The day after New Years, I took a trip down memory lane to engage in what was one of my favorite activities during my undergraduate days at Princeton: digging through trash on the streets of New York with the members of freegan.info.* My ostensible reason for going was that I’ve been playing with the idea of revisiting some of my research on freeganism for publication; in truth, though, I wanted to remind myself, personally, why I find freeganism not just a relevant topic of study but a captivating mode of political praxis.
I’ve always insisted that you can’t really understand dumpster diving without having actually done it. I could, of course, cite statistics about how half of America’s food production is wasted, but—in a mental environment saturated with graphs and pie charts and poll numbers—the magnitude of the waste is impossible to understand until you’ve seen it. As we approached our first stop of the night, one freegan remarked, “Oh my god, this is going to be outrageous”, and it was. The sidewalk was an utter mess: some divers had clearly gotten there before us. But there were still hundreds of pounds of food: boxes and boxes of unexpired vegan burgers, mounds of fresh strawberries and asparagus, and trays of muffins and cookies covered in plastic wrap.
New York has no shortage of activist groups espousing similar values of radical ecology and anti-capitalism as freegan.info, so it is—in a sense—puzzling that night after night, their events continue to draw a diverse range of people and reporters from around the world. It wasn’t until this trip back, though, that I started to realize why freeganism is not just sociologically interesting, but also deeply resonant. In part, my new insights are thanks to Occupy Wall Street, and the realization that the latter movement has been able to do something that has rarely been done publically in the last twenty years: challenge the morality of capitalism.
And why is it that we have spent so little time in recent decades debating whether the world’s dominant economic system is just? The answer is simple: because anytime you raise such questions, the response will be “You may be right, but socialism just didn’t work.” Of course, many people do believe that capitalism is a morally just system, but since the fall of the Soviet Union, they haven’t had to offer much explanation for their position. There is no need to discuss the morality of capitalism, because there is no alternative: without the magic of free markets and the invisible hand, we are told, any economic system will collapse under the weight of its own inefficiency, incompetence, and yes, wastefulness.
But as we see on the streets of New York, night after night, this technical, a-political justification for capitalism rests on a monumental lie—on locked dumpsters hidden in back alleys and on trash bags quickly whisked away to distant landfills. On a freegan trash tour, neo-classical economics falls apart before your very eyes: supply doesn’t equal demand. The much-vaunted efficient allocation of resources that the market is supposed to provide simply doesn’t hold water in a society that throws away 96 billion pounds of food a year. Freeganism may not offer a clear alternative, but it does reveal the inner workings of the present system in a tangible way. “Why don’t the stores donate the food to the hungry?”, new freegans always ask. The answer is simple: donations don’t contribute to the one thing capitalism is exceptionally good at creating—profit.
Ramblings about the logic and justification of capitalism are, of course, very abstract ideas. But the garbage we encounter is undeniably real, and—even after well over one-hundred trash tours with the group—seeing it is an emotional experience. There’s an element of freeganism that is about confronting capitalism; but there’s another side to it: an attempt to dignify that to which our society attaches no value. Everything we consume represents a fragment of someone’s life: the embodiment of someone’s labor that went into producing it. When we throw things in the trash without using them, we are not just wasting natural resources, then, but also lives. And as the thirty-or-so packages of hamburgers we found at our first stop testified, it’s not just human lives that are being squandered.
On that night’s dive, we quickly realized there was far more food than the trash tour attendees could possibly take home. In the end, we just piled up the food we found. I asked one of my friends why we were even bothering to take stock of what was there, when we would have to put it back in the trash anyway, and she responded “It’s like an elephant graveyard. Right now, we’re just here mourning the food.” Eventually, though, we had to move on. We were hoping to hit up five more grocery stores, and we knew there would be plenty to mourn there too.