Throwaway culture

We live in a disposable society.

What do mean by that? Everything is designed to be thrown away. And why wouldn’t it? Our economic growth is fueled by blind and increasing consumption. In order for people to continue consuming, they must dispose of things eventually. And so things aren’t designed to be reused, and they certainly aren’t designed to last.

In fact, have you heard, dear reader, of something called “planned obsolescence” (to use the business parlance)? It’s the practice of designing and engineering things to fail after a certain period of time. Why build something that can last a lifetime if that only means that someone will ever only buy one? Businesses make way more money if they sell you a product repeatedly.

And so things are designed to fail. Cell phones, computers, clothing–you name it and it has a poor shelf life. Part of the reason is because they’re built poorly to cut cost. But the other part is that their obsolescence has been planned so that you toss out the old and buy the newer model.

That’s the economic paradigm we live in. And all for the sake of growth.

And growth for the sake of what, exactly?

That’s the question anyone hardly ever asks. We’re told economic growth is great! More growth = more wealth, and that’s a great thing! But why?

Is the quality of life in a country that generates $6 trillion dollars a year really that much better than the quality of life in a  country that “only” generates $4 trillion? Probably not. We’ve seen studies that show that happiness has a ceiling in terms of dollars; after an individual makes a certain amount of money, their amount of self-reported happiness plateaus and additional income does not raise it. You can read all about that study here and here.

If that’s true, then what’s the point of continuing to push for ever-increasing growth? It would literally be pointless.

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But more to the point, this behavior of casual disposal might even be harmful to us.

We throw out food while others go hungry. We destroy entire ecosystems with our trash and cause extinctions of entire species. “Oh well,” we say, “there are plenty of other animals.” We view life as disposable! A dog bites a human (a completely natural reaction for a dog). Do we bother to re-train it? No, we just kill it. Human being commits a crime. Do we rehabilitate them? No, we just throw them away–to jail or prison.

This push for constant economic growth and accumulation and consumption of things to fuel it has created a rather cavalier or flippant attitude toward other forms of life and the planet itself that simply isn’t sustainable, and is in fact causing harm. At some point, enough is enough, literally and figuratively.

The wonderful thing about this type of problem is that it doesn’t require a miracle invention or anything of the sort. It’s completely behavior driven–change the behavior and you change the outcome. And changing the behavior is super easy–just don’t buy stupid shit you don’t need. If you don’t need it, don’t buy it. Don’t buy something just to own it. I don’t really know how many other ways a person can say the same thing. Don’t let other people tell you what you need to be happy, and always be skeptical of someone who tells you that giving them your money will somehow increase your happiness.

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11 thoughts on “Throwaway culture

  1. why is growth important? its to create jobs. with more young people constantly coming into the job market, if there is no growth of the economy, there wont be any jobs for them. see allthose refugees ? they flee their own country because there are no jobs for them. that is the biggest downside to those countries where there is strive and conflict. the economy goes downhill. so people have no way of making money. and money will free them from relying on the state for handouts, or from each other. growth allows money to be circulated amongst the largest number of people. that is the underlying importance of growth. jobs is one way of circulating the money, i think the most important, but there are others ways all directly related to increasing growth.

      1. i ask is it really true that growth can happen without massive consumption? my contention is that it cannot. consumption must be massive to make any difference in growth. the very sine qua non of growth is massive consumption , otherwise there is no growth.
        as for judgeing it wasteful, that is entirely a subjective thing. what is wasteful to you is not so for many thousands of others who have bought that stuff. remember, millions of people by their individual decision to buy it, has bought that stuff. all those millions of people would certainly tell you that what they bought is not wasteful to them. or are u saying all of them are stupid? they have spent good hard earned money on it, so by definition it cannot be something silly and useless.
        in the end, there is nothing to replace capitalism. tell me if u know of another way to generate this cycle of providing a living for millions of people.
        i can think of another way and that is war. a constant state of war for every nation. putting the nations at war all the time will be a basis of generating this cycle of putting the millions of people to some use. but i doubt i want to live in a world like that, where there is perpetual war between every nation.

      2. Of course not every person and every purchase is stupid. Especially when we all live in a system designed for rote consumption.

        We don’t really have a choice but to at some point curtail growth and consumption. There are only so many resources on this planet. So unless you’ve invented a way to magically pull more raw materials out of thin air, there is a literal physical cap on what we can produce.

        I don’t really think massive consumption is required in order to create enough growth to increase quality of life, and until I see data indicating otherwise, that belief won’t change.

      3. I’ll ask it another way: does the ability to buy a certain amount of goods increase quality of life? Does owning more goods somehow lead to better health outcomes? How would you explain the two studies quoted to demonstrate that beyond a certain point, income does not increase happiness? Has producing more goods lead to more or less government assistance? Businesses are reporting record sales and grow, yet the amount of people receiving government assistance in this country is now almost 50%. If blind and ever increasing consulting really leads to a better quality of life and more opportunity, how would you explain those numbers?

      4. hang on, i think it is bringing two different things together. the quality of life and happiness has nothing to do with the capitalist mode of running society. capitalism is the best system, albeit it is not ideal, that we got to run a society. communism has not worked.
        but capitalism was never an answer to giving people happiness. i have my own theories on how to get happiness, but that is an entirely separate discussion.

      5. I think they’re strongly related. Having more resources does lead to a better quality of life: better education, better healthcare, more leisure time, etc.

        Economics should be tied to quality of life questions. Isn’t the reason we innovate and create new products or processes to make our lives better? If so, then should not resources be allocated toward those things which increase or enhance quality of life?

        Because otherwise, what logical reason would a person have to support an economic system that diminished their quality of life or their happiness?

    1. So the question is whether this is the only way that capitalism can exist. Are cheap products designed to end up in a landfill the only way to circulate money or to create jobs? If growth doesn’t lead to an increase in quality of life, has not something been wasted?

    1. Thank you!

      That’s an excellent question. I suppose in a way everyone reaps from economic growth–although some more directly than others. Arguments can and have been made as to how fair or equitable that is, but that’s probably going to be discussion that won’t really get anyone very far since “fair and equitable” means different things to different people.

      But that’s a post for another day!

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