Wednesday, June 20, 2007

Earth Friendly Crusaders or Ironic Parasites?

I just finished reading a story about Freeganism on the New York Times website. In a nutshell, they are a social movement that attempts to reduce their impact on the planet by living off of other people's castoffs.

On the face of it, their story is a good soundbyte...they are the ultimate recyclers, extracting everything from household goods to food from the considerable piles of garbage generated by our capitalist society. However, like most good soundbytes, it starts to ring hollow upon deeper analysis.

The Freegans are railing against the very system that allows their lifestyle to exist. Without the constant churn and turnover of consumer goods, and the excess wealth created by the productivity consumerism incentivizes, there wouldn't be dumpsters full of mostly functioning consumer electronics and conveniences for them to raid. Visit an impoverished country like Mexico or Malaysia, or any of the myriad African countries Marie hangs out in, and you'll see this phenomenon happening as a well defined part of the economy. There are no piles of anything worth taking in the hills outside of Ensenada... the locals have made an art out of squeezing every last bit of function out of everything they've got, and not because they're trying to make a statement.

Back here in the states our Freegans don't even bother to stockpile food- because they know there will always be more in the trash tomorrow. So, the crusaders against waste are comfortable in their lifestyle precisely because of waste. It's no surprise that the movement is strongest in New York City, our country's greatest concentration of wealth and population (and garbage) in a single area.

So what is this post doing in a blog about invention and interaction?

I'm irked by the statements of some of these individuals, well meaning as they are, because they are only able to sustain their lifestyle due to the inventions of others. They could have even less impact on the earth by moving out to the wilderness, and living on what they 'find' out there- but I suspect not a one of them would last a week without the goods and services designed, produced, and delivered by those more industrious and productive than them. The goals of Freeganism and the discipline of design are the same- to improve the world. However, the designer wishes to devise, to create, to improve that which exists in order to foster a positive change- it's would be unthinkable for a designer to stand up and says, 'Let's not do anything new, and just try and reuse what we've got.' Whether it's vapid consumer goods or a bionic arm for amputees, it takes a desire to improve the world- or at least your own economic situation- to make things happen. All I expect from the Freegans are more wacky human interest news stories with sanctimonious statements about all the detergent we throw away.

To me, the real irony will come once commercial recycling becomes effective and automated enough to make it worth mining the trillions of tons of junkyards and landfills out there (I'm convinced this will be a booming business within twenty years). Suddenly, the Freegans will be competing in the garbage heaps with robotic recyclers out to make a profit from the base elements in the garbage- and their way of life will be extinguished by capitalist dumpster divers mining refuse for a living.

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