Retail: Can we Shop Our way to Animal Liberation?
By Adam Weissman
In a word, no.
As people of conscience have questioned the cruelty and suffering built
into the products we consume, a burgeoning industry has arisen to fulfill
this niche market. In return, vegetarians, vegans, and other socially
conscious consumers have embraced these “guilt-free” products
with open arms as a solution, the only drawback to which is that they
have not been universally embraced by the general public. One national
animal rights leader has even said that the most important development
towards animal liberation is the advent of “packaged vegan convenience
But are we betraying the questioning spirit that led many of us to challenge
the impact of our purchases in the first place?
The concept of the “cruelty-free” product denies a fundamental
and unavoidable reality. Exploitation is woven into every level of every
activity of our civilization, which was built upon, and continues to
exist through, the subjugation of the earth and animals—human
and non—and where productive activity is designed to produce economic
growth and transform our living planet into capital.
We can look at almost any “cruelty-free” product and find
massive amounts of exploitation in its production, even if it abstains
from exploitation in one or two significant (and heavily advertised)
ways. Take a pack of Tofu Pups for example, an alternative to hot dogs
and a favorite of people who abstain from flesh-eating, but wish to
enjoy some of the comfort foods from their past.
For starters, we can look at the growing of the soybeans used. Vegetarians
and vegans have been horrified—and rightfully so—by the
atrocity of raising and slaughtering animals for consumption, but in
the process, many have turned a blind eye to the exploitation and suffering
involved in raising crops.
The creation of farmland involves the destruction of wildlife habitat
and natural ecosystems, whether this means logging a forest or simply
threshing land for crop rows and loosened soil. Animal species and the
ecosystems they rely on have survived because they are part of a highly
specific set of habitat conditions that have evolved over millions of
years. When we turn biodiverse, unspoiled plains and forests into farmlands,
countless animals fall to their deaths as trees crash to the ground
or are crushed by tractors and plows; and scores of native creatures
are rendered homeless and deprived of food sources.
According to the July 15, 2002 issue of Time Magazine, Oregon
State University’s Steven Davis “has found evidence that
suggests that the unseen losses of field animals are very high. One
study documented that a single operation, mowing alfalfa, caused a 50
percent reduction in the gray-tailed vole population. Mortality rates
increase with every pass of the tractor to plow, plant, and harvest.”
Those animals who survive, attempt to subsist by consuming the crops
that have replaced the native plants. For this act of survival, they
are considered “agricultural pests.” As punishment, they
are hunted; poisoned with pesticides and fumigants; or consumed by “biological
control agents”—animals introduced by farmers specifically
to prey on “pest” species.
The work of maintaining these lands is handled by some of the most severely
exploited workers on the planet. The veganism of grapes, cucumbers,
tomatoes, and strawberries does nothing to address the horrible exploitation
of the farm workers who sow, till, fertilize, apply pesticides, and
According to the Farm Labor Organizing Committee, conditions for farm
workers in the U.S. include: strenuous and often deforming physical
labor in hazardous working conditions; average earnings far below poverty;
child labor; sub-standard housing; and some of the nation’s poorest
health conditions, including elevated rates of infectious and chronic
diseases, malnutrition, and infant and maternal mortality.
This is to say nothing of the impacts of the petroleum-based plastic
and tree-based paper packaging, the energy used to turn soy and other
ingredients into a pup, the resources needed for product transportation,
or the waste created when the packaging is disposed of. In many cases,
“cruelty-free” brands are owned by mega-corporations which
mask their ownership to prey on our concerns for the animals, the environment,
and our fellow humans. And ultimately, cruelty-free or not, our consumption
contributes to the waste stream.
So, what is the alternative?
Foraging for Change
Before agriculture, before industry, even before the advent of the ritual
hunt, (I suggest reading Jim Mason’s book An Unnatural Order on
this point), humans provided for themselves through direct communion
with nature’s bounty, foraging for fruits, nuts, seeds, berries,
and roots. The land was not owned and food was not a product. People
consumed to meet their needs, with little opportunity for waste or overconsumption.
The only “producer” was Earth itself. Humans existed as
equals with other animals and the environment, not as owners, conquerors,
“stewards,” or destroyers.
