A temporary city pops up in the Nevada desert once a year, where gifting is king and community spirit reigns. The Independent used it to highlight the perils of global corruption.
For eight days a year, deep in the Nevada desert, cash is no longer king.
There are no ringing registers on the dry lake on which Burning Man sits. Here, chip and pin machines don’t exist, and there are no ATMs.
Try as you might, you cannot part with your cash in the Black Rock Desert, home of the temporary art and music metropolis with a population of 70,000.
Instead, this freewheeling Thunderdome of steampunk chaos is underpinned by acts of giving, where everyone treats strangers as friends, and people work together to make the community work.
We must end international corruption and redistribute wealth
There’s a misconception that there’s a bartering economy here – instead, every act of giving must be offered without expectation.
It’s a great leveller; ultra-rich celebrities who attend the event, such as Katy Perry and Paris Hilton, have the same purchasing power as the student who hitched a ride from Reno – zero.
Even The Independent’s media pass – an accreditation that at some other festivals might give you backstage access and a free bar – is emblazoned with the message: “This pass entitles you to nothing in particular. Immerse yourself.”
And we did, taking the concept of decommodification to its extreme and asking revellers to help destroy a $1m cash pile.
The money was, of course, fake. But it did highlight a problem that’s very real: worldwide corruption. It’s a practice that is often embodied in the corrupt elite of poor nations funnelling money around the world using western financial centres.
According to conservative estimates, the net cash outflow from developing countries is around $1 trillion each year.
It’s a figure that’s too big for most to fathom, but breaks down to just under $30,000 per second. As things stand, our pile of money would have disappeared in just over 30 seconds.
We asked people at Burning Man what good they’d do with $1m
Corruption is not a victimless crime. It can impact the delivery of essential services, sway how government contracts are awarded, and undermine the functioning of important institutions.
We used Burning Man to explain the scale and effect of worldwide corruption to an array of “Burners”, before asking them to tell us what small good thing they’d to for their community with $1m.
Then, we asked them to toss the cash into the fire pit and watch it go up in smoke – a symbol of money disappearing due to corruption around the world, along with the potential for good.
Their answers were hopeful, uplifting and diverse; one man wanted to set up a commune in the forest, another wanted to run a vaccine drive for a school district, while one woman said empowering women would be one of the biggest gifts to humanity.
Torching incredibly realistic fake money inevitably drew a crowd at our spot at the junction of 9 and G on the the crescent-shaped campsite, and the act of destruction was thought-provoking for passers-by. “If I find a $100 bill on the floor it’ll change my day, if I found a bundle like this, it’d change my year,” one said, looking at a wrapped $10,000 wad. “But the cost of corruption is three of these a second? Wow. Brings it home.”
Luke Heffley, 34, from Sebastopol, California, said: “I’d use $1m to buy a patch of land, which would be used to educate and inspire people, both young and old, by teaching ancient and modern forms of agriculture and ground working skills.”
One Burner from Delaware, who goes by the nickname Grillo, said: “I’d like to help kids who have nothing to do in their neighbourhoods. I’d start with my own neighbourhood, providing a place to do creative things like dance, and learn circus skills. I like that idea.”
Shona McLoughlin, 39, from New Jersey, said: “I’m passionate about education, but given that it’s such a long game that needs a lot of investment and time commitment, I’d looking into creating a vaccine programme or a clean water project for an area.”
Cathy, 69, told us: “I would spend $1m on making sure every girl has the right to go to school, to decide when she wants to get married, and if and when she wants to have a family. If we empower girls we empower our whole world. That seems like a pretty good bet for $1m
Olivia, 31, from Portland, said: “I love the idea of starting a boxing centre for women. I didn’t have the opportunity to do that when I was a kid but it’s a great way to help women build the strength of not only their muscles, but also their minds.”
Harry, a 33-year-old director from San Francisco, said: “I’m passionate about helping to feed those less fortunate than ourselves, so I’d set up a foundation which distributes food – both grown and donated – to those who really need it.”
After scattering bundles of $100 bills bearing the face of founding father Benjamin Franklin, the reaction of those who took part was varied: some looked sombre, thoughtful and concerned. Others, in festival mood, danced and laughed at the absurdity of so much money going up in smoke.
Either way, it was an image that no one found able to ignore. More than $100bn is funnelled out of African countries each year, and tens of trillions of corrupt dollars have ended up accumulated in the West.
On Sunday evening, the “man” – the neon-lit figure which stands at the centre of temporary city all week – burns. It’s lit from the bottom, and becomes quickly engulfed in flames, and the stage upon which it sits is blown up in a series of Hollywood-style explosions.
The man topples within a few minutes, to passionate cheers from the tens of thousands who surround it. Toppling the system that allows international corruption to thrive will take far longer