Freeganism – Definition and Overview of the Movement

I’ve been considering strategies for saving money recently, in an attempt to retire early, and got a bit carried away researching/ reading about freeganism – fascinating subculture/ network/ however your want to characterise it…

Freeganism – A Basic Definition

‘Freegans are people who employ alternative strategies for living based on limited participation in the conventional economy and minimal consumption of resources.’ (freegan.info – the first Google return for ‘freegan’ besides Wikipedia).

Pure freeganism involves meeting one’s needs without money, which is typically achieved through a combination of a number of strategies such as:

  • Renunciation – Simply doing without

  • Scavenging – Living of food and goods which have been thrown away, dumpster diving being a practice closely associated with freeganism

  • Recycling and ‘Upcycling’ – re-purposing other people’s waste

  • Repairing – Making goods last longer

  • Foraging – making use of what nature provides for free

  • Skilling up – Growing your own and making goods – here the movement links to city farms.

  • Bartering – exchanging goods or skills

  • Sharing – sharing resources, and space – It’s important to emphasise that many freegans don’t perceive themselves as free-loaders – Some freegans are part of organisations such as Food not Bombs and do unpaid work to salvage thrown away food and cook it in order to give it away.

  • Squatting – is often the preferred housing strategy

According to Michelle Coyne (2008) freeganism emerged from a complex social history, having its roots in anarcho-punk culture of the 1970s which challenged Corporate Capitalism, and today there still seems to be strong links between the few visible aspects of freeganism and an anti-capitalism, anti-corporate and especially anti-consumption ethic. Most freegans seem to eschew the idea of spending 40+ hours a week working for money in order to consume hard and then waste hard and prefer to engage in more meaningful unpaid labour in order to meet their needs in a more environmentally conscious way and reduce their impact on the planet. There are thus strong links between freeganism, anarchism and the modern environmental movement.

In the absence of money freegans rely heavily on social networks, and either other people’s generosity or superfluity in order to get by. They also have to invest a considerable amount of time meeting their basic needs through scavenging and networking, which is something they have more of than the average in-work person. NB – It is important to emphasise again that most freegans do not see themselves as freeloaders, although this is often a critique leveled at the movement, rather they perceive themselves as re-framing and re-balancing the concept of work as something which should be more diverse, more humanly connected and less dehumanising than something you just do for money.

Four Examples of Freegans

It’s usually much easier to understand a concept through some examples – so here’s a non-exhaustive selection of four people who practice freeganism

Mark Boyle – The Moneyless Man

Britain’s highest profile freegan (at least in terms of Google search returns) is Mark Boyle who commenced a three-year money-free experiment on buy nothing day 2008. Reflecting on the experiment in a 2015 interview he says:

‘I lived in a caravan I found on Freecycle, and I kitted this out with a wood-burner made from an old gas bottle, which I fueled using wood I’d gather from the land around me. I cooked my simple fare outside, 365 days of the year, on a rocket stove…. I gathered up the unused apples from the surrounding area to make cider, and the campfire became my pub, around which friends would sing and dance and make music together. We became participants in life, not only consumers of it. To wash my clothes I used a plant called soapwort which I grow, and washed clothes in either an old sink or the river, where I also bathed. I brushed my teeth with toothpaste made from wild fennel seed and cuttlefish bone. I had a composting toilet and used discarded editions of The Daily Mail for toilet roll – a fine use for it.’

More details about the practicalities of living without money can be found in Mark’s book – The Moneyless Manifesto, along with the foundations of his critique of the money system and an explanation of his preference for economic systems based on gift exchange.

Before commencing his experiment, and indicating his broader commitment to gift-economics, Mark established a gift and skill sharing platform called Freeconomy, which has since merged with the similar site Sreetbank, where anyone can sign up and offer skills or stuff for free.

Since the money-free experiment Mark has co-founded the first moneyless pub. The Happy Pig is based on a Permaculture gift-based smallholding, An Teach Saor, soon to be offering free workshops, free education, free accommodation and of course, free alcohol. The pub was converted from an old pig shed and funded through a crowd souring campaign, so while not entirely money-free, it is still at least gift-based.

Dan Suelo, the man who lives without money

‘Easily the most famous homeless person in America’, Suelo has set up home in a cave in Arizona since he quit money in the year 2000. Although Suelo does the occasional critical blog about the system, and is something of a go-to man for advice about moneyless living, his lifestyle seems less politically motivated than Mark Boyle’s and he appears to be more of am individualist ‘free-spirit’. He says of himself:

I’ve been totally without cents since Autumn of 2000 (except for a couple months in 2001). I don’t use or accept money or conscious barter – don’t take food stamps or other government dole. My philosophy is to use only what is freely given or discarded & what is already present & already running (whether or not I existed). I don’t see money as evil or good: how can illusion be evil or good? But I don’t see heroin or meth as evil or good, either. Which is more addictive & debilitating, money or meth? Attachment to illusion makes you illusion, makes you not real. Attachment to illusion is called idolatry, called addiction. I simply got tired of acknowledging as real this most common world-wide belief called money! I simply got tired of being unreal. Money is one of those intriguing things that seems real & functional because 2 or more people believe it is real & functional!

