Friday, October 28, 2011

[food for thought] Why Vegans Don’t Join Freegan Omnivores

This article is originally from

When vegans are challenged on the impact that their consumer vegan lifestyles have on the planet — the destruction to animal habitats caused by supporting agriculture, the fossil fuel burned in all stages of food production, the animals that are killed in the harvesting of grains, etc. — they typically admit that their diets are not entirely death-free, even though there are no dead animals on their plate. “But,” they will add, “at least I have less of an impact than you.”

Sure, the industrial production of vegetables, grains and beans is often deadly for insects, mammals and fish, and it’s certainly not carbon neutral, but compare the damage caused by eating these foods directly to the suffering and destruction wrought by omnivores who inefficiently funnel those grains and beans through animals first. Veganism isn’t perfect, vegans admit, but it is the best way for anyone to reduce their negative impact on the world while still surviving.

Unfortunately, this isn’t true. Freeganism would reduce their impact even more… even if they were still eating animal products. 

Freeganism is a form of ethical consumption in which food and material goods are recovered from the trash rather than purchased. Because these things are goners otherwise, freegans can “liberate” them and not have to feel responsible for any evils committed in their production. Thanks to Freecycle, Craigslist and beetSwap, the recovery of trashed material goods has become commonplace, so it’s dumpster diving for food that makes freegans stand out.

People who know nothing about dumpster diving imagine it to be a disgusting venture, but the food freegans find is often in good shape: fruit that is slightly bruised, vegetables that are a little withered, an egg carton with only one cracked egg, still-frozen meat just past the expiration date, cheese with a small mold spot, unopened beef jerky that someone returned.

Since a lot of these foods are packaged, they aren’t damaged by mingling with the real trash; some food co-ops will even wrap the produce up nicely before dumping it, specifically so freegans can more easily save the food from meaningless oblivion.

As long as there are unlocked dumpsters, freegans have no problem finding fresh, edible food of both plant and animal origin.

Since these dumpstered foods will go to waste unless freegans utilize them, eating them has no more effect on animals or the environment than if the food were to rot away. Actually, it has less impact, since any vegan not eating dumpstered food contributes to agricultural demand by buying food. Dumpstered food always meets or exceeds vegan ethical requirements, then, even when it is animal products. Isn’t that great, vegans? You can eat animals just like the rest of us, and the only difference is that you don’t have to pay for yours!

Yet few vegans do this. This isn’t just the squandering of a valuable loophole — by not dumpster-diving all of their food, vegans fall short of their own principles.

In an interview in Satya magazine with founder Adam Weissman, Weissman explained the tragic irony of consumer veganism when freeganism is an option:
The word freegan was chosen largely to satirize an attitude prevalent among many vegans who seem unconcerned about the social and ecological impacts of the goods they purchase—so long as they are vegan. Sweatshop-made Nike shoes are fine, as long as they aren’t leather. Chocolate soymilk is great, despite the destruction of rainforests, exploitation of child slaves in the African chocolate trade and use of GMO plants.

The term freegan was created to express the notion that to live the “cruelty-free” lifestyle vegans advocate, we need to remove ourselves as much as possible from the capitalist economy, rather than taking the tunnel-vision perspective that we should only be concerned about animal flesh and secretions.

To many vegans, freeganism may seem marginal or extreme. Yet many vegans fail to recognize that the organized vegan community reflects bourgeoisie, white, liberal cultural norms, and to people outside of this demographic, eating tofu instead of hamburger can seem far weirder than getting good food that a store has needlessly thrown away.
Organic farmers will shoot, trap and poison mammals, birds and insects as readily as non-organic farmers—they simply won’t do it with petroleum-based pesticides. And of course, many organic farmers subsidize animal agriculture by using factory farm manure to fertilize their crops. Even agriculture practices not intended to harm animals cause massive numbers of deaths—machine threshers chop animals to bits, animals on land or in dens are crushed under agricultural machinery, small animals are shredded as soil is tilled.

