Should a book on freegans—that is to say, people who try to live for “free” in the present through appropriating capitalism’s waste, while trying to build a future in which the things people need are provided for “free” through a gift economy—be free?

This is a purely academic question. My “book” on freegans—I’m going to call it that, even though at this point it’s just a really, really long word or PDF document, for which this blog post is a shameless plug—is already free. Even were it to be picked up by a real live academic publisher, I still have no doubt that it would quickly be scanned and shared online, and I would make no effort to stop it.

Despite the fact that reality has gotten ahead of philosophy, I still feel like I increasingly need to think through my position on the question of “free.” I feel it both in general—with advocates for open access at my own university suggesting that publishing in pay-for-access journals is just dumb—and personally—as a number of voices have told me they assume that I would never try to sell a book on freegans. I’m thus starting to wonder about what it means that—as someone who expects his life’s work to consist mostly of reformatted word documents—everything I produce is ultimately going to be free.

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I should start by saying that the arguments for making academic products free to the public are, I think, particularly strong. We still have well-heeled institutions (universities and federal research councils) that are willing to pay (some of) us to produce knowledge and to contribute to journals as editors and reviewers. The open access advocates’ strongest argument (ironically made at the same time as we hear slogans like “information just wants to be free”) is that we’ve already paid for research with our tax dollars, so we shouldn’t have to pay for it again. I’m excited about experiments like Sociological Science, the new open-access sociological journal, not so much because I’m sure their model is the wave of the future (author fees for graduate students still are scary-high) but because I believe that experimentation is the only way to find out.

But this is emphatically not the position that most producers of cultural goods—musicians, artists, or authors are in. The other week, I read a New York Times editorial by Jeremy Rifkin who rosily declared that, “The inherent dynamism of competitive markets is bringing costs so far down that many goods and services are becoming nearly free, abundant, and no longer subject to market forces.” The “marginal cost revolution” (about which he is selling a book) has a fairly simple source. There is now a Napster for virtually anything that you can copy on a computer, and because copying a file doesn’t cost money, now books, movies, and music can be “free.”

I suppose I was most annoyed by Rifkin’s editorial because it conflated the “rise of free” with the “rise of anti-capitalism.” When I’ve been told that I really ought to make my book or anything else I write “free,” it’s usually couched in the assumption that “free” and “capitalism” are opposed to one another. But there is nothing inherently anti-capitalist about getting something for free. In fact, the “free” labor of the worker—that is, time spent producing things of value for which the worker is not commensurately paid—is at the root of all profits in a capitalist system.

So long as the things we need to survive—and I’m not talking about books on freegans here, although I do think my book is valuable, but food and housing and all that—are commodified and must be purchased, being told the things you produce are “free” is just another way of saying you are being exploited. And, unlike for academics, we don’t have any sort of public provisioning for the majority of cultural producers, and as such, for most of them, discovering that their products have “zero marginal cost” is not exactly a happy revelation.

And, of course, even as an academic, “free” sounds increasingly scary. When legislators see that students can now access Massive Open Online Courses courses for “free” (at least for the moment), it sounds like a great argument for further defunding public education. And when graduate students are expected to add more students to their sections without an increase of pay–an experience virtually any GSI at Berkeley can recount–they’re working for “free.” And I can’t help but think that the logical consequence of telling us that the books we write will be “free” is that eventually universities will feel they no longer have any obligation to pay us to produce them.

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Admittedly, this is all a bit of a straw-person argument. For most of the activists I know—and, especially, the freegans—“free” has a very different meaning. It has nothing to do with price or with the “marginal costs” of production. As I came to understand it, “free” meant that some things are too valuable to have a price—whether necessities like food and shelter or public goods like transportation, the arts, or knowledge. Sure, there were always dumpster divers who thought that wasted food was “free,” but the wiser freegans I knew always recognized that these things had a cost—in human labor or natural resources—which were real. “Free” was, in effect, a way of recognizing that all things have a cost, albeit one that is often poorly captured by “price.”

I’m not against “free.” I’ve read enough anthropology to know that gift economies in which goods and services are shared freely are not a utopia, but a part of the human historical experience and an honest possibility for the future. It’s more an issue of timing, or, you might say, a collective action problem. I’m reluctant to say it’s fine for someone to have free access to everything I produce until I have free access to what others produce. It makes very little sense for some types of things be “free” while others are commoditized. And, frankly, I’m far more concerned about “freeing” things that do have a marginal cost, like food or shelter. I don’t want to sound like those old commercials that said, “You wouldn’t steal a car—Piracy is not a victimless crime”; just that I’d like to be able to steal dinner along with my DVDs.

