Saturday, March 21, 2009

Scavenger's Manifest?

OK, so I do not know where this really came from, but I copied and pasted from a couch surfing post because, it reminded me of home.

I miss living in a place where everyone used second hand stuff, the better the deal or free - well the more to be proud of.

You could brag about free stuff.

Now I live in Iceland and I try to raise my children with similar values as I know. But it is tricky because consumerism is thriving, even in the economic crisis, some people still seem to be out shopping.

I would like to see a little freecycling here, using something again.

In a small town with no place to donate things, everything goes in the garbage.

I guess it was lucky for me because when I needed stuff, I had lots. But people are now asking when I will buy new stuff.

Why should I? This stuff still works?

A little less garbage and a little less on the Visa.

Karen Jettmar posted this message to: Iceland

The following is an adapted excerpt from The
Scavenger's Manifesto (Tarcher Press, 2009) by Anneli
Rufus and Kristan Lawson.

My eyes are lighthouse beacons. Enroute to a family
gathering, I spot a box marked FREE on a curb. This,
right here, is the meaning of life. Swim goggles: Yes.
Pink T-shirt: Yes. Blender: I already have one, so no.
"Kiss Me, I'm Irish" apron: No. Six bars of hotel
soap, sealed in their wrappers: Yoink. Into the
backpack pops the salad fork, the crocheted scarf.
Assess each in a nanosecond. Do I want this? Do I need
it? Does my friend?

When they ask at the family gathering why I am late and
I say I was garnering a stranger's discards, they
laugh. When they realize I am serious, they flinch,
their faces masks of pity, fear, disgust. They ask:
But why? Weren't those discards dirty? What if someone
bled on that T-shirt? Can't you afford a salad fork?

Oh, that. Scavengers hear it all the time.

And more:

What if it doesn't fit?

What if it's dented/scratched/stained/

Wouldn't you rather pick the exact
color/style/size/features you want?

Um, no.

In consumer culture, the very idea of getting stuff by
any means outside the standard retail channel at any
speed but warp speed is sacrilege.

A sin.

In corporate America, not-shopping is treason.

An abomination.

Yet a confluence of factors — style, politics,
technology, ecology and the economy — is making more
and more of us seek more and more alternate (but legal)
means of acquiring stuff. We're scavengers. We're
consumer culture's cleanup crew. Goods and services
circle the world, connecting strangers: not a penny

The Book of Genesis damns us. And the Book of Leviticus
deems us untouchable.

We are thrift-shoppers, coupon-clippers,
bargain-hunters, beachcombers, trash-pickers. We are
treasure-seekers, recyclers, freecyclers.

We don't steal.

We don't scam.

But we don't pay full-price. We don't pay at all if we
can help it.

Two thousand years ago, half the world's population
survived by hunting and gathering. With the rise of
civilization, old-fashioned hunting and gathering
became virtually obsolete. But all modern-day
scavengers are hunter-gatherers. Define
hunter-gathering as foraging, taking what comes.
Define it as sublimating choice to the bigger thrill
of chance. It translates to saving money and
potentially working less. It translates to dodging
whatever market sector some genius thinks you belong
to. Modern scavenging means wearing, using and eating
castoff goods from countless strangers, thus you
cannot be predicted, tracked, deciphered. You are the
mystery. With lighthouse eyes, you find furniture,
fashions, art, appliances, jewelry, food. You scavenge
seeds. Sometimes you do not know what they are when you
plant them, and find out only when plants rise: My
garden grows parsley, purple tomatillos, three kinds
of bok choy. You never know.

That is the point.

That is the challenge and the payoff and the thrill:
the never knowing, then the waiting, then the finding
out. Can you handle uncertainty?

This is the magic, the apotheosis, of the random. In a
paved world, modern scavengers reclaim discovery.
Adventure. Self-reliance. Self-sufficiency.

The modern scavenger reclaims the quest.

