The Future Hustle

December 19, 2012

by Noah Mickens

So, the boys from The Burro asked me to write about the future.

As I write this, we are just over a month away from December 21st, 2012. The ascendance of the Fifth Sun. The singularity at the close of Timewave Zero. The end of Kali Yuga, the Age of Degeneracy. The Dawning Of The Age Of Motherfucking Aquarius. Among my wide and variegated global family of visionary freaks, all manner of preparations are being made. My old friend Rex Church, for example, is building a huge Ragnarok Engine in the basement of a warehouse that he intends to activate on that date in order to generate techo-demonic entities that will help to push humanity into a new form of consciousness.

Showing somewhat less ingenuity than Mr. Church, a lot of other people are planning big festivals that weekend at a hit parade of sacred New Age locales. Inca-Tek in Cuzco, Peru is free to attend, leave-no-trace, participant-only, and has released no line-up; but promises a familiar combination of permaculture, holistic medicine, and an outdoor dance party. The always-impressive DoLab has organized The Great Convergence; where Beats Antique, Govinda, Apparat, and Random Rab will headline a massive happening at the Great Pyramids of Giza; with tickets running from $555 for a no-frills three-day event pass to $3,412 for the three-day pass, a five-day cruise down the Nile River, and a three-night stay at a five-star hotel. One hopes the riots won’t get it in the way. Meanwhile, at the Chichen Itza pyramid in Yucatan: Synthesis 2012, with a more modest price tag of $250 for General Admission or $1899 for the Full Experience with meals and 12-day tour package. The future is quite a racket.

“We believe this is a time for us to party like it’s the end of the world,” proclaims the Inca-Tek event on Facebook.  “Join us in intentionally celebrating this entrance into a new era,” says the tasteful Great Convergence site. It’s the same indistinct idea that hovers around Burning Man, one that combines the sexiest aspects of utopian and dystopian visions, best studied by calling the Burn a “rave” in the presence of a recent devotee. Oh no, they’ll tell you, Burning Man is about creating a new way of life for the future. A grand experiment where people are learning how to live together under harsh conditions, free of the constraints of money and authority, liberated by precepts of radical self-reliance and the gift economy! It’s time for the People of the Earth to wake up, and we are their bass-heavy alarm clock!

I say “recent devotee” because it doesn’t take long for most people to see the holes in this idea. Barring some sort of highly advanced matter compiler technology a la Star Trek, the future will be one of terrible scarcity. It might take a few decades (or not), but we’re running out of just about everything—water, food, oil, even breathable air. Burning Man achieves a seductive post-apocalyptic aesthetic; with its goggles and bandanas, its industrial design and vague pagan rites; but the whole spectacle relies upon a vast expenditure of goods that can only be achieved thanks to the relative abundance of the present day. The day will come, probably within our lifetimes, when it is no longer possible for us to carry on this way. Not so long ago, there were influential voices calling for the “greening of the Man”—no gas-powered generators or vehicles, solar energy, a human-powered electrical grid. But I guess that didn’t happen after all, yeah? So 2007. The worse the situation gets—they say an area of the Arctic ice shelf larger than the entire United States melted in 2012 alone—the less people want to think about it.

Indeed, the short term trends in the festival culture call for greater and greater excess, as the underground threatens to become bigger and more lucrative than the mainstream. There were 375,000 people at the 2012 Electric Daisy Carnival in Las Vegas, which is like 4 Coachellas; even though the average man on the street has never heard of a single one of the acts booked by mega-rave savants Insomniac. It was incredible, the biggest thing I ever saw, all those people experiencing this overwhelming moment together. At the same time, I imagined the tons of coal burning in some not-too-distant power plant so we could watch the save-the-world video montage five stories tall above Bassnectar’s whirling dreadlocks. Our people are consuming and polluting at an ever-increasing rate while making symbolic gestures toward sustainability, right in step with the square world. And you can bet that, as the resources available to the human race dwindle; our way of life will become just as untenable as theirs.

“People in search of enlightenment are trusting us to show them the way, and we’re just selling them another flavor of Babylon.”

