Thursday, December 16, 2010

We are not materialistic enough

Wendell Berry argues in Home Economics that our Western culture is not over- "materialistic," but rather not materialistic enough. This is because materials, "the stuff of creation," are cheap, and therefore, we don't value them. He argues that the way our economies are set up, we cannot afford to take care of things, because labour is expensive, time is expensive and money is expensive. But because materials are cheap, they are disposable and fungible, and it is not worth labour, time, and money to take care of them. Furthermore, in a capitalistic economy, an economy of transience, there is an inherent drive to make more money by selling more. Consequently, there emerges two kinds of materialism, one which values materials (cultures built and centred around low to middle-class income earners), and the other that does not (the world's rich and elite, which includes us, in the US). Indeed, we can think of cultures and communities that don't have that much, and therefore are more likely to take care of objects, respect them, and repair them to prolong their use and existence, as more materialistic. The world's middle income class, which earns between $700-$7500 per family member, like the poor, are frugal, use many objects that are antiquated by Western standards, and continue to use them through repair and recycling.

To serve our desire for new things, products that companies and manufacturers make are diseased with planned obsolescence. Tim Hunkin cites an anecdote of Henry Ford, who noticed that the crankshaft of his Model T was the only part that remained very much intact after the car had died. He therefore told his workers the make the crankshaft not as sturdy, therefore beginning the practice of planned obsolescence. However, thoughts on planned obsolescence date as far back as the mid 1800's. By reducing the time between repeated purchases, long-term sales can be somewhat guaranteed. The additional sales more than offset the additional costs of research and development, opportunity costs, and the labour required to maintain and service broken objects.

Alan Durning, in How Much is Enough?, argues for an economy of permanence, a throwback to the 1940's and 1950's, in which objects and products are created with durability in mind. Although sales will drop, and consequently the flow of physical resources and materials through the economy, the money value  of the services that people enjoy may fall little. Indeed, we don't buy cars just for the sake of having a car, but rather for the service that the car provides - mobility and accessibility. Indeed, a car then can be made a durable good. Furthermore, Durning argues that the total amount of work in such an economy is not likely to decrease at all. That's because the most ecologically damaging products and forms of consumption also usually generate the fewest jobs. In fact, high labour intensity goes hand in hand with low environmental impact. (One simple example is industrial agriculture versus community-based agriculture.) Repairing and servicing don't generally necessitate exorbitant amounts new natural resources, but they do require people to be employed. Of course, you can argue that such low-impact industries would "grow" less than high-impact ones. But you can't argue that continual growth is good. It is a matter of perspective - how do you generate value?

1 comment:

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