I didn’t find my book in a dumpster. It’s taken time and money and effort and love. Writing it has involved a great deal of lost opportunities and missed chances. It’s been made possible by the generosity of a host of people and institutions too numerous to name. But don’t worry, I’m not some dirty capitalist or luddite who has yet to get on the digital freedom bus. My book is “free.”

Fool Me Twice

I had only been going into New York to hang out with for a month when I featured in my first media story. A Dutch journalist was quite taken with the incongruity of a Princeton University student going through the garbage, and despite my protestations that there were way more knowledgeable people in the group for him to talk to, I wound up featuring in his article. In fact, I was the main character: the first sentence, according to a friend, approximately read, “Alex Barnard is wading through shit on the streets of New York City.”

Most reporters who visited trash tours, though, were way more interested in the others involved in the group—the people who had organized their entire lives around freeganism. I was always in awe of how good the spokespeople for were. Night after night, I saw them turn an aberrant activity like dumpster diving into a common-sense response to waste, and spinning our abhorrence of people in the garbage into a surprisingly relatable critique of capitalism. I’ve been involved in a couple of different social movements now and, when it came to manipulating the media, was good.

Then again, I never actually bothered to look at the stories that were getting published. After all, I figured, I had a front-row seat to freeganism. Whatever the media was showing had to just be a dimmer version of what I was seeing. It’s only been lately, in writing up my book, that I’ve gone back and looked at some of what was published in the halcyon days of 2007 to 2009.

It’s kind of hard to believe that the TV spots and newspaper articles are really about the same people that I spent two years with. There’s the ABC report with the “Psycho” sound effects when Cindy opens a trash bag; the Wall Street Journal Reporter who cuts off Janet’s discussion of waste to say “I’m interested in the eating for free angle”; the blathering quotes from public health officials about food safety and fawning praise on stores donating a trivial amount of food for charity. Sometimes I wonder: were they really there?

There’s something so seductive about the media, especially to anyone who’s used to seeing their views ignored by it. For what it’s worth, sans media attention to freeganism, food waste would never have become the “issue” it is today. And, because of this, there’s a certain persistent faith that if we just do a better job of “slipping in the message”, we’ll fool the corporate behemoths into turning the airwaves into a conduit of anti-capitalist propaganda.

At least, that’s what I tell myself. In a pique of arrogance, I’ve been doing media work again. I was allured by the promise of a long, investigative piece about food waste, of which dumpster diving was only to be a small part. I took the reporters on a dive and to a public re-distribution of food; I talked about over-production and commoditization; I argued that stores threw things out not because they were careless or negligent, but because wasting is profitable in a capitalist system. I told them that the issue wasn’t my lifestyles or my carbon footprint; that I didn’t expect the whole world to start dumpster diving; that I recognized my own privilege that allowed me to engage in the act.

The piece aired a few weeks ago and, as they come, it wasn’t bad. The reporters traveled to a town that mandated food donations; they interviewed distributors, managers, and activists; they played down the safety concerns around food waste. The part where I featured, though, was painful. I declared myself an “activist” against the “system”, but they cut out any explanation of what the system was or how what I was doing might change it. I spouted some platitudes about how great the food in the dumpster was, before launching into an (edited out) explanation of how it got there. As far as anyone watching this is concerned, I was the guy who eats garbage.

Todd Gitlin writes that Students for a Democratic Society activists in the 1960s were alienated from their own representations, media products which “stood outside their ostensible makers…confronting them as an alien force.” I know that guy on TV, but I’m definitely not that stupid.

The Normal One

A few weeks ago, I spilled my coffee at the breakfast table three days in a row. Someone suggested that maybe I was guzzling too much caffeine, and I replied that, no, I’ve been on an unhealthy-grad-student level of coffee consumption for some time. Curious, though, I went off for a few days, but it didn’t change what I had first noticed this winter while wrapping Christmas presents: my fine motor skills are gone. That, and a partial erasure of my short-term memory (as well as the chunk of change I’m paying pharmaceutical companies for the privilege of both) is the bargain-basement price of happiness, for now.

