a Polite Funological debate – can festivals save the world?

At the current rate of traffic to this site, it will break the 1/4 million hits threshold by April Fools.  But as satisfying as this is, it is less important to me than what happened the day before yesterday.  Which was being politely, but formally debated on another blog about whether festivals can change the world.  I am excited about this debate because Rosie is actually part of the Burning Man organization and while she is not speaking for BM inc. in her post, she is certainly an insider, with perspective and experience which many participants can’t have.  And i am thrilled about the debate, because i want her to be right and this exchange of perspectives will hopefully help our shared wish for these events to be high in positive impact and world transforming.  And of course controversy spikes web traffic, and i love traffic.

Let me try to summarize her points here (but please read her article linked above):

  • BM builds community, inspires resilience and resourcefulness.
  • BM connects people to feeling empathetically connected to humanity
  • BM encourages contribution to crafting a better world
  • BM is an antidote to isolation
  • BM has sparked many civic and artistic endeavors

Boringly, we don’t disagree on any of these points.  As i have written in this blog, i think Burning Man is a tremendously significant event for these and other reasons.  Rosie is right to challenge me on the trite phrase “Save the World”.  In the ways mentioned above these transformational festivals (like BM) are increasing our chances for survival, empowering and transforming individuals and taking on some political issues.  And to be fair, BM actually does this better than any festival i have been to.  It is more transformative, it has more active external political initiatives and importantly is memetic in that it replicates regional burns of the same structure (so that everyone does not need to go to Nevada for this experience).  So in this sense Rosie is right.  Specifically she sez:

And looking at doing the hard and hostile work, let’s again, point to the work of Burners Without Borders:  Here is a group of people that formed and built relationships with each other at Burning Man. The individuals that generated this group, likely without knowing it, were in effect training themselves with useful skills by building survival systems in the harsh desert where Burning Man is held.  ”Following the 2005 Burning Man event, several participants headed south into the Hurricane Katrina disaster area to help people rebuild their devastated communities” (source)You’re going to have a very tough time convincing me that a festival wasn’t in part responsible for the existence of this humanitarian aid group that is out there in the world doing “the hard work which needs to be done…”

Where i think BM and the other transformational festivals fall short is the notion that these events and the things which they inspire are enough work for us to get where we need to go.  I feel that there is a certain type of “lazy activism” in which participants can go to these events and party and perhaps partake in these civic and political parallel projects and think that they have done their share of world fixing.  The hype of the Bloom video seems to encourage this “we can do it all if we can make it to these festivals” feeling.  Or more simply put, Bloom makes saving the world sound easily accessible.  This feels naive to me, i am not sure of Rosie would agree.

Get on the bus: Burners do help improve the world.

Get on the bus: Burners do help improve the world.

We dont really have a disagreement on diversity.  Rosie says:

Yes, the majority of music & art festival attendees at this point in time are white…. I had a desire for the event to be more diverse because I believe diversity creates strength and interesting variation in an ecosystem. However, as someone once told me, “You can’t force diversity. You CAN steward it, but it has to be generated by the interest of minority groups/individuals themselves, and then supported by the ecosystem of the event.”

If BM can attract a more ethnically diverse base of participation, that is fantastic.  And i also believe that you can’t force diversity.  And i am a bit skeptical that this expensive, remote, dominantly white event can morph into something far more inclusive – and i would be happy for Rosie to point out how i was wrong in this, including BM inc.’s plans to deal with this.

And the most dangerous part of the Bloom project (which Rosie does not mention) is the idea that these festivals can play a role in re-indigenization.  My intimates who work on cultural appropriation issues are completely unconvinced that this can be pulled off.  My view is that i really want to understand how this might work, but i start from a somewhat skeptical place.

Is this what the city of the future looks like?

Is this what the city of the future looks like?

