Tuesday, 14 April 2009
(Draft) Article for Sublime Magazine: Renew issue
Renewal and Obsolescence
“People generally in a frightened or hysterical mood are using everything that they own longer than was their custom before.... In the earlier period of prosperity, the American people did not wait until the last possible bit of use had been extracted from every commodity. They replaced old articles with new for reasons of fashion and up-to-datedness. They gave up old homes and old automobiles long before they were worn out, merely because they were obsolete. Perhaps prior to the panic people were too extravagant; if so they have now gone to the other extreme and become rentrenchment-mad. People everywhere are today disobeying the law of obsolescence. They are using their old cars, their old tires, their old radios and their old clothing much longer than statisticians had expected.”
Sound familiar? This was written in 1932 by an underemployed New York real estate agent called Bernard London. His 20-page pamphlet “Ending the Depression through Planned Obsolescence” gets to the heart of a syndrome, which is back in force today.
London’s suggestion was that the government “assign a lease of life to shoes and homes and machines, to all products of manufacture… when they are first created” and when this lifetime was up, these objects would be “legally dead”. At this time the owner would be able to surrender that item and in return be paid part of the price of a new one. New products would hence start “pouring forth” from factories again.
I found these quotes in Made to Break by Giles Slade (2005), charting the history of technology and obsolescence in America. Slade commented that this proposed scheme “at first glance seems today like a crackpot version of progressive obsolescence, mixed with a fair measure of technocracy, (but) begins to make a certain kind of workable sense when reread in the contexts of 1930s economic desperation.”
Four years later, Bernard London's big idea seems far from crackpot. The climate of fear which London described is once again sharply evident. A new report by the Mental Health Foundation describes how the numbers living both with generalised fear and anxiety (77%) and diagnosed with anxiety related mental health problems (15%) are increasing rapidly. 63% of those more frightened or anxious than they used to be, say it is because of the current economic situation (well ahead of crime – 53% - and other common fears). Hence people are (exactly as in London’s day) holding their breath on major purchases. They can keep that TV, that coat, that car, that office computer going for another year or two. Why take the risk of being caught short next month? Who knows about job security, client orders? This christmas despite a blizzard of price cutting promotions, food and footwear were the only sectors not to experience sharp declines. When people are buying, they are buying second hand. Charity shops last month reported that they were running out of stock, due to a surge in demand.
The UK car market’s equivalent of christmas is march/april, when the new registrations come out. So the market greeted the latest sales figures (down 30% in march) with something like ‘hysteria’. The UK car industry is imploring the government to introduce a scheme like London proposed. Far from being ‘crackpot’ today, it’s already in operation in Germany. Under the ‘scrappage scheme’ you get a €2500 rebate if you trade in an 10 year old car and buy a new fuel efficient model. Nearly 600,000 have already taken up the offer and Angela Merkel has announced the scheme will now be extended to the end of this year. Okay they haven’t declared 10 year old cars ‘dead’. Not yet.
Nothing could be more encouraging from a sustainability point of view than seeing the frenzy of consumerism abating. Previous Christmas figures had shown that the average child in the UK received £250 worth of presents. Never mind the recession, net imports of carbon – the footprint of manufactured goods, mostly from China – make up the largest single (previously uncounted) component of our national carbon footprint. This year, judged by global oil production and also a sharp fall in Chinese electricity usage, we will likely see a real fall in carbon emissions. Hurrah! The trouble is this decrease is being bought at a price of people living in fear, at a price of jobs in the developing world. And at the price of a feeling of personal obsolescence, living with objects and homes which are decaying, fading, ageing, half working.
What we need to figure out is a way of life which is renewable. Not only in energy terms. But in terms of material flows too. We need to be processing for nature, like the ants, providing services to other species, not tearing up ecosystems at one end and piling them with waste at the other. The UK has about 6 years left of landfill space. Electrical waste is the fastest growing part of the UK waste stream, 1.8 million tonnes per year of which 43% are white goods (fridges and similar) and 39% are computers. 12.5 million computers have gone to landfill in the last 5 years. Landfills are now starting to be ‘mined’ for valuable metals, because it is cheaper than mining ores. But even so.
Culturally we also need to live in a world which is renewed. A key cultural function of design is to make time visible. It marks the years. The decades. It isn’t just an invention of 'Madmen' (the demonised architects of consumerism). You see a constant flow of fashions in artefacts in historical societies; one study for instance by anthroplogist Mary Douglas looked at ceramics in the Chinese imperial courts, finding annual and generational fashion shifts at least as pronounced as today. Renewal seems to be as innate a human need as open spaces and contact with nature. We cant suppress it. When we try we make environmentalism the drab, joyless choice. In our own lives we renew ourselves, and refresh our feeling of being in the flow, keeping up with the times, by incorporating fashions in clothes and artefacts. I’ve reached a stage in life when this seems less needed. But I can see as a result that I am starting on a journey towards my mother’s age, with the same clothes, the same furnishings from one decade to the next, a gentle cultural acceptance of the ageing process. Some studies have shown in fact that reminding people about death (“mortality salience”) increases consumerist desires for high status products and materialistic possessions. To be in this flow is to be fleeing decline and mortality. Although the same paper (Lee & Shrum, 2008) also pointed to evidence that remembering your approaching death can also increase the openness to having your worldview challenged.
How can we create a world that we actually want to move forward to? A positive dream, and a progressive one; rather than accepting decline, decay and descent? How can we meet the human need for renewal, without oceans of waste and the wanton destruction of what is left of the natural habitat? There are brilliant businesses (like WornAgain) which make new fashion out of old materials – uniforms, parachutes, old plane seats. And others which sit in the waste stream collecting electricals (like RUSZ in Austria) and building waste (like the UK’s REiY) to repair or repurpose. That’s a start. There is also the ‘cradle to cradle’ philosophy of designing not for future landfill, but for future uses, ‘upcycling’. Like the Aeron eco chair. That’s a start too. But these are only a start. They are about doing less harm, but – despite the claims to have escaped this trap by the ‘cradle to cradle’ founders – they still use energy and consume the world. There will I hope be more fundamental design ‘solutions’ but those will come when we redefine the problem. It’s not about waste. It is about how to renew ourselves, renewably?
The central feature of modern life which we need to redesign (not just renew, but scrap and replace) is the economy. The reasons why weare caught in the same double bind as in 1932 is the race against debt, free market speculation and unemployment. If we can design an economy which doesn’t need excessive growth to avoid death, only then we can address the human needs. We are hitting the natural limits of this growth. We are running out of world. Even in its own terms, the growth engine is now broken, probably beyond repair.
My own hope for channelling these needs is that we can mark the progress in our lives through a social revolution rather than a passive collection. That turning a lawn into a farm, joining a local band of citizens in a Transition Town or a We20 group, starting a truly sustainable business… that these will become ‘the pictures in our scrapbooks’ by which we will see our lives keeping pace with others’. That we will be swept up in another much broader and longer lasting ‘1960s’ of consciousness-raising, love making and better parties. That we will focus more on worldmaking, and less on homemaking.
But we will still arrive at each new year, and feeling the sun on our skin, will be inspired into spring-cleaning our lives. What to do with these urges to self renewal? Here’s my own crackpot suggestion. Give every citizen free art and craft classes. Help them do more than make do and mend – putting up with drab, depressing, declining homes. Bring the social production revolution that’s already made millions into amateur journalists (ie bloggers) to design. Don’t buy a new car. Paint your old one. Don’t decorate your home, enliven it with ideas from your inner world. We’ll all have a little more time this year for hobbies. Let’s enjoy it.