But I’m not the one whose hands are supposed to shake. When I was little, I assumed the normalcy of elements of my relationship with my brother that now, looking back, I realize were distinctly formative. That my friends’ would be my brothers’ friends (and that he would always be the “bad guy” with us); that, when we traveled, I would be entrusted with the plane tickets, despite being four years younger; that my brother would also always be taken out of the “normal” classroom, but for different reasons. Yet, for some reason, I mostly just remember that my brother had really messy handwriting and a shaky grip. It’s weird what kids notice.

My parents let me in gradually. I first remember a matter-of-fact explanation that my brother would not—following the assumed upper-middle-class pattern—go to college. But I was mostly shielded, and I hid myself, locking myself in my room any time there was shouting. It wasn’t until 9th grade, when my brother really fell apart, that I recall hearing the word “bipolar” and only later, with its growing popularity, “autism”. Such strange and inexplicable demons make everyone feel impotent, and I was no exception. The best I was contribute was to sleep outside his door a few times when he was manic, in the hope that he’d wake me up and not my parents.

Oh, and there’s one other thing I thought I could do: achieve. Relentlessly. It’s probably not a coincidence that high school was when I went into arrogant I’m-going-to-be-a-Senator-after-I-go-to-Princeton (I literally put this in the yearbook) overdrive. It wasn’t great timing, since shortly after I became acutely aware of my brother’s limitations, I had an unexpected and novel confrontation with my own. But even as it imposed itself on me, depression was not something I allowed myself. I was the normal one. Or maybe more than that: I was the one who was compensating, the one who was succeeding for two. Having a disabled brother was lumped in with other reminders of my “privilege” that served as good fodder for admissions essays and self-serving save-the-world fervor.

I don’t pretend I will ever understand the challenges my brother faces. I will only say that certain experiences have made me more or less empathetic towards them. I’m afraid I’ve tended towards the latter, which is why my most recent “episode”—our well-worn family parlance for mental illness—was in a way a good thing. Mental illness, I’ve realized, doesn’t fit well into my usual worldview. There’s no zero-sum class war; no structure or power to overthrow; no “privilege” to be negated and redistributed. There’s no one to be angry against except god, and in a sense, the very randomness of it all feels like an argument against him/her anyway.

As I was melting down last summer, a psychiatrist threw out a term I’m so ashamed of I feel the need to unload the burden publically. He said I suffered from “survivor guilt”. But I am no survivor. My brother lives a life full of vitality and meaning and community, things—despite the unfair apportionment of certain skills and capacities between us—that I’ve at times been sorely lacking. There is so much absurdity to placing lives on a continuum, to thinking there’s any measure by which one can ‘make up’ for another, or even that worth can be measured anyway. No one exists to be the subject of a college essay or an inspiration or a reminder of privilege to others or the subject of a hackneyed blog post-conclusion. We just exist. And some of our hands shake.

Left-Wing Think Tank “United States Department of Agriculture” Concludes Capitalism Is The Cause of Food Waste

Nicholas Kristof has recently informed me that most of what I do is relatively useless, and that the only solution is to blog more (tweets are cool too). Ever since he opened my eyes to the fact that half of the world’s population has two X chromosomes, I’ve hung on his every word, so here goes.

That said, although he thinks sociologists are irrelevant because of their left-leaning (reality-leaning?) biases, I believe I can make a contribution through a somewhat different tactic. In particular: you wouldn’t know it (because of all the jargon we use!) but social movement scholars have identified a “radical flank effect” by which reformist, mainstream movements are helped by lunatics on the fringes who say crazy shit and thus make aforementioned movements seem less threatening and therefore more likely to win concessions.

A few weeks ago, the USDA released a major new study quantifying “food waste” (well, technically “food loss”*) in America. It’s the first since 1997, which suggests that the issue is gaining some momentum, or that I’m deluding myself into thinking that other people care about the things I care about. Over at “Wasted Food“, Jonathan Bloom – the U.S.’s leading public intellectual on this issue – has some well-reasoned analysis. In the spirit of “radical flank effects”, though, I’m going to drop some completely unpalatable and politically DOA thoughts in the hope that they will help the well-reasoned efforts of others to move forward. Somehow.

