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Principles of Permaculture v Burning Man

  • April 28, 2017
  • 13 min read
Principles of Permaculture v Burning Man

I’ve just attended my third Blazing Swan festival, which is a Western Australian Burning Man Regional Event. The overlap between the Burning Man principles and permaculture principles has been intriguing me for a while now. Both been developed as a positive and constructive alternative to the disconnection and destruction in the Western world. Is it possible to synthesise a common set by combining the two systems, or do they already have equivalence? Does a set of principles that originated in gardening and human settlement have anything to do with the principles for a big wild festival in the desert?

Permaculture principles can be applied to the design of any system, from home garden to city layout to business to your whole life. Permaculture also has three (or four) broad underlying ethics that informs all its decisions. Burning Man principles exist to guide participants towards a specific shared paradigm for the duration of the event, but for many burners this way of living seeps back into their everyday lives. I came across these principles at Blazing Swan, where an eleventh principle was added this year (2017). Interestingly, both sets of principles come with corresponding symbols, and incorporate circles in their design. I’ll let you explore this on the relevant websites (linked above) if you want to know more.

The Permaculture Ethics: Earth Care, People Care, Fair Share, (Spirit Care) The Permaculture Ethics hold and encompass all twelve principles. Robin Clayfield has suggested the fourth Ethic. Including Spirit Care makes sense to me because I see concentric circles of care from self, to others, to earth (and its creatures). The original set of Ethics doesn’t cover this clearly eg. you could interpret it to mean look after other people, look after the earth, and share resources fairly. This neglects care of self, which is non-negotiable if you intend to have any energy or resources with which to care for everything else. Just ask any mother. Adequate (or even – let’s go large – abundant!) self-care feeds everything else.

You could also interpret Spirit Care to mean honouring and nurturing of energetic fields, feeding the soul, acknowledgement and practice of ritual and transcendence, and reverence for our unseen connections to the universe. I think this is deeply important also, and deserving of inclusion in our map of ethics.

Bill Mollison and David Holgrem developed the permaculture principles in the 1970s as they founded the permaculture movement from Tasmania, Australia. David updated the principles to this current list in his book Permaculture: Principles and Pathways Beyond Sustainability, in 2002. You can learn these principles online, via books or in a Permaculture Design Course which is available at various locations worldwide – here are some in Australia. Find a free permaculture download here.

This is David’s list:

Observe and interact

By taking the time to engage with nature we can design solutions that suit our particular situation.

Catch and store energy

By developing systems that collect resources when they are abundant, we can use them in times of need.

Obtain a yield

Ensure that you are getting truly useful rewards as part of the work that you are doing.

Apply self-regulation and accept feedback

We need to discourage inappropriate activity to ensure that systems can continue to function well.

Use and value renewable resources and services

Make the best use of nature’s abundance to reduce our consumptive behaviour and dependence on non-renewable resources.

Compost shower piles at Fair Harvest Permaculture

Produce no waste

By valuing and making use of all the resources that are available to us, nothing goes to waste.

Design from pattern to detail

By stepping back, we can observe patterns in nature and society. These can form the backbone of our designs, with the details filled in as we go.

Integrate rather than segregate

By putting the right things in the right place, relationships develop between them and they support each other.

Use small and slow solutions

Small and slow systems are easier to maintain than big ones, making better use of local resources and produce more sustainable outcomes.

Vegetables at Fair Harvest Permaculture

Use and value diversity

Diversity reduces vulnerability to a variety of threats and takes advantage of the unique nature of the environment in which it resides.

Use edges and value the marginal

The interface between things is where the most interesting events take place. These are often the most valuable, diverse and productive elements in the system.

Creatively use and respond to change

We can have a positive impact on inevitable change by carefully observing, and then intervening at the right time.

Blazing Swan, 2017

Now for Burning Man principles. Co-founder of Burning Man, Larry Harvey, developed ten principles in 2004 to reflect the sub-culture of this festival, so that the Regional Network of events allied with Burning Man (like Blazing Swan, in Western Australia) could have a consistent cultural framework.