Some scavenge for fun. Some scavenge to save. Money.
The world. Their souls. While consumers around us
drown in debt, we liberate ourselves with every cent
we save while liberating would-be trash. We know the
difference between brand-new, full-price products and
their dented, scavenged counterparts is —


Some scavenge to recycle. Repurpose. Reduce. Reuse.

Some scavenge to revolt.

Some scavenge to survive.

Some scavenge for the sake of spontaneity. That is
another primal ecstasy that consumer culture has
quashed. Consumer culture wants consumers to imagine
themselves free and democratic, decisive and bold.
Consumer culture teaches that choosing the color of
your phone is creativity. Up to a point, it is. A tiny
calculated creativity comprising elements designed and
sold by corporations. Control disguised as creativity.
A short-leashed independence based on your ability and
willingness to buy. But what is missing from this

It's funny: Consumers think they're free.

How do we tell them how it is for us? How do we tell
them that, for us, old stuff and stuff that has been
previously owned attains a patina, almost a soul? How
do we say that every find not only saves us cash but
makes us wonder whose it was, our minds skittering
down the years of all those whens and whys. How do we
tell consumers that mass-produced new merchandise
bores and depresses us? How do we say that it is we
who pity them when they spend $90 on the same shoes
that cost (or will, soon) $6 at the thrift shop? How
can we describe the size of landfills, the islands of
trash — ten million pounds' worth, experts say —
floating at sea? Do we cite findings by the Clean Air
Council that every American alive discards fifty-six
tons of trash per year?

I last bought an umbrella thirteen years ago in Hong
Kong. Since then, I have found them: striped ones,
plain ones, plaid ones, flowered ones, large, small,
fold-up or not. One replicates a painting by Renoir.
Their former owners left them behind on benches and
buses, leaning against walls under pay phones and
ATMs. I buy my groceries at discount stores, bruised
fruit marked down. Faced with a choice, I always ask:
Is there a way to do this/get this/eat this legally
for free? I have been this way all my life. It is a
reflex. Not scavenging feels unnatural.

To me, ten dollars is a lot.

How can I tell consumers this? Here's what they see: In
one sense, nothing. In one sense, we are invisible. But
when they search, they see: Scavengers touch the
ground. How gross. Who dares finger the sidewalk and
the street? The scavenger as vector. Roaches, rats and
vultures spring to mind — and football teams are not
named after them.

We do not spend enough to please consumers. Worse, we
do not spend at all. Consumer culture hates this. We
touch trash. Consumer culture fears this. We think for
themselves. Consumer culture hates and fears this most
of all.

Scavengers are the last scapegoats in an
almost-open-minded world.

We're freaks.

No matter how or why we scavenge, even if we’re just
re-using Christmas ribbon or picking fruit from
branches that overhang the sidewalk, we are radical.
Without half trying, we are capitalism's naughty
children, sprinting through the gate. By rejecting the
standard retail cycle, scavengers reverse the basic
order of consumerthink, which is: want-get. From
infancy, consumers learn that whatever they want, they
get. Must. Will. Right now. For scavengers, however,
it's get-want. We find whatever, then decide whether
we want it. Then — take it. Or leave it for a later
scavenger. Committing yourself to not buying things
full-price mandates having to wait. That is: waiting
until something approximating your desire surfaces at
the local thrift shop, yard sale, swap. It might mean
waiting for the seeds on those strawberries and
tomatoes you buried in your backyard to sprout. You
just get used to waiting. While you wait, you realize
how little you really need.

We do not expect to get everything we want.

Thus we want less.

We always get something, sooner or later. But in
flipping the equation, in embracing want-get,
scavengers trade choice for chance. We trade control
for the lightning flash of surprise.

We sing their anthem backwards. No wonder we scare

Broke a shoelace? Ran out of giftwrap? Consumers
replace lost or broken things right now with perfect
replicas, brand-new, full-price. Not us. Scavengers
improvise. For us, absent and broken things are
hassles but brain-teasers too. Wrap presents in
calendar pages. Knot the shoelace, or replace it with
wire, yarn or dental floss.

