Planned obsolescence is not a natural phenomenon like the tides. Yet most of us accept it as such. I’ve been forced to think about this because my computer is not long for this world. Eight years ago, it was as up to date as can be. Now, Mac OS 10.3 is evidently one step removed from a stone tablet.
That in itself is a solvable problem. But the friendly and knowledgeable computer person who advised me on new computer options calmly told me that some of my crucial software programs won’t be readable on the latest system. I will have a great many files that will become unreadable (yes, I do back up) without having to cobble together some cumbersome solution.
“New and improved” is marketing gospel. Well, it’s mighty big business — as much as $1 trillion is spent on marketing in the United States alone. People have to buy a whole lot of stuff to justify all the money spent on them to buy it. If products work for a long time, people won’t be moved to buy all that “new and improved” stuff. That’s where planned obsolescence comes in — it’s simply big corporations forcing us to buy new stuff.
Having a new computer isn’t a terrible thing in itself. But having your software be made outdated, thereby rendering many years of writing inaccessible, shouldn’t be the price paid for “progress.” As the friendly and knowledgeable computer person explained just how behind the new and improved times I was, I sighed and said to him, “This is why I don’t like capitalism. It’s all this planned obsolescence.” The computer person, clearly an intelligent person (and working for a quite reputable computer retailer), looked at me totally blankly. He had no idea of what I could be talking about.
To him — and far from him alone — the rapid updating of computer software and hardware was some natural phenomenon, as natural as the tides. I am not arguing here for stasis, nor am I unused to dealing with new computers. Because my original profession, newspaper journalism, was among the first industries to undergo computerization, I’ve been writing on computers since 1978. There were no personal computers then, nor was the concept of “user friendly” yet in existence.
We used highly specialized, balky computers where one had to continually devise methods of getting the machine to do what it was supposed to do but often would not. So I can say I am quite pleased at the advances of the past couple of decades. But continually updating systems so that they become obsolete in a few years is not “new and improved” — it is “let’s make people buy more of our stuff.” What about the many people who can’t afford to keep buying more stuff?
At least the electricity doesn’t have new operating systems
This perpetual consumer arms race is hardly limited to computers, although not necessarily carried as far in other industries. Can you imagine that, needing to replace your decade-old automobile, you go to a dealer, only to find out this year’s new model runs on a different type of fuel, and that you no longer can go to your local gas stations because it won’t run on the same old fuel. Or what if the electricity was changed every few years? Sorry, we’re on a different voltage this year, so all your home’s power sockets are now useless, and you can’t use your lamps or appliances.
Although other industries don’t have the audacity of computer and software makers, a relentless push to induce more consumer purchases is endemic. The weight and size of what we buy is bigger. And it is wrapped up in ever more packaging. The social costs of all this unnecessary consumption are high, and are paid for in environmental destruction.
Here are two statistics that put some perspective on this immense waste:
- About 40 percent of U.S. landfill waste is discarded packaging.
- The cost of packaging constitutes 10 percent to 40 percent of a product’s retail price.
Add in the immense costs of advertising to induce us to buy stuff we otherwise wouldn’t want or need, and we are talking mountains of waste. Obtaining figures is difficult, but estimates of the money spent on marketing in the U.S. per year range from $460 billion to $1.07 trillion.* Further add in the costs of raw materials, production and transportation, the effects of all this on the environment and the psychological stresses on people continually told they are inadequate with owning the latest gadget, and the impact of new and improved becomes clearer.
All we need is another Earth
Almost all of the world’s higher-income countries, and many lower-income countries, are consuming far beyond Earth’s ability to recuperate. To put this in stark terms, a study by the non-profit group Global Footprint Network estimates that humanity is consuming the equivalent of one and a half earths. The group’s study says:
“This means it now takes the Earth one year and six months to regenerate what we use in a year. Moderate UN scenarios suggest that if current population and consumption trends continue, by the 2030s, we will need the equivalent of two Earths to support us. And of course, we only have one.”
The Living Planet Report 2012, a study produced by WWF–World Wide Fund For Nature in collaboration with the Zoological Society of London and Global Footprint Network, provides country-by-country and region-by-region breakdowns. It finds that the Middle East/Central Asia, Asia-Pacific, North America and European Union regions are each consuming about double their regional biocapacity. Africa and “other Europe” are about even, while Latin America is currently consuming at less than half its biocapacity.
To this it should be added that Africans themselves use less — much of the consumption there (and in other developing areas) is generated by multi-national corporations headquartered in stronger countries. People in poor countries consume minuscule amounts in comparison to the wealthy of the world and the middle classes of the advanced capitalist countries.
The Living Planet Report’s conclusions, despite being frequently couched in moderate language, nonetheless declare that “business as usual” will lead us to disaster:
“Clearly, the current state of human development, based on increased consumption and a reliance on fossil fuels, combined with a growing human population and poor overall management and governance of natural resources, is unsustainable. Many countries and populations already face a number of risks from biodiversity loss, degraded ecosystem services and climate change, including: food, water and energy scarcity; increased vulnerability to natural disasters; health risks; population movements; and resource-driven conflicts.” [page 10]
All those shiny computers and mobile phones — and so many other consumer products produced in every greater numbers — use metals mined from around the world, often under dangerous conditions. Many of these products are assembled under brutal sweatshop conditions. The environmental damage from moving all these raw materials, manufactured parts and finished products around the world is enormous, and increasing as more destructive and capital-intensive technologies are necessary to extract less accessible resources. We tend to not think about these costs.
“New and improved” is of human creation. If it were as natural as the tides, there wouldn’t be advertising bombarding us everywhere we turn. We have only one Earth and, for now, the rest of the universe is out of our grasp. In a satirical short story written by the science fiction author Stanisław Lem, space-faring marketers set off a series of supernovas that, from Earth, align in the night sky to spell out the name of the product they were promoting. Imagine the budget for that campaign!
And imagine life forms on the planets orbiting those exploded stars — would our morals be so low as to destroy all life on multiple planets to advertise a product? Surely they would not. Yet we seem to be on a course to destroy life on this planet for the sake of short-term corporate profits. Is new and improved really that important?
* The former estimate (from 2008) from Charles W. Lamb, Joseph F. Hair, Jr., Carl McDaniel, Marketing [South-Western Cengage Learning, Mason City, Ohio, USA, 2009]; the latter estimate (from 2005) from the Metrics 2.0: Business & Market Intelligence web site.