Freegans in the ‘Hood

I’ll admit it: I find the Freegan movement fascinating. The mainstream media has also been flirting with this particular manifestation of environmentalism lately, though i suspect that relationship will be short-lived. Freeganism has been a featured topic in the New York Times, the L.A. Times, Newsweek, and MSNBC, amongst others. If “Sex and the City” were still on the air, one of “the girls” would undoubtedly be sleeping with a hunky freegan, admiring his “green” credibility while struggling with the “ew” factor of his food (and clothing!) coming from dumpsters.

In my opinion anyone who is keeping useful items — including food — out of our landfills is performing a public service, whether the motivation is opposition to rampant consumerism or basic lack of funds. This activity is not born exclusively of some post-grunge ennui, nor are its practitioners confined to twenty-something anarchists and homeless people. Once upon a time folks throughout the world were offended by the idea of discarding gadgets because they were last year’s model or throwing away edible produce because it didn’t fit cosmetic standards: a 19th century painting called “Les Glaneurs” by Jean-Fran├žois Millet depicts French peasants collecting leftover grain after a harvest, and this ancient practice, known as “gleaning”, is explored in the setting of contemporary France in Agnes Varda’s documentary “The Gleaners and I”. It turns out that even in today’s throwaway culture some people are disturbed enough by the amount of waste our society produces to make the ultimate statement of sustaining themselves on it.

To give the whole thing a local spin, each of the articles I’ve read has mentioned a woman named Madeline Nelson, who happens to live around the corner from me here in Flatbush. Her story is particularly compelling because she is always described as a “real grown-up” who renounced a corporate job and its accompanying lifestyle to opt out of hyper-consumerism. In talking about her life as a freegan, she is careful to point out that she still works, just not for money, and the fact that her previous life was built on the economic model most of us are familiar with gives her story a reference point. (Stories about Adam Weissman, often cited as the de facto leader of NYC’s freegan movement, always make sure to mention that he is 29 years old, lives with his parents, and “doesn’t work”… though anyone familiar with the number of freegan activities going on around the city — not to mention how much press they are getting — can surely recognize that a tremendous amount of work is involved, despite not having a salary attached.)

Although the mainstream media’s coverage of freegans likes to obsess on the perceived deprivation (and, by extension, misery) that must surely accompany a life based on not buying anything, when I see Madeline biking or walking through the neighborhood (always on her way somewhere), she just doesn’t seem miserable to me. So I ask you, dear readers: How can that be?

2 Responses to “ Freegans in the ‘Hood ”

  1. Great Blog!

    Thanks for your comments to my comments on Rejin Ley’s blog

    I love “The Gleaners And I” and have showed it to many of my hyper-consumer students at the College of Staten Island. In their writing they often express the ‘ew’ factor- but ALWAYS express how the film makes them feel more appreciative and aware of what they have, that seems to arrive to them so easily. Journalists always look for the ‘hook’ in a story, so the ‘ew’ factor, or the lifestyle stuff will always lure them… this is why i love Agnes Varda and documentary film so much because over time we can meet characters in much richer, more complex ways than newspapers give us.

    I can’t wait to ride my bike on Flatbush’s bike paths in the next few years!

    I spent the summer in Amsterdam and learned the joy of fear-free biking. Coming back here and getting on my bike I realized the level of anxiety that pumps stress hormones through my body and negatively affects my health as I ride on potholed streets and on bike paths that cars like to park in. But things ARE getting better! 9th avenue’s new bike path below 23rd street is amazing!

    Thanks again for all your great work,

    Randi Cecchine,

  2. Hi Randi, thanks for your comment!

    I too was introduced to fear-free biking in Europe, but it took me many years to brave the streets of NYC. I am constantly frustrated by the biking conditions here, yet somehow maintain the dream that they can and will improve. The new Department of Transportation commissioner, Janette Sadik-Khan, bikes to work herself and has visited other cities in the world to learn from their best practices (a huge improvement over her predecessor from our perspective), so there is change in the air! I’ve heard great things about the 9th avenue path but haven’t made it over there yet.

    As for the freegans, I’m happy to see them out on the bleeding edge of anti-consumerism. Their ranks may never swell into the millions, but if they manage to get me or you or your students to rethink our values and priorities and make more sustainable choices in life, that is doing a lot.

    Thanks again for reading!

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