Features » September 7, 2007
A Freegan World
Hundreds of urban activists, combining the words “free” and “vegan” have set out to change the way we think and act
Let’s imagine the world as a bizarre neighborhood. On the sunny side of the street some individuals are so rich they can afford to live in castles or mansions. They can travel around the globe in hours instead of weeks, and they throw away enough food to feed a small country. The United States alone produces enough to feed the whole world several times over.
Simultaneously, on the darker side of the ‘hood, people die unnecessarily of easily remedied ailments and/or lack of food. Every night, millions go to bed starving, our city streets are barracks to armies of the homeless, and the planet we depend on for our existence is being poisoned to death by carbon emissions and industrial pollution.
Not willing to accept that the world has to be polarized between the haves and have-nots, a new sect of activists calling themselves freegans (a contraction of the words “free” and “vegan”) have set out to change the way we think and act. There are around 400 to 500 freegans in New York City alone, and growing communities of like-minded individuals across the Western World who are living outside of and challenging the established social order.
“I grew up in Australia,” says Martin Filla, a 36-year-old freegan now living in London. “A lot of what I saw didn’t make any sense to me. I didn’t see people sitting down and really sharing meaningfully with each other. They chose to spend more and more time working in jobs they didn’t enjoy. I also noticed that the material possessions people had, did not bring true peace and happiness. “
Often condemned as “weirdos,” or “nuts,” in much the same way as members of the now-respectable green movement were referred to in the past, freegans are convinced that a better, more spiritual and humane way of life is possible. Superficially, freeganism may seem like a new age, hippy-dippy approach to the complex machinations of capitalism and an angst-ridden world. And yes, it is perhaps naive; a utopian view of human potential in a world divided by politics, nationalism and religion. But many freegans are well-educated, articulate people who were once high-flying achievers–smart, go-getting individuals who just happen to reject societal norms.
Alf Montagu, 31, from Sevenoaks, Kent, England has a degree in experimental psychology from Oxford University and he had a well-paid job in marketing when he became “disenchanted” with his lifestyle about 8 years ago. Now he travels the country in a camper van spreading the freegan message. “I thought to myself, ‘What have I been educated for? To manipulate people for my own selfish ends?’” he says. “So I gave up my possessions, my flat, my whole way of life. I was letting go of one form of certainty, which was essentially material, and replacing it with a more spiritual certainty, which was more dependent on doing the right thing. I realized I wasn’t put on this world to simply
work for money.”
Madeline Nelson, 51, a former high-ranking employee of a major publishing firm, once spent her weeks jetting between New York and Paris, but she gave up her corporate life and all its luxuries to become a freegan. She belongs to a New York-based group of freegans that formed three years ago from the Wetlands Activism Collective, a group that fights for Earth, human and animal liberation.
“I used to have someone clean my apartment, I bought convenience foods, I went for weekly massages to relieve stress. I shopped for fairly expensive goods–shoes, handbags–just for entertainment,” says Madeline. “Now I realize these goods are not rewards at all, that I was selling my time to buy goods I didn’t really need and would never satisfy me. I am much happier living with less stuff, more free time to do what I think is right for me and the world, and with closer, more honest relations with friends and family.”
Madeline now resides in a working-class district of Brooklyn.
“Desperate times call for desperate measures,” she says. “A number of us now feel we’re already in those desperate times–that the consequences of environmental destruction caused by global capitalism, and the binge-and-purge consumption pattern it depends on for growth of ‘shareholder value’ could well be irreversible and could ultimately end, not just the comfortable life as we know it, but life on this planet.”
Freegans believe that most of us are complicit in the suffering of our fellow humans and animals, as well as the environmental destruction of the Earth–even those who appear to be fighting for justice. If you buy into the freegan world-view, well-heeled, astronomically rich icons like U2 front man Bono and former Boomtown Rat/Live Aid organizer Bob Geldof can do nothing to halt this rapidly deteriorating situation because they both operate within the very system that is preventing the hungry from being fed and the homeless from finding shelter.
For freegans, the imperative toward owning inanimate objects and purchasing ancillary services only feeds the beast of capitalist economics. They believe that housing is a right not a privilege, so instead of paying rents or mortgages, freegans tend to squat in abandoned buildings or live with groups of friends. Because of the pollution emitted from cars and other fuel-powered modes of transportation freegans prefer to skate, hitchhike, walk or cycle. Most famously–or infamously–freegans advocate minimizing waste by recycling discarded materials, including food, through a practice known as dumpster diving or, more euphemistically, urban foraging.
“Most of the food we find through scavenging is in packages, in durable plastic bags,” Alf says, sounding defensive. “Most of our bin-raiding is done as and when we have the need, usually en route to other things. It is not usually maggot-infested crap you scrape out of a horrible, dirty bin, but usually perfectly good food. Essentially it is quality wealth that is being discarded. Some people are extremely friendly and actively encourage people to come and take food away. Often these are people who can see the common sense in it. At the other extreme there are people who are anxious that people are made aware of how much food is being thrown out.”
From thrusting young bucks, eating out at the most fashionable and expensive restaurants that London, Paris and New York have to offer, to raking around dumpsters and garbage piles for food seems a light year of change. It brings to mind a line from a great song “Walking Down Madison” by Kirsty MacColl and Johnny Marr, “From the sharks in the penthouse/To the rats in the basement/ It’s not that far.” Or was it, “From the rats in the penthouse/ To the sharks in the basement/ It’s not that far”? Of course, Alf, Madeline and Martin gave up affluent lifestyles as opposed to losing them.
According to Alf, some 35 percent of all food in the United Kingdom goes to waste. How many of the estimated 200 million children who go to bed each night starving would that help feed? He also says that according to official figures, the United Kingdom discards 3.3 million tons of perfectly edible produce each year. Alf thinks, however, that this is a gross underestimate. Some foodstuffs, he says, last for weeks and even months after the use-by date has expired.
Alf describes the freegan movement as a loose coalition of people with a real sense of global injustice. They are delightful souls for sure, and, yes, they do have solid principles.
And they are out there, spreading their message that the world no longer has to accept the plunder of global capitalism. Alf and Martin give talks to university students and hand out freegan leaflets on the street.
Yet, whichever way you look at it, captalism provides freegans with the food they eat, waste or not. So, aren’t freegans depending on the system they want to change for their own sustenance?
“I think this is an interesting question, and it’s been argued that freegans actually live off capitalism, ” says Alfred. “But it’s about waste. There are enough resources in the world to share with everyone. People shared long before capitalism. It’s all about learning to live off less; appreciate what you have and sharing what you don’t need. People have been encouraged through capitalism to fight each other for the world’s resources.”
Maybe he has a point. Doesn’t existence involve a pattern of stark and crazy contradictions? On this corner of the neighborhood, greed plunders the planet, damages the lives of individuals and animals, and calls it globalization. In this weird and distorted district, morbid obesity waddles around with tottering famine, ostentatious overspending sleeps with wretched poverty, mansions with unused rooms mock those sleeping on the street.
The freegans have chosen a fight that will be long and difficult. No doubt, these friendly, principled souls who endeavor to change the world have morality on their side. But is it enough?
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Sergio Burns is a writer in Glasgow, who is the author of Dark Ghosts Rising, a collection of short stories, and a regular contributor to The New Entertainer, Contemporary Arts and The Extra.