The New York Times ran a sympathetic article on “freegans” – hardcore anti-consumerist dumpster divers. Lots of pictures of fun young people scavanging perfectly good shit in the dumpsters by NYU after the affluent students toss things (like working iPods and television sets) rather than move them at the end of the semester. Their message is pretty straightfoward:
Freegans are scavengers of the developed world, living off consumer waste in an effort to minimize their support of corporations and their impact on the planet, and to distance themselves from what they see as out-of-control consumerism. They forage through supermarket trash and eat the slightly bruised produce or just-expired canned goods that are routinely thrown out, and negotiate gifts of surplus food from sympathetic stores and restaurants.
“Our society throws out so much shit that I don’t see why I should have to pay for anything” is a pretty bold statement, but these guys can back it up:
“This is how I got my futon, chair, table, shelves. And I’m not talking about beat-up stuff. I mean it’s not Design Within Reach, but it’s nice.”
They have some really impressive stories (including several people who switched from upper-middle class life (read: spending) styles to a freegan life) and a leader of sorts who sets the bar for political purity:
“If a person chooses to live an ethical lifestyle it’s not enough to be vegan, they need to absent themselves from capitalism,” said Adam Weissman, 29, who started freegan.info four years ago and is the movement’s de facto spokesman.
Of course, the question is, how much can you absent yourself from capitalism, and like patriarchy, so sorry but you can’t. These guys kind of get that:
Not buying any new manufactured products while living in the United States is, of course, basically impossible, as is avoiding everything that requires natural resources to create, distribute or operate. Don’t freegans use gas or electricity to cook, for example, or commercial products to brush their teeth?
“Once in a while I may buy a box of baking soda for toothpaste,” Mr. Weissman said. “And, sure, getting that to market has negative impacts, like everything.” But, he said, parsing the point, a box of baking soda is more ecologically friendly than a tube of toothpaste, because its cardboard container is biodegradable.
These contradictions and others have led some people to suggest that freegans are hypocritical, making use of the capitalist system even as they rail against it. And even Mr. Weissman, who is often doctrinaire about the movement, acknowledges when pushed that absolute freeganism is an impossible dream.
Mr. Torres said: “I think there’s a conscious recognition among freegans that you can never live perfectly.” He added that generally freegans “try to reduce the impact.”
So of course cue the accusations of hypocrisy! Damn those dirty hippies! With their long hair and expired canned goods and reluctant, carefully considered participation in an inescapable system! If Lord Wiessman of the Manor can brush his teeth with baking soda then I don’t see why I can’t throw away entire rooms worth of furniture just because I’m sick of “champaigne” and wish to have a “sand” theme.
Of course the reduction of this philosophy to a battle of extremes is just a ploy for critics to assuage their guilt over ignoring the fact that these guys have a really good point, and if Madaline Nelson can quit her corporate job, move into a less luxurious house and start working for free just because she’s freegan, than maybe you can at least sort out stuff to give to the local goodwill before throwing it out or work to reduce your own trash production. Most of us do a modified form of this already simply because it’s more economical to check the classifieds for good deals before buying new, or searching the thrift store before heading to Target. The reason we don’t do more of this is because living the freegan lifestyle, even the modified lazy-ass freegan lifestyle, is fucking time consuming even for those fortunate enough to live where wealthy people throw away usable stuff. Out here in the boondocks, a lifestyle like that would consume your every waking moment. It could take months to furnish a single room. These people are dedicated.
I like this criticism the best: “These contradictions and others have led some people to suggest that freegans are hypocritical, making use of the capitalist system even as they rail against it.”
Well, duh. Even Madaline Nelson is going to have to pay the taxes on that house she owns, and wear clothing if she doesn’t want to waste all her activist time defending herself against yet another indecent exposure charge. A lot of these freegans either have to produce something for the machine or have to live with someone else who is willing to do that dirty work – freegans, like feminists, will often find themselves having to compromise to get along. The only way to really absent yourself from the capitalist system is to squat illegally on land with enough room to do some sustinence farming and make sure it’s in a warm area because you’ll be wearing fig leaves.
And don’t forget it’s completely lame to subvert a system like capitalism by getting something for nothing; could they have dreamed of a less appropriate form of anti-capitalist protest? Like, they can only protest against consumer waste because they live in a place where the many consumers waste a lot so they should thank the wasteful people for giving them something to protest by not complaining about all that waste they benefit from. If people weren’t so wasteful, then the freegans wouldn’t be necessary, which means they should just shut up. So as you can see, the whole idea of a ‘freegan’ is silly. QED.