Urban Foraging: Liberating Our Consumption, Liberating Our Lives

By Adam Weissman

Can we really save the world with Body Shop cosmetics?

Will Vegetarian Shoes march us on the road to animal liberation?

Is Burger King’s BK Veggie the vanguard of a new era of compassion?

In a word, no.

As people of conscience have questioned the cruelty and suffering inherent in the products that we consume, a burgeoning industry has arisen to profit richly from tapping into this niche market. In return, vegetarians, vegans, and other socially conscious consumers have embraced these “guilt-free” products with open arms as a solution whose only drawback is that they have not been universally embraced by the general public. One national animal rights leader has gone so far as to say that the most important development towards animal liberation is the advent of “packaged vegan convenience foods.”

In treating these products as marketplace messiahs, we betray the questioning spirit that led many of us to challenge the impact of our purchases in the first place. When we call a product, ANY product, “cruelty-free” then we are simply buying into its advertising copy. In reality, the dichotomy between “cruelty-free” and other goods is, if not false, limited.

The concept of the cruelty-free product denies a fundamental and unavoidable reality. In a civilization that was built upon and continues to exist through the subjugation of the earth, animals, women, people of color, and the poor, exploitation is woven into every level of every activity condoned within that civilization. For example, a relatively recent development in civilization’s commodfication and devaluation of life, all productive activity is designed to produce economic growth, generate great wealth for a tiny superelite, and transform our living planet into capital through the labor of the working class.

We can look at any “cruelty-free” product and find massive amounts of exploitation in its production, even if it abstains from exploitation on one or two significant, and inevitably, heavily advertised, ways. Take a pack of Tofu Pups for example. These non-meat hot dogs are a favorite of people who wish to abstain from flesh-eating, but still wish to enjoy some of the comfort foods that they have eaten for decades.

For starters, we can look at the growing of the soybeans used. Vegetarians and vegans have been so horrified by the atrocity of raising and slaughtering animals for consumption, that they have turned a blind eye to the exploitation and suffering involved in raising crops.

From the outset, the creation of farmland involves the complete destruction of preexisting habitat and ecosystems, whether this means logging a forest or simply threshing preexisting browse and to clear land for crop rows and loosen soil, inevitably leading to significant topsoil loss. Animal species and the ecosystems they are part of rely on a highly specific and delicate set of habitat conditions to survive. When we turn biodiverse, unspoiled plains and forests into farmlands, we kill countless animals that fall to their deaths as trees crash to the ground or who are crushed or to ground to their deaths by tractors or plows.

According to Oregon State University Steven Davis, “the unseen losses of field animals are very high. One study documented that a single operation, mowing alfalfa, caused a 50 percent reduction in the gray-tailed vole population. Mortality rates increase with every pass of the tractor to plow, plant, and harvest.”

Those animals that survive the decimation of their habitat, escape being crushed or shredded by farm equipment, and do not starve from inability to adapt to the field that has replaced their habitat attempt to subsist by consuming the crops that have replaced the native flora and fauna. For this desperate act of survival, for the crime of attempting to survive on land that has been designated for the production of a product, they are considered “agricultural pests.” As punishment, they will be hunted ; trapped; poisoned with pesticides and fumigants ; consumed by “biological controls agents”, animals introduced by farmers specifically to prey on “pest” species ; or eliminated through any of a number of other gruesome methods.

The dirty work of maintaining these lands is handled by some of the most severely exploited workers on the planet. The veganism of grapes, cucumbers, tomatoes, and strawberries does nothing to address the horrible exploitation of the farm workers who sow, till, fertilize, apply pesticides, and harvest crops.

According to the Farm Labor Organizing Committee, conditions for farm workers in the U.S. include: strenuous and often deforming physical labor in hazardous working conditions; average earnings far below poverty; child labor; sub-standard housing; and some of the nation’s poorest health conditions, including elevated rates of infectious and chronic diseases, malnutrition, and infant and maternal mortality.