I came to realize that for an animal liberationist, an organic, vegan diet was a lot like buying meat at the supermarket—being complicit in animal oppression, but letting someone else do the dirty work, so we don’t have to think about it.
Freeganism is a philosophy, an approach to living, not a set of lifestyle rules. Our focus is far more on building a new and more sustainable culture from the ground up than it is on micromanaging the lifestyle choices of individuals. Many of us are turned off by the very negative “vegan police” approach of looking down on someone who owns a leather belt or hasn’t yet given up ice cream. It’s much easier to get people to want to make positive changes if we make them feel welcome as they are, rather than having to constantly worry if they will be judged for not being “freegan enough.”
And let’s be honest, there are lots of people who don’t like the idea of animal agriculture, but just can’t bring themselves to give up meat, dairy, etc. We can look down on them and call them murderers and weak-willed hypocrites, or we can try to meet them halfway which, after all, is what we are doing by encouraging people to buy meat analogs. If we tell meat-eaters who are sympathetic but just can’t bring themselves to kick the meat habit that there is a way they can continue consuming animal products without economically supporting factory farming, they just might go for it.
When the interviewer asked Weissman if he ate meat, dairy or eggs, he responded:
I don’t, but I have no ethical objection for those who recover discarded animal products. I think the meat and dairy industries are hideously evil, but our complicity with them is primarily at the cash register, not the dinner table. I’ve heard many vegans argue that consuming animals’ bodies is disrespectful, and I’m baffled by what measure of respect is afforded to animals by letting their discarded corpses end up in landfills or incinerators. Personally, when I die, I want my corpse dumped in the woods so that it can feed other animals. Living beings have always consumed dead beings, keeping matter and energy a constant part of the life cycle.
That all makes sense, except the part where Weissman says he doesn’t consume dumpstered animal products. However, that contradiction is not unusual. From an ethical perspective, food loses the vegan/non-vegan distinction once it hits the garbage, but many still cannot let that distinction go. Why is it that so many vegans refuse to eat freegan animal foods even while paradoxically admitting that it is not against their ethics, and possibly even admirable?

When I was vegan, I had a few freegan friends who would eat animal products from dumpsters. I understood that this was at least as good as veganism, and I never openly objected to this, but it made me uncomfortable. For one thing, though they shared my vegan ethics, they were not vegan. What they ate made them omnivores. That vaguely put them on the side of the wicked in my mind, even as they had even less of an impact on animals and the environment than I did. 

Veganism teaches that animal products are unnecessary. Whether or not we can get them without participating in the system that created them, why would we? On top of that, most vegans develop such a strong psychological aversion to animal products that they believe they are missing out on nothing. “Veganism is not a sacrifice,” these vegans have been known to think. I know I certainly didn’t see the point in eating animals, even if I could morally justify it.

But the implication of a meat-eating freeganism is that animal products are desirable. As a vegan, I didn’t appreciate that. Part of the commitment to veganism seemed to be not liking animal products, whether or not that actually helped animals. Vegans were supposed to be above the hedonistic enjoyment of chewing on bloody flesh. With each meaty bite, then, my freegan friends sunk to the lowly level of pleasure-seeking meat eaters, even though they loomed over me in a strict ethical sense.

And there were more practical concerns. How can you be sure those chicken-fried steaks on the plates of self-proclaimed freegans really came from a middle school’s dumpster? Couldn’t sneaky omnivores lie and say they dumpstered their meat, just to avoid your judging gaze? Besides, if they still liked meat so much, could they be trusted to not buy animal products in a scenario where both freeganism and veganism were inconvenient?

