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Watch the scavenger economy unfold, and weep

Sometimes you turn on the TV and, idly looking at this and that, a pattern emerges. What's relevant in the world is in your face.

Tuesday was such a day. For a start, you see, Tuesday is garbage pickup day in my small corner of the centre of the universe.

No matter what collection happens – recyclables or the plain old garbage – many people put their empty wine and beer bottles on the street. Somebody will pick them up and get money in return at the Beer Store. In fact, going to the Beer Store has, for some years now, meant witnessing a Third World-type scavenger economy unfold. The old, the desperate, the impoverished and the lost are there, getting a few cents per bottle for what they've scavenged off the streets.

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Such is the starkness of the class divide among customers that at least one Beer Store, located where condos for rich young things have mushroomed, will not accept empty bottle returns. The impoverished, with their bags of bottles and their dilapidated appearance, aren't there. Don't want to lower the tone, one supposes.

Me, I've been leery about leaving out the bottles for the hunter-gatherer hordes. To engage with that pattern is an acknowledgment that in a Canadian city there's an economy to replicate the shanty towns of the Third World. We have come to this: The impoverished live off our scraps. Some people say it helps the desperate, but it makes me uneasy.

Turn on the TV any night – hereabouts, anyway – and you're inundated with ads promising money for your old gold and jewellery. You can see a dozen while watching an hour-long drama. That too is evidence of a scavenger economy. Old stuff being resold for cash. Nothing new is manufactured. Nothing new, in ideas or goods, is being created. Old stuff with some value changes hands for cash.

Meanwhile, one of the hottest shows on TV is Storage Wars (A&E, 5 p.m.), a reality series that launched in 2010 and yielded a spinoff last year. If you haven't seen it, it's a doozy, entertaining and weirdly educational. In California, when rent is not paid on a storage locker for three months the contents are auctioned off as a single passel of items. Viewers see "professional buyers" – that is, second-hand dealers – buy a locker's content intact, after a cursory look, in hopes of finding stuff that can be sold for a profit. Sometimes the show is a poor-man's Antiques Roadshow, as the dealers research the value of some old thing found in a storage locker.

There's the thrill of the hunt, that's part of the entertainment, and some of the dealers are outsize personalities bantering and bickering with each other. But it occurs to me that they are only one step removed from those impoverished on the streets, with their shopping carts, eking out an existence on the scraps the middle class can afford to abandon.

There is also American Pickers, which follows two buyers travelling around parts of the United States, buying antiques and collectibles. But, it too is really about finding potential wealth in what is discarded by others. Not too dissimilar, really, is Pawn Stars, about a Las Vegas pawn shop and the customers – sometimes harried and in dire need of cash – who bring in items to sell or pawn. The point is that the store's owners are hoping for an item that is worth a lot more than they've paid for it. Again, it's really about scavenging wealth from what others are willing to toss aside.

There are so many of these shows. (And there are property shows about buying cheap in a recession, doing a cursory fix-up and reselling. It's all the same thing.) There's the sell-your-old-gold phenomenon. Cities here and in the U.S. have small armies of people picking up bottles and cans. It all adds up, surely, to a picture of a culture, an economy gone awry.

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Me, I don't think it's connected to a trend toward recycling, cool kids doing dumpster-diving or a number of people deciding to buy less retail and forage at garage sales. It's not about a shift in the consumer culture.

The picture I see is what happens when a manufacturing economy stalls and diminishes. When there's less work and fewer solid, well-paid jobs, a desperation leads to hunting for money via the trade in old and discarded things. These shows are not truly about the thrill of the hunt. They are a sign of anxiety about earning a good living.

It's shantytown time in this part of the rich First World. Look out your window on garbage night. Look at what's on TV. What you see are parts of the same big picture. It's a picture that makes some people weep.

Airing Tonight

Republic of Doyle (CBC, 9 p.m.) reaches its season finale. The official description is this: "It's gunshots, fast cars and explosions as the Doyles find themselves squaring off against their toughest rivals yet – Leslie and the RNC – as Mal must evade capture after being framed for murder. Jake helps his father avoid prison but the only way to exonerate Mal appears to be another crime." Also, Tinny learns the identity of her dad. Look, there's not a lot of fun on CBC right now, so lap it up, boys and girls.

All times ET. Check local listings.

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