CultureEthicsLife and Faith

It’s Disposable: Planned Obsolescence and a Culture of Death


“Oh, I know how to use that mixer, my grandma’s is just like it!” I said to my hostess as she pulled out her mother’s mixer. She looked pleased and then sighed, “Yes, this one is still plugging away, unlike the things they make now. Planned obsolescence, they call it. So your products have a life-span of only a few years.” The term was not new to me, nor the concept—but that didn’t stop the conversation from bothering me. Manufacturers don’t want to make a sturdy product; they want to make a cheap product that has you coming back to them every few years. They mismanage our resources—plastic, metal, glass, labour—in order to make a profit.

Far from being a mere economic tactic, planned obsolescence makes its way into other areas as well. The trend of building ugly-but-functional buildings has been the rage for quite a while, with the added ‘luxury’ of being able to demolish the building at will if it gets outmoded, overcrowded, underused, or any number of other reasons. When I lived in Oxford for a term, I felt at peace even on the fast-paced sidewalks, because I could always duck into an ancient alleyway, or take the next block up. Even if I stayed on George Street, the buildings were far older than almost anything Colorado can boast, the churches beautiful and unambiguously churches, and one could hear bells chime the quarter hours from anywhere in the city.

Oxford was not built to be replaced one building at a time—as evidenced by a building from the 1500s on a main thoroughfare. Granted, that house was being used as a mobile phone store, but they hadn’t torn it down to build a disposable storefront. The English built things to last far into time. Architects like Christopher Wren built beautiful libraries, chapels, cathedrals, and colleges to last—sometimes dying before the work was finished because of the precision and enormity of the building process. It was no light matter to build a cathedral or a school. They would be places of teaching and refuge for generations to come—so they must be built well, they must be beautiful and inspiring in their construction.

This same mindset of building things to last was brought by the English who settled the American colonies. The earliest cities in America have some lovely architecture, buildings that have withstood the elements and passing fads. However, in the early twentieth century came this mania of obsolescence. From buildings and cars to mixers and light bulbs, manufacturers began the process of making things disposable. Now we are deluged with plastic containers, glass bottles, and ubiquitous grocery bags made merely to be thrown away. I am two generations down from the ‘Greatest Generation’ who lived through the Great Depression and the recycling drives of World War II. In two short generations, we have gone from conserving to consuming-with-abandon. The shift began with things like planned obsolescence and it has grown into a killing field.

The industrial revolution turned the whole of humanity into two groups: consumers and producers. Distinctions made by man to obfuscate our calling as human beings, imaging God. Human beings began to be redefined under man’s terms, a slippery position for anyone. When persons are defined as either consumers or producers, immediately they are given different values. Rather than the intrinsic worth of being human—made in God’s image—humans are assigned arbitrary values based on their productiveness or ‘use’ in society. People become what they do, rather than who they are.

When a person too weak and small to fight for themselves is considered a hindrance, it’s okay, they are disposable. A quick ‘procedure’ and presto! the unwanted ‘problem’ is gone. Snuffed out by ‘progress’ and a woman’s ‘right’ to kill another person. But if you call a person a ‘problem’ and talk of ‘removing tissue’ rather than ‘killing,’ it sounds less like murder—it’s much more sanitary that way. What happens when a person is old and unable to contribute to society? They are shuffled off into institutions; separated from families who need to be reminded that everyone deserves compassion, that they themselves are not immortal, that death comes for us all. But we shove aside death and thoughts of our mortality, rushing on in the consumer-producer wheel. Worse still, many elderly are shuffled off this mortal coil by doctors, nursing home workers, or other ‘aides’ when there isn’t enough money or room to pour into a ‘useless’ person. But human beings are not machines, nor are they their ability to produce. They are not animals. They are image bearers, beings—full of worth because they are made in the likeness of God, unlike any other creature.

Manufacturers are not really to blame for abortion and euthanasia—their incorporation of planned obsolescence is only a symptom of a shift in thinking and beliefs. The philosophies of eighteenth, nineteenth, and the following centuries have come to fruition in this culture of disposable stuff and disposable humans. If it breaks, buy a new one. If it’s old, throw it away. The jump from stuff to humans isn’t far when one bases human value on what one does, rather than upon who one is. No wonder God calls us to be stewards, caretakers of resources (oil, plastic, glass, plants, animals, time, money), as well as one another. We are to steward—guard and care for—human beings, even more than we are to till the ground or cultivate our imaginations or repair our cars and mixers. We are to cultivate our hearts and minds and culture into thriving grounds for life.


Johanna Byrkett

Johanna Byrkett

Johanna (Jody) Byrkett enjoys hiking various types of terrain, foggy mornings and steaming mugs of tea, reading classic literature and theological essays, studying words and their origins, and practising the art of hospitality. (She also has the singularly annoying habit of spelling things 'Britishly'.)

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