Curtain Raiser

We Don’t Need Another Phone, Colltalers

The news was disheartening: last month, carbon dioxide in the atmosphere stayed at that symbolic but real threshold of 400 parts per million reached in 2012 for the first time since at least 800,000 years. And in September, which is usually when such emissions drop.
That clearly shows that whatever (little) has been done to cut them down to breathable levels is not enough. Just in time, however, and without making too much of it, recycling – a crucial tool against pollution – has been revived with the new Reuse Not Replace movement.
Sweden is taking the lead on the matter, as it’s introducing a legislative proposal to give tax breaks to those who fix, rather than dump on landfills, their bikes, appliances, and apparel. If approved, time and labor could be written off, and entitle fixers to receive tax refunds.
The proposal represents a step forward onto the idea of the now very popular Repair Cafes, which popped first as a community novelty, a few years ago in the Netherlands, and are now widespread throughout Europe and some cities in the U.S. Could we expect the same toward the increased sea of discarded, and highly pollutant, electronic gadgets producers have been replacing with maniac frequency annually?
Not so fast. It’d surprise no one to know that it’s the industries, of appliances, clothing, so-called durable goods and yes, phones, computers, tablets and everything in between, that are the biggest enemies of the new trend. And have mechanisms in place in order to prevent it.
It’s the draconian ‘digital rights management,’ which allows brand manufacturers to criminalize anyone who’d attempt to break the software coding, even if to diagnose or fix it.

