Wednesday, 17 September 2008

Stuff that lasts

Walk into any store, here in Ireland or in America, and you are quickly overwhelmed by consumer choice, by the thousands of products screaming for attention. Almost all these products, though -- shoes, CDs, deodorants, toys -- have one thing in common: they break quickly and are meant to be thrown away and replaced. All of them will become less replaceable as they cost more to make in Third-World factories and transport around a planet.

One solution -- the one mentioned in the mainstream media -- is to get more energy some other way and use it more efficiently, by replacing our technology with more advanced technology. The proposed solutions, however, are generally hypothetical (clean coal) or rare (electric cars, solar panels). I would love to see solar panels on every roof, rings of wind turbines around small towns, and electric rail systems linking towns together, and we still might be able to get there. But even in the West their use has not come close to a critical mass, and we certainly do not have the natural resources to cover the world with them. Moreover, all these things eventually break, and to my knowledge, no one has ever built a solar-powered solar-panel factory.

Another choice is to learn the old skills of life before fossil fuels, and I'd like to see everyone learn how to rein and bridle, keep bees, create hedgerows and build with cob. But the fossil fuels and the modern world will not disappear tomorrow, or completely. Most of us are better off making this long journey to a simpler life one step at a time, without completely abandoning the advantages of modern technology. (Re: Me and you, sitting here, at our computers)

One practical approach is to buy durable goods and learn how to use them, even if only in case of emergency. Ironically, this often means re-adopting "obsolete" technology that was more common fifty or a hundred years ago.

Take the straight razor. It costs much more initially than a plastic disposable razor, and using it requires some practice, but properly maintained it can last indefinitely. A razor bought today could be passed to children decades from now, when no new plastic can be made except through smelting Barbie dolls and other rubbish.

John Michael Greer, in his blog The Archdruid Report ( uses the example of slide rules. Once people have becoem proficient at using them, they can calculate almost as fast as a person with a calaulator. I am told that some of the calculations for the first space launches were done with slide rules, and that the first astronauts landed on the moon carrying some. Less than thirty years ago the dictionary entry for “computer” was a person who computed with a slide rule. Yet most people my age – in their thirties – have never used or even seen one.

We plan to buy a grain grinder soon, and such devices can also be used to create spices – something so cheap and little-used today that we underestimate how important they can be when preserving or cooking food, or how far away they grow.

Wind-up clocks are surprisingly difficult to find where I live, except for decorative facsimiles that actually require batteries. Like straight razors or grinders, they must be purchased by mail order and are expensive, as their main market seems to be aficionados.

Bicycles are an amazing invention and famous example of sustainable transportation, and can be maintained and repaired. Like clocks or acoustic instruments, however, they require some industry to create – with the additional necessity of at least some globalized trade to create rubber tires. Also, most bicyclists I know are urban, and tend to take for granted the presence of well-maintained paved roads.

Washboards and wringers would allow clothes to be cleaned without electricity and dried quickly, yet I have yet to find any, as they are too old for stores and too mundane for antiques dealers.

Even with devices that require electricity, simpler is often better. A vinyl album can be played with a cactus needle if the real one breaks, and even if there is no electricity, one might be able to hook it up to pedals.

In some cases -- musical instruments, pottery wheels - the knowledge and techniques are more important than the items themselves. Take, for example, knitting. The first references to knitting were in the Renaissance, but there is no reason to believe that Stone Age people could not have knitted. As far as we know, they did not – the technique had not been invented.

All these items cover the middle ground between the microchip society we live in today and the desperate society that we might see if everything collapsed tomorrow, and can bridge the Depression that may likely have begun yesterday. They give off zero carbon emissions, often have replaceable parts, and can often be patched or repaired in a way that an Ipod cannot.

Most of these items, though, require at least some industrial society – even solar ovens made with a box and foil. We forget how recently aluminium foil was an exotic and rare commodity – well into the industrial age, the U.S. government almost covered the newly-built Washington Monument with shiny foil to show what a wealthy country we were.

I don’t anticipate the industry to create these things vanishing in my lifetime -- and hopefully not ever -- but we will need decades to rebuild the local factories that used to be the centrepiece of most mid—sized towns. When I reported on small towns in Missouri and Kansas, most towns seemed to have an abandoned factory, the former center of the economy there. When I saw these communities decades later, however, the buildings had at best been converted into apartments and at worst into a meth distribution centre. We desperately need entrepreneurs to invest, not in anticipated technological breakthroughs, but in restoring a single shoe factory to America.

Better yet, someone could build the first solar-powered solar panel factory in the world. For all the technology we have around us, it would be our first true investment, rather than living off a prehistoric credit card.

PHOTO: The road outside my office in Dublin. Teenagers drive the horse buggies all around the neighbourhood, offering rides to tourists.

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