Everything Has a Use
Daniel Mark Schwartz
May 08, 2019
One of the biggest fallacies of modern culture is the rise if disposable culture. The fact is that “cheap” limited use items are frequently more expensive in terms of resources and overall expense is a fact that is keenly felt by those seeking to limit their dependence on external inputs. Only when we see everything as a valuable resource, and see every piece of trash as a failing of our skills and creativity, can the possibility for true independence of an off grid lifestyle immerse.
Junk is a New Idea
Our ancestors had a use for almost everything they encountered in their daily lives. Cloth became clothes, became rags, became pulp, became paper. Tools were designed to be used for generations, craftsmen had the knowledge to fix or replace any broken parts, and old tools were reformed in to new items. In short, when our ancestors had something in excess, they figured out something productive to do with it.
In a time when every scrap of cloth and every bit of iron was the result of a labor intensive process, this conservative outlook was the only sensible option. Now, in the age of energy excess, the disorderly nature of used goods is too time consuming to warrant serious effort in most cases. The strange fact is that most recycling, as conducted in the industrial present, is “more expensive,” in terms of dollars and cents, than it is to harvest raw materials and make the material from scratch. It may actually be more expensive in terms of energy and resources as well. Is there a way to make reuse cost efficient?
The Rise of Throw Away Culture
Consummate with the excess energy economy is the rise of throw away consumer culture. Because of large scale exploitation of the Earth’s energy reserves, it is now possible to mass produce items far more cheaply than our ancestors could have ever dreamt possible. And, although this makes the lives of both the rich and poor so much more abundant in things than ever before, which is not all bad, there is a new niche of short term use products that has never existed before.
One-use diapers save time, are a manifest stream of resources pumped from the ground, shipped, formed, trucked to a store, set out, bought and carried home, used, thrown away, picked up at the curb, trucked to the transfer station, hauled to the landfill, and buried. All this one so a baby can poop one time among thousands of diaper changes in their lifetime.
Cloth, on the other hand, is reusable, although it comes with the expense of washing up. The baby’s “gift” and washing up water need not go down the drain, but can be safely composted and regrown in to the food of tomorrow. Off grid permaculture doesn’t advocate for a return old labor intensive methods, but we seek to innovate new variations of time tested ideas that reduce cost and allow long term sustainability.
Planned Obsolescence — Business is of Limited Used in Off Grid Permaculture
A common theme in the annals of contemporary culture is that some business genius will develop a product that solves all our problems. “If only Elon Musk could get free solar panels on every roof, then we would be saved.” But this is a mistake.
The fact is that, although business comes up with many amazing innovations, they can never achieve sustainability on their own. A business is an independent organism made up of human beings. It lives, grows, and dies independently of the individuals which constitute it. And, it feeds on money. Any business which does not feed on money will die, no matter how well intentioned it is, and any business which generates money will grow, no matter how ill intentioned it is.
Sadly, the existing world economy feeds money to business that sell more products, and places little value on finite world resources (until they are almost gone). This means a successful business will do anything it can to sell products, no matter if they benefit their customers or not, while those businesses that put ethical and ecological considerations first are likely to be out competed in by those who don’t.
This leads to engineers who design products with an artificially limited lifespan. A Zenith television from the 70s could easily last decades with only minor servicing required. Yet modern televisions may only last 5 years and can never be fixed. Styles are constantly updated, to encourage “keeping up with Jones” syndrome to drive the early disposal and replacement of otherwise useful items. This is why so many good clothes, serviceable shoes, and prematurely killed electronics line the bottom of landfills.
How to Reevaluate Your Purchases for Sustainability and Reuse
The hopeful part of this dark scenario is that the brilliant minds engineers and business people can be used for good. Business goes where the money is.
For example, look at the life expectancy of commercial trucks vs consumer vehicles. An average commuter car is lucky to get 200k miles of service before it is junked. Yet, commercial truck engines often come with 250k – 500k mile warranties, and see up to 1000k miles of service before a major overhaul. Even then they can often be repaired and returned to the road.
Across the board, the technology exists to create products which last much longer, can be repaired more easily, and have a use after even after their primary purpose has expired.
Sustainable, and off grid minded people must take the time to understand the products they are buying, and to put their money where their heart is. Only then will business perk up and give us what we need to survive.
Here are some questions to investigate when considering a purchase:
- Is this product designed to last?
- Is there a way I can do this with something I already have?
- Can this be fixed by me or someone near me if needed?
- Are there used items like this I can put back in service?
- Can I make this myself?
- How can I use this when I’m done with it?
The Need for Community Action
In many cases, an approach product does not exist, but it should. For instance, why do we not have electronics with replaceable components. If you ding up the corner of your laptop, you should be able to just replace the broken piece. Why can’t every part of the computer be upgraded independently?
There are projects that seek to remedy this situation, by designing open source “free” implementations of electronics. This means that even if that company goes away, your laptop can be repaired in perpetuity. Need a new case? Have any local 3d printer or online printer make one, the design is available for them to use.
This concept should be expanded beyond computers. What about a lamp, or a refrigerator, or your car. Seek out people who are doing these things and support them in any way you can. Or, if you are able, start a similar project yourself. Where there is a will, there is a way. We just need to tune in a do our share.
Learning Off Grid Techniques from Our Ancestors
Finally, we need to do more to take ourselves in to account. There are a multitude of skills that our ancestors had that we no longer culture which allow for increased self-sufficiency. Can you fix small things around the house? Can you mend your own clothes? Can you compost your own food scraps and grow food out of them?
We are blessed to live in an age where information is so abundant. All of us could learn these skills online or locally, from experienced teachers, at minimal cost in time and money. Every person who seriously seeks the independence of off grid permaculture needs to be ready invest in their own knowledge and abilities.
An End to Junk
I truly believe that, with the right motivation, humanity already possesses the know-how to reduce the accumulation of junk to ZERO. Every useless item in our life is a failing on our part, because a suitably creative and knowledgable individual could eventually find a need for every excess. So, what can you do to help move your junk meter to zero? Every skill learned, knowledge gained, shrewd purchase accomplished, and smart design is a step in the right direction. And, one more factor in the exponential growth of good ideas!
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