How Humans Are Scavengers

Agan Harahap, Shopping, 2012

I was emptying out the fridge and thinking, we’re just scavengers. Humans think we’re the top of the food chain, noble hunters, but who’s hunting? We just pick up stuff from the bottom of the industrial supply chain. We’re scavengers.

Everything in this fridge is in some state of suspended decay (some of it already decayed, which is why I’m clearing). While other predators will sometimes eat a carcass over days or even cache it in the snow, this is how humans eat all the time. When’s the last time you felt the pulsing flesh of something living in your mouth? When’s the last time you ate a plant out of the ground and shook the dirt off with your snout? While we might occasionally do this, it’s not ordinary at all. We’re generally scavengers.

I mention it because we generally look down on scavengers. Rats, crows, lobsters, the scurrying creatures of land and sea. People say that they’re carnivores or omnivores or herbivores, but that’s not true. If you’re vegetarian I guess you get a pass (scavenging usually refers to flesh), but if you eat any meat, scavenger is what you are. Just look around a supermarket, and then look at yourself. Every creature you eat has been dead for a long time. You’re a scavenger.

Take, for example, this chicken (please). I was clearing some forgotten chicken out of the freezer and I couldn’t even put it in the food waste cause it would stank to high heaven before the collection came. My wife wanted a burger (I don’t eat beef) and it was already starting to go brown around the edges in the fridge. The life we eat appears to be in suspended animation — delivered and wrapped in petroleum products at the supermarket — but it’s all just decaying slowly. This flesh is decomposing from the moment that we industrially butcher them, instead of tearing the flesh out with our teeth like proper carnivores.

Today it is the food industry that’s the carnivore. The average human is just a scavenger in their slipstream. The machines kill and we pick through what they leave. That’s what you’re doing in them meat aisle, picking up chicken breast in its petroleum sleeves. We feed some cash into machine metabolism in exchange for calories. And then we put that meat in our fridges or freezers and let it rot some more. We are the scavengers of the supermarket, and a curious lot we are.

We want every fruit out of season, every beast out of territory, and we want winter in a box, powered by electricity. I guess it’s like a wolf caching some kill in the snow, but also not. Because this is all we know. We consider ourselves apex predators, but that’s not true. What’s the last thing you killed? The corporations are the real killers and we just and we just scavenge what they drop off at the supermarket.

On the other hand, back home my father-in-law still kills goats, chickens, and fishes (though not as much as he used to). We used to keep a whole flock chickens next door until he ate them. The younger generation considers this raising and killing gross and often won’t touch the fresh mutton biriyani, but we’ve got it backwards. He’s the predator, and we’re the scavengers, ie the rats and crows compared to his lion.

We’re the ones completely divorced from the killing involved, as if that makes the creatures any less dead. In fact, our disconnection from death makes it so much worse. Industrialization is borne of ignorance of what’s actually going on. We have the luxury of scavenging without killing, feeding without farming, taking without giving, magic without sacrifice. But that luxury was on a karmic credit card, and now the climatic debt is coming due. It was all borne of disconnection from what was actually going on. From the sheer amount of devastation required for us to scavenge as comfortably as we do.

We are delusional. The supermarket aisle is a performance piece, an artificial ecosystem, a temple to the infinite bounty of capitalism and an insult to the finite world. We even have different names for the flesh of animals we kill, so we think of them less. Cute cows become tasty beef, Peppa Pig becomes cripsy pork. Sometimes we’re even openly macabre, like the chickens that serve as mascots for fried chicken joints. “Hey, come on up, eat my family.” I’ve even seen animated sausages, gesturing like “bite my head off! I like it!” We’re the worst sort of scavengers, adding insult to injury.

‘We’re also incredibly wasteful’, I think, as I pull some ancient nectarine out the back of the fridge. Refrigeration and freezing let us forget about food, and then we can’t even eat it. Within the supermarket we expect the shelves to be filled, but then the price of that is full bins behind. The price of our illusions of plenty is massive amounts of waste, an estimated ⅓ of all food according to the FAO. This can be lost in transport or off the shelf or from the fridge or restaurant. And then we often bury it in anaerobic garbage dumps or encased in plastic, where other scavengers can’t even get to it. The illusion of infinite is an incredibly wasteful simulation to run. Meanwhile the resources of actual reality run out. We’ll be digging the bins soon enough.

I empty the Oxford fridge as much as I can and fly back to Sri Lanka. Death has divided our household and I have to shuttle between them.

Back home people go to the ‘wet’ market, which is frowned on as gross or unhygienic by the west. “Ew,” say people who don’t take off their shoes in the house or wash their butts. Wet markets are in fact where you A) get the best produce and B) have an actual connection to the earth. Here farmers lay out their produce fresh with dirt and butchers keep live chickens in cages, killing and plucking them on demand. Pig legs and hang from spikes and I’ve even seen a cow’s head just laying there, looking at me. I had to check twice to see if it was my friend from the neighborhood.

In the wet market we’re obviously scavengers, competing with the flies to pick the bones. We want to step away from this into illusion, but the wet market is much closer to what we are. My father-in-law still goes here, but his kids don’t want to know about it. They want the chicken to appear on the table without bones. They won’t eat the ‘country’ chickens he keeps because that’s generally all bones. We’ve elevated scavenging to an art form, and thus completely lost connection to the natural.

The irony is that industrial farming looks cleaner, better, and more humane while it is in fact immeasurably worse. We literally don’t measure the horror of industrial farming because we don’t look at it. We just see identical shrink-wrapped slabs of meat laid out and assume that the animals are laid out in such a clinical way. But they are in fact packed in pens, ridden with disease, with the living-dying of their bodies barely over-ridden by antibiotic blasts. Imagine industrialized rats, a viscerally revolting concept. We have no right to look down on them, we who do not look at ourselves.

Humans are the ravenous scavengers and industry is the apex predator that comes for all life on earth. It’s as bad as it sounds, but we’re not listening, we blissfully stroll through the supermarket, listening to Muzak, dead to the world. Lost in illusion, we don’t call ourselves as scavengers at all. Perhaps we should.