Last year my best friend bought a new washing machine. It was delivered with a cracked plastic detergent tray handle that quickly broke. She filed a warranty claim, expecting to get a replacement detergent tray. After a few weeks of Orwellian back-and-forth with the retailer, it transpired that no such replacement part existed. The only possible modern repair solution was to ship her a brand-new washing machine. They would also gladly dump the “old” one in the landfill for her, free of charge. To fix a small broken plastic handle.
“Second verse, same as the first.” — ‘Henery the Eighth’
I endure sleep apnea, and so have a CPAP apparatus. Completely dependent on it now, I have resigned myself to the fact that my camping (but perhaps not glamping) career is over.
A few months ago I woke in the wee hours to a strange smell (“Whuh? Is that—hot conformal coat??”) and a scorching-hot power supply for my pump. Oh, no! Thank goodness, I had an old one (they sell you a new model every few years, willy-nilly) kept as backup. It was in storage, and had issues (the new hoses were, of course, not backward-compatible), but after only a couple difficult nights I had a jerry-rigged setup that worked. Mostly.
The real story begins when I made a warranty claim. All I wanted was a new power brick. I contacted my old Durable Equipment Provider (a term I had been blissfully ignorant of), 2400 miles away, to no avail.
Contacted the manufacturer, who eagerly took the warranty claim and failure data, but insisted that, as a patient-customer, they could not deal with me directly. All I wanted was a new power brick. They insisted they not only did not have any, but also could not give or even sell one to me if they did. I must deal with a Durable Equipment Provider.
So acquired a new Durable Equipment Provider, let them test the ailing CPAP. All I wanted was a new power brick. They insisted they did not have any. I have worked with and around electronics in professional settings all my life, and you always accumulate nuisance-but-occasionally-handy spare power cords and power supplies. Quickly. The notion that they did not have any is shocking.
Along the way I had notified my sleep clinician of the situation, so then she and the Durable Equipment Provider again came up with the only possible modern repair solution: a brand-new complete CPAP setup. The works. To replace a power brick.
“Consumption is the sole end and purpose of all production . . .” — Adam Smith
These disparate stories with the same conclusion comprise a parable of our disposable world.
In both instances, the cheapest, easiest to replace, most likely-to-break replacement parts simply did not exist.
The Modern Techno-Industrial (MTI) manufacturing model revealed is scary. It goes something like this.
Business guy decides to organize and finance the manufacture of 10,000 widgets, possibly in response to a contract with, say, Walmart Inc. purchasing same. These widgets can be rodent traps or hair dryers or pumps or washing machines, it makes no difference.
Business guy acquires rights to some designs and pays for per-unit cost estimates. Lowest-cost design generates a parts list. He contracts for and purchases, say, 10,500 units of each part, along with packaging for 10,000 widgets, and simultaneously ships all to the cheapest-possible assembly site. A few weeks later he ships pallets containing 10,000 assembled and individually-packaged widgets to Walmart. Anything left is thrown away.
There are never any spare parts by design. The plan is to never repair anything. Life-cycle costs are addressed by completely ignoring them. Guided by eager MBAs hyping ROIC and selling just-in-time manufacturing optimization, almost all supply chains have adopted this MTI manufacturing model. A tragedy of the commons results.
“Growth must end. Our economist friends don’t seem to realize that.” — Vaclav Smil
Everything is throw-away. Everything. Almost nothing is maintained. We do fix our precious automobiles sometimes, but TV repair or appliance repair shops are long gone. Even cobblers and computer repair are having a hard time, when literally everyone has shoes and a device or three. Our shoes and clothes and magical devices are designed to have a short operational life, with zero attention to life-cycle-end costs, causing horrifying waste. We don’t even paint most of our bridges.
Our growth-at-any-cost MTI agribusiness model is draining the precious Ogallala aquifer, sterilizing soil, contaminating freshwater, and exterminating the good insects while amplifying the human-dependent such as mosquitoes and rootworms. And that’s just in the USA.
Malthus has been much maligned. I have heard his ideas excoriated most of my life, which attests both my misspent youth and the innumeracy of those to whom I once attended. Malthus’s core idea is inescapable and true: our planet is very finite; exponential growth, even a measly 1% per year, is impossible to sustain. Ignoring this guarantees a classic boom-and-bust population crash.
As a civilization, we must fundamentally change our notion of optimization. We need to learn to travel less and bicycle more; to throw away less and re-use more; to be less busy and more thoughtful. We need to confront avarice and abuse, in ourselves and in others. Plus so much more, of course.
The moment of Peak Human approaches. We can do this the easy way, or we can do this the hard way.