Academic journal article Electronic Green Journal

Review: Empire of Scrounge: Inside the Urban Underground of Dumpster Diving, Trash Picking, and Street Scavenging

Academic journal article Electronic Green Journal

Review: Empire of Scrounge: Inside the Urban Underground of Dumpster Diving, Trash Picking, and Street Scavenging

Article excerpt

Review: Empire of Scrounge: Inside the Urban Underground of Dumpster Diving, Trash Picking, and Street Scavenging By Jeff Ferrell Reviewed by Pramod K. Nayar University of Hyderabad, India Jeff Ferrell. Empire of Scrounge: Inside the Urban Underground of Dumpster Diving, Trash Picking, and Street Scavenging. New York University Press, 2006. 222 pp. ISBN 0-8147-2738-7 (pbk). US $22.00.

Empire of Scrounge is an autobiographical narrative about urban waste, ecology and the excesses of capitalist modernity. Ferrell spends about eight months in Fort Worth, Texas, without a steady job (but his partner had one), building a home and a life through scrounging. He defines "empire of scrounge" as "a far-flung, mostly urban underground populated by ... illicit Dumpster divers, homeless trash pickers, independent scrap metal haulers, activist recyclers, alternative home builders, and outsider artists" (3). Exploring this empire Ferrell discovers and uncovers many (nasty) truths about American consumerism and urban lifestyles.

His most important discovery is that law and crime have shifted boundaries - where waste and scrounging have acquired, over the years different values as "criminal" (hence the phrase "criminal waste", though Ferrell does not mention this). Scrounging, Ferrell underscores, is located in an uncertain context, between economic necessity, cultural practice and petty criminality.

There exist various "theatres" of scrounging: the road to dumpsters, the curbside trash pile, and the dumpster. Many trash heaps, especially those at curbsides are what Ferrell terms "material postmortems", or life histories of relationships (20). This point is, in fact, the ur-narrative of the entire book: that trash is a culture's history.

Ferrell is frankly appalled at the excesses of material culture as embodied in the tons of usable items that are trashed. From kitchen "utilities" to ornamental icons, the dumpster and the curbside trashcan is, Ferrell discovers, a source of survival for his own lifestyle. Ferrell also discovers that "criminal" acts also leave behind their own detritus. Artists often find not just ideas and subjects, but also the very material resources for their art from these streets. Ferrell (who has studied urban graffiti) discovers books that document cultural history, that add to his own understandings of the country's wars, gender issues, childhood and sexuality.

Most importantly, the empire of scrounge is about change. People moving up in life, between social levels and relationships often choose to abandon their past, which is, not infrequently, a collection of material objects. …

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