https://sites.google.com/site/livingwithoutmoney/

Recent entries on his blog and Facebook page (which are sporadic because he relies on public libraries) refer to his having ‘fickle fun’ and the fact that he is a ‘mooch’. However, there is also something of a spiritualist side to the guy – he has recently given up his mooching in order to care for his ageing parents and previous blog posts talk about practising ‘deep sitting’ and his web site contains links to various religious ascetics who live for free without publicity.

Elf Pavlick

Elf Pavlik is much less high profile than the above two. He gave up money in 2009 after he had come back to Europe from San Francisco. In California he had been working for a highly competitive internet company that was mainly trying to compete with other companies, without really producing anything to make people happy. He decided he had enough of that and started living in nature for a while and he tried to give up money. He lives an urban lifestyle, relying on other people to feed him and give him a bed or some floor space, and relying on discarded clothes. He walks or cycles most places, but does occasionally take public transport, and wears a ‘no ticket’ label when he does, which explains that he lives without money. He does work with other people, but only on collaborative projects, preferring to co-create rather than somebody paying him and telling him what to do.

Twitter seems to be Elf’s social media domain of choice where he describes himself as living moneyless and stateless and links to hackers4peace, zerowaste, polyeconomy and (interestingly) the world peace game.

Carolien Hoogland

A more mainstream version of freeganism is Carolien Hoogland’s year without money which she undertook because she wanted to to be freer in the work she did. She spent sixth months planning her experiment and wrapped up her wallet on New Years Eve 2009-10 and commenced a year of money free living. She arranged barter arrangements with her local dance school, electricity company and local cafe – she got her goods/ services for free and did free-work for them in exchange. She also cooked once a week when friends would bring food to share. She found that her life was more social and connected than ever in her ‘economy of relationships’ which also gave her a feeling of existential security.

NB she wasn’t technically money free, she maintained health care, splurged on ice creams once for her friends, and she also lived with her partner, so I’m sure he paid for the rent etc, but I think this is worth mentioning because it’s probably more manageable for most people, but I’ve included this here because I really liked the idea of just getting in contact with companies and bartering with them, definitely outside the box.

There are more freegans the world over, but I think four examples are enough – they provide a feel for the breadth of the movement – Mark Boyle’s freeganism seems primarily inspired by his commitment to gift rather than money-exchange economics and has evolved into an emerging globally networked yet locally based gift-based Permaculture in Ireland (definitely the type I most closely identify with), while Elf’s is more of an urban hacker’s freeganism, and he seems to be working on building virtually networked freeganism, something I don’t know much about TBH. Despite his recent tribalism, Dan Suelo’s moneyless living seems more like an eclectic personal quest for spiritual and individual freedom, while Carolienne Hoogland’s is a much more mainstream barter-based Freeganism.

Finally, it’s worth mentioning https://moneyless.org/ – A site set up by two people who have lived partially freegan lives and contains lots of useful advice for anyone wanting to get into freeganism.

What’s So Different about Freeganism?

While I do so love my typologies, I think it’s more useful to focus on the commonalities of these freegans – It’s not just the commitment to money-free living which distinguishes them from the mainstream, the following are recurring themes within the freeganism/ money free living movement

  1. Lamenting the de-personalising effects of money exchange – freegans prefer either gift-economics or barter and reliance of personalised networks to meet their needs.

  2. Co-creation within social networks – being money free means meeting needs through reliance of social networks, which can mean closer connections with people.

  3. Freedom from money as promoting individual freedom – being free of money obviously frees you from the need to engage in paid work, and many freegans also seem to relish the freedom to set their own day to day timetables and to travel as they please. There is the potential for this to contradict the point above.

  4. Ecologism – An essential aspect of many money-free strategies is meeting your own needs from the natural environment – through foraging and grow your own, freegans thus tend to be green-leaning.

  5. Anti-Consumption and anti-waste – freeganism is very much the anti-thesis of the rapid turnover of goods within a consumer culture, and dumpster diving to reclaim (mainly food) waste is a recurring theme in freeganism videos on YouTube.

  6. A critique of the exploitative logic of corporate capitalism. I don’t think it would be appropriate to label freeganism anti-capitalist, because so many of its practices seem to depend on it, but there is an undercurrent of critique of global corporations and a distinct preference for localism.

I include the ‘antis’ at the end because I get the impression that freeganism and money-free living are more about positive social change rather than protesting unjust economic systems.

How Many Freegans are there in the UK?

It’s hard to say for certain. Given the links between freeganism and left-green politics it is possible that there are thousands of freegans living off-grid in both urban and rural areas.

