A kerfuffle is raised every time a comedian, politician, or businessperson uses the F-word or the N-word. I understand that. But to me, the D-word is the most obscene. I’m referring to disposable. Let me explain.
When I was a boy, we were poor and it was a big deal when my parents bought me a new coat. I would quickly outgrow it and it would be passed on to my sister. My parents boasted that three of their children had worn the same coat. They weren’t concerned (nor were we kids) about gender differences or fashion; it was the coat’s ability to keep the wearer warm and its durability (now there’s a good D-word) that mattered.
We now have an economic system in which companies must not only show a profit each year, they must strive for constant growth. If a product is rugged and durable, it creates a problem for even the most successful business — a diminishing and eventually saturated market. Of course, any product will eventually wear to a point where it can no longer be patched, so the market will continue to exist to replace worn products.
But that’s not good enough in a competitive world driven by the demand for relentless growth in profits and profitability. So companies create an aura of obsolescence, where today’s product looks like a piece of junk when next year’s model comes out.
I’ve always said a car is simply a means of getting from point A to point B, but it’s become far more than that. Some cars convey a sense of power, and cars become safe havens when loaded with cup holders, sound systems, and even TVs and computers. Some people even name their cars, talk to them, and care for them like babies — until next year’s models come along.
It’s similar with clothing, even with outdoor attire beloved by environmentalists. We have a proliferation of choice based on colour, sexiness, and other properties that have nothing to do with function. I don’t understand torn blue jeans as a fashion statement, and I wish people would wear their pants until they spring their own leaks rather than deliberately incorporating tears. All of this is designed to get us to toss stuff away as quickly as possible so the economy can keep spinning.
Nowhere is this more obvious than with electronic gadgets. When my wife lost the cord to charge her cellphone, she went to seven stores. None had the necessary plug for her phone. Finally she went back to the retailer that sold her brand only to be told that the cords for the new models don’t fit the old ones and hers was so old, it wasn’t even on the market any more. It was a year-and-a-half old.
I remember when I was given the first laptop computer on the market. It had an LED display screen that let me see three lines at a time and a chip that stored about three pages of writing. But it was small and had word processing and a port to send my pieces by telephone. It revolutionized my life. I was writing a weekly column for the Globe and Mail and was able to send articles from Russia and even remote towns in the Amazon.
A couple of years later, a much better laptop hit the market. It had an LCD screen, a huge memory and it displayed almost a full page. I got one. A year later, I got a new model, and then half a year after that, another. Each served me well, but every year, new ones would appear that were faster, smaller and lighter, with longer-life batteries and more bells and whistles.
Try to get one fixed or upgraded, though. As with digital cameras, I was repeatedly told that it would cost more to fix an old laptop than to buy a new model. This is madness in a finite world with finite resources. At the very least, products should be created so components can be pulled apart and reused until they wear out.
You see why I think the D-word is so obscene.
Scientist, author and broadcaster David Suzuki’s column appears every Monday in the Advocate. Learn more at www.davidsuzuki.org.