This is to say nothing of the impacts of the plastic (oil drilling) and cardboard (forest logging) used to package these products and the energy used to produce them, the energy used in the transformation from bean to pup, the impacts of the production of every other pup ingredient, the energy consumption involved in trucking the pups across country in refrigerated trucks, the destruction of rainforest lands (and displacement of their human and animal inhabitants) to strip mine metals to build the truck and drill for oil to fuel it, the exploitation of non-union workers at the point of sale, the energy used in in-store and at-home refrigeration and cooking– all this for a “cruelty-free” product!

The “cruelty-free” product is, to many manufacturers, nothing more than a marketing ploy. The very term “cruelty-free product” is oxymoronic, because the very notion of production, the idea of taking things in nature and transforming them for mass-consumption within the context of an industrial system, is unavoidably cruel. Its foundation is a view of the natural world as a raw material to be transformed into marketable commodities.

The cruelty-free consumer, is, in her own way, as much a rube as the fashion trend shopper, the fad dieter, and the consumer swayed by sex-filled advertising. Cruelty-free companies, like low-fat diet food makers, market guilt-relief, selling an image and an idea to a target market through emotional manipulation. Yet in obscuring the violent realities inherent in the creation of their products, they are little different than the mega-corporations that often own them.

So what is the alternative?

Before production, before industry, before agriculture, even before the advent of the ritual hunt, humans provided for themselves through direct communion with nature’s bounty, foraging fruits, nuts, seeds, berries, and roots. The land was not owned and food was not a product. People consumed to meet their needs, with little opportunity for waste or overconsumption. The only “producer” was the Earth itself. Human patterns of consumption were governed within the context of our native ecosystems. Humans existed as equals with other animals and the earth, not as owners, conquerors, “stewards,” or destroyers.

In the context of a civilization that views animals and the earth as raw materials, humanity as a market, and disease and warfare as opportunities for profit, a growing number of people are reconnecting to our species’ forager roots. Some, like naturalist Wildman Steve Brill, are rediscovering and educating others on wild, noncultivated plants as a food source.

Many more have taken into account the tremendous amount of waste generated by mass-production, and survive by consuming the enormous amount of resources discarded every single day. Variously referred to as urban foragers, dumpster divers, scavengers, or freegans, these people are able to live without financially contributing to exploitative systems of production, while at the same time taking a small bite out of the waste stream.

Urban foragers rarely, if ever, need to shop, providing for such basic necessities as food and clothing through the discards of retailers, factories, and individuals. Some, known as “squatters”, even provide for housing through foraging, finding, restoring, and inhabiting abandoned buildings, providing rent-free dwellings. This lifestyle allows the forager to escape the vicious cycle of selling their time to bosses to make money, and then giving the money back to other bosses to purchase consumables that they have been brainwashed into believing that they need and must buy. By escaping this dual slavery, urban foragers become their own masters. They can devote their time to defending the Earth and its inhabitants, rather than mortgaging their lives to the very system responsible for the destruction.

Despite its noble intentions, foraging is a hard sell on many– it is hard to think of a lifestyle reform movement that causes more turned stomachs and upturned noses among its critics. For all of the ridicule that vegans face from the mainstream public, ultimately they are still playing within the rules. Whether a consumer responds to one marketing pitch or another, they are still buying in, still acting as a cog in the capitalist machine. Foraging is a far more wholesale challenge to the status quo, challenging not only a few specific symptoms of this destructive society, but instead opting out of the entire system. Moreover, foraging embraces a number of deep-seated cultural taboos. In a culture of mass-overproduction, the notion that excess will be reclaimed is a clear and present danger to the success of the market place. To prevent massive numbers of people from realizing that they can obtain the same goods for free that they are forced to spend money on, scarcity must be manufactured to maintain the value of the merchant’s wares. Thus the ideology of consumerism tells us that a thing is only valid if it is purchased in a store, has greater value if it is a heavily advertised good, or carries a designer label, and cannot be trusted if obtained from any other source. . We have been taught that those things considered waste became unfit for consumption the moment they are removed from a store shelf. Reality of course, differs sharply from traditional perceptions. Every single night, restaurants, bakeries, groceries, delis, and cafeterias discard massive amounts of perfectly healthy, clean, fresh food. Those who recover these squandered resources by opening trash bags and gleefully harvesting are frowned upon as vagrants, unclean, mentally ill, and unhealthy. Not only have they made physical contact with, and worse, ingested the trash of others, perceived to be a world of filth and disease, but they have also deliberately assumed the food gathering technique of the poor. This in a society that to no small degree judges people by their money, the status of the career with which they obtain it, and the things they spend it on!

