Freegans: Leading Indicator of a Shift in Sensibilities?

An intriguing piece, “One Person’s Dumpster Is Another’s Diner,” ran yesterday at

For those who aren’t familiar with the term (as I wasn’t prior to reading this piece)

Freeganism (a conjunction of “free” and “vegan”) is the philosophy that participation in our capitalist economy makes a person complicit in the exploitative practices that are used to create consumer goods. One freegan defines the term as “living beyond capitalism,” which can involve any number of practices: urban foraging, hopping trains, volunteering in lieu of working a paying job, repairing things like bikes and clothes instead of buying new ones, squatting instead of paying rent.

The story, which I recommend, discusses how the writer ate for three days by “dumpstering,” which is retrieving food from garbage bins (the one exception was a coffee haul from a friend’s freezer, which was considered within the rules because she was going to throw it away). What one learns is that one can eat surprisingly well if one knows where to forage:

But after awhile, my exuberance at opening a bag to find it full of still-warm chocolate munchkins, or a hundred fat New York-quality bagels, or fifty plastic containers of organic lettuce from Mexico, or ten wrapped and ready-to-eat sandwiches, or two dozen firm, colorful peppers, was nudged out by dismay….

This happens every night all over the city, and to varying degrees, in every city across the country. All the energy that went into growing, producing, packaging, shipping, refrigerating, and dumping all this food is worth less than what it would cost a store to run out of something and fail to make a sale. So they deliberately overstock. And while the food and packaging gets dumped in landfills, people are going hungry just blocks away.

It’s depressing. It’s shameful.

It’s delicious.

Now why do I think this is more than just a lunatic fringe affair? Because I think we are on the cusp of a change in the zeitgeist.

Recall first, that beliefs and practices often come from the way-left and get toned down, domesticated, and adopted to some degree by the mainstream. In the 1960s, only skinny weirdos in Birkenstocks ate granola, yogurt, and other heath food and popped vitamins and herbs; now it’s a national obsession. The human potential movement of the same era was similarly fringe-y. Werner Erhard’s est made it popular, and many of its philosophies have been adopted in unexpected camps including corporate workshops and the language of Reagan and Thatcher. See the BBC’s Century of the Self, part 3).

Recall also that after the 1980s boom, there was a nasty recession in the early 1990s and a pullback from consumption-as-usual. Clubbing was out and cocooning was in. Spirituality, particularly the Eastern-influenced kind, became fashionable. It was a marked but largely ephemeral shift.

I believe we will see a change in attitude towards consumption, at least among some segments of the population. First, we are likely going into a down phase of the economic cycle, driven in the US by deflation of the housing bubble, which in turn will reduce consumer spending. Yale economist Robert Shiller has observed that over very long periods of history, housing prices have pretty much tracked inflation until 1995, when they began appreciating rapidly. The high level of housing inventories says we are some way, perhaps a long way, from the bottom. The Economist has pointed out that when housing bubbles correct, prices tend to drop not to “fair” value, in terms of relationship to income and rentals, but BELOW fair value. And they hit the economy much harder than stock market corrections.

Now when people become less affluent, or take a big hit, they (eventually) become philosophical. Some endeavor to earn it back, others rethink what counts to them and how they want to live. If we have a big drop in housing values, a lot of people will come to realize there is no such thing as security (as Keynes said, in the long run we are all dead), and some will define what wealth is and what it means to them.

At the same time, we have increased concern about global warming, and for those who follow such matters, species loss, which is just as serious a problem and has a similar potential to be disruptive to civilized life (lose enough critters, the ecosystem becomes fragile…..). Experts have stressed that the most important measure we can take to combat global warming is conservation. Population growth is leading to habitat loss, which in turn is leading to species die-off. This too would be consistent with a desire to consume less and be less attached to material goods.

So how does this tie in with freeganism? I don’t expect dumpster diving to become a mass sport. But being openly frugal, the sort of behavior that formerly was acceptable only among the poor, the elderly, and Yankees, might actually become acceptable. The new status symbol might be how you spend your time rather than how you spend your money, what clubs and charities you are involved with rather than what handbag you carry.

Imagine the radical consequences. It might be better to have your shoes repaired rather than buy new, to wear a jacket until it started getting worn, to live in smaller but more cleverly designed houses. Fitness clubs might maintain their equipment well and keep it a for five or ten years, rather than throwing it out and buying new every couple of years. Office workers might carry their own lunch rather than be at the mercy of high priced delis. Going to the Hamptons to network with the same people you see all week might come to be seen as…superficial.

Oh, I forgot, I live in Manhattan. This is the last place something like that will happen.

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