What follows is the transcript of an interview I did in 2011 over email. I've omitted the interviewer's name just for the heck of it. We'd met at a "trash tour" with the NYC freegan.info group, and they had some questions for me afterwards for some kind of journalism project. I've posted it in case someone is interested in reading my general and definitional thoughts about freeganism. If it's at all interesting, note that I've posted another interview as well where I wax even more.
Not sure if you remember me, but this is [Omitted] from the freegan tour last week. I had a few more questions about freeganism and was wondering if you'd mind answering them for me. Please let me know as soon as possible. Thank you. - [Omitted]
I do remember you and would be happy to answer questions.
Thanks for responding. I have a few additional questions about freeganism, and some are specifically about you and your experiences with the lifestyle. Feel free not to answer any questions or to elaborate as much as you like. Thanks again for willingly talking with me.
- When and why (as specific as possible) did you decide to adopt freeganism as your lifestyle? (I know you mentioned the cost of school and school loans, and being a vegan before becoming freegan, but wasn't exactly sure when you made this choice.)
- What types of reactions do you receive from friends who are not freegan about your lifestyle?
- What do you consider the most important value of this lifestyle? (I.e., why is it important to you).
Also, if there's anything I haven't asked (on the tour or here) that you think would be valuable to know about freeganism, feel free to let me know.
What follows is a bunch of words. Maybe some of them will be useful. If anything gets published, a link or directions to such material would help greatly in my ongoing attempt to convince my parents that the whole world doesn't think I'm a strange and bad egg.
When and Why?
In 2007, I heard about freeganism in the same sentence I heard about veganism. The person mentioning them didn't seem like an idiot, so like all unknown words I hear non-idiots mention, I looked them up. Some people don't eat any animal products because they think that's wrong to the animals, the internet said. I thought that was stupid reason. Animals don't have a creative capacity with which to contribute nothing interesting to the world, I thought. A some time later, I read an article in the New York times about the environmental impacts of animal based foods as compared to plant based ones. Foods from animals use many times more soil, water, fossil fuels, etc., because of all energy the animal uses to breath, walk around, and think is not energy is wasted, it's not energy that ends up in its body. There are places on the planet with an environmental setup that's only conducive to the growth of plants that are inedible for humans but edible for grazing animals, but these places aren't common enough to warrant much of an animal products industry. Furthermore, the decrease in health-care resources consumed by people who replace animal products in their diet with leafy greens, whole grains, and legumes is quite extreme. I read about these reasons for veganism around the time of lent in the catholic calendar, and while I had read the existentialists the previous fall and already come to understand atheism, I was still in the mood for some good old withholding of pleasure, so I vowed to slowly give up meat over the course of the season. A few months later, I was completely vegan. I think cheesecake and donuts were the last things to go. Freeganism was a transition that occurred slowly. When I had heard of it initially, I thought the idea was that otherwise-vegans used it to excuse meat and diary eating so long as they didn't support the industries directly with their money (so like eating animal junk a get-together or something). Actually, I started eating trash before I realized the practice was associated with the word freeganism. That was probably in 2008. College was and is a great place to learn to use waste instead of paying for new or used things, because of course there's so much waste around. As I was new to city life and away from home, it was the first time I couldn't easily get my parents to pay for food and furniture combined with the first time I was confronted with refrigerators and dumpsters that were overflowing with usable waste. What started as trash-reclamation of convenience (the fridge in the lounge, the dumpster outside) moved to purposeful trash-reclamation excursions at the end of one academic year. There was a relatively empty box set up for students to place their unwanted but still-good food and furniture in, and one hundred yards away, there was a giant dumpster overflowing with things that should have been in that box. Me and a few frustrated friends began sorting through the dumpster. A few hours later, our understandings were transformed. Where we had expected to find a few dollars worth of things that had been discarded, we found hundreds of dollars of sealed, non-perishable food, cosmetics, medical supplies, furniture, and everything else people fit into college dorms. We went home stunned, and the next day it dawned on us that our university was the smaller of the two in town. Journeys followed; many pounds of chocolates were eaten; many artifacts were recovered; many memories were made. After that day, I've been comfortable with (and able to) getting most of the objects in my life without paying for them.
The day I pulled a laptop (on which I now type) worth hundreds of dollars from the dumpster of some confused collegiate and acquired online the skills to cheaply fix its broken screen was a big day for me as well. To have saved the resources and labor that would have been required to produce such an object was a powerful thing to participate in.
If it's not clear from the above, freeganism never felt like a choice for me. It was the result of many experiences, none of which seemed particularly radical at the time. I think this is how it has to be. The psychological barriers our friends, parents, and marketers erect around trash cans and the halos they put around stores are powerful; they don't dissolve overnight. Anyway, I play at philosophy and psychology, I'm suspicious of the self as well as choice.
