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Why Burning Man attendees struggling with flooding sparked such joy

Normally 70,000 people being stranded in the middle of the desert would have been very concerning. This time though? Not so much.

As far as natural disasters go, the last several days at the annual Burning Man festival is definitely among the funnier of them. More than 70,000 attendees were advised to shelter in place as widespread rains soaked the usually dry and dusty playa where a temporary city springs out of the desert each year. Festivalgoers were told to conserve food and water, and tales of overfilled port-a-potties filled social media as onlookers cackled with schadenfreude.

The makeup of Burning Man’s audience has changed markedly since its founding in 1986. This festival born out of the San Francisco counterculture and based in a communal spirit of artistry has become a playground for the rich, especially a certain class of Silicon Valley tech moguls. So to see it being literally flooded is the kind of punishment for hubris that’s typically reserved for a Greek myth.

So to see it being literally flooded is the kind of punishment for hubris that’s typically reserved for a Greek myth.

What makes the plight of Burners, as attendees are known, so entertaining can be largely attributed to the general breakdown of attendees in recent years. Despite eschewing money and advertising on-site, it is very much not a cheap event to attend. Ticket costs alone have risen more than 30% since pre-pandemic. Add in the cost of travel, camping equipment and/or RVs, certain optional extracurricular supplements, and your own food and drinks as literally nothing can be purchased there, and the totals can be in the thousands. An old friend of mine, who spent a good chunk of her 20s attending Burning Man annually, hasn’t been back since 2016 — and she told me on Tuesday that a large part of that is the cost.

The price tag hasn’t been a problem for a certain set of would-be Burners, though: the rich and/or famous. Silicon Valley’s biggest names have praised the festival profusely over the years, claiming at times to want to incorporate the free-spirited ethos of the temporary Black Rock City into their own companies. The group behind the festival may be a tax-exempt nonprofit, but it spent $44 million putting on the event (and running the non-profit itself) and turned a $2 million profit in 2018, according to a 2020 analysis of its tax documents by the Reno Gazette Journal. Not bad for an event that started off as an impromptu bonfire.

Then there are folks who seem like they should be deeply out of place in a venue that is in theory devoted to a communal, free love, bohemian lifestyle. A prime example is Americans for Tax Reform founder Grover Norquist, who’s been attending since 2014 and has made a career out of hobnobbing with Washington's elite and powerful. But his presence at least makes some sense: Black Rock City is at its core something of a libertarian mecca, given its origins came about largely in search of a place free of regulations against things like burning a giant effigy.

Meanwhile, the desert heat and the occasional sandstorm, not rain, are normally the bigger weather concerns. Like Tiresias or Cassandra, a group of climate activists had blocked the entrance as the festival began, claiming that the rampant consumerism on display goes against its counterculture origins, NBC News reported. Many people stuck in the resulting traffic jam were not sympathetic, according to The Guardian. Ironically, those same people were then stuck in the thick mud that came from the rainstorms that swept across the plains.

There is a gap that has formed between the “let’s go build an artist-driven desert community free from modern society” ethos that the festival theoretically embodies and the “summer camp for hedge fund managers, tech startup grindset bros, and Instagram/TikTok influencers” reality that has developed. Seeing those partiers face actual hardships rather than pantomiming them definitely inspired some of the mockery that sprung up. That included joking predictions that the situation would devolve into anarchy, and the makeup of the types who attend lately didn’t exactly inspire confidence against that bet.

But “Lord of the Flies” and the Stanford Prison Experiment are both works of fiction. Nothing resembling “The Purge” broke out at the playa. If anything, that can be chalked up to the longtime attendees who go in part because of the harsh conditions, my friend told me Tuesday morning: “I know people who are claiming that this year was their best Burn, probably because the people from Silicon Valley, the people there to take Instagram photos, are having a terrible time.”  

So, while there’s some “malevolent glee,” as she put it, she’s mostly really proud of some of the people who had fun despite things not being perfect. And for the rest of us, those who have only watched Burning Man from a distance over the years, we know that for the most part the people who were finally allowed to depart Monday will be absolutely fine in the long run. You can call it class envy if you want, but seeing the rich have to wallow in the mud was too good a metaphor to not enjoy while we could.