Repurpose. Found something you think is useless? Use
it. Cut-up mousepads become coasters. Doors are
tabletops. Trophies, bolted to walls, are coat-hooks.
Bandannas make dandy halter tops. Ever resourceful,
scavengers plumb inner strengths. I am emerging from
the rummage sale with seven white porcelain sake cups,
a map of Uruguay, a pillowcase embroidered by someone
sometime somewhere, and a baking pan shaped like a
guitar. What will I do with these, and when?
Scavenging links us to each other, to all former
owners and all future owners of whatever we have now.

Yet ultimately we are on our own. Scavenging forces us
to feel and act and think. I was out walking when a
thought occurred to me which I longed to write down. I
had no utensil, no pad. I was miles of sterile suburban
sidewalk from the nearest store. I found a paper clip.
I tore part of an outdated announcement from a phone
pole. Unbending the clip, I scratched my thought with
it into the blank side of the paper. Later, held up to
the light at home, the letters revealed themselves like

I know: absurd. I do not ask you to admire this. I
only ask you not to mock it.

The dictionary defines economics as the study of "the
production, distribution, and consumption of goods and
services." What's missing from that picture? Um —
what comes after consumption? Mainstream economic
theory has glossed over this bothersome detail for
centuries. It went like this: Consumer buys product.
Consumer brings product home. Consumer consumes
product. The end.

But hey: Will that consumer utilize that product
forever, until the end of time? Of course not.
Eventually, in five minutes or fifty years, the
product — providing we are not talking about food or
drink here — will become broken and/or outdated
and/or unwanted and/or its owner will die, and/or
sundry other eventualities could occur which land that
item in the trash.

And then?

Welcome to the world of scavenomics.

To paraphrase Kristan Lawson, who coauthored The
Scavengers' Manifesto with me: Scavenomics picks up
where economics traditionally leaves off. Scavenomics
is that other, too-long-ignored half of the cycle: the
part that occurs after consumption. And just how do
products find their way back to "production" at the
so-called beginning of the cycle?

Scavengers are the driving force for this hidden half
of the story. We are the ones who take society's trash
and either re-use it, introducing it back into the
middle of the standard economic system (i.e. trash is
rechristened as goods for distribution and
consumption), or recycle it, introducing the material
back at the starting point of the system (i.e. trash
is reprocessed into raw material for production).

Modern economic theory is not as blind as it used to
be. These days, recycling is regarded as a valid
economic activity, as yet another way to make money.
(Re-using and re-purposing, however, are pretty much
still off the radar screen.) But to the extent that
it's been considered at all by economists, scavenging
is regarded as a behavioral problem, a sort of
consumer dysfunction that prevents people from
properly purchasing and consuming their fair share of
stuff. If too many people scavenge instead of buy
retail, then the economy won't grow and a disastrous
recession ensues. (Sound familiar?) But the reverse
can also be bad: mindless, endless over-production,
overconsumption, and then overdisposal. Hence, those
endless tons of trash. Scavenging as a naturally
occurring method of acquisition puts the brakes on
what otherwise might be a runaway train of capitalism;
by opting out of the consumer cycle, scavengers slow
the system down to a reasonable pace.

If there is over-production, and everybody buys too
much stuff, then sooner or later some of that stuff
will be discarded, and if enough gets discarded, then
an increasing number of people will see that the
products they used to buy can now be scavenged for
free. Once a sufficient number of people become
scavengers, they stop buying new stuff, and production
thereby slows down to sustainable levels. But the
opposite is also true: If everybody starts scavenging,
then production ceases entirely because no one is
buying. But if nothing is being produced, then the
inventory of scavengeable goods will shrink and
finally disappear, and then (after scavengers harm or
kill each other while fighting over the last few
scavengeables) demand will rise again for new stuff,
and production will restart. When a society such as
Japan's in the 1980s engages in reckless
overproduction and overconsumption, the principles of
scavenomics dictate that a collapse is bound to
happen. When a society such as current-day sub-Saharan
Africa depends too much on scavenging (in this case on
donated goods and food), that too portends economic
havoc. Scavenomics is the economics of self-regulating

