Radical Self Reliance

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The Self Reliance Pictogram by James Wickham

Radical Self Reliance is one of the original 10 Principles of Burning Man. The Ten Principles were originally written by Larry Harvey in 2004 as a guide to the organisation of Burning Man, and later adopted as a model of thinking and behaviour for participants to follow at the event, and in their lives generally.


"Burning Man encourages the individual to discover, exercise and rely on his or her inner resources."

This is a 'inspirational' principle which focuses on the individual. While this is a very straightforward concept the language choice of, 'his or her' is not ideal. The dichotomy of “he and she” in English does not leave room for other gender identities, which is a source of frustration to the transgender and gender queer communities. It is also significant that the statement does not coll on the individual to 'solely rely', and that the whole phrase is couched in terms of 'encouragement' rather than something more absolute. It is also significant that the call is for the individual to rely on their 'inner resources' which strongly suggests that the focus here is on the individual's emotional and intellectual resilience and capabilities rather than material resources only.

As a Burning 'Principle' and its relation to other Burning Principles

Radical Self Expression is one of the core burn principles. This must be included in any Burn in order for it to be officially associated in the Burning Man community.

It is important to understand that all principles apply equally and concurrently. The principles were designed to all work, and to all work together. No principle can be used to justify an act of commission or omission that violates any other principle. Principles do not 'conflict' with each other or 'contradict' each other because no principle is intended to be considered or applied in isolation from all the remaining principles. No principle takes away from any other principle. The principles are additive.

Neither the Principles or the Burning Man community hove ever provided any sure guidance about what how to find the balance between different principles, or in their application and conflict with 'norms of society. A useful (but not universally useful) tool in such circumstances is to apply the party-goers 'general ethical guidance', "Don't be the dick."

Interactions between this principle and real world circumstances in the context of Burns

  • This Principle may sometimes be mistaken by for a call to be entirely self sufficient. Given that the Principle only asks that a person exercise and rely on their INNER resources it is a stretch to suggest that all of the external resources, such as food, water, shelter and transport must be entirely their own 'work'. If a burner grew their own food, collected their own water, bicycled their way to the Burn event and built their shelter out of found natural products they would still violate an absolute injunction to be self sufficient - because they didn't make the steel that was used in the manufacture of the bicycle or the road that it was ridden on. The over riding and commonsense approach is to interpret this Principle as a call to people to 'organise themselves' internally and externally to get to and get through the event (and get home at the end of it). In many cases, in respect of those external aspects, this will involve co-operation and communal effort.
  • People who are physically or mentally vulnerable or disabled may find this an excluding Principle.

Activating Radical Self Reliance

A Burn Principle is not intended as a description of 'what is', but rather a guide to taking active steps - and not just within the Burn community. Examples of activating self reliance include:

  • 'Burners guides and 'how to' information

This principle in wider historic and philosophical contexts

The Ten Principles of Burning Man are in class known as 'Moral Systems' All attempts at creating a universal 'Moral System' have failed, and they have at times incorporated elements that we would reject, and have been championed and fought over at the expense of lives and nations.

Danny Usery makes the point that although sets of moral principles ideally should not contain inherent contradictions, in practice they often do. He suggests that in resolving those conflicts - which is necessary in order to follow those moral principles in 'real life', a person should apply a set of theory rules (or ethical principles) which will guide you in your application of those moral principles. He acknowledges the existence of multiple examples of ethical principles (such as Utilitarian or Kantian) and further acknowledges that the a person attempting to choose amongst these various ethical principles might seek further guidance, using some criteria to do so, and some ethical principles to understand which criteria to use, and so on ad infinitum.

The Burning Man Principles and Community provide no specific guidance on what 'ethical principles' should guide a Burners (or a Burn Organizer's) view towards and application of the Ten Principles. The 'purist' might hold that Burns should not charge money, and in fact should not be organized by anyone - but in fact organized by everyone. This viewpoint finds its nearest expression in the Rainbow Gathering movement. Others would hold that the Burn is an opportunity to showcase 'ideals', but the showcase has to exist in the 'real world' and comply with the economic and legal constraints of the real world as it stands now while we work to bring the 'real world' into line with our 'showcased world'. Some will hold that 'the pure is the enemy of the good', and others will say that 'If you want to do anything, do it now, without compromise or concession, because you have only one life. Gao Xingjian

Expressions and Artwork

On and off-playa installations have been created to express this principle. Perth graphic designer James Wickham created a set of pictographs in 2015 to illustrate the 10 Principles, and these have been widely praised and adopted.

See Also


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