3 years


Meet the Freegans

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Some of them make abandoned buildings their home. A few scavenge for food. Most of them talk eloquently about freedom. What they have in common is an ideal: of living moneyless lives

NEW YORK ~ Janet Kalish, A 48-year-old public school teacher, walks along Manhattan’s 16the Street in New York, cheerful and engaged in conversation. She bends down to pick up a black rubberband from the pavement and resumes walking. This is not out of the ordinary for Janet—something is going waste that could be of use to someone. “I pick [rubberbands] up all the time, I have a huge collection at home,” she says with some pride. She cleans them and uses some to tie her shoulder length salt-and-pepper hair. She gives away the rest.

Janet is a little over five feet tall. But she has charisma, which makes her stand out in a crowd. Her smile reveals uneven teeth and a positive outlook towards life. She likes to make minute-to-minute appointments just for the fun of it. “I will meet you at 4:44,” she says, “we can speak for 16 minutes.” But if you get her speaking on her favourite topics, like waste management and the evils of money, those 16 minutes could stretch into many more.

While people have always spoken out in support of an alternate economy, Janet believes it is time to act on it. Janet calls herself a ‘freegan’: someone who wants to rid the world of currency and does what she can to make it happen. She is famous on the internet as someone who eats out of trash cans. “All of that is exotic,” she says, “But we freegans are a lot more [than that].”

“Freegans are more than dumpster divers,” agrees Lauren Weber, who has documented the history of frugality in America in her book, In Cheap We Trust. “They are a group of people who are trying to lead as moneyless an existence as possible.”

Many freegans go to great lengths to avoid making a cash transaction. Instead of renting a home, many prefer to squat in unused buildings. Some of them go dumpster diving, which means looking for food in garbage cans. Most of their clothes come from a bazaar that involves no exchange of currency, the Really Really Free Market, which they describe as ‘a potluck for whatever you want to give or take away’. Freegans are also known to sift through the refuse of hotels for toiletries. As 26-year-old Jerome Stenger, a freegan, says, they are hoping for a day when everyone shares everything. All exchanges would be selfless and the “community would become the currency”.

Freegans live frugally not out of necessity, but by choice, and for different reasons. Paris, a 22-year-old student at Columbia University, simply hates to waste. For 56-year-old Madeline Nelson, the motivation is political. It is a way to thumbnose capitalism. “You can’t separate the personal from the political,” she says. For many others, this is a kind of environmental movement. “The world will come to an end if we continue our present economic system,” says 27-year-old Jessica Smith.

Chris Anderson, editor-in-chief of Wired, who has penned a book called Free, explains what motivates people to achieve a ‘gift economy’: “We have always been motivated by psychic incentives more than monetary ones. The things that we really value tend to be things that are not paid for, our passions, our family, our community.” All of us, he says, have some desire to contribute to society with no financial return in mind. Freegans are taking it a step further.

An estimate of the number of people who follow this lifestyle is difficult to make. This is partly because people practice frugality at various levels and partly because there is no official count. What we have are proxy indicators: over 1,000 people subscribe to the emails of a group of freegans in New York, for example.

“I have always liked the idea of a little bit of deprivation; it makes you stronger, it makes you more accomplished,” says Janet. “It is easier to get stuff, it is harder to deprive yourself.” As a little girl in New York, Janet would often see burnt old buildings and people lying on the streets out of the car window as she and her father—a certified public accountant who worked near Wall Street—drove from Westchester through the Bronx to downtown Manhattan. “I think it had an impact on me,” she says, “[I realised] that not everyone has life very easy. I suppose that affected me in a way that I never felt like asking for gifts. It seems strange to have a list of things you want and expect someone to give them to you.”

Janet’s mother, however, did not think gifts were absurd. “My mother would say things like ‘Anything in this store, anything you want, we’ll buy it’,” says Janet, rolling her eyes. She would give her mother one hard look and say, “Let’s leave.”