Rosie says:

They are a useful source of inspiration, of bringing people more alive than they were before the event. This aliveness, this enthusiasm and passion for life is something they can take back to “their regular lives.” I contend that festivals can be an inspiring part of the continuum of one’s life. There is no “regular life” or “default world.” All of your experiences are part of your life and your world.

i totally get her point, and we will have to respectfully disagree.  Until participants have significantly transformed their lives (which many have already done, but i don’t think most have) there is a “default world” which they are returning to, which is frequently spirit crushing and strongly discourages the type of radical self expression that BM is so good at promoting onsite.  

i cant go back to my straight job dressed (or thinking) like this.

i cant go back to my straight job dressed (or thinking) like this.

Where we are highly aligned is when it comes to her posts conclusion.

Festivals serve as a tool in helping individuals connect both to a part of themselves that may have been lost since childhood, and also connect to a tribe that they resonate with. Technology combined with your passionate desire and your aligned action will keep you connected to your tribe, and if you want to be a bigger contribution to the world, you can.

Absolutely, my thoughts precisely.

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About paxus

a funologist, memeticist and revolutionary. Can be found in the vanity bin of Wikipedia and in locations of imminent calamity. buckle up, there is going to be some rough sledding.

21 responses to “a Polite Funological debate – can festivals save the world?”

  1. Allen Butcher says :

    You do not explain what you mean by “Until participants significantly transform their life’s”. I think it would help if you would clearly state what you think a significant transformation of someone’s life would be. Are you thinking of intentional community? Of course, a significant change for one person may be minimal for someone else. So what really do you want, or what do you think is possible, and how do you decide what is significant? Maybe significant things really are happening and we can’t see it. Personally, I agree with you. I’ve done workshops on intentional community at Rainbow Gatherings for years, and I’ve come to think that festivals are a kind of community and intentional community is a kind of community, and the two intersect on some level and not others, and viva la differance!

    • paxus says :


      Great clarifying challenge question. And i am not feeling a have an exhaustive answer now, but i can give some examples. There is a reasonable chance if you have a self revelatory experience at one of these transformative festivals you will discover you have a lousy job, a failed romance or some significant self destructive behavior pattern. If you discover this and actually do something about it when you get back to you post festival life, then you have done some of the hard work needed. These things are typically quite hard to change, very many people have at least one of them in their way.

      Intentional communities are great, and they are certainly not the only solution. And what are we trying to “solve” with them? It could eb the ecological damage of industrial capitalism or the alienation. Well there are lots of approaches to these besides communes. But taking these tasks on, in what ever form is part of this tricky world transforming stuff beckoning us.

  2. Arjen says :

    “Rosie is right to challenge me on the trite phrase “Save the World”. In the ways mentioned above these transformational festivals (like BM) are increasing our chances for survival, empowering and transforming individuals and taking on some political issues.”

    I think this is a very anthropocentric way of looking at “saving the world”. I would actually say the opposite: we have more chance of “saving the world” when decreasing humans chances of survival…

    • paxus says :


      You are right. This is not saving the world, this is saving people – a different thing entirely. Were i rooting principally for the biosphere, i would off the people. And this seems a tremendous loss of potential to me, so i want to try tot fight the smaller fight first.

      Paxus in Santa Cruz
      26 Early Flowers 2013

      • Arjen says :

        I can see your point and am mystified by that priority at the same time: without humans, there will still be a precious planet with functioning ecosystems, but without a planet with functioning ecosystems there won’t be any humans as well.

  3. Rosie Lila says :

    Hey Pax!

    Loving the dialogue here, and reading the contributions of other voices.

    So, first thing, my post isn’t only talking about Burning Man. There is more evidence directly related to BM because, as I mentioned, it’s been around for a long time and organized for a long time, and people have been able to form functioning structures and communities out of that. I think, if given a long enough period of time and enough organizing prowess, other events could generate a similar legacy.

