“Community building, art, self-expression and self reliance,” describe the focus values of the historic week-long, large-scale desert experience known as Burning Man. The event is hosted annually in Black Rock Desert —a temporary city built for this event— about 100 miles outside of Reno, Nevada.
The phenomenon of Burning Man is as old as the event itself. Originating in 1986, the utopian experience once described as an underground gathering for free spirits, has evolved as a destination for social media influencers, celebrities and the elite.
Burning Man is quite unlike any other festival experience and has been the subject of several academic studies, as many wonder about the “transformative experience” attendees have described the event to be.
The nine-day event —that spans through Labor Day weekend— has no headliners or scheduled performances, and has participants engage in collaborative activities that range from creating and designing artwork to activities, performances, and more. Most notably, the event includes the symbolic burning of a large wooden effigy —known as the Man– on Saturday evening before Labor Day.
Contrary to the objectives of Burning Man itself, the event has continuously drawn serious controversy from the synonymous association to drug activity, cultural pushback, and crime occurrences, since its inception.
This year the event continued to be in headlines with controversial news. Beginning with a climate protest that blocked festivalgoers from entering the space, roughly 73,000 attendees confined to the site due to severe weather and one individual dying—this year made Burning Man History.
What happened at Burning Man 2023?
The event was kicked off when climate activists parked a 28-foot trailer across the road and protested the complacency of attendees– also known as “burners”– over the global climate crisis. The coalition of climate activism organizations —Seven Circles—made some demands of the Burning Man Organization to “ban private jets, single-use plastics, unnecessary propane burning, and unlimited generator use per capita at the nine day event in Black Rock City, Nevada.”
The demand was considerably straightforward, considering the claim that the Burning Man festival infamously harms the environment. At the festival, tens of thousands of people produce carbon emissions due to transportation, smoke production from burning “The Man” effigy and the gas-and diesel-burning generators that keep lights and air conditioners on during the festival.
In numbers, Burning Man generates about 100,000 tons of carbon dioxide.
After an hour-long stand-off, tribal law enforcement agency, Pyramid Lake Ranger Station, drove their trucks through the barricade before meeting protesters with force and arresting them, leaving one with a bleeding head.
On Friday, September 1, Mother Nature got her way when rain came down hard in Black Rock City forcing festival organizers to cancel most of the scheduled events and lock down all of the routes in and out of the area. In the coming days, the weather became more severe resulting in chaos as the area was filled with mud and forced attendees to shelter in place and ration their food, water and fuel.
While many attendees attempted to escape through various efforts including hitchhiking, those who did not succeed were left with the obstacles that driving through severe mud causes. Post-Burning Man proved climate activists to be true when reports came out revealing massive amounts of waste, including belongings and abandoned vehicles, were left behind.
On top of the environmental controversies that occurred during Burning Man 2023, circumstances became morbid when one festivalgoer, Leon Reece, was pronounced dead on Sept. 1. Preliminary results show proven suspicions of drug intoxication but the cause and manner of death remain pending investigation Pershing County officials announced.
While controversy is synonymous with the history of Burning Man, it is difficult to see the festival through its rose-colored glasses after this year’s events.
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