Today I bring you an interview with David Emanuel from freegan.info. You might have preconceptions about freeganism but I implore readers to keep an open mind. I think this interview has something anyone and everyone can relate to. So far this is the most interesting and in depth interview I’ve been able to bring you, the reader at zachofjungle.com
As I started thinking about changing my own lifestyle towards a vegetarian diet I read some of the same authors David mentions in this interview, Jared Diamond and the book The Man Who Quit Money among them. I’ve also read other books with connected and similar views such as The One Straw Revolution, Energy of Slaves and Ishmael. It’s amazing the amount of good literature circling around ideas of alternative living, freeganism, etc. At the moment I am a vegetarian transitioning towards being fully vegan, I certainly relate to what David says about beating myself up because I don’t reach my own high standards and I appreciate that we’re all both perpetrators and victims. I hope you see these things too and that this interview might inspire you to work toward a better self and who knows, perhaps a better society as well. After a little bit of consideration, I decided not to edit David’s answers at all, so it’s the tiniest bit redundant but I valued everything that was shared here. Enjoy!
First, would you please tell me a little about yourself, who you are, how you became involved in the freegan movement?
My name is David Emanuel, I’m 51 years old, I live in New York City and I became involved in the freegan movement through a series of events that happened over time from 2005 through 2012.
Prior to 2005 I’d been a musician, an administrative assistant, a paralegal and an IT guy. Around 2005 I found myself underemployed drifting through life—already part of what is today called the precariat or unnecessariat. One day while surfing the web I stumbled into a digital clearing where I become aware of people like Ran Prieur, Daniel Suelo, Derrick Jensen, John Michael Greer, Chellis Glendinning, James Howard Kunstler, Dmitry Orlov, Kirkpatrick Sale, Joseph Tainter, Jared Diamond, Chris Hedges, and others.
What struck me most about their various points of view was the idea that modern, industrial civilization is—by definition—unsustainable and what we perceive as “progress” is an illusion at best and a crime at worst. And they all, in their own ways, highlighted the fact that all civilizations go through periods of creation, maintenance and decay and ours is no exception. In fact, it was highly likely that The American Way was in a period of decay or collapse.
Around the same time my mother started exhibiting signs of memory loss. I was fortunate to have lived a mile away from my parents’ condominium. I got rid of my car—something I’d thought about doing for a long time but hadn’t had the guts to try—and began walking the two miles round trip to the condo to help mom and as time progressed my father as well. It quickly became my full time gig and in many ways it was the best period of my life. I inhabited real meaning and purpose in a way I’d never known or understood. By virtue of my caretaker responsibilities I was able to give back a small token of appreciation to my parents who had—unflinchingly and unfailingly—supported me through thick and thin throughout my life. You might say it was my introduction to the concept of mutual aid.
Eventually my father passed in late 2011. We moved mom into an assisted living facility and I found myself once again unmoored without meaning or direction. As I continued researching and understanding the reality of collapse and my precarious position within its wake I became interested in finding coping mechanisms and survival strategies.
Late 2012 I happened across a short documentary produced by Thrash Lab—part of their Subculture Series—featuring New York City freegans. My interest was piqued and my bank account was empty. Necessity really is the mother of invention or in this case sustenance. I literally could not afford to buy food at that point. I found the freegan Meetup and decided to dive in.
In the interest of relative brevity I’ll say the rest is history.
Today I’m an organizer with the group. During that first dive in late 2012 I met Janet—a longtime freegan organizer—we quickly fell in love and today we live together. And I help manage various digital aspects of freegan.info’s web presence.
What is a freegan?
“Freegan” is a portmanteau of “free” and “vegan”. Basically, as I understand it, the term was informally coined with the idea that similar to the way vegans avoid exploiting animals by not eating or using animals, freegans avoid the exploitative economy as a whole (“the system”) by not spending or using money. It’s a simple way of describing people who try to disengage from the system (the dominant, exploitative, hierarchical, patriarchal, sexist, racist, anthropocentrist, socioeconomic, sociopolitical infrastructure) as much as possible. They disconnect from the system by trying to reconnect with people, places and things without using money as the means of involvement.
Some freegans are vegans, some are not. You don’t have to be vegan to be freegan.
Freegans try to abstain from the system as much as possible through minimalism, scavenging, foraging, recycling, sharing, walking, biking, squatting, gardening, etc.
Freegans are all kinds of people living all kinds of lives for all kinds of reasons. People come to our bimonthly New York City trash tours, for example, for many reasons ranging from curiosity to necessity to activism and more.
