Thursday, January 13, 2011

Dumpster diving (26 June 2007)

Via Brad Plumer, a link to a recent NY Times article about dumpster diving. (Oh wait, according to Webster's 11th that should be Dumpster diving -- wouldn't want to infringe on that copyright! Yeah, right.)

On a Friday evening last month, the day after New York University’s class of 2007 graduated, about 15 men and women assembled in front of Third Avenue North, an N.Y.U. dormitory on Third Avenue and 12th Street. They had come to take advantage of the university’s end-of-the-year move-out, when students’ discarded items are loaded into big green trash bins by the curb.
New York has several colleges and universities, of course, but according to Janet Kalish, a Queens resident who was there that night, N.Y.U.’s affluent student body makes for unusually profitable Dumpster diving. So perhaps it wasn’t surprising that the gathering at the Third Avenue North trash bin quickly took on a giddy shopping-spree air, as members of the group came up with one first-class find after another.

Apparently I'm not the only one fascinated with other people's trash, not the only person who conceives a potential ethical mission upon discovering usable things piled on the street. I've sort of vaguely intuited that this sort of thing was happening, but never really thought through the implications as the people profiled here obviously have.

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.
They dress in castoff clothes and furnish their homes with items found on the street; at, where users post unwanted items; and at so-called freemeets, flea markets where no money is exchanged. Some claim to hold themselves to rigorous standards. “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 four years ago and is the movement’s de facto spokesman.

I seemed to remember a similar movement from the late 1960s led by this man
that believed in freeloading off of society's garbage. He even wrote some catchy tunes about it, namely "Garbage Dump", which featured these lyrics:

Oh garbage dump oh garbage dump
Why are you called a garbage dump
You could feed the world with my garbage dump...
Here's a market basket and a A&P
I don't care if the box boys are starin' at me
I don't even care who wins the war
I'll be in them cans behind my favorite store

(Of course, he had some other, more radical ideas about racial conflict and what his group needed to do to foment the inevitable black-white struggle.)

Anyway, I'm skeptical that shopping in someone else's trash exempts you from participation in consumer society, and "absents" one from capitalism, as the "freegans" seem to believe. I'm sure the logic is that by reusing something, they are circumventing the need for new objects to produced. They are not adding to the problem by contenting themselves with stuff that already would have existed anyway.

But parasites need their host to survive, and in fact they will in some cases do what they can to perpetuate the lifespan of the creature they feed from. It's no good to castigate a culture while living on its leavings. Obviously if everyone decided to live on the refuse of others, we'd quickly run out of refuse -- somebody (people who would no doubt be derided as wasteful and evil) would need to be throwing stuff away for this system to work.

And if freegans are merely fulfilling the same consumer desires with secondhand goods, how are they opting out? Opting out would seem to imply conceiving an alternative set of values, desires, ways of fulfilling one's human potential, etc. The means don't justify the ends; getting a cool thing out of the trash doesn't make the acquisitive lifestyle righteous.

Sadly, this sort of article tends to discredit leftist politics, as it is populated with people like this:
Many freegans are predictably young and far to the left politically, like Ms. Elia, the 17-year-old, who lives with her father in Manhattan. She said she became a freegan both for environmental reasons and because “I’m not down with capitalism.”
Leftism becomes associated with an interim period of youth when you are not yet firmly entrenched in the system, not yet making the most of your earning potential, and are disgruntled with the effort it takes to become assimilated into in society as it is. You consider dropping out and rebelling against mainstream society by rejecting its rules, like "Don't eat what other people throw away." So when you are not busy watching Fletch you have time to complain and conceive of schemes to freeload off the capitalist society you blithely put down. Then one day you grow up, and you give up picking up trash items from the sidewalk, and you stop crying about the environment, and you set your worn-out, second-hand ideology by the curb.

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