What the Report Says

  • About 31% of the food available at retail level doesn’t get eaten, which totals to some bad-shit high figure like 133 billion pounds per year or 429 pounds per person. The important thing to note here is that this is readily acknowledged as a massive underestimate. It ignores crops that never get harvested because of low prices (~10% by some estimates), produce culled for aesthetic or cosmetic reasons (up to 50% depending on the product), or losses in processing or manufacturing (which, as documented by Tristram Stuart, are both huge and deliberately imposed on processors by powerful supermarket chains). It’s also an underestimate even within the report’s authors’ own ambit, since, as they note, their numbers suggest that more food gets eaten than is humanly possible (obesity epidemic notwithstanding). And it doesn’t include food that could feed humans, but which we instead feed to animals, that in turn is converted to a smaller number of calories of meat. You can debate whether this constitutes “waste”, but insofar as the food system exists to feed people (it doesn’t, really), it’s not a particularly efficient way of doing it, so it’s waste in my book blog.
  • The food losses that get counted in the report sum up to about 141 trillion calories per year. This is a fun and media-friendly figure because it’s unfathomably large and implies something about hungry people in Africa. It’s also really, really meaningless. If you  look at calories, about half of the “food” we “lose” consists of added fats and sweeteners, which raises some questions about the meaning of “loss” and, dare I say, “food”. Moreover, it perpetuates the myth that the solution to food waste and hunger is to have someone standing by the bin / dumpster / household trash receptacle capturing whatever is left and giving it to the homeless person down the street. It’s a good way to get kids to eat leftovers but, as I learned at the food bank, the relationship between what gets thrown out and what is needed is a weak one and moving calories around is not the way you address hunger.
  • The total “value” of food waste is $161.6 billion. Of course, the “cost” of food waste is best measured in lost water, land, or labor. But even if we decide to attach a dollar figure to waste, we need to really ask ourselves who, exactly, bears the “cost” and why exactly it counts as a “cost” in the first place. As I’ve ranted previously, it’s no skin off Monsanto’s back if the seeds it sells don’t actually grow food to feed people. And it’s great news for farmers if distributors are purchasing 3,796 kcal/day from them, even if the average person (factoring in the elderly and children) only needs 1,900. And, to offer my favorite example (I think I’m showing my class background here…), grocery stores love it that you have to buy a big-ass bunch of cilantro that you can’t possible use, because they can sell it for more than a small-ass bunch of cilantro. As far as I can tell, waste keeps the dollars flowing and the economy humming. If that’s what you care about, throwing food out is not much of a waste at all.

The Unhappy Conclusion

At this point, I’m fairly used to meaningless platitudes about how reducing food waste is a quick fix to the global food system. To its credit, the USDA report has a healthily realistic take on possibilities for major reductions in food waste. Quoting an older report from the General Accounting Office, they observe:

From a business standpoint, the value of food product saved for human use should be equal to, or greater than, the cost of saving it. To the extent that the costs exceed value, good business judgment dictates that the loss is an acceptable cost. In the course of preparing this report, no material has been found that would indicate that opportunities were knowingly overlooked by business owners to conserve food at an acceptable cost. The profit motive should dictate against such loss.

Long and the short of it: food waste happens because a business model that involves wasting food (through cosmetic standards, pre-packaged perishables, and rampant overproduction to avoid missing any sales) is more profitable than one that doesn’t involve wasting food. Capitalist firms waste food because they are doing their job: creating “value” not in the forms of meals or satisfied stomachs, but shareholder returns.

Bloom and his U.K. compatriot Tristram Stuart both write that reducing food waste is a “triple bottom line” solution that can feed people, protect the environment, and raise profits. But they need to give capitalism a bit more credit. If there were money to be made from reducing food waste, the thousands upon thousands of managers, engineers, and technicians whose livelihoods depend on squeezing every possible penny out of our food system would have found them long ago.

An Attempt to be Constructive

Okay, so revolution or nothing, right? It’d be a cheap way to end this post, so I’ll make an effort to be a bit less nihilistic. Even if we accept that “capitalism” is going to be our economic model for the foreseeable future, we can still acknowledge that solutions to problems within that system can come from outside of it. That is to say, the market doesn’t fix itself: people organized into networks, organizations, and movements do. So, since I’ve never bothered articulating what I actually think should be done about food waste, I’ll make a quick attempt to articulate a program that’s serious about reducing food waste without turning it into a band-aid that distracts us from the myriad other problems with our food system:

