The value of made things

I’ve spent a couple of hours looking for a durable, high-capacity alternative for my iPod, and come to the conclusion that one simply doesn’t exist. A reasonably well constructed Flash-based mp3 player would suffice, were it not for the fact that the largest capacity player of that sort is too small for my music collection (comment predictor: yes, I know I can, but that’s not the context in which I’d use it). There’s no reason why Flash-based systems can’t have more capacity, so many months after the last generation were released, except that the ever-benevolent invisible guiding hands seem to have parted the markets at the 10GB mark, with Flash-based players perhaps condemned as “not in demand” beyond that.

So I have opted out of the consumption process, for now. The notion that I might acquiesce and buy a device that only satisfies some of my requirements, to find it obsoleted in a few months’ time when the industry undergoes one of its periodic, tiny revolutions, makes me revolt internally instead. I simply will not buy a replacement for a luxury I do not need. I will get by without, and with K’s old CD player, and if that dies then a second-hand CD player from somewhere else. I will make do and mend, because one day we might have to make do, or die.

More and more these days I’m driven by the value of made things. The germ of this notion was environmental necessity: it’s a difficult relationship to pin down, really, but more elaborate manufacturing generally translates into more carbon (whether directly through machine processing or indirectly by keeping the workers’ standards of life sufficiently high). Intricacy takes time, or effort, or the many arms and tools of parallel workmanship, and any one of those three factors in turn takes energy and the burning of million-year-old quondam forests. There’s no perfect, infallible relationship between industrial construction and environmental destruction, but as a pivot against which to lever a life change it’s better than most. it has clarity, rationality and some empirical justification.

Now that I’ve begun to tread this path, though, I see the evidence of made things everywhere. Electronic devices are the worst: complex, time-consuming time-bombs full of toxins and implicit, embedded carbon. Confessing to a single recent electronics purchase on most online calculators increases your global footprint by half a world. Tetrapaks aren’t recyclable, so if you’ve no reasonable alternative then go for the juice with the least innovative sealing mechanism: if you’re that bothered about citrus freshness then buy a fucking jug which you can re-use ten thousand times. Leaf tea is in principle better than bagged tea, but the difficulties of transportation and packaging make the contest a little too close for me to call. Every decision requires new calculations, and some will inevitably reduce to the commonsensical—by which I mean well-meaning but ignorant and ultimately self-defeating.

Save jamjars; return milk bottles (especially if found, dumped); repair with re-used metal and wood, offcuts from cans or previous DIY, or someone else’s DIY. Our cultural waste already surrounds us, and it will only be so long before it swamps us, pouring over the tops of landfills and smothering the green lungs that are one of our remaining, weakened barriers against utter devastation. We need to become inured to what has until now been frowned upon as a sort of third-world reuse born out of necessity: composting the metal and the wood and the glass back into the mulch of our daily lives; 57 varieties over a hole in your garage door; the cup that cheers stopping the wobble of your table-legs; the buoyance of Cillit Bang bottles keeping the cistern tap switched off. Otherwise, one day, we will all be exhibits in the Pitt Rivers.

This entry was posted in art, arts_and_crafts, climate, consumption, electronics, environment, experience, inspiration, location, manufacture, recycling, reuse, society, speculative_tech, technology. Bookmark the permalink.

2 Responses to The value of made things

  1. Paul B says:

    I’m not sure it’s polite to just bang a comment up here but i will, because I agree with you all the way.

    My two pence worth is forget recycling, it’s a waste of energy. Just consume less and be aware of the packaging whatever it is comes wrapped up in.

    Here’s something interesting that i found out the other day which came as a bit of a shock.

    I imagine most everone has seen the little symbols on the sides/bottom of various plastic products, they indicate the type of plastic it is and probably give an nice warm glow of eco-friendliness just before you toss it into the green bin.

    Well take for example a plastic milk bottle. Did you know that you can’t recycle that into another milk bottle?

    The problem is that to kill off any milk residue in the old one you have to heat the plastic up too much, and it starts to degrade and release pretty toxic vapors – the melting point of the plastic is below the kill temperature for microbes apparently. So you can make things like fleeces out of them but not new milk bottles – or any other food container.

    more about this and the state of the planet here

    thanks for the blog


  2. sbalb says:

    I take your point (and thank you for commenting), but I don’t think the situation is quite as bad as you imply. Certainly I can envision, even with your disturbing revelation, a situation where a food carton is made into a fleece, and a fleece into, say, a throw or a mat, and that into fabric scraps, and fabric scraps into something else, and so on.

    The original carton can have many lives, only not as other cartons: reincarnation as opposed to the plot of Groundhog Day. All the products taken together have used a fraction of the raw materials and oil, and will take up a fraction of the space in the landfills that they will eventually end up in (the projected filling-up of all landfill space in twenty years being as serious an issue as our dwindling resources).

    I think that the value of made things should inform both the decision at the point of purchase, and the decision at the point of discard (and the treatment of possessions along the way), because not only might we then realise that we don’t need to purchase, but we might also work out a way in which we don’t need to discard either. The very process of life draws its strength from the curve of entropy on which it sits, converting and in the process inevitably spoiling: the trick is to find the steepest point of the curve, the point of minimum spoil.

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