01 May 2009

A Design For Our Times

Written by Published in Issue 15 - Renew Read 5167 times

Credit-crunch economics meets sustainability. Let’s put our creativity to good use as we seek to keep up with the times

People generally in a frightened or hysterical mood are using everything that they own longer than was their custom before … In the earlier period of prosperity, the American people did not wait until the last possible bit of use had been extracted from every commodity. They replaced old articles with new for reasons of fashion and up-to-dateness. They gave up old homes and old automobiles long before they were worn out, merely because they were obsolete. Perhaps prior to the panic people were too extravagant; if so, they have now gone to the other extreme and become rentrenchment-mad. People everywhere are today disobeying the law of obsolescence. They are using their old cars, their old tires, their old radios and their old clothing much longer than statisticians had expected.’

Sound familiar? This piece was written in 1932 by an underemployed New York real-estate agent called Bernard London. His 20-page pamphlet ‘Ending the Depression through Planned Obsolescence’ gets to the heart of a syndrome which is back in forc e today.

London’s suggestion was that the government ‘assign a lease of life to shoes and homes and machines, to all products of manufacture … when they are first created’, and that when this lifetime was up, these objects would be ‘legally dead’. At this time the owner would be able to surrender that item and in return be paid part of the price of a new one. New products would hence start ‘pouring forth’ from factories again.

I found these quotes in Made to Break by Giles Slade (2005), which charts the history of technology and obsolescence in America.Slade comments that this proposed scheme ‘at first glance seemstoday like a crackpot version of progressive obsolescence, mixedwith a fair measure of technocracy, [but] begins to make a certainkind of workable sense when reread in the contexts of 1930seconomic desperation’.

Four years later, Bernard London’s big idea seems far from crackpot. The climate of fear which London described is once again sharply evident. A new report by the Mental Health Foundation describes how the numbers living both with generalised fear and anxiety (77%) and diagnosed with anxiety-related mental health problems (15%) are increasing rapidly. Sixty-three per cent of those more frightened or anxious than they used to be say it is because of the current economic situation (well ahead of crime, at 53%, and other common fears).

Hence people are – exactly as in London’s day – holding their breath on major purchases. They can keep that TV, that coat, that car, that office computer going for another year or two. Why take the risk of being caught short next month? Who knows about job security, client orders? This Christmas, despite a blizzard of price-cutting promotions, food and footwear were the only sectors not to experience sharp declines. When people are buying, they are buying secondhand. Charity shops have recently reported that they are running out of stock, due to a surge in demand.

The UK car market’s equivalent of Christmas is March/April, whenthe new registrations come out.The market greeted the latest sales figures, down 30% in March,with something like hysteria. The UK car industry is imploring thegovernment to introduce a scheme like the one London proposed.Far from being crackpot today, it’s already in operation in Germany. 

Under a scrappage scheme, you get a €2,500 rebate if you trade in a 10-year-old car and buy a new, fuel-efficient model. Nearly 600,000 people have already taken up the offer, and Angela Merkel has announced that the scheme will be extended to the end of this year. OK, they haven’t declared 10-year-old cars ‘dead’. Not yet.

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