to consider Burning Man some kind of an inclusive event, from an economic standpoint, we should probably discuss how much it actually costs to attend. In 1992, the first year Burning Man was a ticketed event, tickets were $25. Using an inflation calculator, that would be a little more than $50 in 2022 money.

But tickets this year rose to $575 per attendee, which is over a 2,000% increase from the original 1992 cost. And that's just the ticket price. When you account for food, airfare, vehicle passes, car rentals, desert and first aid supplies, tents, camping equipment, et cetera, you could be looking at thousands of dollars just to spend nine days in the desert.

And that's not even touching the drug budget, which, let's be honest, is up there. So who is actually attending on average? According to Black Rock City census data from 2018, 59% of Burners identify as male.

Burners were also overwhelmingly white and at least upper middle class. In 2016, 79.1% of Burners were white, while 58.4% of the US population was. 74.4% of burners were college graduates, compared to just 29.3% of the country. And the median household income for Burners was $94,200 versus $65,000 for the US.

The event has had a low participation rate for Black festival goers with a figure that increased to only 1.1% in 2019. And when asked about the lack of diversity present at Burning Man, founder Larry Harvey infamously said, "I don't think Black folks like to camp as much as white folks." Yikes. He went on to say that, "I think it's a little too much to expect of the organization to solve the problems of racial parity.

We do see a fast increasing influx of Asians, Black folks. I actually see Black folks out here, unlike some of our liberal critics." Sometimes you hear people in business giving quotes, and you can just hear their publicist dying inside the more the sentence keeps going on. For perhaps the best example of that, I recommend you take a look at this video of Lars von Trier at a press conference for Melancholia, where he goes on a 3-minute rant about how he's actually a Nazi by heritage but how he empathizes with Hitler.

And poor Kirsten Dunst is sitting next to him, and just the light is draining from her eyes, and you can see her be like, I'm never getting an Oscar for this movie. That has the same energy as this quote. Anyway.

And yet, despite this, radical inclusion is listed as one of Burning Man's core principles. As they put it, "Anyone may be a part of Burning Man. We welcome and respect the stranger.

No prerequisites exist for participation in our community." If they practice what they preached, we might expect more outreach from the organization toward people of different identities, because one would imagine it's pretty easy to be inclusive when most of the people you're surrounded by are part of your in-group, both in terms of things like race but also in terms of things like being other upper middle class people. Listen, everyone's welcome. You just have to spend hundreds and hundreds and hundreds of dollars just to get here.

And then the rest of those costs are on you to burden as well. I'm surprised Burning Man doesn't have a credit card yet. That's probably their next step is a Burning Man branded credit card.

As one article in the Sacramento Bee put it, "Despite being a festival supposedly founded on the premise of radical inclusion and in light of a reputation for whiteness so widespread it became a cultural motif, 2020 was the first year that the festival organization spoke out about race issues. There have been a number of listening and learning procedures pushed forward by BIPOC Burners and undertaken by organizational leadership, including sensitivity training, a review of policies, and the reshaping of accessibility needs. However, many feel that it is too little too late, calling the change a perfunctory set of steps that had to be cajoled out of leadership by BIPOC attendees." Now, some of you may be aware of, like, festival types.

And to be fair, there are strains. I mean, listen, there are juggalos. There are people who are at the jam band festivals that I was at.

There are Deadheads. There are the EDM bros. There's-- festival people come in all stripes.

But if you're talking about a specific kind of festival person who fancies themselves quite progressive and thoughtful and open minded and all of those things, literally probably the hardest people in the world to convince that they have any kind of blind spot. So just true, true hats off to whoever was sitting in a room with those people covered in glitter and Native American regalia to try and get them to listen to the fact that only 1% of people at this festival are Black. Good luck, guys.

And similarly, even if we are now, quote, "listening and learning," there is also the massive entitlement demonstrated by attendees. There's supposed to be a, quote, "leave no trace" policy. But citizens of nearby cities like Reno have complained about the trash left behind after Burning Man for years.

A local sheriff has said, "Burning Man brings nothing to Pershing County except for heartache." And one Guardian article wrote that "the festival expects visitors to clean up after themselves, but that has posed challenges. In 2018, the US Bureau of Land Management told organizers that they had left too much trash after that year's event, and business owners from Utah to California have complained about waste left by festival attendees. Now, if you're thinking to yourself, upper middle class to upper class white people who love mind-altering drugs, who think very highly of their own worldview, and who have the ability to take off a fair amount of time from work to go vibe in the desert, and you're like, man, that sounds like an episode of Silicon Valley, you would be right because Black Rock City at this point may as well be a Google campus.