  • Reform Agricultural Subsidies. This one is obvious but not really being discussed by anyone talking about food waste. Crop insurance programs, as they currently exist, allow farmers to plant with almost zero financial risk without any regard for the market for the food-like substances they produce. Given that, despite our dire financial straits, we’ve somehow found $240 billion to spend mostly on subsidizing corn and soy to feed cows and displace Mexican peasants in the last decade, it seems completely reasonable that we could use subsidies to make organic, local, and ethical food cheap and available. More localized systems could go a long way in reducing waste.
  • Introduce Painfully High Landfilling Taxes. The E.U. has already done this, and many are crediting the E.U. landfilling directive with sparking new interest in food waste reduction initiatives and donations. And hey, maybe as an after effect, it would discourage stores from marching along with the worldwide trend towards locking and or poisoning their dumpsters, since scavengers are – in the end – only leaving them a bit lighter. But, crucially, landfilling taxes have to be coupled with bans on shoving food waste onto others – like, for example, our food bank which threw out WalMart’s surfeit of cakes for them.
  • De-Commodify Food. Food is a stupid thing to treat as a commodity. Demand for it is inelastic (you can only eat so much of it) and you can’t substitute it for other goods (because, well, you die if you don’t have it). So it doesn’t really work in a growth-based, capitalist economic model, unless you find dumb other things to do with ever-increasing food production, like converting it into bio-fuels or introducing “anaerobic digestion” (which creates demand for food waste, which is also, well, stupid). This is fairly off the deep end politically, but it’s not utopian: as the great E.P. Thompson documents, even in early capitalist England, people still saw food suppliers (mostly bakers) as public servants who worked for a fair allowance, not a profit. Our notion of food as a commodity is uniquely modern, utterly moronic, and the root of contemporary food waste. With all the talk on the left about a “universal basic income”, maybe we should start with “universal foodstamps”?

Note the absence of calls for greater consumer awareness, “voting with your dollar”, and/or learning to eat your leftovers. These sorts of reforms – the targets of most campaigns – are good, but when you look at the size and power of the interests behind food waste, relying on individual, atomized consumers to change things is bringing a spork to a gunfight.

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* The difference stems from whether you include “loss” from shrinkage, pests, peels, etc. versus “waste”, which goes unconsumed because of human action.

Happy, At Any Cost

Dates like these are always kind of arbitrary, but it’s been three months. Three months since I was last crumpled up on my parents’ couch, since I cried for no reason at all, since I could speak of “being depressed” in both a present and seemingly eternal tense. Three months, and it already seems so foreign, so distant, and so unfathomable that I sometimes wonder if I really was the same person. Unfortunately, I was, though I really, really wish I weren’t.

I was fifteen when I first realized that I was just sort of automatically sadder than most of the people around me. I told myself it was a good thing. I could focus on changing the world; giving myself to others; martyring myself for the cause, without being distracted by the petty business of actually enjoying life. In a weird way, I think being depressed made me a better person. I turned outwards for the first time in my life; I became more empathetic; having been forced to acknowledge my own imperfections, it became easier to accept those of others.

But there is a certain baseline level of happiness—a requisite amount of non-misery—that I’ve learned is necessary, even for being self-less. And so, this time, when I realized I was way, way sadder than the people around me, I replaced self-denial with a desperate sort of hedonism. For the last year, I’ve done whatever seemed likely to make me less-unhappy at the time, and figured that the consequences for others—who couldn’t possibly know what I was going through, after all—could be ignored. And so while I firmly believe mild depression made me a better person, I’m gradually realizing that major depression made me a far worse one.

Weirdly enough, when I was at my worst, the feelings of self-loathing and low self-esteem that have been my traveling companions since adolescence disappeared. Depression crowded them out; I felt so shitty that even my brain—trained to explain bad feelings as well-deserved punishment—couldn’t come close to rationalizing them. Stranger still, now that I’m feeling better, all these feelings are back And, paradoxically, precisely those things that seem to have made me better have made me feel even less deserving of the happiness I have.

Maybe it’s a reflection of the particularly pharmaceutical nature of my recovery, but so far, I’ve experienced happiness as an absence: being happy is not being miserable, not being incapacitated, not feeling hopeless all the time, not being terrified of going to bed because you know that you’ll wake up in the morning. And, to some extent, that emptiness has been enough to get back to my life. But if you had told me three months ago how hollow happiness could feel, I never would have believed it.

