Gleaning women in Italy in 1930 (image source). The ancient peasant society had found in gleaning an elegant and efficient way to optimize the management of low-yield resources.
Gleaning is an ancient tradition, deeply embedded in the agricultural world. In the past, it was common practice that the poor were given access to the grain fields after the harvest, so that they could collect the spikelets left on the ground by the harvesters. It wasn't done just with grain, but with all kinds of agricultural products: fruit, olives, chestnuts, and more. Whatever was left after the first pass was for the poor and for the destitute to collect
Gleaning was so important in the past rural societies that it was even sacred. We read in the Bible that God explicitly ordered to owners to give to the poor a chance to glean in their fields. And the origin of David's lineage in the biblical tradition is related to
Gleaning remained a fundamental feature of rural societies until recent times; it is still done, occasionally (as you can see in this movie), but it has lost importance with the onrushing growth of the industrial society. It is not considered sacred anymore; on the contrary, the suspension of the property rights associated with gleaning is often seen as subversive in a world that emphasizes fenced private property and strictly regulated activities. In some cases, gleaning was specifically prohibited by law, as in the Soviet Union in the 1930s. That was a terrible mistake that aggravated the famine known as the "
But why gleaning was so common? Why even sacred? And can we learn something useful for us from this ancient tradition? It turns out that, yes, we can. Far from being a primitive tradition, gleaning is a sophisticated and efficient technology designed for managing low yield resources. It is a technology that we could still use and that, probably, we'll have to re-learn as the gradual depletion of high-yield mineral resources forces us to abandon the wasteful and expensive industrial technologies we have been using so far. But it is a story that needs to be told from the beginning.
Gleaning to optimize the agricultural yield
Few of us have direct experience with the sickle (or the scythe, its long handled version, used specifically for reaping). We can only imagine how hard it must have been to use it to harvest crops during
Now, imagine a line of reapers advancing in a grain field. Obviously, they had to stay at a certain distance from each other while swinging their sickles. So, it was unavoidable that some grain stalks would be left standing and that some spikelets would fall on the ground. Could you avoid this loss? Maybe you could try to get the reapers closer to each other; but that could even be dangerous. Or maybe you could force the reapers to be more careful, or to stop and collect what falls on the ground; but that would slow down the whole process. In short, we have here a classic problem, well known in economics: efficiency shows decreasing marginal benefits. T
But gleaning was not just a question of efficiency, it was way deeper than that. It provided a "social buffer" that allowed flexibility (or, if you prefer, "resilience") to the agricultural society. The vagaries of the weather, of insects, pestilences and other calamities always made the yield of the harvest uncertain. So, a peasant family that faced hard times could always fall back on gleaning to survive. Then, when the good times came back, the same family could provide the human resources for the regular harvesting. So, gleaning played the role that today we call "Social Security" or "welfare", reducing conflicts and frictions within society.
But the idea of gleaning went beyond this utilitarian factor. It had to do with the very fact of being human and of helping each other. As such, it takes the name of solidarity (or, sometimes, of compassion). The reapers knew that the spikelets left on the ground would be collected by the gleaners following them. Would they leave some falling on purpose? We can't know for sure, but we can read in the story of Ruth in the Bible how the owner of the field himself ordered the harvesters to leave something on the ground for her to collect.
Biophysical economics of gleaning
So, if we want to understand the mechanisms of gleaning, we need to go to a different concept: "biophysical economics". It is the view that sees the human economy as an activity that mimics biology. So, each economic activity is like a biological species; it uses resources to live and reproduce, while producing waste.
Once we take this view, we immediately see what gleaning is. It is a "
The low cost of gleaning derived from several factors, one was that it wasn't associated with the costs of private property; intended as claiming it, fencing it, defending it, and more. Indeed, gleaning can only function if the resource being
However, if the commons have survived for millennia in agricultural societies, it means that the tragedy described by Hardin was not at all a common phenomenon. Hardin was not wrong, but he applied an industrial logic to an activity that was not
Hence, we see how beautifully optimized gleaning is; a far cry from the brutal and inefficient method of "privatize and fence," often proposed as the solution to all problems of resource overexploitation. And we can also understand why gleaning has nearly disappeared from our world. With the energy supply that society obtains from fossil fuels, there was no need any more for such a radical optimization of the agricultural process as gleaning could provide. The industrial world was (and still is - so far) rich enough that it can think that it doesn't need to be efficient; it doesn't need gleaning. Indeed, the wealth generated by the industrial society can provide better services than those that gleaning produced, long ago: pensions, social security, food security and more. All that was the result of
