Is Burning Man Successful Because of AA?
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Is Burning Man Successful Because of AA?


Since today marks the commencement of Burning Man 2014—the annual, a one of a kind, week long event in Black Rock Desert, Nevada that celebrates freedom, expression and community (among other things)—it seemed like the perfect time to do some research about what this epic phenomena, and subsequent lifestyle, is all about.

I first heard about Burning Man in 1999 when I was visiting my friend, Sharon, in San Francisco. She was in massage school at the time and had a studio apartment off of Haight Street, which means she was heavily dialed into the neo-hippie scene. She had been to Burning Man with her boyfriend, a couple of times at that point, and the way she described it—communal, free love, no Starbucks—did not sound appealing to me. Of course, I was very young and still holding on to my dreams of having a professional, pseudo corporate career but I still loved doing drugs and weird stuff. I guess I just also loved air conditioning and showers and couldn’t relate to wanting to unplug from reality so much that I would have sex with a stranger who was covered in desert dust and wearing a loincloth.

But as the years went on, I started seeing more and more friends hop on the Burning Man bandwagon—friends that I labeled “normal” or “straight-laced” and would never have imagined would be interested in something like that (not that there is anything else like that but you know what I mean). These were adults with real jobs who started using their week of paid vacation to drive 500 miles into the desert and morph into primal anarchists. It was so weird. And what is even weirder is that many of them still go and a few of them even bring their children.

So as someone who did her fair share of partying but still couldn’t fathom seven days in the desert with no use for cash or clothing (even if I had all the ecstasy and orange juice I needed), I find the success of Burning Man to be fascinating. Obviously, it’s conceptually off the chain—one of those super cool ideas you get when you are peaking on LSD that never goes anywhere. Except that this went someone. And it continues to go somewhere since 1996 (though it’s roots started as early as 1986), growing bigger and more popular every year. If you have every tried to start a business, make a viral video or even throw a party, you know that it’s close to impossible it is to get people to pay attention to something, let alone participate in it or attend it, so you don’t have to be a Burning Man expert to understand what an impressive feat it is.

The phenomena of Burning Man actually reminds me of another brilliant concept for a way of life that started very small but has since caught on and changed the lives of it’s grateful devotees—Alcoholics Anonymous. And upon further investigation, it seems that keep one of the most successful non-profit organizations in the world effective and running smoothly—such as the 12 steps, the 12 traditions and the slogans—are not so far off from the 10 Principles of Burning Man (see below).

While no part of me suspects that Larry Harvey, the founder of Burning Man, borrowed anything from AA when he created the 10 principles, I do think it’s worth noting how similar they are. Although the details of the respective commandments are tailored to fit the organization they apply to, these concepts of putting community first, autonomy from leadership and self-reliance are clearly models that work if adhered to. The simplicity of living our lives based on just certain guidelines is something that we might find worth practicing in all areas of our life.

Photo courtesy of Christopher Michel [CC BY 2.0 (], via Wikimedia Commons (resized and cropped)

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About Author

Danielle Stewart is a Los Angeles-based writer and recovering comedian. She has written for Showtime, E!, and MTV, as well as print publications such as Us Weekly and Life & Style Magazine. She returned to school and is currently working her way towards a master’s degree in Marriage and Family Therapy. She loves coffee, Law & Order SVU, and her emotional support dog, Benson.