Christine Grillo is a science writer at the Johns Hopkins Bloomberg School of Public Health; her work has appeared in Audubon, The New York Times, and the Utne Reader.
If you love bureaucracy, Black Rock City is the alternative desert utopia for you.
Last year, I appeared at the gates of Burning Man aboard a 24-foot-truck loaded with enough gear to keep a dozen people alive in the desert for a week. My campmates and I were greeted by a lissome young woman wearing pasties and leather booty shorts, who commanded us to open our truck for inspection. This would turn out to be the first of a great many interactions with one of the famed counterculture event’s lesser-known signature features: its relentless bureaucracy.
My traveling companion, Virgil, turned off the ignition and opened our truck for the gate-girl, who, despite the perkiness and pasties, struck him as officious. “Oh, no,” she said, frowning at the cord of firewood in the back. “We can’t have wood chips,” she explained. “Wood chips are MOOP.”
MOOP, or Matter Out of Place in Burner argot, is frowned upon, as it must be meticulously removed after the event by hundreds of volunteers, by hand, in the hundred-degree heat. The Burning Man fixation on MOOP is born in part from a leave-no-trace philosophy (one of its Ten Principles), but it’s also a defensive posture against the Bureau of Land Management and the state of Nevada, both of which seem to be torn between wanting to smite the heathen bacchanal and wanting to charge more every year for the Special Recreation Permit Burning Man needs to exist. Last year, the Bureau’s final tab of charges, which included the permit, the 84 officers on site, accommodations, labor and other charges, came to $2.8 million. (The organization disputed the bill.)
The festival has been held on the shadeless alkali flats of Black Rock Desert, a national conservation area, since 1990. To call the environment inhospitable is an understatement. Every year, the temporary Black Rock City—home to 70,000 souls last year—is built with almost a conquistadorial glee by men and women hell-bent on imposing a form of civilization upon the lifeless playa, hauling in generators and propane and water and lumber and porta-potties. (And art, of course.)
As with permanent cities, the construction and maintenance of this municipal infrastructure requires an elaborate regulatory apparatus—and for the greater good, the regs must be enforced. When you imagine Burning Man, you might picture naked people riding bikes and making out and setting things on fire—and, indeed, that’s exactly what you’ll see if you attend. But, for a psychedelic, safety-third debauch, Burning Man has an awful lot of rules.
Our next brush with law enforcement came a few minutes later, when a Nevada state police car pulled us over for the suspicious temporary license plates on the truck, which Virgil had purchased three days earlier. The officer quizzed Virgil on drugs. Do you have any marijuana? Hash? Heroin? Cocaine? LSD? Mushrooms? Ecstasy? Molly?
Having no idea what his campmates had stowed in the back of the truck, Virgil answered “No” to everything.
“Burning Man is a drug-free event,” said the officer.
He wanted to let the dog search the truck.
“Are you asking me if I consent?” asked Virgil.
“No, sir, we don’t need your consent,” said the officer.
After the dog circled our truck three times, we were let go.
Once safely inside the gates, the policing continues: Undercover cops roam the event in search of lawbreakers, sidling up to makeshift bars to see if they can get served alcohol without ID and striking up conversations about drugs with strangers. There’s a strain of paranoia inside the camp—anyone who stopped in and chatted about drugs was suspect. Burning Man also has its own law enforcers—the Black Rock Rangers, a volunteer militia that will yell at you for riding your bike recklessly. But, like real-world police, the Rangers are also de facto social workers, tasked with dealing with mental health problems and all manner of drug emergencies. They will take you to a dark, quiet space when you’re tripping too hard.
As the event has grown, Black Rock City has become more like a real-world municipality, albeit one that’s whiter, wealthier, and more circular than most American cities of its size. Its lawmaking body is the Burning Man Organization—often referred to as the Org, or more jokingly as the Borg. Like many municipal entities or large corporations, the Org has a fondness for bloodless bureaucratese. Witness sentences like this, one of many similar ones to be found on the official Burning Man website: “As part of the organization restructuring efforts, several subcommittees were formed to decentralize management and to include more key stakeholders in decision-making.”
