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The devastating end of built-in obsolescence

Smith Mordak

If we can't learn to share resources, instead of taking every opportunity to make a buck, life on Earth is doomed. Smith Mordak finds themself in a nightmare of thoughtless destruction at a grim COP27

Credit: Alamy

I dreamt I was at a conference, or maybe at a university. I was somewhere far away from home. I was very excited to be there and anticipated it being a transformational experience. Then the left arm of my glasses snapped. I tried to wear my glasses by balancing them between my right ear and the bridge of my nose but they wouldn’t stay. A circular economy expert that I was a bit star struck by noticed me struggling and gave me the address of a big department store where I would be able to get a new arm. They animatedly told me that I wouldn’t need to go back to the opticians or get new lenses or anything but there was a price. Not only would the new arm be expensive, but the store operated a compulsory insurance policy. This meant that every item they sold had to be insured, by them, requiring every customer to give away a lot of personal details and commit to ongoing costs for a number of years. It also meant it would be a time-consuming process and I would miss at least half a day of the conference or course or whatever it was. I woke up feeling annoyed and sad.

It was just a dream. Except it was real.

Stuff breaks and it’s easier to get a new one than fix the old one. Landfills are full of stuff that could have been fixed. Quarries and mines are hollowed out with stuff to replace it.

The idea of ‘servicisation’ as a solution to planned obsolescence has long been a real proposition. Imagine: instead of owning my glasses, I would pay a monthly ‘right to sight’ subscription so if the arm fell off, I could go and get a new one easy peasy. But what if I lost my job and had to cancel all my direct debits? My eyesight isn’t that bad but for some that would be profoundly disabling. And while splitting up the costs into ‘easy monthly payments’ eases the cash flow challenge of a large expense, it increases the overall cost. From flat screens to houses, renting costs more than ownership in the long run. Plus someone (or something) always owns the thing in these models. Do we really want to have to negotiate with a landlord for every single thing we use? Do we really want ‘subscribe to watch’ become ‘subscribe to see’… anything?

Would you accept free energy in exchange for round the clock monitoring on all your appliances and devices?

In my dream the ‘servicisation’ was translated into compulsory insurance. This is quite a cool bit of sci-fi writing by my sleeping brain! Not only did the insurance mean ongoing costs, but it also meant giving away data. I’m reminded of that decidedly new adage: ‘if you're getting something for free, you are the product.’ This is part of an attempt to create economic opportunity through finding new things to commodify – like our attention. As many a dystopian vision has warned us, this is not an economic fix we should take lightly. Where does it end? Would you accept free energy in exchange for round the clock monitoring on all your appliances and devices? Would you accept free housing in exchange for daily medical tests? What would it take to make you desperate enough?

But of course, surveillance isn’t just about harnessing opportunities to make a buck. It’s about control. I kind of understand why the idea of policing pollution feels like a good solution, but I don’t think we’ve thought it through. At a corporate scale, skimming off the very worst behaviour just licences exploitative, extractive behaviours in general. So long as the foundational model is extraction of resources for accumulation of wealth, no amount of regulation is going to cut it. At an individual scale, well, what are you going to do, arrest unhoused people for burning scrap wood instead of bio-pellets? If we want to reverse our careering path to climate devastation, we need to facilitate restorative, positive, healthy practices, not just punish (a few) bad ones. This isn’t a bid for carrots instead of sticks. This is a bid for an organic agroforestry ecosystem that cultivates and distributes carrots (and more!) for a healthy plant-based diet.

My dream is probably part of my post COP27 processing. The conference in Egypt left me feeling that compulsory insurance is more politically palatable than decent social policies. Please reassure me that my dream wasn’t a premonition.

Smith Mordak is director of sustainability and physics at Buro Happold


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