    To sum up my points as being specifically about Burning Man is erroneous. I can’t fully agree with:

    BM connects people to feel empathetically connected to humanity
    BM encourages contribution to crafting a better world
    BM is an antidote to isolation

    Burning Man doesn’t connect people to empathy. Burning Man provides a space for people to contribute. They generate their own experiences. Some of those experiences may be empathetic. Some of those experiences may contrarily be isolating. Burning Man is a canvas for people to explore.

    THAT SAID, speaking GENERALLY hear, I stand by this:

    Festivals CAN build community, inspires resilience and resourcefulness.
    Festivals CAN connect people to feel empathetically connected to humanity.
    Festivals CAN encourage contribution to crafting a better world.
    Festivals CAN be an antidote to isolation.
    Festivals CAN spark many civic and artistic endeavors.

    When I look at festivals, I see the potential of what is there.

    Regarding “default world,” yes we will likely have to disagree on this. I will ask you, though: When you go on vacation and have a great time, or you go to a great party at a friends house, when you go home, do you return to your default life? I find that to be such a miserable way to look at things. As if one’s daily life can not be satisfying. And “spirit crushing”? I think that all depends on the filter one is choosing to see the world through. Yes, life is spirit crushing if you let it be. It doesn’t have to be that way, though.

    And I’m definitely NOT on the bandwagon of “Life is great all the time! And be happy! And only have good feelings!” I am going to write a post soon on my process of how to feel the full range of human emotions (from rage and hurt to joy and contentment) and do so in a constructive, life-affirming way that isn’t spirit crushing.

    Regarding re-indigenization: I don’ know enough about this to have an opinion on it or write about it.

    Regarding diversity: Larry Harvey once publicly mentioned about the future of Burning Man being in the spread of events being held locally and hosted by local community members around the globe. In my opinion, this is a movement about empowering people to generate creativity in their communities. This, in my estimation, will organically lead to diversity across many realms, including ethnic. When I talk about generating creativity, I’m not just talking about art. I’m talking about real social change in which people get to contribute to making their environs and social system better. It’s about inviting people to be more engaged in the world. So that they move away from feeling that the world is ultimately “spirit crushing.” The key to understanding this is that it relies on ***incremental change***. It doesn’t happen in a year. It happens over years, decades, and lifetimes.

    This is all to say that if you want to see more diversity at Burning Man, then there is an opportunity for ***you*** be the contribution to help make that happen. Introduce your action plan to the organization about how you would like to help set up a program to encourage diversity. I’d be happy to hear how you would like to lead that charge, and support you in whatever way I can.

    To quote one Paxus I know in the world, “Your passport to complaining is your willingness to do something about it.” 🙂

    Thanks again for this dialogue!

    • Rosie Lila says :

      Also, I’ll say: After having read a bit more of your blog, I find it highly unlikely that you would want to contribute to Burning Man by taking action at the event or for the event. But this then presents the question: Why complain about something if you’re not willing to act on changing it? Why waste energy complaining about festivals when it is clear that what you are passionate about and willing to take action on lies in other areas?

      Also, you know, this is perhaps the pot calling the kettle black: On Tuesdays, I have a blog category called “Tuesday Rants.” It’s my day to get on a soap box and bitch about something. Maybe that’s just what you were doing, too…

      • Arjen says :

        Hi Rosie,

        Firstly, I am not sure why you get the impression that Pax would not take on something like that. I could definitely see Pax taking it on.

        Secondly, I have a bit of a hard time with considering this “complaining”. To me it seems like a substantial part of the festival goers have a too bright sided view on how they contribute to changing the world. The original post seems to me to be an attempt to put the festival scene in a bit of a different perspective and start a dialogue. I don’t feel like that justifies the description “complaining”, which sounds pretty negative. I can answer that for me the usefulness in bringing something like this up on a blog lies in the the fact that it makes people think more critically about their actions. Just because people in my community have discussed this topic, I already have heard one person wondering if she could think of a more useful way to spend her time and energy than by going to this one particular festival.