One of the principles of scavenomics is to unleash the
creative power of scavengers. Often we, and only we,
can find ways to use discards. A real-world example
comes from the realm of chocolate production. For
centuries, cocoa farmers simply threw out the husks
left over after shelling cocoa pods. But in recent
years, entrepreneurial scavengers thought of selling
the otherwise worthless cocoa husks as gardening
mulch, because so many consumers love anything that
smells like chocolate, as the husks do. So today, many
nurseries sell scavenged cocoa-husk mulch. Multiply
that scenario by thousands of times and the power of
scavenomics becomes clear. So green economics and
scavenomics are not always in opposition. Often they
are complementary, and scavenomics can be viewed as a
subset or a variant of green economics.

Economic activity is not a line, but a circle. A
continuous cycle. The missing steps are: this
manufactured or refined material, whatever it might
be, is eventually used up or becomes broken or
obsolete or unwanted, and is then discarded. And then
somewhere, somehow, by somebody or something, it all
gets fed back into the beginning of the system and the
cycle begins all over again. This can happen on a very
short time-scale (the discarded product is immediately
scavenged and re-used or re-purposed) or on a medium
time-scale (discarded products are broken down into
their original constituents and recycled back as the
raw material for manufacture) or on an extremely long
time scale, in which everything is at first just
unceremoniously "thrown away," which essentially means
returned to the Earth far from its point of origin in a
new place such as a landfill or a dump, and perhaps a
million, or ten million, or who-knows-how-many years
in the future, some distant civilization will discover
a rich "deposit" of iron ore in a location formerly
known as Melvin's Salvage Yard and U-Find-It Car Parts

The goal of scavenomics is not simply to focus
attention on this missing step of the economic cycle,
but to minimize the time frame and energy expenditure
of that step. So, from a scavenomics point of view,
waste disposal is the least desirable and least
efficient behavior, because the raw materials
contained in the trash become lost to us for an
extremely long time. Recycling is one step better,
because the aluminum molecules or cellulose fibers are
reintroduced into the human ecosystem as raw materials
fairly rapidly, with a moderate amount of energy
expended. But scavenging is the gold standard of
economic efficiency, or at least of this part of the
economic cycle. Because when anything that is unwanted
and discarded gets scavenged and re-used or
re-purposed, it immediately re-enters the global
economy with practically no energy expenditure at all.
It doesn't need sit around for a million years turning
to rust or topsoil. It doesn't need to be shipped to
China and melted down and recast as ingots and then
shipped to a factory and turned into a simulacrum of
whatever it was in the first place, to be then
transported to other continents in pollution-spewing
ships, trucks, trains and planes. Without having to
travel anywhere, or use any energy, the scavenged
object once again becomes useful to humankind, without
any processing or time-wastage whatsoever. You can't
get more efficient than that.

When you scavenge, you absorb other people's pollution
as would a sponge. Not only do you lower your carbon
footprint, but you also consume less and thus lower
your "economic footprint." When you reuse or recycle
other people's trash, you decrease their economic
footprint as well. It's nice to help strangers.

But scavenging is work. Getting stuff, getting enough
stuff to survive or to even call yourself a scavenger
requires discipline. Skills. Special knowledge, as
does any other profession or sport — and scavenging
is both.

First, see. Scan every surface, every crevice of every
landscape for telltale colors, shapes and signs that
literally or figuratively say: TAKE ME. Scavengers
sleep with eyes half-open. For us, this is basic math:
The more you see, the more you save. Observe,

Experiment. Forever ask: What's this? A public trained
to demand brand-new brand-name products is a public
drained of curiosity. Consumers are brainwashed to
replicate the same exact sensations time after time as
if that was happiness. They do not wonder how another
product by another brand might taste or feel or what
would happen if I went without this? In consumer
culture, such thoughts are anathema. Enough such
thoughts would smash the system. Industries bank on

Accept. Taking what comes, scavengers tolerate what
comes. You've never worn a poncho or listened to
Turkish techno music? If that's what you've found,
that's what you do. For us, diversity is a necessity.

