In defense of freeganism.

I wrote an article about freeganism for Cornerstone, a campus philosophy magazine that no one reads. So, I’m re-posting it. Pardon the pretentious tone – if it weren’t written in dull prose, it would stand out like a sore thumb.

Everyone has their own solution to the economic crisis. Democrats trumpet the need for massive government spending, while Republicans argue for equally massive tax-cuts, and Wall Street clamors for more bail-out money. I have my own solution: do nothing. And unlike many laissez-faire capitalists, I’m not saying this because I think the economy will sort itself out. In fact, I’m banking on it going down in flames.

My goal here is not to provide an indictment of capitalism, but to use some basic ethical reasoning and intuitions to argue for why you ought to adopt, to whatever extent you can, freeganism. Freeganism is an ideology of practiced anti-capitalism and anti-consumerism that seeks to strategically boycott our present economic system while simultaneously constructing a new economic system founded on mutual aid, sustainability, and autonomy. In this article, I want to tell you why we—that is to say, anyone in a privileged enough social position to be reading this article—ought to be adopting freegan practices.

In terms of offering an ethical framework for explaining what we should not do, few philosophers have offered an analysis as clear and simple as Peter Singer’s. Many disagree with his conclusions regarding animals and fetuses, but his basic premise is a strong one: if an action causes suffering unnecessarily, don’t do it. Singer’s most frequently cited application of this principle is to factory farmed animals, but there’s no reason to stop there. Indeed, suffering and injustice underlie almost anything we purchase and consume.

Take a seemingly innocuous example, such as tomatoes. You shouldn’t be surprised to discover that tomatoes do not grow in New Jersey during the winter. So what we eat is largely imported from Mexico. There, campesinos, who have been driven from their traditional farms by a glut of heavily subsidized corn from the United States, courtesy of the North American Free Trade Agreement, pick tomatoes for $5 a day, six days a week, which are then packed onto largely unregulated trucks that drive north and spew greenhouse gases the entire way. Once they reach grocery stores or restaurants, they are processed by employees who are among the worst paid, least unionized, and most vulnerable in America. Moreover, in order to ensure that tomatoes are presented to consumers red, shiny, and unblemished, they are repeatedly sprayed with fertilizer, pesticides and preservatives, all of which eventually make it into our water supply.

What’s scary is that almost any item you buy has a similarly problematic history. Coltan, a metal used in your cell phone capacitor, comes to you courtesy of a child laborer in war stricken Congo, and the shirt on your back from a sweat-shop in Southeast Asia. Ostensibly ‘green’ or ‘ethical’ products are rarely much better. Supposedly eco-friendly organic vegetables are typically flown in from the southern hemisphere, which gives them a greater ecological footprint than their non-organic competitors. Compact fluorescent light bulbs contain toxic mercury that will ultimately have to be processed by someone (and my guess is that they will be poorer than the average Princeton student).

Perhaps the greatest tragedy is that, for all the environmental devastation and human exploitation that goes into the production of consumer goods, most of it winds up in the trash anyway. When waste at the farm, transportation, retail, and consumer level are added together, nearly 50% of food produced in the U.S. is thrown out uneaten, much of it still packaged and within date. Moreover, thanks to decades of changes in industrial production, the vast majority of consumer goods in the U.S. are designed to be thrown out after one use or have ‘planned obsolescence’ built into their design.

Of course, none of this has any meaning if there is no alternative. As Singer points out, we are morally obligated to work to avoid unnecessary suffering, not all suffering. After all, we have to eat, whether or not we have ethical options for doing so. This is where the freegan movement comes in. Surprisingly, you can make a pretty good life off of the 500 billion pounds of waste Americans produce yearly. For example, freegans ‘dumpster dive’ grocery stores for food, build bikes out of recovered parts, and sew their own clothes from discarded fabric. Some freegans even re-appropriate wasted space, ‘squatting’ in abandoned buildings and growing gardens in abandoned lots. Beyond just living off of waste, many freegans refuse to participate in the economy as a whole, choosing to work as activists rather than salaried employees. Freegans not only show that our current patterns of consumption are unnecessary, but also that the assumptions we typically make about human nature—that humans are intrinsically greedy, self-interested, and competitive—are far from universal truths.