Overall, meat eating freeganism just seemed somehow immoral, even in the absence of any real victim. 
Wondering if that was just me, I recently eavesdropped on a freeganism thread at Vegan Represent!. Let’s see what these representative vegans had to say about their meat-eating ethical superiors:
Dropscone: Ahh, I’ve got a friend who [dumpster dives non-vegan food]. I can sort of understand it, but the thought makes me feel queasy.
VeganUU: Since I’m a vegan for health reasons too, I think freegans are a little nutty. The negative health implications of consuming animal products are profound and disturbing, and I just don’t get why anyone would risk it.
Emiloid: I don’t think I could stomach it. Maybe pastries would be OK, but nothing with hunks of cheese, egg, or meat. Bleh. … I would probably be a “vegan freegan”. I love the idea of further reducing my impact on the world, and this is a great way to do it. I just have to get past my own squeamishness.
bumblebee: I am morally opposed to humans eating meat altogether (unless they are starving) because I believe the world already has plenty of natural scavengers that would be happy to eat it. Also, I do think unless we rid ourselves of meat eating entirely, we will retain a taste for it and crave it, whether it is available from a dumpster or not.
Anik: Participating in the economy in any way indirectly causes cruelty to animals. Buying tofu that came from soybeans from cleared Amazonian rainforest (just an example, i just read that this soy mostly goes to animal feed) supports practices that destroys the habitat of animals, as well as killing them in the process. As veganism is based upon the idea that one must take responsibility for unnecessary pain caused, the vegan must be aware of a less painful option to buying this tofu. Dumpster diving is the answer! All food that is dumpstered IS vegan. The ‘ew gross’ factor of dumpstering i think shows similarities to the omni’s defence of meat-eating — “but I like the taste of it”. It doesn’t really take into account what this preference is doing to animals. I’ve only been dumpstering once so far, but i believe there is a moral imperative to reduce pain not only through a boycott of animal products, but through reducing my consumption.
veganshawn: I am all for dumpster diving and things not going to “waste” but meat and dairy is not food to me; it is waste already, so I have no problem with it rotting away.
Tin Can: I would definitely consider dumpstered meat or whatever non-vegan. In line with what seems to be the consensus, I would agree that freeganism is an admirable lifestyle, and have no moral objections to eating such non-vegan food, but I couldn’t do it myself.
vegankitty: I agree with Tin Can. Meat and dairy products, no matter where they are from, are never vegan. By definition they can’t be: vegan means no meat or dairy products. To call food vegan just because it is from a dumpster dilutes the meaning of veganism and is also confusing to non-vegans.
VeganVeronique: Freegan = yuk! They should give it to real homeless people. Or send it to the fellas in the 3rd world places.
shade: I don’t think that I could get over myself to be a freegan. Props to those that do it though!
boko maru (responding to shade): Haha, this actually reminded me of something a meat-eater would say to a vegan.
Kat: I’ve kind of become a freegan since moving to this town and working at the hotel. It’s not unusual for people who check out of the rooms to leave things behind in them, like unopened bottles of lemon-honey iced tea, or unopened packages of granola bars. I’m also, as we speak, eating a croissant that was salvaged via Food Not Bombs. But I’m careful not to let people see me eating this stuff, because I don’t want to send out a message that I think it’s okay to go out and purchase these things.
LesMiserablesLove: We’re interested in dumpster diving, albeit not all the time and not for non-vegan food.
VeganShawn: I will not eat non-vegan food even if it is free and going to waste, I would rather the bugs and microbes enjoy it, thank you very much.
Panthera: I’ve moved into an intentional community which is wonderful in almost every other way including the fact that a lot of our food comes from Trader Joe’s dumpsters. Unfortunately, almost everything is non-vegan. Meat is not a problem, because that is so clearly different. But these [non-vegan] baked goods are killing me. They literally surround me. I am trying to keep Purely Decadent [vegan ice cream] on-hand, but that gets expensive. Since I’m open about being an AR activist, I think it’s especially important for me not to be lax about ovo-lacto consumption, even if I’m not contributing to the industry.
veganshawn: To me it is a slippery slope, where do you draw the line? I think accepting the eating of non-vegan foods at certain times sets yourself up for failure in the long run as a vegan.
La Végétalienne: I dunno, the “slipperly slope” doesn’t bother me too much because the symbolic approach to veganism doesn’t really do it for me. I’d rather make decisions on a case-by-case basis than maintain personal purity. I guess the way I see it is that all grocery store food is part of the industrial food system that condones and promotes animal cruelty, so unless you’re growing your own food, you’re probably still contributing to said system on some level.
Panthera: My boyfriend has decided that although eating those items doesn’t constitute a direct violation of rights, it’s still not a moral act, so we’re now on the same page.
Freegans could make a “Defensive Vegan Bingo” with the reasons vegans give for buying processed soy and wheat rather than eating dumpstered animal products.

That animal products go bad more dramatically than vegetables do is one of the most common knee-jerk vegan responses, but it’s unlikely that defensive vegans pleading this one would make an exception for freegan meat that is frozen or dried. Nor are they likely to accept an omnivore’s leftovers that are destined for the trash, even though buying a vegan meal instead of eating the doomed meat contributes more to the death of animals.

