Is Burning Man Sustainable?

Julia Galef has a thought-provoking article in Scientific American about the social psychology of burning man:

Money, on the other hand, is not optional: it’s explicitly banned. People exchange goods and services constantly, but money never changes hands, except in one specially designated central tent which sells coffee and tea. I’ve heard Burning Man sometimes described as a “barter economy,” but that’s not quite right. It’s more of a “gift economy,” in which people give strangers food, drinks, clothing, massages, bike repairs, rides back to camp, and more, all without any expectation of reciprocation.

Serendipitously, behavioral economist Dan Ariely​ was at this year’s Burning Man and made an appearance at their TEDx conference to talk about why the gift economy works so well. There are two different frameworks people use to negotiate exchanges, he explained, the economic and the social. If we’re in economic mode, we’re willing to give away goods and services only if we get something we value in exchange. In social mode, we give goods and services because it’s socially expected of us. So if I ask you to help me push my car out of a ditch, you may well agree. But if I offer you $10 to help me push my car out of a ditch, you’ll likely think: Are you kidding? My time is worth much more than that. In other words, the mere act of putting a price tag on a good or a service bumps people from the social to the economic mode, and reduces their natural inclinations towards altruism and generosity.

So it seems that Burning Man has managed to create an entire city operating in the social framework rather than the economic one. We give each other goods and services not because we stand to gain, but because we want to be good citizens of Black Rock City.

And here is Galef’s explanation for why it may not be a world-changing experiment:

I think it’s a mistake to interpret the Burning Man experience as a proof of concept that people can be conditioned, through social expectation, to be generous to total strangers. That’s because, although it’s true that the people who gave me food and massages and rides all week were technically strangers, they weren’t just any strangers. They were my fellow tribe members.

I think the bigger issue is that everybody knows Burning Man is only temporary. People have different behaviors in the short-run and long-run, and if people thought Burning Man would last forever, they might be a little bit stingier with their gift giving. Galef’s explanation about tribes and in-groups also applies in the long-run even within Burning Man. Over time sub-groups inside the Burning Man “city” would emerge and engage in behaviors designed to punish outsiders.


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