It may sound radical or strange, but freeganism certainly hearkens to traditional, basic ‘American’ values of thrift, conservation, and do-it-yourself self-reliance. And if you agree that unnecessary suffering is wrong, then freeganism provides a way to reduce your complicity in the suffering which I have described in the last few paragraphs. I am not suggesting that each of us should immediately drop out of school and occupy a vacant warehouse. What I am arguing is that each of us should be seeking to withdraw our support, as much as possible, from an economic system that is demonstrably unethical. For most Princeton students, the easiest step is to simply stop buying so much. The vast majority of what we purchase—whether new clothes, a fancy dinner, or faux-green products—is completely unnecessary, and conscionable only if we ignore the reality of its production.

You won’t be shocked to hear I’ve heard some objections to this. One obvious response is that freegan strategies won’t work for everyone. Indeed, it is inane and somewhat offensive to tell a third-world sweat-shop worker or one of America’s working poor that they should stop consuming so much, when the reality is that they can barely meet their basic needs. Moreover, freegan strategies like voluntary unemployment or dumpster diving are a lot easier for a twenty-something college grad with no family than for a mother of two. I maintain, though, that just because some cannot immediately adopt an ethical course of action, those of us who can are not thereby freed from an obligation to act ethically. If we truly believe eating animals is cruel, for example, we should be vegan, even if veganism is not viable for Inuit subsistence hunters in Northern Canada. Indeed, I think the fact that so many people are forced to participate in the consumer economy creates a special obligation on those of us with the ability to drop out of it.

Another response to my argument might be to concede that, yes, there is a lot to critique about our current system, but any alternative would leave most people worse off. We frequently hear this argument from Thomas Friedman et al. to justify globalization: sure, globalization has widened inequality and many products from oversees are produced in obscene conditions, but that sweatshop worker in Malayasia is better off now than they were before, right? The growing movement against globalization testifies that many people—when evaluating their own situations—disagree. To take one highly publicized example the Zapatistas in Chiapas, Mexico, have rejected the ‘progress’ offered to them by elites like Friedman in favor of a traditional, local economy run organized through direct democracy. Indigenous anti-globalization movements burgeoning around the world are a testament to the fact that not everyone values economic growth above all other values.

All in all, though, even if most people prefer capitalism, they does not in and itself mean that we shouldn’t practice freeganism. Certainly, the upper-class of India and China have benefited hugely from modern capitalism, at least insofar as they can now buy a lot more stuff. But as these millions approach Western levels of consumption, it is becoming more and more apparent that the earth cannot sustain any more people living like Americans do. The grim realities of global warming, biodiversity collapse, and peak oil indicate that we need to do more than just redistribute production: we need a lot less of it. We are not doing the poor and disposed of the world any good by giving them an opportunity to integrate into a global economy that is, ultimately, unsustainable.

These considerations shape the freegan response to the smuggest critique of their ideology. I’ve often been told that freeganism is pointless because it’s self-defeating: if enough people became dumpster divers, there wouldn’t be any waste to live off. Aside from the fact that such a view falsely assumes that dumpster diving equals freeganism, asserting that freeganism will collapse the economic system is hardly a criticism. In fact, that’s the entire point. Freeganism is about more than just mooching or dropping out of the economy. The entire ideology is based around not just withdrawing from capitalism but building something new, an economy built on values of sustainability, mutual aid, autonomy, and direct democracy. My friends majoring in econ glibly point out to me that such values are no way to run an efficient and productive economy. My response? ‘That’s fine.’ Freeganism acknowledges that the massive socialist projects of the 20th century that sought to compete with capitalism failed. Instead, freegans seek to build an economy on a local and decentralized scale with projects like ‘skill-shares,’ bike workshops, and ‘really really free markets’ based on gift economics. Such a freegan future will involve a lot less work, less production, and less stuff, which is quite frankly exactly what the biosphere needs.

The freegan vision is certainly incomplete. As most freegans will admit, they are more united around what they oppose than what precisely they are seeking to build. Ultimately, though, being freegan is a decision to build a new society through our daily lives, rather than sitting in a chair and abstractly theorizing about utopia. So, if you want to talk more about the freegan utopia, meet me behind the Wa. They put out their garbage around 10:00.

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