Anneli Rufus and Kristan Lawson know that the United States is an incredibly wasteful society. They write, “The freedom to generate waste and not worry about what happens to it is what powers the economy.” As long as companies keep producing, waste will continue–waste that the adventurous can reclaim for their own needs.
In The Scavengers’ Manifesto Rufus and Lawson invite readers to explore the fringe world of scavenging. The authors share numerous examples of things they have found: furniture, home decorations, food, and even a working iPhone. They’ve been scavenging for years and argue that it can be a liberating experience. Aside from saving a lot of money, they write that scavenging has changed how they experience things–it’s made them more patient, made them more observant, and given their lives a sense of surprise and uncertainty that is often missing from the predictable routine of consumer capitalism.
To be sure, there is truth to what Rufus and Lawson write. Aside from their numerous examples, over the years I’ve subsided for long periods of time on food gleaned from dumpsters, groceries purchased with the bottle deposits from found bottles, and wild plants picked in parks. At various times, this very website has been updated from computer hardware that was scavenged in the trash. That said, there are plenty of options out there at a variety of different comfort zones.
The authors are right that many may be put off by dumpster diving and to those folks they offer a number of helpful tips: attend and organize clothing swaps, purchase your clothes second hand, attend lectures with receptions afterwards for free food (you might even learn something), yard sales, and other ideas. It mentions resources like FreeCycle (a community devoted to exchanging goods for free) and CraigsList. It makes a point to define scavenging in a broad sense, ostensibly to hook people on the idea. So, while I’m not sure that someone that cuts coupons and vows never to pay full price is really a “scavenger,” I do understand the logic of classifying them as such. They also include a twelve-point set of “commandments” for scavengers that helps to remove the association of scavenging with lawlessness. Rufus and Lawson argue that once you give it a chance, you will likely be hooked.
Unfortunately, the book is a little vague on the political reasons for scavenging. While it talks about the abundance of waste in the United States, in never really develops this into a full-blown critique of environmental destruction. Similarly, it never talks about how much food is wasted and the number of people that go hungry each day. For me, the political reasons have always motivated scavenging, as they have for many others that scavenge. The authors write a bit about the freegan movement (http://www.freegan.info)–an anti-consumerist philosophy that advocates scavenging and minimal corporate work–but they largely leave out the politics.
Overall, The Scavengers’ Manifesto is an intriguing book. Aside from practical tips, it offers a few chapters on how scavengers have been portrayed historically, a look at the spiritual aspects of scavenging, and even a somewhat tedious chapter on biology and scavenging.
For many, it will be eye-opening look into an incredibly wasteful society and what can be gleaned from this waste.
Anneli Rufus and Kristan Lawson, The Scavengers’ Manifesto, (Tarcher/Penguin, 2009).