Leaving no trace

Our community respects the environment. We are committed to leaving no physical trace of our activities wherever we gather. We clean up after ourselves and endeavor, whenever possible, to leave such places in a better state than when we found them.

Giant Scrabble board – last day of a week-long festival. Check out the lack of rubbish.

Communal effort

Our community values creative cooperation and collaboration. Volunteers are the life force of our community. We strive to produce, promote, and protect social networks, public spaces, works of art, and methods of communication that support such interaction.


In order to preserve the spirit of gifting, our community seeks to create social environments that are unmediated by commercial sponsorships, transactions, or advertising. We stand ready to protect our culture from such exploitation. We resist the substitution of consumption for participatory experience.

Civic responsibility

We value civil society. Community members who organise events should assume responsibility for public welfare and endeavour to communicate civic responsibilities to participants. They must also assume responsibility for conducting events in accordance with local, state and federal laws.

Radical self-expression

Radical self-expression arises from the unique gifts of the individual. No one other than the individual or a collaborating group can determine its content. It is offered as a gift to others. In this spirit, the giver should respect the rights and liberties of the recipient.

Radical self-reliance

Blazing Swan encourages the individual to discover, exercise and rely on his or her inner resources.

Gifted pancakes with bacon and maple syrup.


Blazing Swan is devoted to acts of gifting: giving freely, without expectations of return or exchange. The value of a gift is unconditional. A gift is anything given in this spirit, whether it is a physical item, a service or performance, or something less tangible, such as friendship or companionship. Everyone has gifts to give.

Radical inclusion

Anyone may be a part of Blazing Swan. We welcome and respect the stranger. No pre-requisites exist for participation in our community. Every person in our community is a valued member.


Our community is committed to a radically participatory ethic. We believe that transformative change, whether in the individual or in society, can occur only through the medium of deeply personal participation. We achieve being through doing. Everyone is invited to work. Everyone is invited to play. We make the world real through actions that open the heart and create connection.


Be Here Now. We seek to overcome barriers that stand between us and a recognition of our inner-selves, the reality of those around us, participation in society, and contact with a natural world. Be aware of yourself, of others, of your surroundings and your place in our community and the world. No idea can substitute for this experience.

In 2017, Blazing Swan added an eleventh principle: Consent.

Respect the autonomy of the individual: every person has the right to make decisions about their own body, property, and personal space. What you see as a gift might be a curse if it is unwelcome (or unwanted), so when giving a gift, entering someone’s personal space, taking a photo or video, or using someone’s property, ask permission first. Only proceed if there is consent between all parties. Do not ever assume that you have consent based upon what a person is wearing or how they are acting. Consent must be mutual, definite, and given consciously, and persons are free to change their mind at any time. Remember that consent for one act does not imply consent for all acts, and consent given once does not mean that you have consent every time. No always means no.

Every festival participant is inducted into these principles as they enter the gate to the event. It’s a very deliberate way of setting the social norm for the duration of the event, and fostering a culture that balances such paradoxical values as safety and chaos. My experience has been that although the event entails consumption of alcohol and drugs, wild partying and the creation of giant burning sculptures, the focus on consent, support and respect means that it feels safer to be half naked amongst a crowd here at 2am than most city streets in broad daylight in the ‘fake’ world.

The Swan sculpture at sunset.

So I had a go at pairing the two sets of principles together, as closely as possible. Let’s look at what’s similar, and what’s not.

‘Leave No Trace’ and ‘Produce No Waste’: Leave No Trace is a site-specific intention that asks people to take their rubbish with them, while Produce No Waste is a whole-of-life goal that involves much more extensive behaviour change.

‘Communal Effort’ and ‘Integrate Not Segregate’: The first encourages people to work together, the second refers to both people and elements in a system.

‘Decommodification’ and ‘Use Small and Slow Solutions’: Decommodification specifies small and localised solutions to capitalism, while Small and Slow Solutions includes this as well as low technology and slow pace in general.