According to a New York Times article from 2014, "Over the last two years, Burning Man, which this year runs from August 25 to September 1, has been the annual getaway for a new crop of millionaire and billionaire technology moguls, many of whom are one upping one another in a secret game of I-can-spend-more-money-than-you and, some say, ruining it for everyone else." We're supposed to be upper middle class here, not upper upper class. An attendee who went with a group of, quote, "tech elites" that same year said, "His camp includes about 100 people from the Valley and Hollywood startups, as well as several venture capital firms. And while dues from most non-tech camps can run about $300 a person, he said that his camp's fees this year were $25,000 a person.

A few people, mostly female models flown in from New York, get to go for free. But when all is told, the weekend accommodations will collectively cost the partygoers over $2 million." Good on those women for doing their part to chip away at gender equality, though, I say. And "for those with even more money to squander, there are camps that come with, quote, 'Sherpas," who are essentially paid help.

Often there will be up to two to three Sherpas per attendee in these rich camps. Tyler Hanson, who started going to Burning Man in 1995, decided a couple years ago to try working as a paid Sherpa at one of these luxury camps. He described the experience this way-- 'lavish RVs are driven in and connected together to create a private forded area, ensuring that no outsiders can get in.

The rich are flown in on private planes, then picked up at the Burning Man airport, driven to their camp, and served like kings and queens for a week. It was started as a utopian alternative to capitalism/the society we live in, but with tech moguls inserting themselves into the festival, attendees have noticed that it's merely begun to mirror society." There is something so spot on, though, about you create this sort of alternative escape from capitalist hierarchy and socioeconomic inequality, and it just recreates itself immediately. I feel like if-- honestly, in America, I feel like if there were a bunch of people trapped in an elevator for a day and a half, they would sort themselves by class before that day and a half was over.

You just cannot escape that hierarchy. But in this one, you have to watch that inequality unfold while you're surrounded by white women in box braids. Insult to injury, I say.

From an article published in 2015, "Black Rock City has had its own FAA-licensed airport since 2000, and it's been getting much busier. These days you can even get from San Carlos in Silicon Valley to the festival for $1,500. In 2012, Mark Zuckerberg flew into Burning Man on a private helicopter, staying for just one day, to eat and serve artisanal grilled cheese sandwiches.

In 2017, a group of Burners from Google found themselves preparing for the gathering and were looking to have a luxurious meal at the start of Burning Man. But rather than going for something land based, the group instead turned to Maine company Lobster207 to rush deliver a 10-pound box of live lobsters to Google offices at Sunnyvale." As a Salon article put it, "In a just, democratic society, everyone has equal voice. At Burning Man, everyone is invited to participate, but the people who have the most money decide what kind of society Burning Man will be.

They commission artists of their own choice to build to their own whims. And they also determine how generous they're feeling and whether to withhold money. One great analysis from Jacobin magazine on Burning Man described it as being a bit of a libertarian wet dream. "To these young tech workers-- mostly white, mostly men-- who flock to the festival, Burning Man reinforces and fosters the idea that they can remake the world without anyone else's input.

It's a rabid libertarian fantasy. It fluffs their egos and tells them that they have the power and right to make society for all of us, to determine how things should be. This is the dark heart of Burning Man, the reason that high-powered capitalists-- and especially capitalist libertarians-- love Burning Man so much.

It heralds their ideal world, one where vague notions of participation replace real democracy, and the only form of taxation is self-imposed charity." And none of this even addresses the huge ecological impact of Black Rock City, which was perhaps best summed up by this photo that went viral of the seemingly endless line of cars waiting to leave the desert. That line of cars-- fun fact-- was 12 hours long. And that's not even to mention all of the private jets and helicopters that swarm into the area each year to drop off the more elite attendees.

The amount of water, resources, transportation, fuel that goes into building this pop-up city in the middle of the desert almost by itself cancels out the notion that this is some sort of utopia that exists outside of the parameters of an exploitative and extractive society. As that article puts it, it's just a bit of a libertarian fantasy. Oftentimes in America, we can feel this desire to escape what we know on every level is kind of an unjust and unnatural societal structure.

And it can be tempting to come up with alternatives that feel like they're answering the problem. But from the cost of attending to the environmental output to the social hierarchy filled with elite tech bros, we're just sort of making a microcosm of the same problems. And honestly, even that's all fine with me.

Again, like, EDM bros from Jersey have to go somewhere too, and they love going to a festival and taking drugs and dancing to music and buying food at stands that charge like $20 for a taco. But at least in that endeavor, there's not a pretense of remaking the world or fundamentally shifting our paradigms of value or community. They're just trying to do some drugs and vibe.

And honestly, I prefer that. As always, guys, thank you for watching, and don't forget to hit the Subscribe button and to come back every Monday, Tuesday, and Thursday for new and awesome videos. Goodbye.