3. Gleaning in the modern world.
One of the problems of the modern industrial economy is
Normally, we tend to try to get rid of waste by using expensive industrial processes, for instance incineration plants which - miracle! -
However, if we look at the hidden side of waste processing, we can see that gleaning, although nearly completely disappeared from agriculture, is still there; alive and well. An early example of modern waste gleaning can be found in the novel by Franck McCourt "Angela's ashes," where the author tells us of how his family could survive in the winters of the 1930s in Ireland, literally
These activities go under the general name of "informal participatory waste management" - a fancy term for what is simply gleaning applied to industrial waste. These modern gleaners use no expensive equipment, mainly bags and old carts. They move on foot or, occasionally, use supermarket carts as skateboards. They separate the mixed waste into (modestly) valuable objects by hand. In the picture, you see Professor Jutta Gutberlet of the University of Victoria, Canada, discussing with a Brazilian "
We don't have precise data on the world trends of this kind of activities, but it seems clear that the increasing number of people who live in poverty in rich countries has generated a return to ways of living that seemed to have disappeared with the booming economy of the second half of the 20th century. Then, in poor countries, the poor have always been "gleaning" landfills, even though the poorer the country, the poorer also must be the landfills. It is a job that doesn't pay well (obviously) and that carries considerable danger: you never know what you can find in a waste bin. It can be something sharp, poisonous, contaminated, or dangerous for all sorts of reasons.
The gleaning of household waste is seen in different ways in different parts of the world. Some European and North-American countries have implemented "container deposit legislation." That is, the consumer who buys a bottle or some other kind of container, pays an extra as
The gleaning of industrial waste would seem to be a good idea under many respects; and it even seems to work where it has been implemented. However, there are big problems with making it a widespread and commonplace technology for waste management. On the basis of my personal experience, I can tell you that trying to fight the vested interests of the companies that make money out of traditional waste management is hard; think of taking away a fish from the crocodile's mouth. In some cases, disturbing the crocodile can even be dangerous, considering the widespread network of illegal activities related to waste management.
Then, in proposing participatory waste management, you risk being considered as an "enemy of the people" and accused of planning to prevent the poor from their legitimate right of becoming 9 to 5 office employees. You may also be seen as an enemy of science and technology, as you are intentioned to block the development of new and wonderful technologies that will bypass thermodynamics and transform waste into a high yield resource. Finally, often you face a stumbling block in the form of the "zero waste" idea, often intended as meaning that no waste should be produced at all. The fact that perfect efficiency implies zero resilience seems to be completely alien to the way of thinking of those who propose this idea.
So far, no one seems intentioned to propose shooting the informal waste collectors, as it was supposed to be done during Stalin's times, but it is easy to get discouraged facing the complete lack of understanding of the situation at all the levels of the decision making process. Most people simply don't want to hear about this subject, and the idea of having the poor scavenging their household
Conclusion: the future of gleaning.
How can we see gleaning in our society? Can we see its return in one of its many possible forms? And, if so, will it be useful for something, for instance to solve the waste problem?
Personally, I would avoid seeing gleaning as a solution for any problem. Gleaning is simply something that happens, it is part of the way our world works and the way human beings adapt to change. Gleaning really never disappeared from human society and it will never disappear as long as human beings exist. The future will bring us the gradual winding down of the industrial society as cheap fossil fuels are burned and disappear. As a consequence, it will become more and more common to return to gleaning-like technologies that can optimize the return of low-yield resources, such as those left by the industrial binge of the past few centuries.
In this vision, a good case could be made that the gleaning of waste should be encouraged already today by laws and subsidies. Even if you don't agree with this idea, at least, we should avoid the mistake of forbidding gleaning, or to make it impossible under the burden of taxes and bureaucracy (to say nothing about the idea of shooting gleaners). It is not just a question of opportunity, but a wider one of solidarity. God Himself (or Herself) commanded us to let gleaning be and, as God is said to be compassionate and merciful, I think we should take that into account.
A stunningly beautiful movie on present day gleaning, "Les glaneurs et la glaneuse" by Agnes Varga (2000)
h/t Jutta Gutberlet and Charles