You might not have heard of Vance Packard. He is not well known today, but in 1960 he wrote a book about the onset of consumerism called The Waste Makers. It describes the invention of planned obsolescence and decries the advent of a throwaway society with striking prescience.
In the opening of The Waste Makers, Packard describes a consumerist utopia, the imagined end product of a culture that has mistaken quantity of goods for quality of life and growth for progress. “This utopia might be called Cornucopia City, and its setting is out on the misty horizon of time”.
“In Cornucopia City, all the buildings will be made of a special papier-maché. These houses can be torn down and rebuilt at every spring and fall at house-cleaning time. The motorcars of Cornucopia will be made of a lightweight plastic that develops fatigue and begins to melt if driven for more than four thousand miles…
One fourth of the factories of Cornucopia City will be located on the edge of a cliff, and the ends of their assembly lines can be swung to the front or rear doors depending upon the public demand for the product being produced. When demand is slack, the end of the assembly line will be swung to the rear door and the output of refrigerators or other products will drop out of sight and go directly to their graveyard without first overwhelming the consumer market…
Wednesday will be Navy Day. The Navy will send a surplus warship to the city dock. It will be filled with surplus play-suits, cake mix, vacuum cleaners, and trampolines that have been stockpiled at the local complex of warehouses for surplus products. The ship will go thirty miles out to sea, where the crew will sink it from a safe distance.”
It reminds me of Catch 22, where the opposing armies decide to bomb their own airfields to save time. I’ve often wondered, after buying something that turns out to be junk, if it couldn’t have just been landfilled in China and saved the transport emissions. I have a bag of pegs that winds me up that way at the moment. A peg is not a complex thing, but these ones regularly snap and ping off into the raised beds. Did we really manufacture and ship them just to break after a matter of days in a garden on the other side of the world?
The thing is, Packard’s satirical world is not so different from reality. We don’t scrap houses and cars, but we do burn through mobile phone handsets and clothes. Or take his little story about one fourth of the factories just dumping things straight over the cliffs. In Britain today, we throw away a third of the food we buy. So we could situate a third of our food processing factories next to landfill sites and pump the goods straight in, and it would just be a more organised and efficient way of doing what we already do.