Book review: The Scavengers’ Manifesto by Anneli Rufus and Kristan Lawson

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I am a scavenger and I’m not ashamed to say it. When I need something (and it’s not an emergency item like, say, bandages or spark plugs), I troll the thrift stores and the swap meet first. My white enameled soap-making pots, boiling water-bath canner, flour sifter, and bee smoker, many of Matt’s tools, our CB base station, a number of our books, parts of our portable emergency kits (“bug-out bags”), the food processor, and my favorite cherry-red wool overcoat are just some of the things we found at thrift or junk stores. I have pulled still shrink-wrapped and price-tagged picture frames and even a vintage acoustic guitar out of Dumpsters. So I jumped on this book the first time I saw it at the library. (This is actually the second time I’ve read it.)

“We, the authors of this book, redefine scavenging as any way of legally acquiring stuff that does not involve paying full price.” [pg viii]

It’s definitely a manifesto, written in staccato, almost poetic sentences that read like a rallying speech. It makes you feel good to be a scavenger – proud and empowered about your unusual state. It makes you want to fly your freak flag. Early on, they liken standard consumers to screaming, pouting soiled brats [pg 9] and non-consumer scavengers to “capitalism’s naughty children, little rebels . . .” [pg 8] and tries to open your eyes to the fact that:

“Marketers have so mesmerized consumers that consumers see brand logos as their own logos, their new flags. Today the brand is the new nation, the new army, the new clan, the new religion, the new tribe. Consumers by the billions line up behind logo, vanish into logos, pour their income into brands.” [pg 12]

As the book moves along it addresses the misconceptions standard consumers have about scavengers (that they’re poor or desperate or penny pinching and that used merchandise is second-rate, dirty, or suspect) and the reasons scavengers scavenge (to save money or the environment, to survive, for the mystery and the thrill of the hunt, because we prefer an item with a past). It covers the history and economics of scavenging (Pointing out a little-known fact that reinforces why reusing is preferable to recycling: “If recycling is done inefficiently, then it can be a net loss in regard to energy consumption, compared to modern mining costs.” [pg 94, emphasis original]), while stressing that scavenging will always be a fringe, subculture activity because it feeds off of mainstream society’s cast-offs. If we were all scavengers the economy would break down.

As the authors move on from their history of the very old prejudices against scavenging and their glacially slow melt into something that could almost be called acceptance, they profile the many kinds of modern scavengers who fall into four main categories: Retail Scavengers, Urban scavengers, Social Scavengers, and Specialty Scavengers. They also discuss the spirituality of scavenging – it’s a little Taoist, involves a certain amount of faith, and devoting oneself to scavenging can be like taking a vow. They end the book with a nice, common-sense scavenger code of ethics.

If you are yourself a scavenger, or have considered the benefits of paying less (or nothing) for what you need (or want), or just want to understand what compels people to trawl through other people’s junk, give this fun read a try.

— Amanda

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