The Noble Scavenger on The Living-Room Couch

They claim to model themselves after the very earliest human cultures, bands of nomadic "foragers"—a partial euphemism for "hunter-gatherers," disguising the sometimes bloody truth about what primitive people actually ate. These were, says freegan spokesman Adam Weissman, "the most humane, equitable, egalitarian and sustainable societies represented in the human spectrum." They're also the societies we know the least about, because they left no written records—which may account in part for their attractiveness.

But we can infer some things about them. The reason American Indians had no horses before Europeans arrived was that their ancestors ate them all—along with numerous other large mammals, whose extinctions coincided with the spread across the Western Hemisphere of the humane two-legged foragers with their commitment to sustainability. And that's not all they killed (and sometimes ate); as Jared Diamond notes succinctly in "The Third Chimpanzee," genocide, far from being an invention of the industrial nation-state, "has been part of our human and prehuman heritage for millions of years."

Of course, a forager lifestyle can only be faintly approximated in 21st-century New York, requiring "friend's sofa" to stand in for "cave" and "day-old bagels" for "beetle larvae." The freegans' real antecedents are Utopian and religious communities like the Shakers and Amish, and the hermits, mendicants and holy fools who have been rejecting the corrupting influence of civilization since it was invented. Saint Francis of Assisi might have made a passable freegan (if in fact he was a vegetarian, about which there is no conclusive evidence). We do know, according to Katherine Ashenburg's forthcoming history of cleanliness, "The Dirt on Clean," that like many early Christian saints he "revered dirt" and regarded bathing as a decadent pagan luxury. Undoubtedly he would have been appalled to learn that women in developed countries may spend as much on a bar of exfoliating soap as an African might live on for a month.

So are the freegans, and it's hard to argue with their outrage, or their broader critique of the excesses and wastefulness of postindustrial consumerist culture. The philosopher Peter Singer, a hero to the freegans for his radical views on animal rights, also argues that as long as children are going hungry in the world, it is immoral for the rest of us to live above a minimal standard of comfort. But that's not the same thing—in some ways the opposite—as counseling people to drop out of the economy altogether. The hungry African doesn't care what kind of soap you use; he just wants you to help him eat. The freegans, most of whom are educated and capable of contributing to the economy, aren't sharing the surplus wealth of the West with those who are destitute by circumstance rather than choice. They are competing with them for it.

The freegans' Edenic myth is seductive, but there is no way to put the technological genie back in the bottle, or the demographic one either. Six billion people, however much we may deplore their impact on the environment, cannot sustain themselves by foraging for nuts and tubers. The way out isn't backward, but forward, by using our wisdom, and even our much criticized technology, to forge a better and more humane society. In a book highly esteemed by freegans, "An Unnatural Order," Singer's sometime collaborator Jim Mason pays lyrical tribute to the spiritual values represented by prehistoric animal cave paintings. They signify, he says, a preliterate world view that endowed all living creatures with souls. Other anthropologists have seen those magnificent renderings of horses, stags and bulls not as shrines but grocery lists, but either way, they are an artifact of a stage of human development we can never revisit. Even people who are willing to stop eating animals shouldn't have to worship them. Once you step out of the cave, there's no going back.