Honestly, for most people there's too much cognitive dissonance for much of a reaction. My friends and family all know I'm intelligent, healthy, happy, and live well, but their idea of what touching trash regularly, much less eating it will do to a person is so much the opposite of what they know my life to be that they have trouble believing I don't buy my things new from corporations. However, (not my family but) my closest friends are generally quite leftist and are suspicious of corporations, and so they have an easier time understanding that our trash norms are a form of purposeful oppression propagated from the top down. Not too many of them have bested their trash willies to the point they'll join me regularly in foraging, but they're at least theoretically supportive of the ideas of sharing, recycling, and avoiding practices that send wealth to capitalists.
The most important value of freeganism, hands down, is consciousness. One simply does not experience the way their wants are generated by "the they" (to steal from Heidegger) until one removes one's self from the typical fulfillment of these wants. I couldn't see through the consumerism dominating my being so long as my seeing - and living - was within it. Freeganism offers me a variety of ways to get the critical distance from many habits from which I can see them as maladaptive responses to vile pressures rather than buy into the idea that they're expressions of my self.
It might be good somewhere to preempt the typical capitalist reaction to freeganism: that I'm decreasing economic growth, putting people out of work, not pulling my weight, etc.
The capitalist assumes two things that are fundamentally wrong: that all things people can be made to want are things that ought to be made, and that all people who can be convinced to work at a given rate deserve to be paid that rate. If you realize that the system is built on these lies, perhaps you'll start yourself on a path to some kind of freeganism. If you don't, or can't, or won't, at least organize your trash and your life in such a way that I don't have to sort through your filth to eat up your waste.
Let me know if you think of anything else to ask.
The pineapple was great, thanks,
I know we haven't talked in a bit, but thank you for all your help earlier with the questions on freeganism. I hate to bug you again (you're probably in the midst of finals), but I wanted to ask you one last question about it that sort of centers around the theme of the piece I wrote. If you have time, would you mind answering another question for me? If not, totally understandable. Thanks very much. - [Omitted]
Freeganism is one of the most lighthearted parts of my life, and as such it's easy to speak of. I'd be happy to answer your questions.
Great! Thanks so much. This one is pretty simple - I'd just like to know how your life has changed since becoming a freegan - would you say you enjoy life more? I know it's a very open-ended question, but i'm using it to try and tie up what I've been writing. [Omitted]
Seems that question can be read in two ways. One is: how do you think becoming a freegan changed your life (which assumes I'm likely to be aware of all of the effects of freeganism on my life)? and the other is: what's changed in your life since that date (which gets at things freeganism might have effected without my necessarily being aware of it, and also gets at what sort other stuff tends to be going on in the lives of freegans).
I'm not sure which I'm responding to, but here are some more stories that I think of as answers. If you're looking for something different, let me know.
I think one of the first things that it changed was it brought me and my last roommate (still a very close friend) together. We were both sort of solitary, perhaps skeptical people, who were generally put off by the lifestyles of many around us. We both had just left rooming situations that we weren't real happy about when we started some freegan practicing together. It was through this that we decided we'd be compatible enough to live together, I think. Happy times were certainly had under that roof and in dumpsters together.
I think it was during a triangular friendship between the above roommate, another person, and myself that freeganism had one of the most explicit and happiness-inducing effects on me. It's a story I don't know how to tell well because I don't think it fits the traditional vocabulary of things friends do well. At some point, there were the three of us hanging out and there was an explicit decision to try to have a "freegan" friendship. The way in which this sort of made sense in our minds is really what I'm struggling with, (because I think it's the answer to your question I want to give) but we can say something like this: Freeganism is something I experience as spreading over my life practices like a healthy bacteria (you know, like the ones that make it okay to eat yogurt from the trash well past it's expiration date). It begins with simple practices (scavenging, repairing) motivated by only tangentially anti-capitalist thinking, like thrift, and anger at the system, and such. But as the sort of "well, let's see how we can get creatively off the capitalist grid" thinking takes off, other practices get colored. One develops slowly a reflexive, even instinctual, questioning of all the desires normally satiated by consuming goods and services which sustain our abusive system.
For me it was only a matter of time before ideas and behaviors themselves became things worth questioning. It was an interesting mental context, I think, in which it seemed like a good idea to throw a freegan's suspicious eye on the idea and tradition of friendship itself, and ask "well, maybe this thing too is a consumer good infected by capitalist thought. Maybe this thing too can be creatively done in a non-capitalism-participatory way". (There's thinking done by John McMurtry that deserves some credit here, and I was reading some of that sort of thing at the time.) We didn't come up with any super specific plans as to how to engage in such a freegan friendship at the time, other than agreeing that clearly we couldn't participate in any group ventures that involved paying for goods or services in any regular way. There were many exploits, and there was a whole lot of moments where we had realizations of the type: "this is the sort of situation where the pattern response is for friends to do, or say, or feel such and such, let's try to do something different and more creative, subversive, etc." Many there were many long walks, bike journeys, yard games, camping trips to places that weren't campsites, verbal fun, ventures with Frisbees, sneaking into places to avoid monetary exchanges, often with an importantly explicit dialogue about what words, activities, and relational structures we avoiding and substituting. We found a lot of enjoyment we wouldn't have otherwise located. We also learned a lot. I miss them greatly, but I think too, that my time spent in such places certainly added a method for enjoying life that's stuck with me.