Saying that dumpster meat should go to the homeless is an even flimsier defensive reaction. If freegans shouldn’t take animal products from dumpsters because homeless people (or scavenger animals) need them more, then neither should they take fruits and veggies, because homeless people and scavenger animals need those more too. Of course this also falsely assumes that anything a freegan doesn’t take will find its way into someone else’s hands or claws. Anyway, freegans with kitchens can more easily prepare meat than a homeless person could. And animals without thumbs probably won’t bother with packaged meats.

Some vegans say it comes down to convenience. This is a surprising admission, since we know how vegans feel about omnivores who won’t give up animal products because of laziness. Vegans admire freegans for being more low-impact than they are, but they don’t see a contradiction in their settling for a higher-impact lifestyle when they criticize consumer omnivores for doing the same.

Vegans are afraid of sending confusing messages to omnivores and so don’t want to risk being seen eating dumpstered animal products? Since when do vegans care more about what omnivores think than in doing the right thing? Plus, as Weissman said, this meaty freegan lifestyle, while more nuanced and complicated to explain, might be more appealing to omnivores than a straightforward self-flagellating, seitan-chewing veganism. Instead of rolling their eyes at omnivores who love cheese too much to give it up, freegans take them to a dumpster and show them how to get cheese for free. That sure beats a slice of Daiya pizza.

The vegan argument for health obviously has something to do with this fear of freegan animal products. Some vegans grow unusually paranoid about cholesterol or animal-derived saturated fats, thinking them poisonous in any amount. This excuse is pretty weak too, though, because if eating dumpstered animal products is better for animals than buying tempeh, it doesn’t seem right for vegans to value their own perfectly smooth arteries over the lives of animals.

One of the most obvious reasons vegans don’t join the ranks of freegan omnivores is the aversion that many vegans develop against animal products. After avoiding meat, eggs and dairy for so long, the appearance and smell of these foods vegans once loved come to disgust them. When vegans rant about how disgusting bacon is, you can see how conditionable the human mind is. This psychological block against animal foods is something that most ex-vegans initially have to wrestle with as they re-introduce animals into their diet, even if they’ve stopped believing in veganism entirely. Admittedly, for dietary veganism, this is useful. If you don’t see animal foods as both inherently wrong and repulsive, you’re liable to be flexible in a situation where veganism or freeganism is impractical. And flexibility is not the key to a consistent vegan life.

So vegans don’t want to dumpster dive for fish sticks because fish sticks have lost their tantalizing appeal. But vegans who won’t dumpster dive for meat are like omnivores who don’t want to go vegan because tofu is gross — by holding onto their prejudices, they hurt the animals. Just as omnivores ween themselves onto bland analog meats so they can become more moral, any vegan who truly cares should train themselves to stomach dumpstered meat.

But there is also the issue of vegan purity.

When I saw Pamela Rice (the organizer of New York’s Veggie Pride Parade) speak at a library, she bragged about how long she had been vegan, and how that meant her body was now completely cleaned of animal products and was pure veggie. When you are vegan for a while, all animal flesh takes on sinister and taboo connotations, no matter the context. Many vegans just don’t want that death inside of them. If omnivores are graveyards for animals, so are freegans.

Seeing it this way is counter-productive. Because of their purity mindset, most vegans will not eat animal products out of the garbage. In fact, they would sooner put animal products into the garbage, even if the animal products are only minor ingredients. If they are at a restaurant and their order mistakenly comes out with animal products, purity vegans will send this food back, knowing it will be thrown out. More food will have to be prepared for them, which means more sentient beings killed because vegans feel queasy about eating animals.

Purity veganism, then, is one cause of wastefulness that freeganism seeks to correct. Not that vegans are to be blamed for a significant percentage of the food that gets thrown out in this world. But vegans would live up to their own standards better if they weren’t so opposed to eating dumpstered caviar or pulling over to pick up road kill.

Vegans say their shining example informs omnivores that they could be doing better. But if that’s the case, freegans prove vegans could be doing better. (And then there are people who commit suicide who show freegans that they could be doing better too, but please don’t commit suicide.)

In my interview with ex-vegan Cory Kilduff, Cory said, “A lot of vegans weren’t too into this idea [of freeganism] because it was like these guys had found this loophole and then weren’t involved in the whole pleasure-denying aspect of it.” Though vegans will never say that pleasure-denial is an important tenet of veganism, vegans do seem to get especially offended by meat eaters who truly enjoy their devilish delights. Ethically, it’s the killing of the animal that is bad, but the enthusiastic masticating of its corpse seems somehow wrong too.

