The Post-Scarcity Ancestral Environment (and Burning Man)
Cory Doctorow calls Burning Man a test-run of the post-scarcity future. It’s a demonstration of what people would do if they had no material wants or pressures. Everything is so abundant it’s not worth hoarding or stealing, and any labor is done out of desire rather than necessity.
It’s worth noting that this would only be sustainable in a post-scarcity world, because Burning Man burns through resources at an astounding rate. It’s horribly inefficient in every way, and hard on the body and environment. It eschews responsibility for a week of carefree, joyous celebration. Its capstone event, the conflagration that gives it its name, is literally the destroying of a large amount of wealth on a sacrificial pyre simply because we can. (Well, and it looks cool.)
However, as a test-run for a future post-scarcity environment, I find it misses the mark. I don’t expect the future to be so harsh, dirty, and often uncomfortable. I expect the future will have innumerably more goods and services on offer. Despite there being no real deprivation at Burning Man, there’s also no modern luxuries or electronic entertainment. You have everything you need, and wonderful people and experiences, but you don’t have running water and you can’t communicate further than you can shout.
A couple months ago I read the ACX review of Dawn of Everything which sought to explain why it took humanity 80,000+ years to invent civilization. The answer it proposes (covered in our podcast episode Dunbar Rules Everything Around Me) is The Gossip Trap. Humans can function just fine with no civilization in bands of 100-200 by using social power alone (gossip). Moreover, this feels amazing. It’s what humans evolved to do for ~100,000 years, of course it would feel good to do it!
A core part of the Burning Man experience is camping for a week with a group of people, sometimes 5 or 6, sometimes up to a couple hundred. A lot of time every day is spent around camp, maybe eating food or grooming, and talking about… stuff. What was done the previous day. How one is feeling. What one thinks about life, the world, and everything. Love and dreams. What’s been happening around camp. You know — gossip. And OFMG it feels amazing. You never feel as present, involved, and serene as you do in these groups.
The review of Dawn of Everything proposes that the Gossip Trap was finally broken by many such groups meeting annually at a common location during periods of super-abundance. Periods when there was so much food and natural bounty around them that they lived in their equivalent of a post-scarcity world. There was no want. There was no reason to steal, everything was shared freely. Sex and music was everywhere. Humans created great monuments and temples to celebrate the season of plenty. The sheer amount of so many people gathered in one location forced temporary governments, “theatrical” roles of temporary leadership, etc.
This description is a striking mirror of Burning Man. It’s such a perfect recapitulation of the ancestral post-scarcity revelry that one would be excused for thinking it was an intentional re-enactment. There is no lack for necessities. Egalitarianism is off the charts. The celebration consists of thousands of Dunbar-sized groups migrating to a central location, with only the barest skeleton of a government, which is mostly ritualized anyway. We live in tents, without most modern tech, heavily interacting with our Dunbar group, but mingling with many others. Temples and monuments are built. It is joyous and wonderful, and primitive.
I stopped many times to think “This was heaven for my distant ancestors. This was the best part of their lives each year. This is what was taken away from their descendants for hundreds of generations, when civilization was imposed on us, so that we could lift ourselves to the stars. And now, as our great destiny is almost within our grasp, we finally have the excess wealth needed to recreate that heaven at will. We can feel what they felt, and appreciate where we came from, as we look to where we are going next.”
Anyone who wants to emotionally grok how humans worked, how their own deep psychology works, would really do themselves a great favor by participating in Burning Man.
It may take a few attempts though. This was my third time, and I’ve only just started to connect with that aspect of my species. I can’t wait to do it again. Every year I learn more, and I feel like it’s all just beginning. <3
Death Is Bad is a reader-supported publication. To receive new posts and support my work, consider becoming a free or paid subscriber.