Each act of scavenging is one step out of safe, clean,
streamlined social normalcy. We take trash home. Thus
we must overcome some primal instincts, drilled into
us all our lives. First we must overcome our fear of
misbehavior, those imaginary angry-mommy slaps on our
hands, angry-mommy voices in our heads hissing Don't
steal, because scavengers are not stealing — the
first Scavenging Commandment is Thou shalt not take
what rightfully belongs to someone else. Then we must
drown out Angry Mommy snapping Don't touch that, it's
dirty, because yes, it is, but it won't kill me and I
want it and I'm grown-up now. Most scavengeables are
not clean or perfect when we find them. Some are
dirty, just as Mommy warned, and they're dinged-up or
scuffed or past their sell-by dates. So we must
overcome another reflex, the age-old terror of
contagion, once legitimate but now unwarranted in an
era of hot water and antibacterial soap. I can wash
this, and I can wash myself after taking it home.
Until that washing, we must tolerate the presence of
this unclean, damaged thing in our hands, pockets,
purses, backpacks, cars.

Collecting castoffs keeps us humble.

Watching, waiting, going with the flow means scavengers
are accidental Taoists.

So is this religion?

Well —

How do you define religion? As a source of values?
Check. Source of hope? Check. Source of compassion?
Check. Compassion in the sense that we cannot help but
wonder about those former owners: Who were they? How
and why did they part with this? On purpose or not? If
so, in anger or in apathy? Did they regret it
afterwards? Where are they now — happy or sad, alive
or dead?

Standard consumption affords no such touchstones.
Brand-new full-price items just reflect consumers back
upon themselves.

Is religion a source of charity? Check, albeit mostly
inadvertent. Strangers transfer souvenirs into our
safekeeping without intending to, neither knowing nor
caring who we are. By becoming their beneficiaries, we
transform them into benefactors. We transform their
loss and their waste into generosity. Thus we redeem
them from themselves.

Is religion a way to heal the world?

Is religion surrender? Check. In a consumer culture,
choosing not to choose is brave. No towels in your
bathroom match, and some who visit you might actually
care. The scavenger surrenders to the magic and,
depending on your level of commitment, the cruel humor
of the random. One day when you are out and it turns
very cold and you are unprepared, you notice, through
the window of a laundromat, a box of items which,
unclaimed after a few weeks in the lost-and-found, the
manager put out. The box says FREE. Along with
insubstantial slips and single socks you find a heavy
sweatshirt. It says FIREMEN HAVE LONGER HOSES. It is
clean. You're cold. Six hours remain before you can go
home. You put it on. Another day, two guys are handing
out free bookbags on the college campus near your job.
The bookbags bear the logo of the college polyamory
club. You are not polyamorous. But these are well-made
bags, the right size and shape for your gym gear.
Passersby will misread you and misinterpret you, based
on the bag.

You might not mind. The most committed scavenger would
say: I must not mind. Is this religion?

Other scavenging commandments:

Don't break laws.

Don't be aggressive or abusive.

Don't leave messes in your wake.

Don't harm plants, animals or people.

Don't endanger your safety or health.

Don't gross yourself out just to prove a point.

Don't be a parasite.

Don't mooch.

Consumer culture is a shiny sparkly whirling
waste-producing world-engulfing
pick-your-favorite-product fusillade at hyperspeed,

We wish not to participate. Except to follow, gathering
detritus, in its wake.

We might look like consumers but no: We are the
fringe-dwellers, the bottom-feeders, living in the
realm of never-knowing. We are the revelers and
rescuers out here among the lost and the abandoned and
the trashed, the designated-worthless which we pluck
and scrub and sometimes love.

We know what is worth what.

No comments:

Post a Comment