On my way out from sipping a Go-Go Berry smoothie in Caravan of Dreams, one of East Village’s trendiest vegetarian eateries, I was surprised at the sight of several young people picking food out of the trash. It just so happens that Caravan of Dreams is just as famous for the freshness of its dumpsters as it is for the gourmet food on its menu. Although this may not interest most of us, the rating of garbage cans across the country is an important source of necessary survival tips for “freegans,” who voluntarily depend on eatable waste products. You may be wondering why anyone would subject himself to such unappealing living conditions in a society where opportunities to work and live luxuriously are plentiful. As it turns out, it is exactly this money-obsessed extravagance of middle class America that freegans are trying to avoid.
Freeganism is a philosophy that opposes the vicious cycle and ethical wasteland created by a capitalist culture, one where materialism, wastage, and money are promoted at the expense of the environment and personal happiness. Being a freegan entails more than just foraging for half empty bags of tortilla chips in the neighborhood trash bins; it involves committing oneself to a profit-free lifestyle.
Imagine yourself utterly broke, unemployed, and without shelter. Now, in this situation, the only difference between you and a freegan is that you are probably upset, most likely on the verge of a nervous breakdown, while the freegan is taking a stroll in the park in a state of careless contentment. To enjoy such seemingly dire conditions, one must adopt new goals, ethics, and priorities.
Living without a dime is somewhat like time traveling to pre-monetary history. Yet the scrawny man of today runs into serious problems trying to become an expert hunter-gatherer like his robust ancestors. Fortunately, brains have outdone fitness and freegans can now employ advanced technology to improve their chances of success. Over the Internet, freegans set up free sharing networks, in which people donate items they would otherwise throw away, for free! These free markets allow anyone to give or take anything but money. Desperately in need of a blender, but can’t afford to buy one? You can most likely find one on the Freecycle Network. Furthermore, online announcements of cool foraging sites and a range of transportation methods allow freegans to cut their scavenging expedition significantly, even to seemingly remote locations. Because freegans do not make any financial investments and endorse eco-friendly technology, they rely on hitchhiking or biking (with the bike they found in the trash) to reach their desired destinations. We can safely say that what was once a race for the survival of the fittest has become a race to the best garbage dump, which, you might be reassured, involves no competition.
The lack of rivalry for resources may be a positive circumstance for freegans, but it certainly reflects negatively of society’s wastefulness. People have come to take advantage of the availability of cheap food, cheap products and the general over-productivity of global labor. Our environment is strained and withering away. While it is certainly necessary to do something about all this trash and this shallow, profit-driven culture, I can’t help but wonder whether reclaiming a stranger’s half eaten sandwiche and living in a state of voluntary joblessness is the best way to go about solving this problem. For one thing, I would not be happy living in a decrepit, abandoned building so as to avoid paying rent.
The concept of squatting is yet another aspect of the freegan lifestyle. Squatting is based on the premise that shelter is a natural right and should therefore be free. However, we can’t possibly forfeit property value when competition for living space is out of control. Freegans might as well start building huts in the woods if they hope to one day have free housing, and even if they do build their own houses, they would have to pay for land space. While trash might be free, in an age of rapidly increasing global population, space on the planet will always have monetary value.
How do freegans make sure they don’t further contribute to the waste pool? Most freegans give up work entirely, which consequently places them in a completely useless position for the future of any capitalist economy. True, not writing essays, not studying for tests, and eventually missing out on the struggle to find a job would pretty much amount to a stress-free existence, which is essentially the scope of freegan ideology. This lifestyle, however, strays pretty close to self-centered romanticism. Like Thoreau, freegans strive to escape conventions and superficiality, yet they do so in the midst of an aggressive industrialized cityscape, rather than buried in the heart of the woods. It is nice, I suppose, that some people are actually acting for the same causes most hippies only complained about!
In the end, freeganism, like most other radical philosophies, has its benefits and drawbacks. While freegans may be unable to ever play videogames on the newest Playstation or hop on a plane to Fiji, they can certainly boast that they find satisfaction in life’s simplest pleasures. So, if ever you should decide that living by the rules is something you want to do without, don’t fret; you can stop showering and still find a hot date, all you have to do is become a freegan.