Janet teaches Spanish at a high school in Queens. She wants to quit her job to devote time to taking the message of freeganism as far as possible. “I am motivated by members of my group who have quit their jobs,” she says. “I will too. I want to be a writer and write about the issues I feel passionately for, and encourage renouncing money.”

Her group of freegans, for example, has decided to use Black Friday—the day after Thanksgiving that businesses use to promote sales—as a day to educate people about the evils of shopping. This was to be done through dramatic gestures that would draw public attention.

So, at 1 pm on Black Friday last, some six years after she’d joined the movement, Janet strode purposefully into an overcrowded Bed Bath & Beyond store on 18th Street. Smiling to herself to ease her anxiety and tugging her hair behind her ears, she pulled out a shopping cart and began marching down an aisle in search of her accomplices. She found none.

Determined, she advanced like a soldier armed with an empty cart down another aisle, and spotted one of her fellow activists at the far corner. Delighted though she was, she didn’t dare greet her. There were no smiles, no signs of recognition. That would’ve given the plan away. Instead, Janet just followed her friend. And soon, she had a couple of other co-conspirators trailing her with empty carts as well. It was organised commotion, and it was well underway.

“This is a caravan!” exclaimed a short plump employee of about 50 who was surprised to see the chain of empty-cart shoppers. “This certainly doesn’t look good,” mumbled a store supervisor, breaking into a sweat, to his colleague.

It was too much trouble for the store to handle by itself on the busiest day of the year, so they called the police. Within 15 minutes, four cops arrived, visibly surprised to see the trail of non-shoppers. Two of the activists, Jerome and Madeline, were randomly pulled out of the line and asked to leave the store—for allegedly disrupting the shopping experience of others. Jerome smiled, but left the store. So did Madeline. The point had been made.

On the sidewalk outside, they distributed fliers to passersby and shoppers that read ‘Is shopping the religion in your life?’

It was a triumph, the public demonstration. It was a celebration of ‘Buy Nothing Day’ held for the benefit of New York shoppers.

Anthropologist David Graeber says in his book Simple Life that opposition to economic materialism comes mainly from religion and social activism: ‘The Primacy of the spiritual or intellectual life has been a central emphasis of most of the world’s major religions and philosophies. The spiritual teachers of the East like Zarathustra, Buddha, Lao-Tse, and Confucius all stressed that material self-control was essential to good life, and many Americans, Thoreau and the hippies of the 1960s, drew much of their inspiration for simple living from its oriental tradition. By far, however, the most important influence on American simplicity has been the combined heritage of Greco-Roman culture and Judeo-Christian ethics.’

The Native American custom of potlatch (from which the word ‘potluck’ is derived) was the basis of an economy of mutual gifting, something found in aboriginal cultures in Australia and New Zealand as well. India’s sadhus have such practices too. The difference lies in their aims. While sadhus are committed to austerity, freegans are religiously against capitalism.

In the West, there have also been other attempts to live penniless lives in recent times. Heidemarie Schwermer, a secondary school teacher in Germany, realised after a series of personal tragedies that the more austerely she lived, the happier she was. Thirteen years ago, she gave up money. In 1994, she founded the Give and Take Central, Germany’s first exchange circle. Two years later, she gave away all her belongings as part of an experiment: she would live without money. She lives a moneyless life even today, helped by her exchange circle.

In the fall of 2000, an anthropology graduate from University of Colorado decided to give up money and began living on a hill in the desert town of Moab, Utah. He still does. Not once in these 10-odd years has Daniel Suelo used any money. His main aim is to spread the message of a moneyless world.

In 2008, Mark Boyle, a UK-based economist and businessman, gave up money. Today, he is known around the world as ‘The Moneyless Man’ and devotes most of his time to his blogs Freeeconomy Community and Justfortheloveofit.org.

