Friday, June 22, 2007

Trash Economy

The New York Times’ recent article on freegans is a fascinating look at people who are opting out of the capitalist system, living instead as scavengers off the food and consumer items that restaurants, stores, and the rich throw away. I admire the freegans’ courage in living in a manner consistent with their convictions about the greed that characterizes modern consumer society--and the needless environmental destruction that results. I wouldn’t dare—yet. I am still seeking a middle ground, a way to live more sustainably and still participate in the benefits of capitalism.

Some of my motives for wanting to find a happy medium are personal, while others are intellectual. I’m afraid of the social consequences of being too radical in my criticisms of our consumer culture. I want to be liked and not be seen as weird or far out. And I admit: I enjoy buying new things now and then. I’m willing to buy less, but am nowhere close to being willing to live off of others’ trash.

My bigger concern is that the freegans’ lifestyle is by definition unsustainable. If all of us tried to live that way there would be no consumer surplus to sustain us. The only way for masses of people to avoid consumer products is to return to an agrarian lifestyle, raising our own food and living off the land. That is highly unlikely for a host of reasons, not least of which is that the vast majority of people do not own farmable land. So I’m looking for reasonable alternatives to reforming our consumer culture. As part of that search, I’m looking forward to reading Bill McKibben’s new book, Deep Economy.

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