Gleaning the Gleanings

As much as I like to think dumpster diving is in some ways inherently political, there are times when the whole thing can feel incredibly self-involved. And so, in the perpetually problematic desire to “give back”, I’ve been volunteering in food redistribution (again).

I like this charity, even though it’s a charity and not a “movement”, more than many, because it continues a long European tradition—gleaning—and provides food that is actually healthy. Every Sunday, the “Gleaner’s Tent” takes the leftover produce from one open-air market in the 19th and distributes it to an eclectic group of punks, retirees, and immigrants.

There’s one step I left out, though. After we get the food from the distributors, we sort it. The head of the tent is proud that the food we give out is (almost) as good as the food people are buying a few meters away. But it doesn’t come that way when we ask suppliers for their leftovers. On Sunday, we had a hyper-abundance of mangoes (hey, it’s better than cake), and I was assigned to cull the good from the not-so-good. And so I did, chucking the truly desultory and inedible fruits into a rapidly-filling organic compost bin behind me.

When I thought I was nearly done, another volunteer—a migrant from West Africa—looked somewhat bemusedly at my work. She clearly knew more about mangoes than I did, and began grabbing fruits that I thought had made the cut. A split-second of contemplation determined that two-thirds of them were unfit for human consumption, and they joined the rest in the bin. I didn’t know what to think. There were hungry people, and we didn’t have nearly enough gleanings to feed them all.

When the line finally started moving, though, I had a better understanding. Just like at the food bank, people—that is, hungry and poor people—did not just take what they were offered. They reached for the brightest, the biggest, and the freshest, and haggled and traded to get something better than what we pushed onto them. There was a lot left over—so much, in fact, that I wound up gleaning the gleanings, reaching into that compost bin and taking a half-dozen mangoes that I had been convinced someone would want but which had been left behind.

I’ve been thinking a lot about questions of “value” as it relates to waste. Originally, like a good Marxist, I concluded that we waste because, under capitalism, food is a commodity valued based on its capacity to be exchanged, not its ability to be used. I’m ready to concede that this was is a jejune and simplistic point. Sure, maybe we waste food because we don’t “value” labor, animals, the environment, or nutrition. But we also waste it because of what we do value: taste, appearance, convenience, abundance. Waste starts to seem more intractable when you look at it that way, as a “positive effort to organize the environment”, as anthropologist Mary Douglas puts it.

The mangoes were edible. They were probably even nutritious. But they tasted pretty bad. And maybe it’s only from a position of privilege that eating the crappy leftovers seems like a good idea.

Anomie Soup

Recently I’ve been spending my days working frantically on my book, voraciously reading texts for my qualifying exams and—this is the best, and most exciting, part—talking animatedly about potential dissertation ideas with my colleagues. You could say that, after a two-year hiatus, I love sociology again. The only problem is that it took me getting away from the best sociology department in the country to remember it.

About those colleagues: they are graduate students in sociology from SciencesPo, Paris. They work on a spectrum of topics and come from a range of countries, but as far as I can tell, they share at least one thing in common: they actually seem to like graduate school. We all work in a big, shared office room, and every hour-and-a-half someone announces a mandatory coffee break. We take a long hour for lunch, and in that time, virtually no one brings up how stressed they are about work, how unhappy they are with their advisors, or their bleak job-market prospects.

I’m sure that if I stay long enough, I’ll find a certain amount of disaffection and dissatisfaction underneath the surface. Still, my interactions have raised a previously unthinkable proposition:: graduate school doesn’t have to be miserable. Sometimes, I think the side-by-side comparison I’m constantly making between these SciencesPo students and my compatriots at Berkeley is unfair, since I viewed Berkeley through the lens of extreme depression and I am now seeing the whole world in a sunnier light. Then again, a few of the grad students here have been to Berkeley, and a few Berkeley students have visited SciencesPo, and in both cases, the universal consensus was that Berkeley students seem really, really unhappy.

I can’t actually say that I would have been happier had I chosen a different school—I was probably due for a depressive episode, anyway. But it’s not exactly like Berkeley is set up for thriving. For one, the department is ruthlessly denigrating of collaboration and co-authorship: we were literally told in our introductory pro-seminar, “Don’t ask a professor to write something with you, they’ll say no” and “Co-authored publications count for nothing on your CV.” It’s not the department’s fault that the faculty-student ratios are so far off, but facing a sign-up sheet on a perpetually closed professor’s door, with dozens of 15 minute blocks booked for weeks into the future, doesn’t exactly give you a sense of being valued as an individual. And it doesn’t exactly make me feel great that my adviser didn’t respond to the e-mail I sent telling her I was extremely depressed and considering leaving school, the one where I said I was leaving school, or the one saying that I was thinking about coming back.

