How are Looting and Scavenging Different?

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looting vs scavengingIf you read much of any post-apocalyptic fiction, you’ve no doubt witnessed this particular scene played out countless times. The hero of the piece, down to his last three bullets and a scrap of food, comes across a store or gas station that has somehow avoided being burnt to the ground. Venturing inside, to his (and the reader’s) amazement, he finds cases of bottled water, boxes of ammunition, and all manner of tasty snacks. Often, for some reason, there’s a rack of nice trench coats and wouldn’t you know it but they have his size in stock. Thus fortified and nourished, he ventures back into the wastelands to do battle with hordes of mutant zombie bikers.

But wait, does this mean our hero has strayed from the path of all that is honorable and virtuous?  Isn’t he now just another looter?

Well, yes and no. To my way of thinking, all fictional tropes aside, there is a difference between looting and scavenging. Let’s define these by way of example.

What is the difference of looting vs. scavenging?

Looting is smashing a storefront window and making off with a flat screen television when there is a bit of local civil unrest but the world around you is just fine.

Scavenging is entering a business or home that is by all accounts vacant and taking baby formula for your infant daughter when there is no other way for you to feed her and keep her alive because basic societal infrastructure has fallen apart to the point that you have no idea when or where you can reach safety.

The whole idea behind prepping is to have the forethought to stockpile the supplies you’ll need in a crisis. That’s why we do all this stuff, right? But there are any number of reasons why your carefully set aside stored food, water, and other essentials may not be available to you. Perhaps the disaster itself has resulted in your home burning to the ground, or you were forced from your home by a gang of ne’er do wells, despite your best efforts to resist. Maybe you were bugging out and your vehicle broke down or was stolen, leaving you to hoof it the rest of the way.

What do you do?

No matter the cause, you then find yourself standing in front of what used to be a convenience store. It has already been ransacked but perhaps there’s still some goodies left to be found. What do you do?

There are folks who will say, and believe in their very heart of hearts, that to steal anything is wrong, no matter the circumstances. The Eighth Commandment – Thou shall not steal. I’d counter that argument by saying, How do you know God didn’t put that store in your path, specifically in order to give you the supplies you’ll need to live another day? How do you know the owner wouldn’t give them to you, if they were alive and here?

Bear in mind that for the purposes of our discussion here, we’re talking about a complete breakdown of society, a total collapse scenario. In that type of situation, here’s how I look at the looting versus scavenging debate.

If items of value have no clear ownership, such as they’re found in an abandoned or burnt out store, and they will sustain your life, it is scavenging. On the other hand, if the items are clearly owned by someone else and/or they have no use other than just being inherently valuable, it is looting.

Admittedly, there is a ton of gray area here (is it truly abandoned, or are the owners out scavenging for their own needs?), but this is something you should think about and perhaps discuss with the other members of your family or survival group.

A final note: Please do not take the above as in any way encouraging theft or pillaging the countryside. That is not what you should take away from this article (no pun intended). Instead, this is an effort to illustrate my own personal point of view on the looting versus scavenging debate. I cannot and will not suggest breaking the law. But, in the absence of law, each person must make their own decisions on how to best comport themselves.

Please share your views on looting vs scavenging in the comments section.

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Jim Cobb is a disaster preparedness consultant and author. His books include Prepper's Home Defense, The Prepper's Complete Book of Disaster Readiness, and Prepper's Long-Term Survival Guide.

10 thoughts on “How are Looting and Scavenging Different?”

  1. After Katrina, even New Orleans police officers were shown on video looting flooded, abandoned chain discount stores for non-essentials, and they were later prosecuted. Be careful what you take and from where. Looting is an illegal act, and does not have to be done after smashing a window. It is also done be walking in the front door. It is the same as shoplifting. Scavenging is taking something already given up by its owner voluntarily or as a result of an event beyond the owner’s control, such as weather, flooding, or earthquake, and the owner cannot be determined.

  2. Try a dictionary?

    Loot – steal goods during a time of war or riot. The distinction you’re trying to make between stealing flat screen TVs and baby formula doesn’t exist.

    Scavenge – search for and collect (anything usable) from discarded waste. Scavenging is what you’re doing if looking for treasures at your local landfill, in dumpsters, or garbage cans left at the curb.

    The definitions don’t change based on the wants or needs of the person doing the taking. It sounds to me like you’re trying to make the moral argument that stealing to preserve life is justified, if so then I think most people would generally agree with that – at least up until it’s their goods getting “scavenged”.

  3. Justin- I understand your definitions and don’t disagree.

    In my mind, looting is taking something that is temporarily abandoned, with the motive of profiting.

    scavenging is taking something that is permanently abandoned, with the motive of surviving.

  4. If you’re talking about Omega Man type of societal breakdown, that’s one thing.
    If you’re talking about surviving in the face of a natural disaster, that’s another.
    Swiping stuff is still swiping stuff.
    If it’s not essential to your survival, then it’s not essential.

  5. Common sense people… If there is a National breakdown of catastrophic proportions you will change your prospective. If it looks abandoned, scope it out first anyhow for safety sake. If deemed an appropriate action go inside. Say you find baby food and your kid is starving. By all means have at the baby food. If you think things may someday get better and you feel all bad inside feel free to leave your name and a promise to return and make it right. Don’t feel obligated to taint the purpose of this message because you want to think you are better than everyone else. You will not be any better than us when the day comes. I bet those of us with common sense will be better prepared to deal with questionable ethics than those who pretend to be ethical now. Get ready your mind and realize that survival isn’t going to be pretty with FEMA trucks driving around handing out candy.

  6. Besides those that lived through events like Katrina or the earthquake in China most can not say that they have had to make the distinction between looting and scavenging in this day and age. If I was were a total disaster had happened and I was having to make my way to safety or keep my family safe until help could arrive I would use all resources available to me. The grocery store down the road that has been torn open by a hurricane most items already not in what would be considered salvageable sell-able condition, then it would all be heading to the trash when and if the owners came back anyway, I will take what I can find now to use for my immediate needs. I am not looting for profit, taking a sell-able item with the plan of waiting until things are back to normal to sell it to make money. I am taking something to use right now to extend or improve my families condition. I do not think of this as stealing.

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  8. Why didn’t anyone think to leave a check or money for what they took?
    To feed a baby a mother will steal and that is human nature.
    We have courts to decide these matters but survival is first and profiteering is another thing.

  9. Whether it’s something you don’t need is irrelevant. Taking something that isn’t yours is stealing. If it’s clearly abandoned, it’s scavenging.

    There may be occasions where you may feel that you can morally rationalize that it is OK to take something to keep yourself alive. It’s easy to say you’d never do it, but given the choice between letting a family member starve and stealing, most will take what they need.

    If the owner catches you and decides to string you up, that may well be the price you pay. It’s a tough old world

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