Fixing the system

PUBLISHED : Friday, 08 May, 2009, 12:00am
UPDATED : Friday, 08 May, 2009, 12:00am

Technology is not going my way this month. My son dropped the camera I bought him as an off-to-university-in-Australia gift and cracked the LCD display; he was told by the service centre in Sydney it would be cheaper to buy a new one. Then my electric shaver refused to recharge and, when I opened it, I found the manufacturer had soldered in the batteries, making them impossible to replace. On Tuesday, my fridge stopped working; the repairman shook his head and said purchasing the latest model would be more cost effective.

This makes me angry. It is not so much that my budget has been torn to shreds - it is that each item was easily repairable. Consumer electronics are made to be used for only so long and then we are expected to throw them out and buy replacements. This way, the companies can keep shareholders happy.

But this is only the tip of the problem in our consumer-driven, society. Firms churn out new products yearly, or even quarterly. We are bombarded by advertising to buy, buy, buy. Everywhere we look, there is a new this or that. The pressure to get the latest model, irrespective of whether we need it or not, is enormous.

Try to get a computer with a Windows 98 operating system serviced. It may still do everything you want it to, but you will be told that it is no longer supported, so you will have to upgrade to Vista. Ask in a shop for cloth nappies for your baby and the staff will look at you as if you have gone mad; what's wrong with disposable ones, they will ask. We have to have not one pair of sports shoes, but a pair for each activity. And so the list goes on.

This rampant consumerism goes against what common sense and science are telling us. The planet is warming up because of the greenhouse gases that are, in large part, being emitted by manufacturing plants. We are supposed to be environmentally conscious and to think of sustainable development. Producing deliberately obsolete goods, that are expensive to repair or are regularly superseded, goes against the grain.

There is a bright spot: the global financial crisis. Economic growth rates have been slashed. Company profits are down as consumers stop buying. There is no better time to question the system and review our lives.

That is what US woman Caroline Savery has been thinking for some time. Last year, she tried to put her thoughts into practice, moving into a small tent in Pittsburgh for three months in an effort to be 100 per cent environmentally sustainable. She rummaged for food in rubbish bins, cycled everywhere and did her best to get by without having to resort to going into a shop. She failed; technology-driven society is such that she was able to live sustainably only five or six days out of the 93. A film school graduate, she videoed her experiences and has three of the planned six episodes posted on her website,

Ms Savery remains committed to sustainability. She buys her clothes second-hand, and her flat measures 550 sq ft. She contends that attitudes to rampant consumerism have to be changed. Corporations are her nemesis: she suggests we lobby them relentlessly to put the environment before profits.

It would be easy to write off people like Ms Savery as oddities. She is in a minority, to be sure, but her voice is one of an ever-growing number, some of whom are mainstream. Among them is University of Surrey professor Tim Jackson, the head of economics for Britain's Sustainable Development Commission. In a report issued in March, 'Prosperity Without Growth?', he argued that the pursuit of economic growth was a root cause of the financial turmoil and contributing to a growing environmental crisis.

He said it was time to question the belief held by governments that economic growth must be maintained at all costs.

Such thinking is not popular, but it has to happen if we intend to continue to think of Earth as home. A major mentality shift is needed. I don't intend to move into a tent, but buying sturdier equipment and paying less attention to advertising is top of my priority list. An e-mail every now and then to some of those profit-hungry corporations won't go amiss, either.

Peter Kammerer is a senior writer at the Post