The weirdest thing that has occurred to me with a bit of distance is that Berkeley sociology is so damn un-sociological. If I wrote a dissertation that said that a social movement came from a single leader or that wealth comes from individual aptitude, I’d be laughed out of the department. As sociologists, we know that great things come from groups, not individuals. Except sociology, apparently, which comes from lone, isolated geniuses. It’s funny we read so much Durkheim, since you could argue that our dis-integrated department is designed to produce anomie.

I’m a bit of a hypocrite, because I will go back to Berkeley. The activist inside of me wants to go back and to try to change it—to join those other students trying to create some sense of community, perhaps, or maybe even start a “mental health” working group, or something. But as far as I can tell, the people at Berkeley who are happy are the ones who take what they need from the department and then invest as little in it as possible. As a really, really fantastic and inspiring and caring professor told me on a skype call recently, “Don’t come back here until you’re really ready to take advantage of it. It’s not a good place.”

Maybe they should mention that on visit weekend.

Letters from the Wasteland

Well, it’s officially official. You really can find anything in the trash, as these two six packs of beer attest.

Because beer is so perishable.

Because beer is so perishable.

Speaking of garbage, I’ve updated the “writings” section of my site with a handful of papers that are in various states of rejection from academic journals, as well as a partly re-written of the never-really-going-to-be-published freegan book. Huzzah!


The 90% Rule

Last night, I met someone who produces no waste. Now, you could quibble over the technicalities—in an obvious biological sense, we all make some waste—but I was still impressed. She eschewed all food that came in disposal containers, bought things in packaging only if she could reuse it, and got all of her clothes second-hand. This woman literally did not have a trash-can in her house. There were a few fudges—think, “hygiene products”—but as far as I’m concerned, she was close enough that we could round down to “zero”.

Every time I encounter someone like this—who only eats local or fair-trade food, who exclusively gets clothes and other goods from thrift stores or freecycle, who strictly adheres to veganism—I always flirt with the idea of having a go at it myself. There’s something tempting about perfection, about the moral acuteness of “all” or “none” as opposed to “a little” and “a lot”. I’m certainly inspired enough by my encounter that I’m taking another look at everyday practices that, although I’ve rarely reflected on them, produce waste unnecessarily.

I’m pretty sure, though, that I’ll stop before I get to zero. Maybe I’m just lazy. But I have another justification, which I call the “90% rule”, or perhaps, the “law of diminishing returns to ethical consumption”. With any sort of lifestyle politics, you can get 90% of the way to where you want to be relatively easily, but afterward, progress is painful. Most of us could easily cut out 90% of our clothes purchases if we learned to take better care of them and sew (I’m speaking mostly to myself here). But when all of your boxers have holes in them (again, self-referential), it’s hard to find a fix that doesn’t involve buying something new.

When I first went vegan, I studiously read labels and spurned anything that “may contain less than 1% eggs or milk”. I religiously declined non-vegan food in all circumstances. I cut myself zero slack on special occasions. And, for all my efforts, my panic only deepened as I learned about the trace amounts of cow bones in refined sugar or rodents killed in the production of vegan crops.

Eventually, I just gave up. I still consider myself a vegan, but I know many militant animal rights activists who would challenge my application of the label. I rarely read ingredient labels; I cheat shameless on holidays; when I dumpster dive, all bets are off when it comes to baked goods. Like I said, maybe I’m just lazy. But I’ve also realized that our time is limited, and time spent finding soy cheese without trace amounts of whey is time not spent protesting or educating others.

We need moral exemplars—people like the woman I met—who show us that we can push the boundaries in our lives and our ethics. But I also think we need people (I’m not actually including myself here) that show us that living as a vegan, or non-waster, or locavore is more-or-less attainable without Herculean efforts. Maybe the biosphere has space for No Impact (Wo)Man and Some Impact Man.


The decay spreads over the State, and the sweet smell is a great sorrow on the land. Men who can graft the trees and make the seed fertile and big can find no way to let the hungry people eat their produce.  Men who have created new fruits in the world cannot create a system whereby the fruits may be eaten. And the failure hangs over the state like a great sorrow.

