Not (Quite) Buying It

At the start of June, the New York Times published a piece by Jake Halpern called “The Freegan Establishment” on a group of radicals near-and-dear to my heart.   While some might be less-than-enthusiastic about being the person that comes to mind when the issue of eating trash comes up, I was quite flatterd to have the article e-mailed to me all of a dozen times.  This, of course, presented a historically unprecedented opportunity: a chance to write on a topic about which I actually know something. Feeling the high expectations of putative expertise, though, I’ve been sitting on my thoughts on this article for two weeks now.  Distilling an 80,000-word thesis/personal obsession into a blog post is, I have discovered, impossible.  Excuses out of the way, here goes:

Actually, before I offer my thoughts on Halpern’s depiction of freeganism, I should—like any honest, but insufferable, social scientist—offer a few methodological caveats.  While I’d like to think that my training as a sociologist gives my evaluation some intellectual gravitas (hah!), I didn’t deliver a nationwide survey or run any fancy statistical tests.  My own study of freeganism was qualitative and took place exclusively in New York City. I hung out and asked questions: something anyone with the patience and lack of concern for hygiene could do.

If there was any fact that became clear from eighteen months of ethnographic observation and interviews, it was that freeganism is a contested and variable term and its practitioners are a highly diverse group.  Self-identified ‘freegans’ I’ve met include hardcore anti-capitalists, middle-class business people with anti-waste sensibilities, religious fundamentalists committed to a life of poverty, and cheapskates enthusiastic about anything that saves them money.  Halpern’s description of freeganism, then, could be very different from my own—and that wouldn’t make either of our accounts any more or less valid, just reflective of the fact that we are capturing two very facets of the same phenomena.

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My first thought on this most recent New York Times piece is—I’m afraid to report, for anyone expecting controvery—that it is really quite good.  Compared to practically every other mass-media report on freeganism I’ve ever encountered, Halpern’s portrain is rich, nuanced, and balanced.  A few points, in particular, shone through quite well:

1.  Freeganism ≠ Dumpster Diving – The New York Times’ one previous piece on freeganism—2007’s “Not Buying It”—brought the ideas of freeganism to a wide audience for the first time, and, ultimately, led to my thesis.*  It also, however, did the freegan movement a great disservice, by convincing most people that “freeganism” is coterminous with “eating trash.”  It’s a popular association that the freegan group I worked with which has only reinforced, by leveraging the public’s fascination with white, non-poor dumpster divers to attract media attention and draw people into the movement.

In reality, though, freeganism is a much wider set of practices, unified by goals of reducing dependence on the mainstream economy and minimizing environmental degradation.  Halpern does a great job showing this diversity: the Buffalo freegans don’t just engage in dumpster diving, but also squatting, bicycling, voluntary unemployment, wild food foraging, and communal living.  Whille all of these activities have political significance, they are, for many freegans, quite simply fun.

2.  Freeganism starts early – The most attention-grabbing accounts of who freegans are focus on those who have undergone dramatic conversion experiences: a favourite narrative is that of one New York freegan who, after seeing a demonstration on a “Buy Nothing Day,” quit her six-figure corporate job, left her apartment, and became a full-time activist.  While slightly less sexy, sociological theory tends to portray recruitment in a similar way, by explaining involvement in social movements as based on an individual’s network connections to activist groups and individuals as they exist at a single moment in time.

In my own research, though, nearly everyone I spoke to emphasized that the roots of their radicalism ran deep.  The experiences varied from experiencing racism at school to noting the indifference of family members to the suffering of homeless people to early dissolusion with mainstream activism.  That corporate-executive-turned-radical, for example, had been arrested during anarchist-theatre performances in her twenties; in many ways, becoming freegan was an act of personal rediscovery—“like coming up for air after being underwater for twenty years”—rather than a complete volte-face.  Describing Tim—the leader of the Buffalo freegan house—as a kid who was always trying to “stick the fork in the electrical outlet”, the article at least hints at these sorts of complex life histories.

3. ‘Anarchist organization’ may not be an oxymoron, but it is hard to achieve – This final comment reflects as much my experience as a freegan activist as my research.  One morning, the freegans in Buffalo woke up to discover all their forks had been turned into a wind chime.  The example highlights a general point: the creativity, inspiration, and free-spiritedness of many freegans often come alongside—and are, perhaps, inseparable from—behaviour that most people might label ‘dysfunctional.’  The Buffalo house may be a space of phenomenal liberty, but this comes at a price: without leaders, written rules, or means of coercion, the experiment is perpetually on the verge of falling apart.  While most freegans portray themselves as opting into their lifestyle by choice, clearly, some are pushed into it by their struggles to adapt to the expectations and norms of mainstream society.  These factors make creating movements and organizations that avoid hierarchy but are simultaneously able to get things done a frustrating and often unsuccessful process.

* The backstory here is pretty excellent.  Jackie forwarded me the article, stating, “Please don’t become one of these people.”  Naturally, I couldn’t resist, and the rest is history.

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All this said, though, there were some contradictory points I wanted to make in response to the article:

1.  Not all of freeganism is self-defeating – One paragraph from the article sounds exactly like a comment I’ve heard more times than I can count: “[There is] a quandary inherent in the freegan movement. Freegans maintain that by salvaging waste, they diminish their need for money, which allows them to live a more thoughtful, responsible and deliberate existence. But if they succeed in their overriding goal, and society ends up becoming less wasteful, the freegan lifestyle will no longer be possible.”  This is, of course, the cynic’s inevitable trump card, the argument that allows anyone to dismiss freeganism and retreat back into complacency.  And, with some freegan practices, it is indeed a valid piece of criticism: most obvioualy, you can’t dumpster dive food if you don’t have wasteful supermarkets.  This contradiction is already in view in New York, where the naming-and-shaming of some particularly wasteful stores—like Trader Joe’s—have led them to better guard their dumpsters (if not actually reduce their output of garbage!).