In the context of an economic system that views animals and the earth
as raw materials, humanity as a market, and disease and warfare as opportunities
for profit, a growing number of people are stepping outside of the conventional
economy and reconnecting to our species’ forager roots. Some,
like naturalist Wildman Steve Brill, author of Identifying and Harvesting
Edible and Medicinal Plants in Wild (and Not-So-Wild) Places and The
Wild Vegetarian Cookbook, are rediscovering and educating others on
wild, noncultivated plants as a food source.
Many more look at the waste generated by mass production and survive
by consuming the enormous amount of resources discarded every single
day. Variously referred to as urban foragers, dumpster divers, scavengers,
or freegans, these people are able to live without financially contributing
to exploitative systems while at the same time taking a small bite out
of the waste stream.
Urban foragers rarely, if ever, need to shop, providing for such basic
necessities as food and clothing through the discards of retailers,
factories, and households. Some, known as “squatters,” find,
restore, and inhabit abandoned buildings, providing rent-free housing.
Through this lifestyle, the forager can escape the cycle of selling
their time to a boss and then giving the money back to other bosses
to purchase consumables that they believe they need. They can devote
their time to defending the earth and its inhabitants, instead of to
the forces responsible for their destruction.
Despite its noble intentions, foraging is a hard sell—turned stomachs
and upturned noses are an initial reaction of many upon first hearing
that people consume trash by choice. The ideology of consumerism says
that a thing is only valid if it is purchased in a store, and has greater
value if it carries a designer label or is heavily advertised. We have
been taught that things become unfit for consumption once removed from
the store shelf. Reality of course, differs sharply. Every single night,
restaurants, bakeries, groceries, and delis discard massive amounts
of healthy, clean, fresh food. Foraging has common sense appeal to a
growing number of people, many who do not fit the stereotype of a young
hippie or anarchist often associated with dumpster diving. Ironically,
the fact that many have been schooled in the value of material things
also leads them to be bothered by seeing them wasted, regardless of
whether they have a fully developed animal or earth liberation analysis.
Some dumpster dive purely for the joy of unearthing free treasures.
Others are motivated to provide for their needs out of economic necessity
created by low-paying jobs or job loss. Some can’t stomach the
idea of eating “dumpstered” food, but are more than happy
to recover books, clothing, newspapers, games, and furniture from others’
There are some cult favorites—Robert Hoyt’s folk album “Dumpster
Diving Across America” and the book The Art and Science of Dumpster
Diving. Surprisingly, the mainstream media has also been taking note
of this growing trend. Two stories on the PBS TV series “Life
360,” one of which followed a band of merry dumpster divers from
the Activism Center at Wetlands Preserve, the popular online journal
Salon.com, and the Columbus Dispatch have each addressed dumpster diving.
While the growth of this movement is encouraging, radical foragers are
under no illusion that consuming trash, in isolation of other actions,
will change much of anything. While consumer choices are important,
radical foragers ultimately recognize that we have a moral imperative
not just for abstinence from purchasing, but also for ACTION. Whether
they are blockading logging roads with Earth First!, raising consciousness
with literature like the Independent Media Center’s The Indypendent,
or sharing the wealth by redistributing food with Food Not Bombs, foragers
view their consumption choices as one element in a lifestyle of resistance
to the enslavement of animals, oppression of humans, and destruction
of our planet.
If you are unconvinced, why not untie a few bags in front of your local
bagel shop? The cops won’t bother you for the most part, provided
you don’t make a mess (Please remember: Untie, don’t tear
bags! Someone else might want to check out the same trash, and leaving
a mess may motivate a store owner to keep food in a locked dumpster.)
You’ll be amazed by the abundance of perfectly edible food you’ll
find. Within a week, you may find yourself catering parties with dumpstered
To learn more about freegan living, read the essay Why Freegan?,
online at www.modusoperandi.de/freegan.html,
or contact the Activism Center at Wetlands Preserve, a New York-based
human, animal, and earth liberation group committed to educating on
responsible consumption through waste recovery. Call (212) 947-7744,
or email firstname.lastname@example.org.