Is Ethereum the Burning Man of Blockchain?

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Alex Lielacher

Ethereum’s high fees have turned it into a blockchain reserved for the rich

Starting out as an act of spontaneous self-expression on a San Francisco beach, Burning Man continues to be a sought-after gathering for any free-leaning spirits. Today, however, critics complain Burning Man has veered away from its original ethos and now caters only to a specific subset of people—much like the criticism levied against Ethereum.

In this article, we explore Burning Man’s growth and evolution in comparison to Ethereum’s, and discuss how the world’s leading smart contract-enabled blockchain has (much like Burning Man) become a playground for the rich.

Boheme in the Black Rock Desert

In June 1986, Larry Harvey and Jerry James set fire to an eight-foot-tall wooden effigy on San Francisco’s Baker Beach. And so Burning Man was born. It would be a few years before the festival moved to its current home in Nevada’s Black Rock Desert, but the annual gathering soon experienced exponential growth, with people attracted to the event’s guiding values, which are held in especially high esteem by those who attend.

Every year since — with the exception of 2020 — attendees congregate at Black Rock City, a temporary city built in the desert, for a nine-day exploration of the human condition, culminating in the burning of a giant effigy.

Burning Man started out as a home for free spirits with a vision for a new society radically dedicated to “community, art, self-expression, and self-reliance”.

Black Rock City is built entirely by Burning Man attendees and no money is allowed to exchange hands during festivities. In an oft-referenced quote, Larry Harvey explained the thinking behind the revolutionary approach to life witnessed during the event:

“It seems to me that, given the problems we’re facing on every front — economical, environmental, political — what’s needed is a kind of ethical, cultural revolution.”

The festival and its attendees are guided by a set of values called the Ten Principles. The key themes relate to self-sovereignty while also encouraging communal collaboration and consensus, thereby reducing social ills related to the financial system, as well as fostering greater social and civic sustainability.

Examples include an insistence on personal immediate experience—with attendees required to participate in all community activities they are interested in. Radical inclusion is yet another. As prescribed by the Ten Principles: “Anyone may be a part of Burning Man. We welcome and respect the stranger. No prerequisites exist for participation in our community.”

Finally, consensus and collaboration on the common pursuit of a collectively pleasing community are elevated in importance.

Burning Man defines consensus in this manner:

“Consensus means that everyone who is party to a discussion agrees to a course of action. For a decision to be adopted, everyone must give his or her consent. This does not mean that everyone agrees that a particular decision is the best decision.”

Additionally, the festival recognizes that consensus doesn’t always imply a unanimous decision, rather a majority acquiescence and a collective willingness to uphold the decision.

However, for this to happen in a group composed of independent sovereign actors, there must be foundational support in the form of shared ethos. Larry Harvey finalizes: “This process only works if people share basic values and operate in a climate of trust that is rich in shared information.”

To characterize Burning Man correctly, then, would be to describe a community of people dedicated to a revolutionary reworking of contemporary society by creating and upholding new chosen structures, restrictions, and freedoms.

Unfortunately, as the event continues to grow, so do complaints across subsections of the Burning Man community. Critics believe the entry of ‘elites’ is bastardizing the ethos of the festival with the arrival of a much-despised “Instagram and celebrity culture”.

While recent changes may serve to allay Burners’ fears of a quickly eroding dedication to their counter-culture, the complaints remain the same.

While dedicated to radical inclusivity, the price of tickets, car fees, and the overall cost related to attending the event make it wholly inaccessible to a large subset of people.

It seems only the deep-pocketed can now burn the man.

Ethereum Has Become a Rich Man’s Playground

Ethereum started out as a revolutionary new idea. Its founder, Vitalik Buterin, created the smart contract-enabled blockchain platform a couple of years after interacting with Bitcoin and witnessing its limitations first-hand.

Similar to Larry Harvey and the other Burning Man co-founders, Buterin sought to build on an already existing idea to create better functional ecosystems. Speaking to Business Insider at the time, Buterin explained that Bitcoin’s functionality was limited, and how Ethereum would better serve users with more complex needs, stating:

“This idea of a blockchain with a built-in programming language as, kind of, what I thought was the simplest and, kind of, most logical way to actually build a platform that can be used for many more kinds of applications.”

Buterin’s altruistic viewpoint seems to have remained consistent over the years while his creation has continued to witness exponential growth in both user base and total value locked.

Ethereum’s impact on the greater crypto sector is truly unmatched. By pioneering smart-contract functionality, Ethereum paved the way for the application of blockchain technology in myriad ways.

Decentralized Finance (DeFi), for example, was made entirely possible by the smart-contract functionality pioneered by Buterin with Ethereum. The blockchain gave rise to a number of features previously unseen in the space; most notably, decentralized exchanges (DEXs) and automated market makers (AMMs).

These protocols led to the rise of a democratized type of finance, unmediated by any central parties, which has resulted in the exponential growth of the DeFi space.

Uniswap and Yearn are examples of projects first seen on Ethereum that have gone on to revolutionize the entire sector, inspiring similar projects on other smart contract-enabled blockchains.

Unfortunately for Ethereum, as its success and impact grow, so do its challenges. Transaction costs soared while confirmation times tanked. Ethereum’s core developers have been working on upgrading to Ethereum 2.0 for a number of years. The first step has been taken with the launch of the Beacon Chain, but that has not helped to reduce the high barriers to entry to today’s DeFi market on Ethereum.

Ethereum users continue to bemoan the high transaction fees.

With transaction fees exceeding $100 during high-usage times, emerging market users with smaller amounts of crypto are essentially locked out from taking part in DeFi on Ethereum. As a result, some argue that Ethereum has effectively become a rich man’s chain.

After the Burn?

For Burning Man attendees there is hope that a rededication to its original ethos by management may serve to return the festival to its former glory.

Fortunately, in the crypto world, there are now a number of robust platforms that have sprung up to meet the needs of the space following Ethereum’s reduced functionality in the face of an exploding user base.

A popular alternative for the growing DeFi market is Binance’s BSC (Binance Smart Chain).

The platform allows users to transact at higher speeds with much smaller fees than its pioneering predecessor. Users pay 49x lower fees!

The exponential growth the Binance Smart Chain has experienced since its launch in September 2020 — especially in markets such as India, Nigeria, and East Africa — indicates a true democratization of finance, in line with the original ethos of the decentralized digital economy.

For example, Beefy and PancakeSwap, two leading yield-generating protocols on Binance Smart Chain, enable users across the globe to earn triple-digit yields, while benefiting from minimal fees and near-instant transaction settlements.

Whether you are looking to use Ethereum or Binance Smart Chain, TrustWallet is your gateway to the decentralized economy.

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