There certainly aren’t that many examples of freeganism in the UK online. A Google search for ‘Freeganism + UK’ suggests that there are a lot more people writing about freeganism, and/ or writing about their short-term experiments with freeganism then there are actual committed freegans writing about themselves. (Searched February 13 2016).

The top 17 of the top 20 search returns are for newspaper articles from either local, national or special interest sites and only 3 are links to actual freegan sites – one of which (search return number 1) seems to be the major info source for freeganism globally – ‘Freegan.info’. The second specific site is ‘Freegan.org.uk’ – and this only has limited information, with no information under any its main site headings, and the third return is for a blog called Dumpster Dinners which was last updated in February 2013.

In addition to the above – the following site (http://www.meetup.com/London-Freegans/) was founded November 2014 and has 229 members (Accessed 13/02/15), with 8 meet ups to date (although the most recent was in Calais). However, there is very little discussion, and as with the Google search – 3/5 posts on the discussion board are asking for people to be the subjects of journalistic investigations.

The UK Hippy Forum further suggests a dearth of online discussion – this thread is mainly devoted to dumpster diving and mostly seems to point to the limited opportunities for doing it.

http://www.ukhippy.com/stuff/showthread.php/60741-freeganism

Freegans are a little more active on Facebook – the Dumpster Dive group has 133 members and some photos of successful raids – https://www.facebook.com/groups/UKDumpsterDive/?fref=ts – b

Finally I’ve managed to source 11 videos on YouTube (playlist) which focus on Freeganism between 2008-2015 – which I think each cover different groups around the UK. NB the streamed-interview with Mark Boyle is very interesting.

The most visible manifestation of freeganism online is the Freecycle Network – which currently consists of 604 Groups spread across the UK, with 4,439,508 members. Unfortunately this tells us next to nothing about the actual number of moneyless or nearly moneyless Freegans in the country.

Freeganism’s connections to other movements

The practice of freeganism is common to a broad range of philosophies and movements, such as various forms of religious asceticism, monastic orders, various forms of anarchism, radical ecologism, and the homesteading/ Permaculture and off-grid living networks.

It’s likely that all of these will have some members who are living with very little money, and any true attempt to assess the scope of moneyless living in the UK would include an analysis of these. Such related networks include. Unfortunately this kind of breadth analysis isn’t something I’m in a position to do at the moment.

Criticisms and Limitations of Freeganism

The waste-reclamation aspect of freeganism has been rightly criticised for being dependent on the surpluses of Capitalism, but this is something of a moot criticism given that two of the above examples at least are actively involved in creating alternative gift-economies to meet human needs through a totally different paradigm. Whether these are realistic or not I’m not in a position to comment on.

A second criticism is that free-economics might work for basic needs such as food and clothes, but Freecycle’s not exactly inundated with skilled trades and professional people offering their services for free, which raises the question of how generalisable it is across different sectors of the economy.

A third criticism is the fact that freeganism is too radical a lifestyle for it to ever have mass appeal, so it’s potential for social change is limited, but this is at least partly countered by the breadth of the movement allowing for small-steps to be taken for those who can’t go through with total commitment.

A final criticism is that this does seem to be a very white, middle class movement – engaged in by people in developed societies, many of whom have the safety net of social welfare to fall back on. It’s a very romantic vision of ‘not poverty’, the reality of moneyless living around the globe, where the state isn’t paying for the roads or other infrastructure, isn’t so pretty.

Useful Sources of Information on Freeganism and Moneyless Living

General Info Web Sites

http://freegan.info/ (strategies for sustainable living beyond capitalism)

http://freegan.org.uk/

https://dustbindinners.wordpress.com/

YouTube playlist – UK focus – in chronological order, more or less

Groups active in the UK

Meetups – http://www.meetup.com/London-Freegans/

The UK Hippy Forum – http://www.ukhippy.com/stuff/showthread.php/60741-freeganism

Facebook – https://www.facebook.com/groups/UKDumpsterDive/?fref=ts

Individuals – Links above:

  • Mark Boyle
  • Dan Suelo
  • Elf Pavlik
  • Carolienne Hoogland

Academic articles and Books

Victoria C More (2011) Dumpster Diners: An Ethnographic Study of Freeganism

Alex V. Barnard (2011) ‘Waving the banana’ at capitalism: Political theater and social movement strategy among New York’s ‘freegan’ dumpster divers

Michelle Coyne (20008) From Production to Destruction to Recovery: Freeganism’s Redefinition of Food Value and Circulation

http://www.uiowa.edu/ijcs/production-destruction-recovery-freeganisms-redefinition-food-value-and-circulation

Jeff Ferrell (2006) Empire of Scrounge: Inside the Urban Underground of Dumpster Diving, Trash Picking, and Street Scavenging (Alternative Criminology)

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2 Responses to Freeganism – Definition and Overview of the Movement

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