      • Rosie Lila says :

        Hi Arjen,

        I can see how my intention in my above reply wasn’t made clear. I’ll do my best to clarify:

        I thought (I believe erroneously now) that Pax had written a blog post on reasons not to go to BM. That, combined with reading about him having smuggled monks out of Asian countries and other such incredible endeavors, had me presume that he would rather put his time into something along those lines, and not into refining a festival. It comes down to the priorities of passions and focusing one’s energies on those passions. I’m not under the impression that festivals are Pax’s priority.

        There’s no doubt in my mind that Pax wouldn’t take the creation of something like this on. I can see his initiative and drive demonstrated in his biography. No question on that.

        As for complaining, I was making a play on words by quoting this blog’s tagline to point out the alignment of the opportunity for action and the theme of this blog. Get it? It was meant to be cheeky and funny. 🙂

        Also, I’ve repeatedly acknowledged and thanked the participants in this dialogue, and in particular Pax for starting it. So, I’m on the same page as you in finding use in open discussion about our views and experiences of the world.


      • paxus says :

        same page. worry not

    • paxus says :

      Dearest Rosie Lila:

      We are far more in agreement than not. And the discussion is useful and hopefully entertaining at the points of conflict.

      Yes, let’s generalize and talk about all festivals. I have done some work with the rainbow gatherings, and i think this is a fantastically important festival concept, like BM has spawned regional (and even intl) copies around the world. It is a free, decentralized event, which (if you will forgive my my characterization) handles a perhaps 25% welfare class which brings little and offers nearly nothing. And even with this burden thrives.

      And BM has spawned a bunch of regional events, none of which i know has much in the way of racial diversity, but i could certainly have missed one that does. I can be a critic on diversity but nto want to focus my energy on this issue, i do feel like i do a far amount in the festival world (including putting a lot of energy into organizing a festival which ultimately failed). And i am sure i will do more and i will almost certainly do something at BM [In fact the thing i have wanted to organize is a movable party at the exodus, Where we move cars in clumps and people get out between and there are events happening so the festival goes on until you are free rolling away in some vehicle.]

      My personal relationship with BM is complicated by two things. First is we had a pretty disastrous experience in 2009 where our camp was busted the Nevada police in a sting operation and two members were arrested and many of our dreams were banged up because of it. I am slowly coming back to BM, perhaps next year. Tho i have a ticket for this years event already (because of my lover Caroline) that i will almost certainly not use, and i am still glad i have it.

      The other conflict is that it happens when the Twin Oaks Communities conference is scheduled, which i have helped organize for the last few years.

      And your challenge to me to help, is both appropriate and flattering. I look forward to meeting you with Abigail on Saturday in San Francisco or Berkeley.

      And to be clear, i think BM is the most successful transformative festival out there, has done more to change and dramatically improve peoples lives than any event i am aware of – it also has a civic service identity (like the Burning Man Project) which is wonderful and worthy of replication and has set the bar high for what festivals can do. i think the ten principals are extremely clever and worthy of memetic replication.

      i already feel like we are part of the same festival organizer family, planning on how we can make these events even more powerfully transformative and more fun. Thanks for showing up with such passion and conviction.

      With affection and appreciation from Santa Cruz


      • Julian Keyframe says :

        Can Festivals Save the World?

        Can ANY one thing Save the world?
        Probably not.

        Do Transformational Festivals enhance the living experience and also create an environment where people learn, create, share, thrive, love, and experience the much needed ingredients to make this world a better place?

        I would like to share information that may offer specific context:

        1. “Festivals” and “Transformational Festivals” are two separate things.

