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It’s Broken. I Want Another One!

“Consumer engineering must see to it that we use up the kind of goods we now merely use.” ~Earnest Elmo Calkins, advertising executive (1932)

Some years ago, when my niece was very young, we were opening our presents on Christmas Day while she played with one of her newly-opened toys. The toy suddenly stopped working, and a quick investigation revealed that she had accidentally severed the power cord while playing with it. My niece did not find this fact nearly as dismaying as her mother, for she simply responded: “Well, just go buy another one!”

If we will admit it, most of us adults walk around with this same attitude—and not just about Christmas presents. Repair is mostly a thing of the past and replacement is all the rage. Indeed, we now have throw-away cameras and other high-tech electronic devices to dump in our trash alongside disposable plates and forks. Four decades after our first Earth Day, our nation only manages to recycle about one-third of our trash and the useful life of cars, TVs, computers, and many of our other favorite devices is growing shorter.

As Annie Leonard points out so well in her Story of Stuff, we cannot continue to run a throw-away society on a finite planet. Many of my previous blog posts have dealt with this subject as well, from the realization that Earth should be treated like a spaceship[i] to the fact that more stuff does not make us happier[ii] to the importance of the “Not-So-New 3 Rs” (Reduce – Reuse – Recycle).[iii] In short, if we are going to live and live decently on a planet of 7 billion (and growing) fellow humans, we are going to have to drastically change the way we think about the lifecycle of “stuff.”

This is not a new concept. There is no major religion in the world that advocates the adoration and accumulation of material items. Instead, the virtues of humility, thrift, and stewardship of resources are preached almost universally. So why is there so much difference between our holy day talk and our daily walk?

Part of the problem is a concerted effort by advertising executives to sell us more stuff (hence the opening quote above). How many commercials do you see urging you to buy something newer and “better?” Now, how many do you see urging you to reduce waste, repair or reuse items, and recycle?

But advertising only tempts us with the apple. It’s up to us to decide whether or not we actually bite.

“The only reason a great many American families don’t own an elephant is that they have never been offered an elephant for a dollar down and easy weekly payments.” ~Mad Magazine

by Kyle Crider

Kyle is Manager – Environmental Operations at Ecotech Institute and Education Corporation of America. He holds a Master of Public Administration degree with a double-emphasis in Urban Planning & Policy Analysis. He is also a Leadership in Energy and Environmental Design Accredited Professional, Neighborhood Development (LEED AP ND). He is currently in the Interdisciplinary Engineering Ph.D. Program at the University of Alabama at Birmingham.