Monday, August 21, 2017

So This Guy Stops By Over the Weekend...

An old buddy. We've been friends since he began doing my firm's computer work in the 80s. He comes over to visit about twice a year these days.

He showed up on Friday. At some point I told him I wanted to show him my TV, a flat screen Sony about 6 years old.  The set was on its way out but I was hoping it'd hang on until the Black Friday sales in November. So I turned it on and, sure enough, the left half of the screen was a mess of flickering lights and weird lines. I mentioned that at first it took 5-10 minutes for the interference to clear but now it was closer to 20-30 minutes.

Only this time it went on for an hour and by the end of that hour the top half of the right side was affected.

I had looked into this months ago. Sony Canada said they no longer carried parts for my model but suggested I check with Reliable Parts in Vancouver. The woman I dealt with at Reliable was immensely helpful. She looked up the parts list and said it was one of three circuit boards that needed replacement. I figured I might as well give the Sony what mariners call a "refit" and replace all three, start all over fresh, if you will. The parts were a relatively affordable $400 except for one hitch, the dreaded "obsolescence" fiasco. Not one of the three was still available. C'est la guerre, indeed.

When the old Sony crapped out on Friday my friend sprang into action. He seemed to lack confidence in my prospects for dealing with it on my own and so it was off to Best Buy and Costco. We saw one at Costco that looked like a relative bargain and got decent reviews at Consumer Reports and CNET. Went out, talked to the sales staff and back home with the replacement. My friend did most of the installation and set up. Back in business.

On Saturday my friend insisted that I take the old set, the Sony, and a bunch of other electronics junk I've amassed over the years (not entirely my fault, keyboards breed at night) to the electronics recycling depot.  Apparently I'm considered a procrastinator, more like a hoarder. When we got there I was amazed at the number of televisions, most of them flat screens, that were shrink wrapped on pallets awaiting removal. There were also pallets of computers, mainly PCs, also waiting for the truck.

The recycling guy then floored me when he said that just about everything they receive was still in working order. These weren't broken computers. They were old computers.  Same thing with most of the TVs and stereo equipment. Periodically, it seems, someone comes in and tests the discards. But, working or no, it's off to some firm where everything is dismantled, sorted by material, and sent on to be melted down and turned into the next piece of crap on some store shelf.

After coming home with my own electronics consigned to some afterlife, I began thinking of a productivity study I recently found. It tracked per capita GDP in England back to 1270.  For centuries per capita GDP in England remained relatively constant at around 2000 pounds (2013 sterling adjusted).  Back then your productivity would be about the same as your dad, your grandpa and your great-grandpa's. Then the graph begins a slow upward climb marked by the age of coal, picking up steam (pardon pun) during the Industrial Revolution. By 1900, average production per person hit 4,800 pounds. By 1970, around the time I lived there, it had shot up to 12,000 pounds. Thirty years later per capita GDP had again doubled to 24,000 pounds. Despite the meltdown of 2008 it's over 31,000 today.

I began to wonder how much of that post-war expansion in per capita GDP can be accounted for by stuff I saw in small pyramids at the electronics recycling depot or at the local transfer station? How much of that productivity is invested in stuff that succumbs to premature obsolescence or is simply discarded as out of vogue, no longer most desirable?

That reminded me of a recent statement by the finance minister of France renewing the call to halt the "cowboy economy" and replace it with a new form of capitalism, one based on the "re-use everything" approach necessity demands of those we send to the international space station.  Now there's an idea that's plainly overdue.

Those who've read this blog over the years will be familiar with my "Spaceship Earth" arguments for how we must recalibrate our modes of organization - social, economic, industrial, even political. This imperative has been our reality since the early 70s when man first exceeded the ecological carrying capacity of this planet, our one and only biosphere, Spaceship Earth. Back when per capita GDP in Britain stood at 12,000 pounds, not today's 31,000 pounds.

If the spaceship analogy doesn't work for you try something much worse, the lifeboat analogy. In the spaceship model there's enough, just barely enough of everything necessary to go around, perpetually recycled and repurposed (even then we still send cargo shuttles to deliver more stuff). In the lifeboat model you have a boat overloaded to the gunwales. For the survival of those aboard, others swimming to rescue themselves have to be repelled. Then there's the problem of who is to be tossed over the side if a storm brings rough seas. There's not enough of anything to go around. To keep as many alive for as long as possible the limited stocks of food and water must be rationed in the most miserly fashion.

The imperative that we're in now leaves us but one choice - we can choose to get ahead of the danger and embrace the spaceship model option or ignore the situation as we have for the past half century and find ourselves, like it or not, in lifeboat mode.  Here's the thing. Our political caste, in conjunction with their co-equals, the corporate sector, have us on the path to lifeboat mode.  Sure, their obsessive ties with neoliberalism, market fundamentalism, and the pursuit of perpetual exponential growth in GDP is fatally flawed for you and me that is and especially the weakest, poorest and most vulnerable of us but they've placed themselves and us in a rut of their own design and construction.