The works of the roots of the vines, of the trees, must be destroyed to keep up the price, and this is the saddest, bitterest thing of all.  Carloads of oranges dumped on the ground.  The people came for miles to take the fruit, but this could not be.  How would they buy oranges at twenty cents a dozen if they could drive out and pick them up?  And men with hoses squirt kerosene on the oranges, and they are angry at the crime, angry at the people who have come to take the fruit…

Burn coffee for fuel in the ships. Burn corn to keep warm, it makes a hot fire. Dump potatoes in the rivers and place guards along the banks to keep the hungry people from fishing them out. Slaughter the pigs and bury them, and let the putrescence drip down into the earth.

There is a crime here that goes beyond denunciation. There is a sorrow here that weeping cannot symbolize. There is a failure here that topples all our success. The fertile earth, the straight tree rows, the sturdy trunks, and the ripe fruit. And children dying of pellagra must die because a profit cannot be taken from an orange…

And in the eyes of the people there is the failure; and in the eyes of the hungry there is a growing wrath…”

- John Steinbeck, The Grapes of Wrath (1939)

Everywhere you go, it’s the same story. Homeless recyclers in San Francisco who eke out a living by redeeming aluminum cans claim they’re being stopped and cited for rooting through the garbage. Food Not Bombs claims that more and more stores that once furnished the ingredients for free, collaboratively prepared, vegan meals are installing trash compactors. An itinerant Hungarian diver I spoke to recently told me, “No matter where you go, it’s getting harder.” Capitalism is reclaiming its waste.

On the surface, it seems absurd that anyone would bother to guard their garbage. But, in various guises, it’s happening. I’ve seen it particularly acutely in New York. First, employees at the Trader Joe’s on 14th Street started harassing divers outside the store and threatening trespassing tickets. The hot food bar on the Lower East Side no longer let the freegans come in and take what they were about to pitch. And then the D’Agostino’s on 38th and 35th started rushing their garbage out to the curb just a few seconds before the sanitation truck arrived.

Still, I always thought the tales about stores pouring bleach on their food were apocryphal. That was, until this Saturday. I opened up a dumpster legendary for an unfathomable smorgasbord of pre-packaged foods only to discover that every yogurt, every pack of meat, every loaf of bread, every plastic container of fair-trade vegan organic quinoa salad, had been methodically and meticulously slashed open. And, in the deep wounds that marred every item of the otherwise unblemished food, there was the unmistakable smell of bleach.

I should say at this point that I’m ambivalent about whether I should be a dumpster-diver. Although my current income is low (hovering around $0/month), I still have the sense that—as someone with means—I should be “voting with my dollar” for some positive alternatives. Food doesn’t grow in dumpsters, and for local, vegan, organic food to become affordable and available, people like me need to support it. The fact that I sometimes listen to my iPod on the walks home from my dives makes me inconsistent; the fact that I occasionally buy food from the same stores I’m diving just makes me a hypocrite.

When I’m diving, though, I meet people who really seem to need the food. For some, dumpster diving gives them a sense of autonomy and self-reliance they could never get from food stamps. Others, I’m fairly sure, would just go hungry were it not for the stores’ surplus. On Saturday, I gazed at the yogurt graveyard alongside an elderly couple: they were, not incidentally, the ones willing to brave the health risks and eat the bleached food.

My last post was a long tirade against supermarkets, so why not pile on a little more criticism. Stores usually claim that the reason they don’t donate food is that it’s too time consuming and expensive (they’d probably proffer the same excuse for why what they do donate is sometimes inedible crap). But individually slashing hundreds of yogurts takes longer than putting them in a box for the food bank. Stores aren’t trying to save time or money; they’re trying to ensure that food remains a commodity that we can only have access to if we buy it.

Pouring bleach on the garbage is another striking admission of guilt. I’ve been told to my face by supermarket managers that they donate “everything that’s still safe for people to eat” to charity. The corollary is that anything in their dumpsters must be spoiled, rotten, and dangerous. But if this were true, there’d be no need to pour bleach on it: why add poison to poison? The reason dumpsters have to be locked is not to protect us: it’s to protect the proverbial bottom line, by convincing us to buy what we could once get for free.

As for the rest, well, if not cake, let them eat bleach.