The social and environmental consequences of planned obsolescence

By Drs. Robert & Sonia Vogl
President and Vice President, Illinois Renewable Energy Association

As debates rage regarding the location and expansion of landfills, the magnitude and diversity of waste generation is directly tied to the economic organization of society.

The film The Light Bulb Conspiracy, by Cosima Dannoritzer, illustrates the technical capacity to build a light bulb that has exceeded the average lifespan of humans. It has been burning since 1901 in a fire station in Livermore, Calif.

Alarmed by the long life of light bulbs, a cartel known as Phoebus was formed in the 1920s that united light bulb manufacturers in Europe, Asia and the United States. Their goal was to reduce bulb life from an average of 2,500 hours to 1,000. Through a program of research and fines for firms exceeding the life limits, the contrived goal of 1,000 hours was reached.

When the Depression of the 1930s was in full force, our country had excessive capacity in agriculture and industry, while millions of people were out of work and unable to buy much of what could be produced. Various proposals were made to put people back to work so they could buy goods and services.

One program shortened the hours of employed workers so more jobs were available to others. Another concept developed by Bernard London called for “Ending the Depression through Planned Obsolescence.” Modern science and technology had dramatically increased farm and factory production. The production capacity exceeded the ability of citizens to consume all that was produced, resulting in job cuts and economic stagnation.

London called for assigning a limited lifespan to all products produced and establishing a government agency to destroy the products after that time, if necessary, to maintain consumption and pay the owners a small fee as an incentive to buy a new replacement that incorporated innovations.

London’s approach was never implemented, but the overall concept of planned obsolescence eventually became the norm for our society. World War II put people back to work, but destroyed substantial amounts of goods and infrastructure while extracting a very high price in lost lives and human suffering.

Following the war, planned obsolescence became widespread, and the accelerated growth in wastes soon followed. Many of the products we buy are designed to last a limited number of hours. Usually, a specific part is designed to fail first. If replacement parts and service are still available, we must decide whether the cost of repair is worth doing.

We are once again faced with economic conditions in which too many people lack the income to purchase all that could be produced. In addition, planned obsolescence has accelerated resource consumption, pollution and waste disposal.

We find ourselves in a situation in which Braungart and McDonough advocate a “cradle to cradle” approach to manufacturing. Products need to be made with nontoxic materials and processes and “returned to the manufacturers for disassembly and reuse.” While some progress is being made, there are still far too many items designed and produced that end up in landfills.

We need a new economic paradigm, as the existing one is not sustainable and leaves far too many people unable to participate. Attend the 11th Annual Illinois Renewable Energy and Sustainable Lifestyle Fair Aug. 11-12 at Ogle County Fairgrounds in Oregon, Ill., and explore options in sustainable living and renewable energy.

From the June 6-12, 2012, issue

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