The Org exists to contend year-round with creating the annual report, securing the permit, updating the bylaws (a 10-page document in 2017) and managing diplomatic relations with Pershing County, Washoe County, the Nevada Highway Patrol, the Nevada Department of Transportation, the Nevada Department of Public Safety, and nearby tribal reservations. To keep its grip on the playa, Black Rock City enforces a rigorous regulatory framework that goes far beyond wood chips. Along with fireworks, firearms, and drones, other items explicitly prohibited at Burning Man include dogs, feathers, and two-ply toilet paper.
Even potable water can be MOOP, as we learned. Our camp had purchased a 500-gallon tank of water, but the hose hook-up was leaking a tiny bit. That leak drew the attention of the Leave No Trace people, who came by with their clipboards, and we tried to puzzle out how potable water, which evaporates in two hot seconds, could possibly be considered MOOP.
The Leave No Trace lady with the clipboard invited us to be lectured by her. “May I have the gift of your attention please?” she asked. “Let me tell you about some things that are MOOP that you may not know are MOOP,” she began. Included in her list were glitter (even the biodegradable kind, because it takes too long to biodegrade), alcohol that you spill from your cup, and hair that might come loose from your hairbrush. Your gated community’s homeowner’s association has nothing on Burning Man when it comes to bylaws.
The Department of Public Works, which builds the entire city in the month before the event kicks off, has its own rules, too. My campmate, who goes by the name Jupiter on the playa, had been there for weeks before we arrived, growing his beard and building stuff. The Number One DPW rule, he told me, is that if you’re on the crew, you’re required to be an asshole. “Seriously,” said Jupiter. “I know some guys that got in trouble because they were being too nice.”
The DPW manages to engineer some amazing structures—last year they built a series of lighthouses—but they might not pass code in the real world. Another rule—although it’s more of a personal guideline—that I learned from Jupiter: “Some of what you see here is built on a mountain of coke. Don’t climb on nothing.”
Alongside the official rules there’s a far longer list of tacitly understood guidelines, designed to keep attendees under a modicum of control. Many such rules govern sexual behavior. Don’t go into the Orgy Dome expecting a free-for-all, for example—it has the same rules as sex clubs in the default world, so no single men allowed. Consent is perhaps Rule Number 1 on the playa, and it’s a good one: Again and again, you will hear that “communication is the best form of lubrication.” Sexytime friends are urged to disclose information about health status, but they are not allowed to use the word “clean” when what they mean is that they currently have no known diseases. To be clean is to imply that others are dirty, and at Burning Man, no one is dirty.
Other unofficial rules involve simple personal safety. At night, you must wear blinky lights. If you don’t wear blinky lights, you will be run over by people on bicycles. Tripping on hallucinogens or having sex in the middle of the playa are not excuses—wear a blinky. As one friend put it, “Don’t be a dark-wad.”
The Burning Man economy is all about decommodification—one of the Ten Principles—so you are expected to present gifts in random acts of kindness. This, too, is subject to formal regulations. One camp wanted to play Bacon Fairy in the morning, but they didn’t have a permit from the health department to do so. Another camp served coffee and tea but was not allowed to serve milk—again, health department rules. Still another camp brought 500 pounds of meat and 1,000 pounds of hickory wood, as well as a giant smoker, and served smoked meat at sunset. (They had secured a permit ahead of time.) I witnessed the surprise health department inspection on that one: the chef, in his standard attire of assless chaps, showed the inspector his food safety protocol and passed with flying colors.
There’s a certain dissonance in watching all these free spirits and seekers, who come to the playa to flee the stifling norms of quotidian American life, walking around with clipboards in a hyper-regulated city of bureaucracy and surveillance. But it’s also a miraculous display of the human capacity for self-organization in the face of challenging conditions, and reminder of what regulations are supposed to be for—keeping each other safe and alive. Even the most avant-garde artists and high-minded hippies need to drink, eat, sleep, and poop without poisoning each other, or the planet. Humans need rules. Given the current appetite for de-regulation that the current federal government favors, it’s worth remembering this.
Sometimes, even Burners chafe against The Man that they have become. Several years ago, I was able to hang out with a guy who had been employed by the Burning Man Organization. It was a coveted position, with shower privileges and dining hall privileges and wifi. But he had quit. When I asked him why, he said, without hesitation, that it was the walkie-talkie that did him in. “It’s a leash,” he said. “I don’t come to Burning Man to be on a leash.”