For a few years now, ‘Right to Repair’ bills have been proposed and failed to pass by U.S. states, the only way people who paid top dollar for their now broken device, have to fix it, without discarding it and having to buy a new one.
DRM’s constrains are obviously by design. And as long as the industry has the support of cronies in Congress, chances are that, as with many things nowadays, Americans will have to wait to be able to exercise what should an ownership right: fix the damn thing themselves.
The industry has taken the car makers’ playbook and applied it to their products. So, while up to the 1950s, cars were routinely expected to last a few decades, now ‘old’ vehicles, meaning, the average 10-year four-wheel drive, are considerably costlier to repair and keeping it running. Insurers promote the idea that they may be actually more prone to break downs and charge more to cover them.
From an economic standpoint, the justification is that new products mean new jobs, and the more, the merrier. Such view no longer makes any sense, as changes in the marketplace determined a new, even if not exactly better, reality: the manufacturing sector has been shrinking for decades, plants have been moving abroad, and service and hospitality industry jobs now far outnumber those coming from other areas.
Still, you have now an iPhone, for instance, you don’t need being launched every year or so, along with ‘improvements’ that may hinder the performance of your trusty old device, when they’re not simply incompatible with it.
It’s also the idea behind the concept of fashion and couture, which dictates that your old wardrobe must be replaced from top to bottom every couple of years, or you may just be writing yourself off from new professional opportunities, dates, and social acceptance.
The falsehood of such approach to life may be ironically represented by the fierce drive of the clothing industry to emulate, repackage and promote as new the spontaneous street look sported by many an innate but penniless fashionista who simply couldn’t afford otherwise.
Just as low prices (or outrageous, if you can put up with them) hide the brutal reality of Asian sweatshops manned by 8-year-olds, slaving in 18-hour shifts, for pennies to the dollar, the flashy world of the latest communications gadgets also has an untold dark story to confess.
Besides being a source of extremely pollutant gases, when improperly disposed, every electronic gadget has a few grams of Rare Earth materials, a set of 17 elements that drive an almost hidden multi-billion dollar market currently dominated by China. Their mining, refining, and preparing for trade wreaks havoc through mostly impoverished regions of the world in Asia, Africa, and Latin America.
Just as the phenomenon known as Blood Diamonds, its commerce depends on a totally unregulated workforce, literally coerced into laboring under inhumane conditions. But unlike the precious stones, R.E. have few trade restrictions, and with higher demand, so is abuse.
Electronic giants have made little effort take any responsibility on where some of its raw materials come from or are generated, just like big fashion labels have so far failed to be part of solutions, which granted, are very complex. The local economies of  neighborhoods and often entire regions where apparel is assembled, or elements are dug up from the soil, depend heavily of the revenues raised from them.
So, it’s not just a matter of throwing money at it, and inviting a celebrity for photo ops, to publicize their marketing. The hardest part is to become economic and social partners of local economies, so to create alternatives to the vicious cycle of exploitation of cheap labor. That the retail industry refuses to be involved on that level is unconscionable .
But we digress. The good news can’t be obscured by the unfair realities of what once was called throwaway culture, and the ‘new economy’ only exacerbated. For what’s a ‘independent contractor’ if not a discardable tool, used as need by big corporations no longer under obligation to guarantee a minimum set of rules of employment or stability? As it’s been said, the new economy already had its heyday: in the 1800s.
Once a number of industry-imposed obstacles are overcome, the whole concept of reusing something, by fixing it instead of replacing it with a new version, may boost another inspiring sub-industry that seems to have hit a snag lately: that of recycling. Even though every major city in the world has its program to recycle goods back into their basic materials, programs tend to prioritize light metals and paper.
Significant reductions of deforestation, with its consequent increase in levels of clean air, can be credited to just such efforts, as well as lower costs of canned food due to recycling. As for other potentially recyclables, though, not so much. Mainly, because it’s hard.
The Reuse movement may revive the classic urban character of ‘the man,’ which in contemporary society has been appropriated by the drug culture. Not too long ago, it indicated simply the person behind a small counter who could fix your stuff, cheaply, or at least buy it for parts.
It’d help recent immigrants coming from societies that may still value manual labor, and lack formal education, at least in their adopted land. Lastly, a restored notion of fixers helps retirees too, who could add a badly needed buck to their meager fixed income. Going on a limb here, we’d add yet another concept in short supply lately: human dignity, represented by our ability to take responsibility for our own er garbage.
Last year, the Paris Conference on Climate Change, signed by 195 nations, gave us all some hope that we could, indeed, bring the runaway problem of green gases being dumped in the atmosphere under control. It still does. Successive record hot months, though, which seems to have become a disturbing routine, dampened a lot of that initial optimism. And the recent data only contributes to our general malaise.
That’s because last month is annually the time ‘when carbon dioxide is at its lowest, after a summer of plants growing and sucking it up in the northern hemisphere,’ according to the report by Scripps Institute for Oceanography, which monitors levels of the gas in the atmosphere. Since they did not dip below the 400ppm, the recent measuring is an indication that we may have climbed above that threshold for good.
As bad as the news is, however, we can’t take our eyes off the ball, which is to reduce pollution, even if innovative but small efforts are rarely trendy. Private interests won’t do a thing about it, unless forced by governments. Governments will only act if citizens force them. But ultimately, citizens don’t need to be forced by anyone but themselves, since they’re on the frontlines of destructive climate change effects.
We are arguably the most wasteful society in history, our oceans are full of detritus leftover from our expansive lifestyle, and even the highly educated average citizen recycles but a fraction of his or her footprint. Chances are, the very computer these post was written on will wind up in a landfill for another millennium. But we can still do a lot about it, and that’s a fact. Happy October & New Year. WC


2 thoughts on “Curtain Raiser

  1. eremophila says:

    I recently had to purchase a new phone, because of a defective on/off switch. Yes, to repair it far outweighed the cost of replacing it. Yes, we have a scheme in Oz, ( but it doesn’t address the main issue.
    On a slightly brighter note, I’ve found a wonderful cobbler who is bringing a new lease of life to several pairs of boots, at a very reasonable fee. But oh, it’s so little in this consumer driven world.

    Liked by 1 person

    • Colltales says:

      It may be little but it means a lot. The thing I’m baffled the most is that the biggest consumers of electronic gadgets, people under 30, actually like corporations. I wish they’d feel like ‘sticking to the man’ every once in a while. Who am I, 100? Blaming it all in the poor things. Then again, as Shaw used to say, youth is wasted…etc. There’s so much difference doing business with the cobbler around the corner, or that old jeweler downtown, rather than walking into one of these impersonal geek temples, where the reality that the world is no longer yours hits you the moment you step in. Well well. So good to hear from you. Cheers

      Liked by 1 person

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