While Janet wants to give up her job for the movement, there are others who work to keep it going. Leaving his small apartment in uptown Manhattan, 26-year-old Gio Andello takes the ‘A’ train to Central Park to teach music for free. He carries a cardboard that has ‘Really Really Free Music’ handwritten on it. “There are many things that can be exchanged that have real value rather than just money,” says Gio. He has been given Starbucks coffee and MetroCards (for New York public transport) in return for his lessons.

Gio, a college graduate, wears a red bandana and baggy jeans. While musicians often dress like this, his clothes are rather worn out and he is proud of it. He points to his shoes. They have holes. “These are not in great shape, but are usuable,” he says, “I will use them until I am forced to throw them away.”

His freeganism is neither political nor environmental, but religious. “There is a verse in the Bible that says you can’t serve both God and money. These two things are intrinsically competing,” he says with a grin. “The verse concludes that if you first seek the Kingdom of God, everything will be provided to you.” Gio trusts that God, “the organising principle of the universe”, will provide everything. Last year, even though the US recession had made jobs hard to come by, Gio gave up his job as a middle-school teacher, forgoing a pay packet of about $30,000 a year.

Born into a conservative Christian family in Miami, Florida, Gio sees himself as the “fruit that fell very far from the tree”. His father, he says, was a huge influence on him. “Dad used to say ‘Why do you need to wear deodorant? That is just a social construct.’ He didn’t realise that I took him seriously,” he recalls. His father would refuse to wear T-shirts with logos of big corporations. “I do not want to be a walking billboard,” he would say.

According to Weber, “Thrift was once a very important American virtue and over time it has turned into an eccentricity, even a danger to our economy. Frugal individuals used to be an American archetype.” She cites the example of Benjamin Franklin, who was known for his advocacy of thrift. Even the characters in the Horatio Alger novels, Weber observes, were industrious and frugal. “We don’t celebrate such people anymore, but there are thousands and probably millions of people living that way all over the country.”

Today, freegans are not only keeping that ideal alive, but also hoping to upturn the capitalist system. Their impact on America’s economy may be marginal, given how few they are, but, says Weber, “The movement is picking up pace. It is nice that we are a community, we get ideas from each other.”

It is this sense of community that brought Jerome to a nice three-bedroom apartment in Park Place, Brooklyn, one Saturday evening. About 20 people began to cook in an open kitchen, preparing a three-course meal. It was feast day. They were celebrating the previous night’s ‘waste shopping’ expedition.

They hadn’t decided on a menu. That would depend on the ingredients each would bring along (apart from what was already on hand). Janet, for instance, strolled into the kitchen with her red American Tourister suitcase (picked up free in the Really Really Free Market), sat on the ground, and opened it daintily. Out came two tetrapaks of Soya Milk, one pack of rice milk, one small box of mini tomatoes, some sweet potatoes, a bottle of cinnamon, black pepper and many other spices that looked like they had been used. Everything came from garbage, of course.

By the time Janet arrived, Jessica and Jerome were halfway done preparing a stir-fry and soup. So Janet took charge of dessert. She chopped bananas and whipped them in a mixer with soya milk. Freegan milkshake was ready. She poured it into small glasses to pass around.

As noble as their intentions are, economists say that the freegan movement is unsustainable. “It cannot be the lifestyle of everyone for one simple reason: it subsists on the ‘waste’ made by others,” says Professor Elias L Khalil of Monash University, Australia, an expert on freeganism.

Chris Anderson says the concept of nobody owning anything is already in practice on the web, albeit in a slightly different way. “Free is an economy we need to understand. Why does this economy work? What are the kind of economic frameworks that explain this? Etcetera,” he says. “Anything that goes digital has to go free, and the path for almost all industries is to go digital.” The foundation of a free economy has already been laid.

Janet has a more balanced approach. “Some people see us as just freeloaders. That we are living off the system that we criticise,” she says, raising an eyebrow.

“Yeah, that is totally true,” she adds, calmly, “Right now, we are in a system that is wasting and all we can do is save.” “Tomorrow,” she pauses to pick up a box full of fresh apples from a garbage can on 14th street, “we’d rather not have a system that’s wasteful and unfair.”