        2. Here is what the Bloom Series website states about Transformational Festivals:

        Transformational Festivals (tend to) combine the following elements in the container created for participants:

        -Co-Creation of an Immersive, Participant-Driven Reality
        -Ecstatic Core Ritual provided through Electronic Dance Music
        -Visionary Art & Performance (also Art Installations, Live Art)
        -Workshop Curriculum covering spectrum of New Paradigm subjects
        -Creation & Honoring of Sacred Space, Ceremony & Ritual
        -Social Economy of Artisans & Vendors (or, Alternative Gift Economy)
        -Takes place in a Natural, Outdoor setting (Honoring of the Earth)
        -Occurs over multiple (typically 3-7) days

        In addition to these elements, Transformational Festivals tend to exhibit these additional characteristics:

        -Conscious Intention to Support Personal and Social Transformation
        -Implements Practices for Sustainability and Minimal Environmental
        -Maintains Safe, Respectful Container to permit Maximum Compatible
        -Supports Participants in Healing Processes (eg. sanctuary, peer
        support, psy-crisis, healing spaces)
        -Organizational Infrastucture & Collaborative Synergy of Production
        Team sufficient to successfully implement Intentions in Operation

        3. Here is the Episode guide for your reference:

        And this is the claim that the Bloom makes:
        “THE BLOOM, a ground-breaking new documentary webseries, illuminates the blossoming phenomenon of Transformational Festivals, immersive participatory realities that are having profound life-changing effects on hundreds of thousands of lives.”

        Thanks all for the discussion, I hope the above helps in reference to The Bloom.

        Julian / Keyframe-Entertainment

  4. Loran says :

    Too much navel-gazing here. Can’t people just enjoy the festival for what it is? Instead of all this worrying over whether it can change the world or not.

    Truth is, we all get the chance to change the world every day. The smallest of things can start a revolution, like a butterfly flapping its wings and starting a hurricane.

    Part of the problem seems to be belief that the only way for personal “transformation” to occur is to do something like … joining a commune and totally rejecting mainstream society. While it is neat that such options are available, 99.9% of us are going to transform ourselves or society in very distinct ways. For example, by starting or growing a business, by building bridges and roads, by raising a family, or through personal achievements.

    • paxus says :


      People can do what ever they want. If you dont like the navel gazing, you should comment on other posts and read other blogs. This blog is about exactly this stuff, and this is one of the most satisfying dialogs i have had on this blog ever.

      Certainly there are ways that everyone can make the world be better, on a good day i hope to inspire readers to take on that responsibility.

      We agree that most people dont live the way i do and i am happily in the business of convincing people to reject mainstream society, because it happens to be killing us collectively and trashing the planet – party if you like, some of us think this is our work to do.

      And if you are not worth reading, respectful and interesting in your response, I will happily and effortlessly blow your comments off here like i did with the last two you wrote, and probably block you from ever posting again.

      Paxus in Santa Cruz
      27 Early Flowers 2013

  5. a future burner says :

    I haven’t been to BM thus far but I’ve met many folks who went and I’ve been to similar, smaller events. From what Burners told me it seems there are roughly two crowds, with some overlap: 1. the people who build and construct beautiful art and create amazing experiences. 2. the folks who come to get higher than ever before and indulge in debauchery. I don’t think either of these are going to save the world, well, maybe the first more than the second.

    I also learnt that high up IT folks such as Eric Schmidt attend the event. (Not sure which crowd Eric belongs to.) But These folks could change the world, and they are indeed changing the world. It just still remains to be seen if it’s any good. Then there are also lower echelon IT such as the guys who started couchsurfing. They seem to have been inspired by BM. But in the end they sold out to the corporate world and couchsurfing seems more of a burden to progress at this point. One of their justifications for selling out (and generally keeping a ridiculous management structure) was “BM is commercial”.

    Overall I have very mixed feelings about the entire endeavour and I highly doubt one week of desert mayhem is going to change much for the better if the “work hard play hard” burners (which is probably the large majority as attendance requires some redundant cash) just return to their cubicles the week after. It all seems so extremely vacuous.

