Why are labels so attractive? One word shortcuts for frugal thinkers. Am I a freegan? What would that mean exactly? Who curates the definitions of our cultural -isms?
Reading through the Wikipedia article on Freeganism (which is as close to a cultural consensus on anything as I think we get these days), it seems like I’m close. Except that I’m not fundamentally opposed to eating meat (it’s the environmental degradation, antibiotics resistance, health detriments, and massive resource consumption involved in meat production that get to me… but a little free meat from the dumpster? Tasty!). I also have a soft spot for shiny new laptops and other information technologies, and I believe in the greed based toolkit of money, markets, and open competition as a way to foster innovation. But I also love composting, and creative re-use, and free non-materialist forms of entertainment and recreation like reading, and writing, and cooking from scratch, and I believe that unmitigated greed, and thus so-called laissez-faire (or perhaps in many cases more accurately crony) capitalism, left unchecked, are in the end destructive forces. Greed and self-interest are kind of like dynamite: the right amount in the right place is a wonderful tool. Too much, or even small amounts in bad places, and you’ve got a mess. So how do I respond to an e-mail like this:
My name is Saehee Kim and I’m an undergraduate at University of California, Irvine majoring in Journalism. I’m taking my last upper division journalism class for my degree and my assignment is to write a nonfiction narration on a person, trend or lifestyle. So I thought a profile on someone who dumpster dives would be very interesting for me to learn and write about.
I first learned about dumpster diving through Meetup and found it shocking and intriguing. It would have never crossed my mind that professionals, graduate students, mothers, fathers, people with real jobs dumpster dive for food and for good cause. And because of my natural curiosity in the people who choose to dive, I wanted to interview someone.
She seems specifically aimed at dumpster diving, which I guess I can speak to a little bit… but I wonder how representative my take on this whole suite of unusual behaviors really is.
Partly the motivation for dumpster diving is economic. Not that we’re so impoverished that we couldn’t pay for all our food of course, but assuming for the moment that we are that rarest of beasts, the rational economic actor, if we can get something for free without taking unethical advantage of anyone else, why would we want to pay instead? Why wouldn’t we use the money for a new laptop or digital camera? Why not save it up and go kayaking in Baja or study Spanish in Guatemala?. Why not put it away in an IRA (I mean, it’s not like Social Security will around in 40 years…)
For similar economic reasons, we don’t own a car, and use bikes as our primary transportation. We have purposefully arranged our lives such that this is practical (even in LA). We rent a car about once a month to go to the desert, or the Sierras, or up the coast to go camping, and it’s cheaper than owning a car.
We also don’t eat out, or go out to movies, or concerts, or buy much new clothing. We do a lot of cooking from scratch and we brew our own beer. We choose to be entertained by things that are cheap, like hiking, biking, gardening, reading, cooking, eating, drinking, and talking instead of the things that we’re told we’re supposed to be entertained by or need that are expensive (movies, shopping, TV, concerts, eating out, driving). There are a lot of different kinds of enjoyable lives to be had in the world. Only a very few of them involve spending a bunch of money and sending massive piles of cheap plastic crap to the landfill.
Enjoying a frugal life also means you don’t have to work as much, and so you have more free time for living your life. After I graduate I’m probably going to go bike touring and backpacking, do a lot of reading and writing, work on personal (computer programming) projects, and have a nice big garden for a year, or even more, while I wait for Michelle to finish her degree, and then we’re planning to move back to Boulder, Colorado. We have very modest economic expectations, and because of our lifestyle, significant life savings, even as graduate students making around $22,000/year. Our housemate Ian just graduated with a Chemistry PhD, and he’s taking an entire year off too, living off his savings and what he can make buying and selling bicycles on eBay (very) part time.
But there are non-financial reasons for these behaviors too. If nothing else, living this way is an enjoyable and constructive way to be a little rebellious. It’s a game, but a serious one. Some people just don’t like being told what to do, and there are both advantages and disadvantages to living outside societal norms. It creates an in-group, and the expense of also making you an out-group. It opens up resources (free food, cash not spent on cars) overlooked by the normal. It is a creative, but sometimes disorienting process.
Being voluntarily poor (and consciously discarding the negative connotations of that word) means paying very little income tax, which is nice when you don’t agree with the way your government spends your taxes: waging illegal wars overseas, bailing out corrupt bankers, and subsidizing industries which are environmentally destructive (to name a few). It’s a completely legal form of tax protest.
Eventually, we will all have to learn how to generate little or no material waste. There’s only so much oil and natural gas, only so much iron and copper, and literally only so many fish in the sea. This does not mean we will have to lower our standards of living. It does mean that we will have to live, and organize our industries differently. Don’t get me wrong, I’m a capitalist as much as I’m a freegan. Markets are wonderful, but they aren’t a panacea. Without effective governmental institutions setting the ground rules, capitalism runs amok: it’s a way of organizing an economy, not a form of government. We can have economic growth. Enormous exponential economic growth even, but it cannot continue to be based on increasing consumption of material resources. It has to transition to closed-loop recycling of a fixed pool of material goods, and shift all of the growth into the informational goods: the ways we organize and utilize our finite resources will continue to improve over time, and that means real economic expansion, even with an underlying substrate of finite materials.
Maybe what I am is an information capitalist, and a material freegan. Can information really be stolen, or just copied? Can it be wasted or consumed? It can certainly be lost, and in some meaningful way it can be fabricated too. I think the strange truth is, we don’t yet know how, or even if, information based capitalism would work.