Burning Man: Paradise for Hipster Guests — And a Nightmare for Some Workers | Alternet
A staggeringly high suicide rate among Burning Man’s seasonal workers is just one symptom of a toxic work environment
Despite its transgressive spirit, the festival is expensive and increasingly off-limits to the underclass: Tickets run from $190 to $1,200 this year, while transportation to and fro and equipment add to the cost. Those who attend are expected to obey the organization’s “10 Principles of Burning Man,” which includes “radical self-reliance” — meaning attendees have to provide their own food, water and shelter for the week-long party.
Over the years, the festival has attracted its share of celebrity fans, some of them unlikely: Grover Norquist, the anti-tax icon, attends regularly, as do many of Silicon Valley’s elite, including Elon Musk and much of the Google brass, along with Amazon chief Jeff Bezos. Burning Man’s remote desert location allows for unique experiences that one couldn’t replicate in other settings — in particular, the ritualistic burning of a giant human-shaped effigy at the end of the festival, from which it derives its name. It also means barbarous conditions for the seasonal workers who are tasked with constructing the grid upon which the festival operates.
Preparing an inhospitable desert landscape for the equally brief and boggling surge in population that temporarily creates what is known as Black Rock City requires a coordinated effort of labor, workers and volunteers who toil in harsh conditions, often for low pay or no pay, for months on end: running electric lines, hauling equipment, cleaning up the mess at the end of it all, and dealing with the logistics of bringing thousands of vehicles and structures to the playa. (Although that word means “beach,” it is universally used to describe the festival zone.)
Salon spoke to several former and current employees and volunteers for Burning Man, who painted a picture of a dangerous and stressful work environment and a toxic management culture that contributed to a number of suicides of seasonal employees, at a rate far greater than the national average. Those who spoke exclusively to Salon recalled tales of labor abuse, unequal wages, on-the-job-injuries including permanent blindness and a management that manipulated workers who were hurt or who tried to fight for improved conditions.
Burning Man as a festival and a nonprofit prides itself on its “10 Principles” and promotes them rigorously — a set of values that include “radical inclusion,” gifting, decommodification and civic responsibility, which could factor into the blurred lines within the organization. Yet there is a steep differential between the salaries for the workers who make the festival run and the upper management: Romero told Salon he was offered $15 per hour to work this season. According to 2016 tax filings, salaried managers earn between $150,000 to $200,000, more than four and a half times Romero’s wage.
“Burning Man is outside the mainstream,” Brunner added. “Like, people are lucky to be part of it, they’re lucky to work there. It’s part of the fun. It’s sort of like a community building this event for everybody. The reality is that a lot of money is made off of it and a lot of people seemed to be well-paid to run it. They do rely on this sort of communal aspect and the communal ethos that they have to get people to work for less money.”
Arterburn explained to Salon that the unique conditions and experiences of working on the playa lead to unique personalities being attracted to the event — the kinds of people who, in Arterburn’s words, might not fit in elsewhere in society. “If one is in DPW, it’s my opinion that they’re in there for a reason,” she said. “Your average person who has a nine-to-five job and has watched their parents take two weeks off for holiday time a year probably wouldn’t be able to handle that environment for the amount of time that DPW was there.”
Salon found that in the seven years between 2009 and 2015, there were seven DPW worker suicides in the department.
That number is statistically significant enough to be alarming, according to Dr. Sally Spencer-Thomas, a psychologist and the lead of the Workplace Task Force for the National Action Alliance for Suicide Prevention. “To give you a benchmark, in a community of 1,000 people we would expect one suicide death in one decade,” she explained. Spencer-Thomas noted that the construction industry in the U.S. does have an elevated suicide rate.
Because of the unique and tight-knit nature of the Burning Man worker community, getting fired can be particularly devastating, as many workers have never felt that level community or camaraderie in any other aspect of their lives. According to Romero, the experience creates potentially dangerous highs and lows.
"There are high rates of depression because you do have the effects of institutionalization out there,” Romero said. “It is a remote location. It can be a long season. It’s mentally and physically stressful and you’ve got a lot of camaraderie and it’s a place where you feel important.”
The kind of people who are attracted to work in such an extreme and isolated environment may already be struggling, as Brown and Close were.
"The ethical part is that employers need to look in the mirror and ask, if you knew there was something you could do that could make a difference, why aren’t you doing it?” Spencer-Thomas of the National Action Alliance for Suicide Prevention told Salon.
The late Larry Harvey, Burning Man’s co-founder, laid out his vision for Burning Man in the aforementioned document now known as the “The 10 Principles of Burning Man." In it, Harvey describes Burning Man as being guided by a vision of “radical inclusion,” "decommodification" and “civic responsibility." “We believe that transformative change, whether in the individual or in society, can occur only through the medium of deeply personal participation,” Harvey wrote.
Burning Man is intended to be a utopian celebration, a break from the banal routine of a capitalist work culture, an event that is radically inclusive to all who desire to express an authentic part of themselves that is not accepted in what Burners call the “default world.” Ironically, and perhaps inevitably, the festival appears to have replicated the very problems it sought to transcend. Burning Man set out to burn “the man," but in many ways it has become the man.
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