    That said, I’ll probably attend at some point in the future 😉

    • paxus says :

      Dearest Future Burner:

      Go. It is a fantastically complicated event, which is much more than the two groups you describe. There are certainly some IT execs there, but my thinking about festivals changing the world is much more about the personal transformation of individuals which is unusually likely in these events.

      The first year i went (i have been 4 times starting in 2001) i asked lots of participants why they came – and i very often got the answer “BM change my life” and various different explanations as to why. Despite my many criticism, there is something very powerful going on out there in the dessert and the clever BM organizing team can take significant credit for it.

      Paxus in Santa Cruz
      27 Early Flowers 2013

  6. paxus says :

    Dearest Arjen:

    Oh, i want it all. First we keep the humans from destroying themselves, then we get them to stop trashing the planet and we live happily ever after.

    i actually dont think you can stop the humans from destroying the place while they destroy themselves, so i dont think there is a “human free” earth option with our current behaviors, which leaves the planet behind mostly in tact.

    Thanks for your thoughtful comments and encouraging Rosie to respond on the sexism claims.

    Paxus in Santa Cruz
    27 Early Flowers 2013

  7. Michael White says :

    I have gone to Burning Man every year since 2005 (that’s 8 consecutive years). I have been very active in the NYC Burner scene for the last 4.5 years. I’ve helped start two camps (Waking Grounds in 2005, and currently House of Lords a new camp for 2013), I’ve contributed to several large scale art projects, most recently the Blackbird – a 30,000 watt mobile sound system. I’ve been very active in events and projects in NYC, collaborating with Kostume Kult, Disorient, PEX, and Figment among others. I’ve also started my own projects, the Boombox Trike and the Silent Syndicate.

    In other words, I’m a card carrying member of this club – and I think I have particular insight into why its compelling and how it is in fact changing the world (my world at least!).

    Let’s quote Rosie again:
    “Festivals serve as a tool in helping individuals connect both to a part of themselves that may have been lost since childhood, and also connect to a tribe that they resonate with.”

    My thinking is that this ‘tribe’ talk is what all the fuss is about. And this is very very important. Its not so controversial to say that we humans are social animals and that for nearly all of our time on earth, we have lived in groups of about 100 people give or take – ie we have almost always lived in tribes. Our non-tribe time is a tiny tiny fraction of our existence as a species. Living in groups is a natural part of who we are and is something that most modern people are constantly searching for. We talk favorably of the days in college when we had ‘lots of friends’ or the how the town we grew up in ‘had a strong sense of community’. We want a group of people to fit in with – something bigger than a family, something more meaningful than a job, something more intimate than a nationality. This is just as much a part of the human condition as the desire for a romantic partner, or the desire for children. We want a tribe. Unfortunately, there are very few avenues in our current culture to experience anything remotely resembling a tribe.

    What is happening at Burning Man is an interesting exception. This is basically creating an opportunity for people to enter a temporary space where we can ‘play’ tribes the way small children like to ‘play’ house. We self assemble ourselves into groups of 30-100 people or so. We work together a good part of the year on projects and planning. We spend a lot of time together. We spend a week and half or more living together at the burn. We come back and spend more time together. We get involved in each other’s lives. We begin depending on each other in the ways that families do. We are starting to re-experience and remember how groups of people work together. We get a taste of what living in a tribe might be like. And we do it all, not for economic gain, but for the experience itself.

    Will this momentary group living experience change the world? What I have seen is that it changes people. I can’t tell you how many times a new person discovers our community in NYC and is just blown away by: the quality of the people, how much time we spend together, how willing we are to share our spaces / resources / skills / vehicles / money etc.

    In closing, that very famous quote from Buckminster Fuller:
    “You never change things by fighting the existing reality.
    To change something, build a new model that makes the existing model obsolete.”

    I think the re-emergence of new tribes will be the foundation of a new compelling alternative to our current culture.

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