Personally, while I think “freegan” is a useful word and important concept, I often hasten to point out there’s nothing “free” about trying to abstain from the system. Especially when you don’t measure and calculate costs from a financial perspective. It takes time and effort to simplify, scavenge, forage, recycle, share, walk, bike, squat, garden, etc. There are all manner of costs involved in these activities. And let’s not forget the array of costs borne by the exploited people, animals and biosphere used to mass produce all the stuff the system discards that freegans rescue, reclaim and repurpose.
I see freeganism mostly as a strategy to employ during the entropy of collapse. Which speaks to another—if not the most important—aspect of freeganism: community. We try to foster a sense of intentional community through our trash tours, feasts, movie nights and really, really free markets.
Without community all is lost. If we aren’t able to work together, help each other and support each other through mutual aid—navigating, surviving and thriving in the future will be difficult to say the least.
How is freeganism related to environmentalism, capitalism, etc? In other words what philosophies and causes are connected to being freegan?
I’m leery of what you might call, “the -ism trap”. I think we’re all so busy defining and defending narrow niches of sociopolitical territory that we’re destroying the forest for the trees.
I tend to think of freeganism and all the other “-isms” as a fluid, living, breathing ven diagram that manifests how they all intersect and interact. Freeganism, capitalism, environmentalism, racism, etc., are not monolithic. The words are useful insofar as they enable humans to try to understand, manage and change their circumstances but they often do more harm than good by inspiring more division than unity.
That having been said, basing a way of life on defining people, places and things as private property to be exploited for profit—capitalism—creates, imposes and enforces, it seems to me, most if not all of the -isms that people support or oppose (environmentalism or racism, for example). Freeganism enables people to avoid capitalism as much as possible through collaborative, supportive, non-exploitative ways of organizing and living which strive to work with nature instead of against it.
In this way, I think freeganism and environmentalism obviously go hand in hand. They are mutually reinforcing responses to capitalism (or any exploitative, debt-based, waste-based, socioeconomic system).
But, again, this is a gross oversimplification of how various beliefs, systems and movements intersect and interact.
I guess what I’m clumsily trying to say is that whatever the philosophy or cause—it relates to freeganism somehow, someway. Virtually anyone—no matter their belief or issue—can be freegan.
I think freeganism offers a kind of universality because it speaks to the dark heart of so much of what is dysfunctional about the system.
What are the important differences between the practices and ideas connected to veganism and freeganism?
For the sake of clarity, I want to reiterate that freeganism and veganism are not inextricably linked. To be freegan does not entail being vegan.
For the sake of discussion:
Veganism asserts that animals should not be exploited, harmed or killed for service, consumption or profit. Vegans resist and reduce the exploitation, harm and carnage by abstaining from eating animals or using products made from animals.
Freeganism asserts that modern, industrial civilization exploits, harms, wastes, destroys and kills in the name of profit and progress. Freegans resist and reduce the exploitation, harm, waste, destruction and death by abstaining from profit-based, debt-based, waste-based economies as much as possible.
I don’t know that there’s much difference between these two crude distillations beyond the fact that—broadly speaking—veganism focuses on the exploitation of animals and freeganism focuses on the exploitation of everything.
In fact, there is a temptation to assume that veganism is part and parcel of freeganism but this devil hides in the details. Since you don’t have to be vegan to be freegan obviously there are non-vegan freegans—which means there are obvious differences between the way vegan freegans live and the way non-vegan freegans live.
But those who feel the need to draw such lines in the sand create a kind of false dichotomy that too often leads to the black hole of purity.
The truth is, people explore veganism and freeganism for many different reasons, in many different ways and to greater or lesser degrees.
I know this sounds contrived, trite and corny but moving forward I feel it’s vitally important that we focus on what we have in common rather than what sets us apart.
Do you consider yourself an environmentalist and freegan.info an environmentalist organization?
I am an environmentalist and freegan.info is an environmental organization.
More accurately, environmentalism is part of who I am and part of what freegan.info is.
Personally, I’m motivated by the freegan ideal because I think it’s an essential coping mechanism and survival strategy within the dynamic of collapse. I’m not consciously trying to be an environmentalist but exploring and practicing freeganism is an environmentalist endeavor by definition.
Freegan.info is definitely, consciously, intentionally environmentalist as a concept and a cause but it’s so much more than that and you don’t have to be an environmentalists to be a freegan.
What is the hardest part of being freegan?
I find the hardest part of being feegan is being comfortable with who I am within the confines of the “freegan” label-and-dogma, and, in turn, being comfortable with other human beings, freegan-or-not, vegan-or-not, etc.
This difficulty betrays itself in my answers to your questions in the way I’m painstakingly trying to point out that freeganism is—in my estimation—inclusive rather than exclusive. Or, at the very least, it struggles to be as I struggle to be.
I’ve been the kind of vegan that gets sucked into the aforementioned black hole of purity and I like to think I’ve evolved for the better since then by not being defensive, preachy, pure or exclusive.