On the other hand, foraging does have common sense appeal to a growing number of people, many who do not fit the stereotype of a young hippie or anarchist often associated with dumpster diving. Ironically, the fact that many have been schooled in the value of material things also leads them to be bothered by seeing these things wasted, regardless of whether they have a fully developed critique of civilization or an animal or earth liberation analysis. Some dumpster dive purely for the joy of unearthing treasures free of charge. Others are motivated to provide for their needs out of economic necessity created by low-paying jobs or job loss. Some can’t stomach the idea of “dumpstered” food, but are more than happy to recover books, clothing, newspapers, magazines, games, and furniture from others’ trash.

Beyond cult favorites like Robert Hoyt’s folk music album “Dumpster Diving Across America” and the book “The Art and Science of Dumpster Diving,” the mainsteam media has increasingly taken note of this growing trend. two stories on the PBS TV series Life 360 addressed reuse of trash, one of which followed a band of merry dumpster divers from the Activism Center at Wetlands Preserve through the streets of Lower Manhattan, as they raided the trash bags of health food stores, Italian restaurants, bakeries, and sandwich shops (one diver found an expensive boom box in perfect condition). The popular on-line journal Salon.com’s June 10, 2002 issue ran an article “Fine diving” on “Young anarchists with guts of steel raid dumpsters for edible “trash…[to] Divert waste to end wastefulness.” And Ohioans read the article “Dining by Dumpster: Food banished to bins still edible, some say” in the Columbus Dispatch last year.

The term “freegan” has even made its way into dictionaries! Urbandictionary.com defines a freegan as, “Freegan: Somebody who abstains from contributing to the economy and salvages society’s wasted food and resources rather than purchase more themselves. Often pertains to a VEGAN somebody who doesn’t eat/wear animal products) who only makes exceptions when dealing with otherwise wasted items. [Example:] Tom taught me that as a freegan, he would much rather grab bagels out of the dumpster of a bakery instead of purchasing them himself, because he thinks it’s a shame how much good bread places like that waste everyday.”

While the growth of this movement is encouraging, radical foragers are under no illusion that consuming trash in isolation of other actions will change much of anything. While consumer choices are important, radical foragers ultimately recognize that it is the entire system that must fall, that the powers that be will concede nothing without a fight, and we have an moral imperative not just for abstinence from purchasing, but also for ACTION! Whether they are blockading logging roads with Earth First!, raising consciousness by producing anarchist ‘zines like After The Fall, or sharing the wealth by redistributing free food with Food Not Bombs, foragers view their consumption choices as one element in a lifestyle of resistance to a status quo that enslaves animals, oppresses humans, and destroys our planet.

If you are still unconvinced as to the incredible bounty available from the waste of businesses and individuals, why not untie a few bags in front of your local bagel shop? The cops won’t bother you, provided you don’t make a mess (REMEMBER: Untie, don’t tear bags! Someone else many want to raid the same trash another day, and leaving a mess may motivate a store owner to keep food in a locked dumpster.) You’ll be amazed by the abundance of perfectly edible food you’ll find. Within a week, you may find yourself catering parties with dumpstered food!