“Fuck you, buddy,” you may be thinking to yourself. “More gasoline gets burned in one day on the highway than we burn all week in Black Rock, and it’s the big corporations who are really polluting all the water and poisoning all the food, and at least we’re creating something beautiful instead of building bombs to kill Muslim babies.” And you would be right. Listen, I love this culture – the festivals, the music, the art, the people. It’s my life—I run a freaky circus for a living, and most of us would sacrifice everything else to keep the whole Burner milieu going. Nevertheless, I’m genuinely troubled by the contradictions. If we truly believe in creating a revolutionary example of a new way of living, then we’re losing sight of that ideal as more paths open up to us. We’ve even got our own class divisions—poor folks busting their ass pounding stakes and cleaning porta-potties for their ticket money while the leisure class hangs around in air-conditioned luxury and doesn’t lift a finger. Like the hippies and the punks before us, the essence of what we are is being distilled into a commodity, a demographic, a brand. And the great numbers that are flocking toward that brand in recent years are mostly doing so as consumers of that commodity, not as engaged contributors. I can tell that the powers that be are trying to offset this—like when I hear that the BMORG is contributing lots of money to the re-greening of Detroit, and encouraging regional Burns over mass migration to the Playa—but let’s not fool ourselves. People in search of enlightenment are trusting us to show them the way, and we’re just selling them another flavor of Babylon. Is this our noble calling, a cause worth believing in, or can we do better?

The permaculture people have an answer. When you look the future in the face, a real solution is to gather together in small self-sustaining communities. Work all day farming and building, spend the evening making music and telling stories together; as we did from the dawn of the species until the last few hundred years. One can see the beginnings of a Festival approach to this model at the semi-permanent Oregon Country Fair, which predates every other festival mentioned in this article by at least 15 years. In the event of sudden societal collapse, it wouldn’t be a bad destination for anybody who has an in. Even there, the generators couldn’t stay running for long. Still, drain the swamp and expand the Energy Park, annex some nearby farms, build a big wall with some guard towers, you could do all right at OCF until the really well-armed raiders showed up. For my part, I would rather try for something better than a struggle for survival in the wreckage of civilization. Imagine Burning Man without water, generators, coolers full of food—that’s the future that looms ahead if we as a species don’t change our ways. In fact, for the majority of the world’s population, that future of drought and starvation has already arrived; and all of us in the First World have hastened it along with our lives of excess. What’s keeping us from learning, and teaching, that part of the truth?

The biggest obstacle is us. We aren’t satisfied with the rewards of a simple agrarian life in the company of friends and family. We want it bigger, brighter, louder. As creators, we’re hungry for new eyes and new ears to receive all of our new ideas. As consumers, we’re compatibly hungry for new sights and sounds. There’s nothing like getting up on stage in front of 50,000 people, backed up by LED screens and speakers taller than your house, focusing all of your well-honed abilities just to hang on and share the fruits of your imagination; then feeling the wave of adoration rush back to you from all those ecstatic minds and bodies with whom you’ve just connected. But there is another current. The late-night jam around the campfire, where your songs and dances and stories are shared with people who truly know you, rather than encountering you in the obscuring glamour of celebrity or the anonymity of an immense dance floor. We crave a temporary obliteration of our flawed, complex selves; refined sugar for the soul; and it takes more and more to get us there.

Not that I’m any exception to this—I’m totally part of the problem. The circus is developing into a reasonably successful enterprise lately. But I need to be in the city so I can be close to clients and talent; I need to be on the Internet and the cell phone all day, cutting deals and organizing with collaborators; I need to travel around by bus and by plane so I can get where the money is, and I need to set ticket prices high so I can afford to keep the whole scheme running. Other people are counting on me too—all the beautiful, hard-working members of the troupe; the venues, including those awesome festivals that scratch the itch best; and the fans who come to us for a little entertainment and inspiration in this troubled world. I do what I can—I ride my bike, I buy local and reuse, I work for the community. But all that shit is just shoveling back the tide—maybe what I ought to be doing is moving to a commune, digging a well, planting a garden, setting up solar panels. I must confess, that’s just not what I want to be doing. I worked hard to get this far. We all did. It’s what we always wanted, and we have it. Our dream come true.

Like the rest of the bourgeois parasites in the flourishing Bohemian Underground of 2012, I’m just not ready to give it all up. All that separates me from the Burning Man or Insomniac is that they’re enormously more successful than I am, and doing a much better job of advancing their creative ideas. Our people are achieving extraordinary things this year. It feels important to show people something different than a life of isolation and servitude staring at little glass rectangles in their cubicles/cars/televisions/ computers; and to test the bounds of possibility together. At the same time, we’re eating the world alive to make it happen; and inexorably transforming into a reflection of the same sick, doomed society that we’re trying to transform. I’m out here running ragged, just barely keeping up with myself, looking for a compromise between rampant consumption in the name of hedonistic thrills and an ascetic primitivism that I fear would hold us back from our highest potential and richest kicks. And while I’m looking, the future is breathing down my neck.

copyright 2012, Noah Mickens 

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