When freegan.info holds its bimonthly meetings in New York City we tell all newcomers there’s no litmus test for being freegan.
It’s a good thing because I wouldn’t pass the test.
Do you ever doubt or question your decision to be a freegan?
Yes, in the sense that I sometimes feel guilty and ashamed for failing to be freegan enough. These feeling of guilt and shame create palpable doubt that leads to questioning if I should be freegan because I don’t deserve to be freegan because I’m a failed freegan so why bother.
It’s a vicious cycle like a dog chasing its own tail.
I, like many people, am my own worst enemy and I’ll beat myself up and tear myself down more brutally and comprehensively than anyone else could or would.
So I have to practice letting go of needing to be pure, to be right and righteous, and just be content with what I’m able to do in the moment while being similarly content with what others are able to do in the moment.
Accepting, understanding and forgiving myself and others makes it easier for me to live and be freegan.
The more I’m able to inhabit that space the more confident and content I am with myself and my freegan ways.
Who or what inspires you?
Some of the people that inspire me are:
Janet—fellow, long-time freegan organizer and my love. Other than my parents, she’s the smartest, kindest, most sensitive, warm and generous person I’ve known in life. She inspires the hard, endless work of love, communication, reciprocity, support, encouragement and understanding.
My parents—my dad was a kind, intelligent, warm, sensitive and generous man who inspired me to be human first and manly last. My mom inspires me to swim when I’m too often willing to drown.
Ran Prieur—an interesting and provocative thinker. I love the way he writes. He inspires me to be a creative thinker and effective writer.
Mickey Z—writer and activist who has an uncanny ability to write about deep, complex stuff like he’s talking to you in a bar. He inspires me to express myself with more humanity.
There are other things that inspire me but since I spent about 17 years of my youth seriously pursuing music as a vocation I’ll mention a handful of musical artists that inspire me—Kings X, Sarah Jarosz, Yellowjackets, Pat Metheny and Andy McKee.
What is the best part of being freegan?
Janet is the best part of being freegan which is an example of the relationships that can form when people venture outside their comfort zones to try new things and meet new people.
One thing can lead to another and before you know it your life has forever changed in ways you hadn’t originally imagined or intended.
It’s the people and the relationships—the community—that ebbs and flows with being freegan that is the best, most important, most interesting and most rewarding aspect of being freegan.
What are the common misconceptions about freegans that you encounter?
In my experience freegans are sometimes perceived as any or all of the following:
Stupid, repulsive, dirty, shiftless, garbage eaters, hypocritical sponges, racist, arrogant, indifferent or elitist.
For example, you can get the flavor of some angry misconceptions of freeganism by watching this rant.
Another example is this NPR (Leonard Lopate, WNYC) interview with Janet and Cindy (long time freegan.info organizers, they are not “co-founders” as inaccurately stated by WNYC). Reading through the comments section you’ll find the following misperceptions:
– “This is the whitest/elitest [sic] segment ever on WNYC.”
– “any concern of taking edible food source from those who actually can’t afford to buy it?”
– “So basically these people are benefitting [sic] from the very system that they condem [sic] I would have more respect for them if they were living in the wilderness and off the land”
– “The idea of eating food from the garbage is so disgusting. I get nauseous just thinking about it. Great way to get sick.”
I’m not going to try to dispel these misconceptions herein. Suffice it to say I disagree with them.
What is the most important part of being freegan to you?
I think the human factor (relationships, community, mutual aid, etc.) is the most important part of being freegan and it’s also the most difficult part for me because I am pathologically introverted.
But I know—as part of the precariat/unnecessariat in the throes of collapse—that the best individual defense is a collaborative offense.
So I put myself out there and work to forge relationships and engage in mutual aid as best I can.
I think the ability to cultivate the skill of supportive, collaborative sociability is of paramount importance.
What is the goal of freegan.info?
The goal of freegan.info is to inspire, inform and include as many people as possible.
We’re not evangelical about it.
We want people to be as freegan as they want and need to be.
It’s certainly a desired goal that freeganism might become a sociopolitical movement influential enough to change or supplant the system but I personally don’t see that happening.
I think as the entropy of collapse becomes increasingly obvious, and the system no longer works, all kinds of people will explore a lot of freegan strategies out of need and desperation.
Keep in mind this isn’t rocket science. Freegans are really just doing stuff that humans have been doing forever. It’s just that people who have grown up believing in the myth of progress are out of practice. In many places on earth, for example, hunting, gathering, foraging or scavenging is a hand to mouth way of life—often because, as Vandana Shiva has said, “The poor are not those who have been ‘left behind’; they are the ones who have been robbed.”
