The Ethics of Urban Foraging July 11, 2009Posted by Ian Duckles in Criminal Justice, Culture, Ethics, Food and Drink.
Recently I have taken to foraging for some of my food and I have wondered about the morality of such an action. Some types of foraging I engage in are clearly morally acceptable. I recently foraged some oranges and lemons from the trees of neighbors, but I asked permission first, so there is clearly no problem there. In addition, I found a nice patch of nasturtiums on an empty lot that appears to be city-owned. Again, picking a few flowers from this patch to throw in a salad does not seem problematic. These two examples seem to show that foraging is uncontroversial in those situations where one has permission or the item being foraged is not owned (issues arising around the tragedy of the commons might play in here, but I am going to ignore them for now).
Far more problematic of course is the situation where one takes fruits or flowers from private property without permission. Occasionally on my many walks around town I see some lovely ripe fruit on a tree hanging over a wall or in someone’s front yard. In some situations I have gone ahead and taken the fruit. The question, of course, is: Is this stealing? On one hand it clearly does appear to be that. I cross over onto privately owned land and take something from that land for my own use. In some sense, the taking of a lemon from a tree does seem to be identical in kind to, for example, taking someone’s lawn furniture.
In my defense, there is a very old (going back at least to the Romans) legal principle know as “usufruct” which, according to an online law dictionary is defined as “the legal right to use and derive profit or benefit from property that belongs to another person, as long as the property is not damaged.” This legal principle helps distinguish between the two sorts of acts discussed above. When I take a lemon from a tree, the tree still exists and remains undamaged (in some situations, removing lemons from a particularly fruitful tree can actually contributes to the health of the tree) and can still be used by the owner. By contrast, taking the lawn furniture deprives the owner of her ability to use that furniture. Thus, perhaps we can justify the former and still find the latter impermissible.
The problem with this solution is that, as near as I can tell, one must be granted usufructory rights. That is, I don’t have a generalized right to usufruct, I only have this right in situations where that right has been granted by some individual. Thus, issues of usufruct really only apply in those situations described above where I get permission to harvest my neighbors lemon and orange trees. In these situations I have been granted usufructory rights to those trees, but not to the trees of strangers.
So, I seem back in the position I started, is there any justification for taking fruit or flowers without permission from someone’s garden? Am I just a thief? The problem here is that these questions are articulated within a particular, western legalistic frame that takes property rights as absolute. There is, in fact another way of looking at the issue, one which does seem to justify the actions I have described above. I came across a very nice articulation of this point in Wendall Berry’s The Unsettling of America. He cites a letter he received from David Budbill that, in part, describes the principles of property and land ownership that are operative in his community in Vermont,
…we always, with our neighbor, pick apples in the fall off trees on a down-country owner’s land. There is a feeling we have the right to do that, a feeling that the sin is not trespass, the sin is letting the apple’s go to waste.
I find this quotation to be a nice summary of my own feelings on the subject. The one change I would make is in that italicized word ‘right.’ As the author describes the situation it almost seems as if the word ‘obligation’ is more accurate. That is, when the earth produces its bounty, especially when we are the ones that have nurtured it, we have an obligation to make use of that bounty and not allow it to go to waste. This very much describes my own feelings when I pass a tree that is so heavy with fruit that it is falling off the tree and rotting on the ground. This seems like such a waste, that I almost feel an obligation to harvest and enjoy some of that fruit myself. In many cases, particularly if there is no one around, I go ahead and give in to those feelings.
Now I do worry that I am guilty of rationalizing here, but at the same time, I also feel that my feelings concerning waste have legitimate validity and need to be entered into my moral calculus. Beyond this, there are a variety of reasons related to US food policy and my interests in local food that provide buttressing justifications for the kind of foraging I have been considering. Anyway, these are my thoughts and I would be very curious to hear what others think of this issue (particularly people who have nice gardens).