Freegans aren’t evil by any strict philosophical definition, but for purity vegans, freegans have dumpster-dived their way into a morally ambiguous zone.

The philosophical difference between consumer omnivores and freegan omnivores is significant, but they’re on the same page when it comes to devouring delicious corpses. This injects confusion into the black and white vegan world. Meat is the murderous bread of Satan. So how could bacon ever be more animal-friendly than an Amy’s vegan pizza? The line between evil eaters and good eaters is blurred. And potentially it could lead to embarrassing situations, like where a vegan judges a meat eater, only to learn that the meat was going to be thrown out, and thus it’s the vegan who should be judged for buying food. 

Ultimately, one of the most important reasons vegans don’t eat dumpstered animal products may be preservation of the vegan identity. Being a meat-eating freegan is more moral than being a consumerist vegan, but it leaves your identity somewhat in flux. Omnivorous freeganism doesn’t offer the same pre-packaged meaningfulness that purity veganism does. I think this is also why some vegans are philosophically okay with eating bivalves like clams and oysters, yet never do.

“I’m vegan besides mollusks” is annoying to explain (“What’s a mollusk for God’s sake?”). The simplest way for otherwise vegan clam eaters to handle that would be to eat clams yet call themselves vegan, but then they would become like fish eaters who call themselves vegetarians, something vegans hate too much to do themselves. The other route is for bivalve-eating near-vegans never to say anything about being vegetarian or vegan, but then they will often find themselves in situations where they are offered meat or dairy.
Also, if you eat one animal product, slippery slopes and all that.

So vegans who are okay with eating clams don’t eat clams. And vegans who are okay with eating meat from dumpsters don’t eat meat from dumpsters.

If vegans really believed that it’s important to reduce suffering as much as possible, though, they wouldn’t be consumer vegans. Sadly, it’s easier to be vegan and feel good about yourself by buying “humane” animal-free products, even though buying vegan ice cream to stop from eating non-vegan pastries from the trash helps no one, save for the ethically tormented vegan who wants to avoid an identity crisis.

On the other hand… since there is plenty of vegan food to be dumpstered, am I positing a false dilemma between consumer veganism and omnivorous freeganism? 

It’s true that some vegans like Adam Weissman get all of their vegan food from dumpsters. In that case, satisfying a preference for foods untainted by animal flesh or secretions isn’t going to hurt the animals.
But Weissman also happens to be the founder of Not all vegans are that devoted. Most vegans who dumpster dive at all are part-timers — they get a few free things now and again to supplement their purchases. And unless they are diving at a vegan co-op, they are going to find meat and cheese more often than Gardein and Follow Your Heart. So if vegans turn their noses up at dumpster meat, they are killing more animals by buying processed veggie foods later.

If vegans think about it, they realize that by not dumpstering all their food, they are participating in a system of death. But they believe it is enough not to let the most obvious end results of that death cross their lips. There is a vegan veil over the demise of animals in agriculture and most vegans don’t see the need to lift it and take the next logical step of freeganism. Vegans know that buying tofu hurts more animals than eating a steak out of a dumpster. They just don’t give a shit. Fuck the animals! Vegans have convenience and their images to worry about!

That’s too bad, because with omnivorous freeganism, everyone wins.

While freegans don’t participate in the agricultural system but also don’t deny themselves the pleasures this system offers, vegans do just the opposite — they contribute to a system that destroys habitats and kills animals but without fully reaping the benefits of all this death.

Freegans are also easier for omnivores to get along with than vegans. A freegan is not going to hold it against a meat eater for enjoying a steak. They may protest participation in the system, but the enjoyment itself is still seen as a good, since freegans also allow themselves pleasures of the flesh. Also, it’s just hard for a freegan to judge a meat eater who buys a filet of meat when the freegan has no problem eating the leftover gristle and fat. How are you going to lecture a meat eater when you have a sentient being’s muscle caught between your teeth?

Of course freeganism has its problems too. For instance, what happens if everyone becomes a freegan? But until we arrive at that point, it’s clear that vegans could be doing a lot more to save the animals… if only they would eat them.

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