As I said in my previous column, we are the biggest force in moving the planet’s rocks and sediments around. Our global extractions are environmentally damaging and depleting some resources to the extent that they are in danger of running out.
Many of those resources find their way into the goods, gadgets and machines that we find indispensable in our everyday lives. But do we really need so much stuff, or are we simply addicted to the new? There's no doubt that our consumption of resources from food to gadgets has risen dramatically over the past 60 years, and much of the world seems to be in the grip of a shopping epidemic. But is there a conscious effort driving it?
There have been many times during my travels when I've needed something repaired, from rips in my backpack, to holes in my clothes, zippers that have broken or memory cards that have lost data. From India to Ethiopia, I have had no trouble in finding someone who can sort the problem out, repair what is broken or find an ingenious way of side-stepping the issue. In rich countries, such items often would be thrown away and replaced with new ones without a second thought. But the developing world is still full of menders, make-doers and inspired users of others’ scrap. I’ve seen a bicycle in Nairobi made from bits of car, a colander and a leather belt; aerials made from all manner of implements; and houses constructed out of old boat sails, rice sacks and plastic drinks bottles.
But then there are those items that seemingly can’t be repaired. My camera shutter, battered by the dust and grime of travel, no longer works. I'm told I should throw away my camera, even though it works fine, apart from the shutter mechanism. Like the majority of consumer electronics, my camera has not been designed to be easily reparable. Thirty years ago, I could have found service manuals and spare parts for all camera models, as well as a thriving repair industry. But things have changed. Camera models have got far more numerous and complicated, and manufacturers no longer release repair manuals.
Since the mobile phone handset market reached saturation in Europe and the United States about a decade ago, we have chosen not to wait for our devices to fail. Almost all new phones purchased are “upgrades”, replacing functioning phones simply for reasons of fashion or for technological additions that many of us rarely use, and which could otherwise easily be achieved through software upgrades to existing handsets. Indeed, most phone companies compete for business by automatically upgrading customers’ phones every year. And these smart phones use mined resources from some of the most ecologically sensitive areas of the world, as a recent Friends of the Earth campaign points out.
Made to fail
The idea that something that works fine should be replaced is now so ingrained in our culture that few people question it. But it is a fairly recent concept, brought about by a revolution in the advertising and manufacturing industries, which thrived on various 20th century changes, including the mass movement of large populations to cities, the development of mass production, globalisation, improved transport, international trade and public broadcast media.
The earliest example of manufacturers convincing people to frequently replace a product may be the so-called “lightbulb conspiracy”, in which a group of companies is supposed to have orchestrated the Phoebus Cartel to prevent companies from selling lightbulbs with a longer than 1,000-hour lifespan (most settled on 750 hours), even though bulbs lasting more than 100,000 hours existed. The cartel said its intent was to develop international standards, but the net result was that households needed to replace their bulbs regularly, providing a far larger consumer market.