The most inexcusable aspect of their betrayal of us, you and me, is that better options are available. They're loosely known as "steady state economics." It's a model in which economic activity is ratcheted back until total production is again a subset of the environment. It's a model in which perpetual growth in production, consumption and waste is halted and growth becomes focused on knowledge targeted at improving quality and enjoyment of life. Growth in what matters most to people, not corporations or political castes. That's the sane way forward.

The insane way is the path of choice of virtually every leader of the Western world and almost everyone in the emerging economies, and now even the Third World.  Only we've got the head start and we're miles ahead of the pack. Today there are more and more people in the chase for increasingly less of everything they're after. There's a candle burning fiercely from both ends, eh?

One other thing. We've touched on my errant Sony TV and my electronics recycling depot. We went from there to per capita GDP in England back to 1270, pausing to check results for 1900, 1970, 2000 and 2017. Then we went to France for a sermon on cowboy economics and spaceship economics before delving into Spaceship Earth and the lifeboat model. Then on to the neoliberal rut our political caste engineered for us back in the Reagan, Thatcher, Mulroney era that has led to our inability to break from pursuit of perpetual exponential growth that has now set in across our global civilization.

Finally we come to Jared Diamond's warning in his book, "Collapse, How Societies Choose to Fail or Succeed."  The popular anthropologist has studied civilizational collapse in centuries past.  What he finds is that it's normally triggered by choice. Societies choose a path, sometimes even knowing that they're dooming those who must follow. Sort of like our leaders, political and corporate, choosing to stick with a failed neoliberal model of perpetual exponential growth that is akin to lighting a fuze and shoving the dynamite into your future's belt. A couple of other observations Diamond shares are that in societies that fail, collapse comes on abruptly and it arrives invariably when that society is at its zenith, when its GDP is at a peak. It's much like an over-inflated balloon bursting as it must.

Right now we're still pumping ever more air into our already over-inflated balloon.  I got a glimpse of that this weekend at the recycling depot.


Dana said...

Back in the late '60s, after my old man's religious fundamentalism had pretty much surrendered to his new found capacity to think for himself, he thundered from the pulpit a fire and brimstone sermon on the inexpressible evils of "planned obsolescence".

I kid you not.

The Mound of Sound said...

There were forward thinking people back then. Your dad was plainly one of them. They've been advocating for change yet it's not happened. There is great wealth to be harvested out of this multinational scam.

Anonymous said...

Anonymous said...'s all about the throw away society which is based upon "Status".In turn it has to do with being popular. An excellent read....Popular
A leading psychologist examines how our popularity affects our success, our relationships, and our happiness—and why we don’t always want to be the most popular

"No matter how old you are, there’s a good chance that the word “popular” immediately transports you back to your teenage years. Most of us can easily recall the adolescent social cliques, the high school pecking order, and which of our peers stood out as the most or the least popular teens we knew. Even as adults we all still remember exactly where we stood in the high school social hierarchy, and the powerful emotions associated with our status persist decades later. This may be for good reason.

Popular examines why popularity plays such a key role in our development and, ultimately, how it still influences our happiness and success today. In many ways—some even beyond our conscious awareness—those old dynamics of our youth continue to play out in every business meeting, every social gathering, in our personal relationships, and even how we raise our children. Our popularity even affects our DNA, our health, and our mortality in fascinating ways we never previously realized. More than childhood intelligence, family background, or prior psychological issues, research indicates that it’s how popular we were in our early years that predicts how successful and how happy we grow up to be." In order to popular we must be able to throw away.

Purple library guy said...

It's not just complex electronic gizmos that are at least rapidly changing--getting more powerful and whatnot. It's also things that are mature technologies and have no excuse.

I own a waffle iron that's got to be 60 or 70 years old (it's identical to my grandmother's old one that my dad still uses; he found mine at a garage sale and snatched it up because he knew I wanted one). Fittings are bakelite. Its parts are so simple and solid it just doesn't die. It works fine. Pumps out better waffles than a new one would. Sure, you have to keep plugging it in and unplugging it because it just heats up forever as long as it's plugged in, but an easy price to pay for the best waffles.
If I bought a new waffle iron it would die in five years. Same kind of thing goes for toasters, washing machines, pretty much every kind of appliance even though they can be made to last and the basic technology has almost completely stopped changing. This is not by accident, it's so they can sell the same thing to you again and again. But doing it a different way would involve lower profits--it is almost impossible to force capitalism not to do this. Why would a capitalist sell you something once when they could sell it to you ten times?