Most freegans admit that if capitalism collapsed tomorrow, knowing how to live off of dumpstered-food would not be particularly helpful.  Skills like repairing a roof, fixing a flat tire on a bike, or finding edible snails in the forest, however, would.  I’m somewhat surprised, given the varied portrait of freeganism found in the article, that the author eventually decided to repeat this trope that all of freeganism is self-defeating parasitism.

2.  Freeganism as engagement – There is an implicit, tongue-and-cheek critique that runs through the article.  The oxymoronic title—the Freegan Establishment—captures it, suggesting a disconnection between freegan rhetoric and reality.  Quotes like “They worked their butts off and paid the back taxes and the utilities. They are more conformist than they want you to think they are” only further suggest that maybe these “freegans” aren’t quite as radical as they claim to be.

The gap between ideology and practice is one of the central themes of my research, so I will belabour the point a bit here.  As in any social movement, one doesn’t have to search very hard to find contradictions that smack of hypocrisy: I know freegans that own second homes, use cell phones, eat store-bought meat on special occasions and with family, and continue to work in for-profit companies.  Of course, nearly all of us could admit to some gap between our beliefs and our lifestyles.  The significance of these foibles, of course, depends on the standard we are using to judge.

The NYT journalist traces the roots of freeganism to pre-modern Digger colonies, which sought to create a world existing entirely shut off from the outside world.  Freegan rhetoric does often emphasize the group’s attempts to create a “world outside of capitalism.”  Judged as an urban analog to a rural commune which provides for all its members’ needs, though, freeganism is a total failure.  This is, at least in part, the point the article is making, by showing how the freegans inevitably had to rely on the system of private property to give their social experiment stability.

One of the points I argued in my work, though, is that freeganism is—in reality—less about ‘dropping out’ of society than it is engaging with and criticizing it.  ‘Dropping out’ of capitalism isn’t just impossible, it’s also an ineffective strategy for building a movement, since it means cutting oneself off from 99.99% of the population.  In reality, much of freeganism centers on taking things intrinsic to modern society—like the production of waste—and turning it into a tool for critique.

Consider, for example, how the article describes the squatters moving into the house in Buffalo: “Majewski’s strategy was to be as brazen as possible. ‘The facade of legitimacy was our main goal,’ he told me. ‘We pried the boards off and did it all in broad daylight. That’s what ownership comes down to — everyone believing that you actually own it.’ When he introduced himself to the neighbors, Majewski told them that he had the heir’s permission to move in. This wasn’t true, but the neighbors took Majewski at his word.”  From the start, the freegans were intent on projecting themselves as engaged in a worthwhile social project.  Similarly, the group dumpster dives I intended in New York were less an attempt to achieve individual moral purity as they were attempts to use waste to rope passerbyes into the movement.

– – – – –

Of course, a key question that the article doesn’t address, and with which I have been grappling for almost three years now, is whether any of this actually matters.  Global warming, peak oil, and the recent economic crisis notwithstanding, modern society is not, as far as I can tell, on the verge of collapse.  In fact, time and time again, liberal democracy and capitalism have proven themselves to be incredibly flexible and adaptable.  So why should we care what some apocalyptic “weirdos with garbage” (as one interviewee put it) think?  This is the point at which, I should warn, I will abandon all pretentions to speaking as an academic, and speak from the point of view of a higher calling: that of social justice activism.

I was, at least initially, surprised to read that, according to the New York Times, “freegans are not revolutionaries.”  After all, many freegans identify as anarchists, which—for most—is synonymous with nihilism and revolution.  On reflection, though, I realize where the author is coming from.  Freegans have no political party, no plan for seizing state power; no Marxist view of history that declares revolution inevitable.  In the 20th century, ‘revolutionary’ conjured up visions of Bolshevik comissars or Cuban guerillas; it’s a bit hard to see a group of people eating dandelions and learning to weave sandals out of yucca fiber as their 21st century progeny.

I’ll admit that arguing about who is and who isn’t ‘revolutionary’ is an exercise in mental masturbation.  But the question of from where radical ideas are going to come in the post-Soviet world—in which we have acknowledged that centralized government planning by ‘revolutionary’ governments simply doesn’t work—is an important one.  And I would argue that, in this sense, the freegans are fascinating.  As I see it, freeganism is a (highly flawed) experiment in alternative ways of providing for individual needs, organizing communities, and approaching activities like labour and consumption.  Freegans do not so much offer us concrete practices that we can all adopt (you can’t feed the whole world dumpster diving) as they offer ideas and possibilities.

After this rather philosophical turn, though, I’ll close this overly-long essay with a lighter observation.  Rather sagely, Halpern wrtes, “The freegans were making a statement and having a hell of a good time doing it.”  While we should take freeganism seriously, we shoudn’t take the freegans themselves too seriously—I don’t think they would much like it.

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Jukebox: Audioslave – Be Yourself


One thought on “Not (Quite) Buying It

  1. Yay Alex! Fun to stumble upon this insightful article.
    It’s fascinating for me to see various descriptions of my transition from corporate drone to freegan maverick. I’ve told the story often but not as often, it seems, as it’s been re-interpreted. I like the “i know of someone who…” aspect. With any luck, others will get inspired to take the leap.

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