One dictionary’s definition of economics is “The study of the production, distribution, and consumption of goods and services.”
Notice anything missing? What happens after “consumption”? Traditional economic theory has glossed over this bothersome detail for centuries. Once the product, whatever it is, successfully reaches the hands of the consumer, its economic journey was deemed complete. Man buys product, man takes product home, family utilizes product. The end.
But reality is messy and not so simple. Will that consumer utilize that product forever, until the end of time? Of course not. Eventually, in five minutes or fifty years, the product will become used up, or broken, or obsolete, or outdated, or its owner will die, or any number of other eventualities could occur whose result is that the object ends up in the trash.
Welcome to the world of scavenomics.
Scavenomics picks up where economics traditionally leaves off. It is the study of that other half of the cycle that has been so conveniently ignored by economists: What happens to goods and services after consumption, and how do they find their way back to “production” at the beginning of the cycle?
Scavengers, naturally, are the prime driving force for this hidden half of the story. We are the ones who take society’s trash and either reuse it, introducing it back into the middle of the standard economic system (trash rechristened as goods for distribution and consumption), or recycle it, introducing the material back at the starting point of the system (trash reprocessed into raw material for production). Scavenomics thereby becomes the corrective to a field of study that has heretofore been off-balance, and which until recently has examined only half the available information.
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. (Reusing and repurposing, 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 buying retail, then the economy won’t grow and everything will head into a recession. Which, needless to say, makes economists unhappy. But the reverse can also be bad: mindless, endless overproduction, overconsumption, and then overdisposal. 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, we slow the system down to a reasonable pace.
Productive capitalism has been proven over the centuries to create the largest amount of wealth for the greatest number of people. Its formerly (though no longer) hidden flaw is that it tended to damage the environment in the process. For a very long time this inconvenient detail was shrugged off as “the price of progress.” The environment has now become so damaged, however, that we’re starting to think that the price might be too high. The new “green economy” tries to rectify this flaw with compulsory compliance and burdensome regulations. Scavenomics proposes to achieve the same desired result — less environmental destruction — using a more laissez-faire, entrepreneurial approach: give scavengers free rein and let them turn the waste into something of value.
The consumption cycle
The traditional way of viewing economic activity is: Raw materials are obtained from nature, then manipulated in various ways, and then made into products for mankind’s benefit. But of course a key detail (which is actually more than just a detail) is glossed over. Because there is no “end” — 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 product being immediately scavenged and reused or repurposed; or on a medium time-scale, in which the 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 in a million, or ten million, or who-knows-how-many years in the future, some distant civilization of superhumans will discover a rich “deposit” of iron ore in a location formerly known as Melvin’s Salvage Yard and U-Find-It Car Parts Emporium.
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 — ah, 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 reused or repurposed, it immediately reenters the global economy with practically no energy expenditure at all. It doesn’t need to 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. Without having to travel anywhere, or use any energy, the object once again becomes useful to humankind, without any processing or time wastage whatsoever. You can’t get more efficient than that.
Because all economic activity is part of a cycle, it makes no logical sense that one part of the cycle — scavenging and recycling — has lower status than other parts of the cycle, such as manufacturing and consumption. Each stage is entirely dependent on all the others and should be regarded as equal. Scavengers are that portion of the cycle that converts material into something useful once it has been “excreted” by society.
Self-sufficiency, which might be viewed as a positive attribute under most circumstances, terrifies most economists and social philosophers. For an economic system to function as a whole, and for a community to feel cohesive, everybody needs to work together, to rely on each other, and to be part of the interconnected system. But someone who is entirely self-sufficient — what role does he or she play in society? For the most part he or she is absent from the quotidian interchanges that make civilization hum. And it is this perception that has in part caused our leaders and politicians and economists and philosophers to regard scavengers — to the extent that they think about scavengers at all — with a mix of exasperation and fear. Because scavengers, more than just about any other social category, are self-sufficient. We don’t really participate very much in the whole manufacture-sell-consume-dispose cycle that drives the modern world. An observer might ask us: What’s the matter with you people? Are you trying to make the economy collapse?
But our self-sufficiency and apparent nonparticipation in the capitalist system is an optical illusion. We are deeply enmeshed in the mainstream economy — it’s just that part of the economy to which no one really pays much attention. Scavengers need capitalism, and capitalism needs scavengers. Without other people’s castoffs and junk, we’d have nothing to scavenge. And without someone removing, processing, and reintroducing materials back into the system, the capitalist economy would eventually run out of raw materials. But this relationship between the scavenging world and the consumer world is an uncomfortable one, one that both sides are ashamed to admit even exists. Scavengers fancy themselves to be rebels and revolutionaries and independent outsiders who have no use for the oppressive world of drones and squares and copycats. On the other side, capitalists and consumers don’t like to think about what happens to all that stuff after it completes its journey down the manufacture-sell-consume-dispose conveyor belt. Too messy. Too inconvenient. Just sweep that detail into the, uh, trash.
Scavenging isn’t just fun. It’s environmentally beneficial. It diminishes the amount of waste, it eliminates the need for overproduction, it helps to decrease the amount of raw materials being extracted from the ecosystem, and so on. We take this for granted: that one of the main motivating factors to scavenge is that it’s good for the planet.
At the same time, in this book we are drawing a connection between the scavengers of today and the scavengers of bygone eras. But the motivations for scavenging back then were completely different. A medieval ragpicker or a nineteenth-century scrap-metal collector wouldn’t even know what environmentalism is; but if you took the time to explain it to them, and then asked if that was the reason they scavenged, they’d look at you as if you were crazy. Saving the wilderness was the last thing on their minds. Humans have always recycled and scavenged, but it is only recently that we started doing it because of altruistic concern for the planet’s well-being. Impoverished people in earlier eras scavenged simply because they were trying to scrape out a living, and collecting things of value from the garbage was the only way they knew how. Colonial-era metalworkers and smiths recycled scrap metal and scavenged discarded household objects for smelting not because they were concerned about the effects of strip mining in Bolivia, but because recycled metals were the least expensive way to get the needed materials for their businesses. It’s the “invisible hand” of Adam Smith at work again: people take the path of least resistance when making economic decisions, and sometimes it turns out that scavenging is the smartest thing to do even when the only thing you’re considering is your own profit.
When you scavenge, you absorb other people’s pollution like a sponge. Not only do you consume less and thereby decrease your own “economic footprint,” when you reuse or recycle other people’s trash, you decrease their economic footprints as well. Free stuff, and becoming an environmentalist hero to boot: what’s not to like?