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Black Rock City: An Ode to Impermanence

Black Rock City in the Nevada desert exists for only seven days each year, but it can teach us all many lasting lessons about the value of creativity, community and impermanence.

Today, January 1st, is always a time for reflection, partly on the highs and lows of the year past, partly on the untold wonders of the year ahead. Undoubtedly, 2013 is a year that will require a lot of creative thinking on the part of our leaders—and ourselves—if we’re to avoid financial and environmental crisis; so here’s a little story about another way of life from which maybe we could all learn a thing or two.

Black Rock City satellite view

Black Rock City, seen from a NASA satellite. (Wikimedia Commons)

Every year, for seven days, a city of 50,000 people emerges out of nowhere in the middle of the Nevada Desert.

It is a city without roads, without running water, without an electricity grid; lacking in most of the infrastructure associated with a functioning town, but with many other resources in abundance: Creativity. Community. Openness. Freedom.

The settlement is known as Black Rock City, and it’s home to the Burning Man festival.

What is Burning Man? Well, organisers say that “Trying to explain Burning Man to someone who has never been to the event is a bit like trying to explain what a particular color looks like to someone who is blind”, but here goes: it’s a festival of music, art, and dance, for one. At the same time, it’s a prototype for a new way of living, and an experiment in radical self-expression.

It’s maybe the only event where the entertainment is provided by the attendees, where you can only drive your car if it’s an art piece, and where monetary exchange is banned—so that if you want to obtain something from someone else, you’ll need to barter for it.

But another part of Burning Man is the celebration of impermanence. The city rises out of the desert, and fades back to desert at the end. You bring along everything you need, and at the end, leave the place just like you found it. Ultimately, self-reliance is just as much a part of the festival as self-expression.

The city that lasts for seven day can teach us a lasting lesson. We have to relearn how to tread lightly on the Earth. How to leave the planet like we found it, for the generations that come after us. How to embrace impermanence and decay, rather than mass-producing materials that will remain in our ecosystems for thousands of years. We need to relearn, especially in cities, how to connect with each other again.

Though we wouldn’t (and couldn’t) live every day of our lives as if it were Burning Man, it should be incumbent on all of us to look hard at the world around us, and take inspiration from the many and varied experiments being carried out into new ways of living. May we be bold in our own experiments, and forge new ideas by learning from the trial and error of others.

So, Happy New Year to one and all. Here’s to impermanence. Here’s to optimism. And here’s to a bright 2013.