My hope is that the seeds we plant along the way will germinate and grow and help people remember they can consciously disengage from the dominant paradigm; they can survive being abused by the system and they can adapt to collapse if they work together instead of stand apart.
How has being freegan changed you or others you know?
Being freegan has enabled me to find other people who speak my language, so to speak—people who understand where I’m coming from and vice versa—and this is profoundly transformative.
For a long time I just read about freegans doing freegan things and suddenly I was a freegan doing freegan things. It was a remarkably important and rewarding experience. It radically changed my life. Joining freegan.info led to my relationship with Janet and a host of other important, fundamental changes. But it was the initial change from being an observer to becoming a participant that made everything else possible.
The kinds of personal changes, due to freeganism, that I’ve witnessed in others run the gamut from people who’ve saved money by dumpster diving to people who’ve quit their jobs and no longer work for a paycheck.
People come to freeganism for different reasons and the changes that flow from those reasons are uniquely personal.
What have you learned from being freegan?
I’ve learned not to let perfection be the enemy of the good. Lots of things are worth doing badly, so to speak, and freeganism is definitely one of them.
For example, as a lone individual I’m not going to change the world and freegan.info is most likely not going to supplant capitalism.
But maybe what we’re doing as freegans—individually and collectively—will help others recognize the unsustainable nature of business as usual while instilling in them the knowledge and hope that there are ways of surviving the great unraveling.
I’ve seen the effects freeganism has had on me and people around me so I know it’s pregnant with potential and possibility.
Freeganism seems like an all or nothing lifestyle, is there a way people can ease themselves into it or are there other things people can incorporate into themselves without going fully freegan? In other words, are there other ways to address maybe less fully the same problems the freegan lifestyle addresses in society?
I don’t know what “fully freegan” would be or look like and I have no desire to be that pure or to impose that kind of purity on others. I strive toward the ideal as best I can and fail miserably in the attempt. The most important thing for me is to be gentle with myself about my failure. I’m doing more than some and less than others. It’s not a competition. Life beats me up and people tear me down enough as it is. I need to love myself for my imperfection and encourage and support myself accordingly.
I say that about myself in order to say I personally hope the freegan message of outreach is similarly open minded, understanding and compassionate.
I want anyone interested in freeganism to try to do what you want to do, what you need to do, and what you’re able to do.
Don’t let the expectations, pronouncements and judgments of others break you down and make you feel like you’re not allowed to be involved because you’re not meeting some arbitrary threshold of inclusive fitness.
We’re simultaneously victim and perpetrator within the system.
As George Carlin put it:
I’m also tired
of hearing about
this is an outmoded idea
if you live on this planet
There’s no real right or wrong way to “be freegan”.
Be freegan your way and feel good about it (if you can).
What do you want people to know about yourself, about being a freegan or freegan.info?
I guess, in the vein of saving the best for last, I should describe in some detail what freegans are perhaps best known for—dumpster diving for food.
In the interest of clarity, not all freegans dumpster dive and not all dumpster divers are freegan.
We champion dumpster diving because it can be an effective way to show how much food gets wasted every day and it can be an equally effective way to feed yourself and others regardless of the motivation (curiosity, necessity, frugality, activism, etc.).
Freegan.info is based in New York City which is one of the easiest and safest places to dive because at the end of the business day (usually around 9pm) most stores put their garbage outside right in front of their buildings on the sidewalk by the curb. For the most part you don’t have to deal with actual dumpsters just piles of curbside bags.
Basically, the idea is to find stores you think might have good stuff to eat—bakeries, health food stores, supermarkets, etc.—you wait until the stores close and you check out their garbage bags to see if there’s any edible food to be rescued.
Everyone has their own approach to diving. I prefer using gloves, not everyone does. Once I arrive at a pile of bags, I like to probe the bags—by using my hands to feel around the outside of them—to try to figure out which bags are worth exploring. I open the promising bags and reach inside to carefully root through them as best I can. I remove anything I want to keep or share with others and when I’m finished collecting what can be rescued I close the bags.
That’s basically it. Like I said, it’s not rocket science.
Some general rules of thumb to keep in mind:
– When possible, go diving with a supply of bags at-the-ready so you can tote your finds
– If you arrive at a potential dive site and you notice others already working the site, ask if it’s OK if you join them or work your own section. If you’re asked to leave, thank them and leave
– If you’re questioned or confronted by police, store owners, managers, employees, customers or fellow divers—be nonconfrontational, friendly and courteous. If you’re asked to leave, thank them and leave
– Work with others not against them
– Share the spoils don’t hoard
– If possible, inspect, clean and cook your rescued food accordingly (be especially careful with meat, poultry and fish)
– You can dive for other things besides food (clothing or furniture, for example)
– Leave your dive sites as clean if not cleaner than you find them