Festival Culture: Building a New Paradigm or Just a Waste of Time?

burning man

Self-reliance. Life-changing art and music. Community. Welcome to the modern world of festival culture. But is it all it’s cracked up to be?   

Some would say it was a different world before 1969’s seminal 3-day Woodstock festival. And then, there’s everything that came after. The momentous event left an indelible mark on our culture. For those who were there, countless stories have no doubt been told, over and over. For those who didn’t go, but wanted to, life has surely never been the same.

Fast-forward more than 40 years, and we’re now inundated with a moneymaking festival industry (something Woodstock failed to do). From coast to coast, north to south, the counterculture gatherings grow every year, and continue to aim to outdo previous incarnations.

The first time you experience the ultimate modern festival, Burning Man, is hopefully one of profound “wow.” If not for the drive (unless you’re one of the few who fly in to the desert located hours from virtually anything else) and the magnificent environment, there are many reasons to look out at the spectacle in sheer awe.

For the uninitiated, it’s the ultimate collective human experience: Radical self-expression is the name of the game where some 50,000 people pour into an otherwise deserted dried up lake bed for a week and transform it into something hard to describe beyond “magical.” No money changes hands there (besides your ticket and the occasional cup of coffee or ice). Everyone is invited to participate, to share, to express. Garish costumes, dancing like no one’s watching, the mood enhancers—be they caffeine, alcohol, cannabis or other street drugs—they’re most often used responsibly to enhance the experience (and in some cases, enable attendees to endure the long nights of music and dancing without falling asleep). There are the unabashed conversations and make-out sessions with strangers–if you so desire. And many do. In short, it’s a freaking incredible place to freak out without freaking people out who are afraid of freaks. (Like Hunter S. Thompson said: “The Edge… there is no honest way to explain it because the only people who really know where it is are the ones who have gone over.”)

Burning Man’s influence has spread rapidly over the last two and half decades—taking Woodstock’s humble ambition to a 3D blockbuster degree with artistic communities across the globe essentially revolving around the yearly pilgrimage to the desert. It’s said to have helped evolve electronic dance music to its modern frenzied peak, as well as influenced art and film, technology and everything in-between. Noteworthy non-profit efforts such as Burners Without Borders have emerged, and perhaps Burning Man’s most cherished byproduct: the profoundly personal liberation attendees feel during, and most often, long after, the experience.

It has, like Woodstock, prompted its fair share of copycat festivals, which have now become nearly as essential as Burning Man itself: Lightning in a Bottle, Envision, Lucidity, Harmony and so on. Even the strict music or yoga festivals (Coachella, SXSW, Lollapalooza, Wanderlust, Bhakti Fest) have taken on an air of “the weirder the better.” And if you’re not there, well, you surely missed out on something.

Interspersed throughout most of the events are talks and lectures, community building workshops, therapeutic healing sessions and more. This programming attracts some of the top names in counterculture movements: experts on alternative economics, permaculture, sustainability, technology, sexuality, psychedelic medicines, aliens—you name it. Combine that with all night dancing, lots of new faces, a little dehydration, and whatever else you may be altering your consciousness with, and you’ve got yourself a serious experiential encounter.

There is no question about the huge value our own personal transformation has. Self-discovery is key to finding our place in the world and how we can participate (and, hopefully, make it better). The intensity of these festival settings can make every experience more profoundly memorable; so, what you learn in a hot, dusty tent about organic farming on your 3rd day at Burning Man, may stick with you longer than, say, reading about it here on this website. But are you going to act on it once you get home? Will you eat better? Plant a garden? Write Abbott Laboratories about their use of GMOs in Similac infant formula?

What’s become increasingly more evident is the addictive nature of these events. It strikes many adventurous attendees with a what’s-around-the-next-corner type of affliction; to not go to as many of these events as possible becomes uncomfortable, unfair. Connection with the “community” is often cited as the most common reason for going; and a noble one at that. Certainly, ideas, projects and collaborations emerge out of the days or weeks spent together with fellow unshowered seekers.

But are festivals really the answer to our problems?

Regardless of what we may take away from a journey as profound as a festival, they’re still privileged events only few people in the world can afford to attend. While we party in the desert and dance the night away in costume, be certain that some people in the nearest town still don’t have enough to eat. Honeybees are still dying from pesticide exposure. Corruption is still plaguing our politics and corporate citizens. That’s not to put a damper on our need to dance—perhaps our politicians could use an MDMA-infused partially-nude night out in the desert themselves—but it is the reality we’re not directly addressing while we’re lost in liberating ourselves.

And what’s become more of a reality in light of the booming festival culture is the number of people who seem more concerned with the next tented outing rather than what can be done in the “real world” to bring that “community vibe” to a more applicable realization…in the bigger community at large.

Like Woodstock proved, there’s something to be said of common values—particularly when they include kindness, sharing, taking care of each other, self-expression, and a collective appreciation of art and music—good things can indeed happen. Something about these festivals resonate on the ever-important I-am-more-than-my-life-at-home level. After all, the personal awakening is a reflection of what’s happening collectively. And just like the world needs both the profound experience of repeated awakenings, it also needs practical boots on the ground tactics for dealing with immediate and less sexy issues than what to wear to the Temple Burn.

Beyond Burning Man’s relevant ‘radical self expression’ moniker, there is also the ‘radical self-reliance’ declaration festivalgoers must adhere to. Aside from the toilets, everything you need to survive for a week in a 100-degree F desert is your responsibility to bring in—and out—of the festival. It’s pretty darn good advice for living in a world where reliance on others often means supporting corporate agendas and crooked politics. And since we’re talking new paradigm or waste of time, it seems that the only thing we really need to remember is that it is indeed a waste of time if we don’t take these new paradigm experiences and infuse them into every aspect of our lives, wherever we are, and whenever we get there.

Keep in touch with Jill on Twitter @jillettinger

Image: Christopher.Michel

Jill Ettinger

Jill Ettinger is a Los Angeles-based journalist and editor focused on the global food system and how it intersects with our cultural traditions, diet preferences, health, and politics. She is the senior editor for sister websites OrganicAuthority.com and EcoSalon.com, and works as a research associate and editor with the Cornucopia Institute, the organic industry watchdog group. Jill has been featured in The Huffington Post, MTV, Reality Sandwich, and Eat Drink Better. www.jillettinger.com.