‘Civic Responsibility’ and ‘Apply Self-Regulation and Accept Feedback’: Civic Responsibility calls us to respect established society and our neighbours. Apply Self-Regulation is rather more anarchistic, calling on us to find our own boundaries and cease or desist where necessary.

‘Radical Self-Expression’ and ‘Creatively Use and Respond to Change’: Radical Self-Expression gives us permission to wear whatever the hell we want, whether rainbow tutus, drag, body paint, a suit, or no clothes. It also relates to the decoration of vehicles and camps, and the creation of sculpture and artworks from tiny to grand scale. Creatively Use and Respond to Change asks us to expect change and to stay responsive to the situation we find ourselves in. A more classic permaculture saying is ‘the problem is the solution’ – changing our paradigm can shift seemingly unsolvable problems. In both principles, creativity reigns.

‘Radical Self-Reliance’ with ‘Use and Value Renewable Resources’ and ‘Obtain a Yield’: Radical Self-Reliance exhorts us to consider how we can supply our needs without overburdening the system. Use and Value Renewable Resources suggests strategies towards closed-loop self-sufficiency. Obtain a Yield reminds us to design in ways to meet our needs, and make sure that happens at all stages of the system development.

‘Gifting’ and ‘Use Edges and Value the Marginal’: I was going to pair Use Edges with Radical Self-Expression, but I’ve decided to relate it to Gifting as they are both about exchange of energy in the system. Gifting is one of the most powerfully transformative principles in Blazing Swan; the magic of being part of a group of humans who freely gift their produce, goods, skills and time to each other is beautiful and life-affirming. Use Edges and Value the Marginal is about the potential for exchange at interfaces in the system; to value the synchronicity of chaos and the unexpected.

‘Radical Inclusion’ and ‘Use and Value Diversity’ Radical Inclusion is about social inclusion. Use and Value Diversity is a broader principle that fosters diversity in systems as a means for stability and resilience eg. multiple varieties of food crops, different ways to store water, several types of promotion for a business.

‘Immediacy’ and ‘Catch and Store Energy’: When should we act? Immediacy says do it now. Catch and Store Energy says look for opportunities to store energy in the system, to avoid importing it from elsewhere later on.

‘Participation’ and ‘Observe and Interact’: Participation asks us to take part and join in, similar to the Observe and Interact that asks us to pay attention to the situation before acting.

‘Consent’ and ‘Design from Pattern to Detail’: I’ve paired these two to remind us to step back and take a look at the bigger picture before acting. Consent asks us to consider the dignity and integrity of others before engaging in intimacy, taking photographs or altering their possessions. Design from Pattern to Detail reminds us to see the overall picture before planning the concrete and specific.

The Burning Man/Blazing Swan principles are designed to apply to a week-long annual social event, with some carry-over into participant’s everyday lives. Permaculture principles are usually used to design human settlements, whether on a city/farm/house scale, although they can also be applied to life, room or business design. Some interesting work has been done recently with social permaculture, which applies the permaculture principles to people systems. The Burning Man principles focus more on people, and it would be interesting to integrate this into social permaculture.

Overall, Burning Man principles call more order into the existing wild chaos, while permaculture calls more wildness into the existing rigid order.

Me and my honey.

On the whole, I find the permaculture principles apply more easily to my life in general. I do, however, really like the specific decommodification and gifting principles from Burning Man. Permaculture lends itself to similar solutions, but our lives are so deeply engrained with capitalist values that we need some pretty solid encouragement to explore any other way. I also delight in the radical self-expression, with its permission to spend large amounts of time devoted to creative and wacky adornment. That feeds my sense of playfulness and integrity – I can make visible my inner identities and bring delight and validation to others by allowing myself to be seen.

Ethan Hughes, who runs a permaculture electricity-free farm as a gift economy in America, says that permaculture principles will naturally lead to radical ways of living if they are fully explored. Just taking one principle into your life completely can shift all of your systems.

I encourage you to choose one of the above – Burning Man or permaculture – to deepen. Which principle would you like to embrace?

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