Saturday, September 29, 2007

Freegans and Frugality

I'm belatedly reading this week's Newsweek, having been on a business trip the last several days. There are two stories -- a first-person account and a companion article -- about living the "freegan" life, a term that was new to me. Freegan (vegan + free) describes people who essentially step off the consumerist grid to minimize their ecological footprint. Reporter Raina Kelley kept a diary of a month in which:
I would be a vegan who bought nothing but local and/or organic food. I would use only ecofriendly transportation, cut my electricity bill in half and erase my carbon footprint. My mantra would be "recyle, reuse, renew," while never forgetting to reflect on my impact on the Earth before acting. ... That's tough work for an eBay-loving, omnivorous, cigarette-smoking shopaholic. ...

The American way of life has to change if we want to do something about global warming. But it's not [easy]. It's time-consuming, confusing and infuriating. I was doing fine, living my little piece of the American Dream, and now the inconvenient truth is that I feel bad about it. ...

I haven't been the same since I pitched this story. I see waste everywhere. I feel guilty about everything--doing my laundry, spending a day at the mall, leaving my computer on at night, relaxing in the shower, BUYING FOOD AT THE GROCERY STORE. How can absolutely everything I've been taught to do to survive be wrong?
Kelley's Freegan Girl blog recounts her whole month. She staggers to the end of the experiment describing herself as only a step away from losing her mind, but comes out of the experience with a new dedication to moderation and a list of workable ways in which to be part of the solution.

The companion article by Jerry Adler compares the freegan movement to the "Utopian and religious communities, ... hermits, mendicants and holy fools who have been rejecting the corrupting influence of civilization since it was invented." He acknowledges the validity of their critique of the excesses and wastefulness of postindustrial consumerist culture, but suggests that the world's poor would be better off if we contribute to our economy and share our surplus wealth with them, rather than "competing with them for it." Ouch.

Freegan goals remind me of much of the frugal-living advice found in two books that helped me through several years of raising a family on a single income when I was staying home with my girls when they were young -- compilations of what used to be a monthly newsletter called The Tightwad Gazette, written by Amy Dacyczyn. Our Depression-raised parents or grandparents, too, have always known that it was possible to reuse that aluminum foil, take the bus or walk, repair that lamp, get the last teaspoonful of ketchup from that bottle, or scrape the burnt bits off our toast. Frugal, minimal-impact living isn't new, but it may feel new and particularly meaningful to a generation that is doubly conscious of its comfortable upbringing and the need to make lifestyle alterations for environmental reasons.

Later in the same issue of Newsweek is an article about the recent spate of what might be considered "my year of self-deprivation" books, like Barbara Kingsolver's local-food adventure, Animal, Vegetable, Miracle, and A.J. Jacobs' The Year of Living Biblically, in which the author chronicles his year-long attempt to follow every mandate in the Bible. The article's author suggests that the popularity of such books implies that we're such an affluent society that only by taking choices away can we find meaningful direction or bring order to our modern, messy lives. I can certainly find some resonance in that thought. Having been raised in a necessarily frugal household myself, I can't imagine finding satisfaction in a life that's driven by showy spending.

My own current financial constraints (I have a good job, I hasten to add, but considerable obligations as well) lead me to live a life that avoids most consumer excesses, but I well know that the pressures of time and convenience lead me to make choices I wouldn't want held up as a public example of best sustainability practices.

Here, then, is my contribution to frugal living for the next month: I'm going to live as much as possible on what is already in my cupboards, refrigerator and freezer, finding ways to use those cans and packages and bags of rice and flour that my gaze always passes over as I decide what's for dinner. As Amy Dacyczyn noted in those Tightwad articles, the typical family can, with care, make a quicker, bigger difference to their food spending than in almost any other area -- by relying less on highly processed or pre-prepared foods, buying ingredients in bulk, and cooking simple dishes from scratch. And in a month where finances are particularly tight, living off what you've already got on hand for a period of time can make a real difference to the bottom line (and, if it means making food last longer by not eating quite so much of it, the size of the bottom). Having looked at my checkbook (ack!) and stepped on the scale (aacckkk!), I find this would be a perfect time to address both issues.

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