Elephant Graveyard

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.

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7 thoughts on “Elephant Graveyard

  1. I feel like there should be some sort of photo essay – the mounds of food left in the cities, the starving on the streets between.

  2. my brief look into austrian economics and libertarianism says the issue is more complicated than attributing blame to the corporations and that the gov’t plays a big part in this type of culture.
    for instance, if there were different gov’t rules and regulations for the sale of food, some places wouldn’t throw out foods that early and would keep selling them closer to the expiration date…this is what some japanese supermarkets do, discounting food as it gets closer to the store closing. this is just one example but i think a good discussion about the harms of capitalism has to address the works of Mises and Rothbard and their faults.

    1. There is certainly no regulation preventing stores from selling their food at a marked down price. Indeed, although stores often claim that they choose not to donate because of fear of liability, Jonathan Bloom’s “American Wasteland” did an in-depth investigation and could not uncover a single case of a lawsuit from donated food. The reality is that stores waste because, in any food system, there is an inevitable amount of food that lacks an “exchange value” (but still is edible), and profit-driven stores have no incentive to donate.

      Certainly, the issue is a complex one. But at the root is a profit motive that leads grocery stores to see their goal as making money, not feeding people. This is, of course, what Austrian economists thought would lead to the socially optimal outcome, but I think that reflects a certain lack of creativity about better alternatives.

  3. I subscribe also to the Austrian liberal viewpoint.

    I personally would prefer to live in a society that is very individualistic, and capitalistic. So I see the United States as somewhat bad because it has a lot of crony capitalism, corporatism, and not enough respect for individual rights to speech, guns, privacy, anonymity, free travel, and so forth. But I see Europe, and the former USSR as even higher on the collectivist metric so I’d regard them as even worse to live in, for myself.

    One’s values are axiomatic. I’m not sure if they could be said to be right or wrong with logical proof since they must derived from some set of assumptions. But if most people spend their life doing what their values tell them to, we can integrate over large numbers of people to find how they might behave at the macro level. So individualists the vast majority of time just mind their own business, increase wealth, and occasionally try to decrease the amount of government or move to another country if the one they’re in gets too collectivist. Collectivists probably spend a higher amount of time and effort on political goals especially to help the less fortunate since any consequentialist or utilitarian ethical system requires this in theory, and one’s practical actions must follow from one’s theory to avoid being a hypocrite.

    So this is one of the main distinctions between individualists and collectivists: many Austrians or more generally speaking individualists (e.g. the agorists on the left) simply don’t care about the socially optimal outcome since we take a deontological stance. If the most optimal economic system was X-ism, a very collectivist system, then I’d just shrug and still prefer my personal liberty over the convenience and utility of X-ism. The Austrians have have given compelling economic arguments that prosperity is compatible with individualism, but if some group of people would prefer to be free of worldly desire and contemplate Buddhism then individualism is compatible with that too. Said another way, I don’t care if some group of people in Singapore or China or the USSR or even the US decide to *voluntarily* do socialism, if as few rights as possible are infringed and those who want to leave are allowed to (in the US we have a very good system for defending individual rights so I would prefer this be a voluntary system like a commune rather than mandated on someone in a state, like the health care mandates of Obama or Massachusetts that I dislike). The macroeconomic net utility to society simply doesn’t matter to many individualists.

    In contrast, socialists because of utilitarian ethics will generally argue that their ideology should apply everywhere, and for this reason they’re also much more inclined to do organizing and politics. At the micro level the game theoretic situation of providing free utility to people who are poor (welfare, guaranteed employment, etc) is very unstable. For example if you decide to improve social utility, one straightforward solution would be to find a random person with very low utility — say a homeless person with a drug problem — and gave half your income to him. But he might seek to do more drugs or never work again, or some other potentially value-destructive outcome. Socialism therefore requires at the macro level to prevent these instabilities that any actor that would try to deviate from the “optimal” outcome would have to be punished, necessitating a great deal of enforcement (e.g. preventing markets, price controls, confiscation of wealth, forced reeducation of the bourgeois class, imprisonment of large numbers of people, work camps, censorship of the press, etc).

    I think it’s this “enforcement” aspect that the public thinks discredits socialism. The “soft market-based socialism” of Europe is more appealing to people because it isn’t associated with these harsh measures (and for that reason it gains more traction in the US). And also the moderate amount of collectivist corporatism, protectionism, and state bureaucracy (from the fascist tradition) gain some implicit support in the US, again probably because they’re “soft” and not associated with the historical extremes of fascism.

    Finally, the Austrians and Keynesians have made compelling theoretical and practical arguments that market-based systems are generally compatible with economic well-being (and differing in opinion about how important it is to force all participants to maximize “aggregate utility” vs methodological individualist “value free” utility). But I’m not aware that any socialist economist has constructed a system without markets that is compatible with general well being. So there’s a big theoretical problem since the pricing system communicates tons of useful information and if you try to get rid of that system then many of the actions you’d be taking would be destroying economic value (in both the individual and social senses).

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