Photo: Don't say the D-word

Try to get a piece of old electronics fixed or upgraded. It costs more to fix an old laptop than to buy a new model (Credit : barnoid via Flickr).

By David Suzuki

A kerfuffle is raised every time a comedian, politician, or businessperson uses the F-word or the N-word. I understand that. But to me, the D-word is the most obscene. I'm referring to disposable. Let me explain.

When I was a boy, we were poor and it was a big deal when my parents bought me a new coat. I would quickly outgrow it, and it would be passed on to my sister. My parents boasted that three of their children had worn the same coat. They weren't concerned (nor were we kids) about gender differences or fashion; it was the coat's ability to keep the wearer warm and its durability (now there's a good D-word) that mattered.

We now have an economic system in which companies must not only show a profit each year, they must strive for constant growth. If a product is rugged and durable, it creates a problem for even the most successful business — a diminishing and eventually saturated market. Of course, any product will eventually wear to a point where it can no longer be patched, so the market will continue to exist to replace worn products.

But that's not good enough in a competitive world driven by the demand for relentless growth in profits and profitability. So companies create an aura of obsolescence, where today's product looks like a piece of junk when next year's model comes out. We've lived with that for decades in the auto industry.

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I've always said a car is simply a means of getting from point A to point B, but it's become far more than that. Some cars convey a sense of power, and cars become safe havens when loaded with cup holders, sound systems, and even TVs and computers. Some people even name their cars, talk to them, and care for them like babies — until next year's models come along.

It's similar with clothing, even with outdoor attire beloved by environmentalists. We have a proliferation of choice based on colour, sexiness, and other properties that have nothing to do with function. I don't understand torn blue jeans as a fashion statement, and I wish people would wear their pants till they spring their own leaks rather than deliberately incorporating tears. All of this is designed to get us to toss stuff away as quickly as possible so the economy can keep spinning.

Nowhere is this more obvious than with electronic gadgets. When my wife lost the cord to charge her cellphone, she went to seven stores. None had the necessary plug for her phone. Finally she went back to the retailer that sold her brand only to be told that the cords for the new models don't fit the old ones and hers was so old, it wasn't even on the market any more. It was a year-and-a-half old.

I remember when I was given the first laptop computer on the market. It had an LED display screen that let me see three lines at a time and a chip that stored about three pages of writing. But it was small and had word processing and a port to send my pieces by telephone. It revolutionized my life. I was writing a weekly column for the Globe and Mail and was able to send articles from Russia and even remote towns in the Amazon.

A couple of years later, a much better laptop hit the market. It had an LCD screen, a huge memory, and it displayed almost a full page. I got one. A year later, I got a new model, and then half a year after that, another. Each served me well, but every year, new ones would appear that were faster, smaller, and lighter, with longer-life batteries and more bells and whistles.

Try to get one fixed or upgraded, though. As with digital cameras, I was repeatedly told that it would cost more to fix an old laptop than to buy a new model. This is madness in a finite world with finite resources. At the very least, products should be created so components can be pulled apart and reused until they wear out.

You see why I think the D-word is so obscene.

November 24, 2011

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Apr 16, 2014
4:14 PM

I love your show, Suzuki, what are your favorite cat phrases

Dec 07, 2011
9:44 AM

My husband and I found a gem of a used car — needed for a distant and everchanging commute, unfortunately — it was an early model compact Toyota Tercel, from the 1980s, and the most fuel-efficient in it’s size class in the year it was made right after the oil shocks. It still performs as well as the more fuel efficient compact cars, and we just replace the major parts (brakes, transmission) every few years when they wear out. Far less energy and resources have been used to manufacture these parts than would be in manufacturing a new car I suspect, not to mention that the ride is also far cheaper. Sometimes it really pays to care for your car like a bit of a baby that you don’t abandon when it reaches it’s pre-teen years.

There should be compact durable fuel-efficient car clubs as well as souped-up car clubs, in my books. We will keep this one as long as we need a car and can maintain it — no shame that it isn’t glitzy — it’s almost ready for collector plates, but may become the only compact car that has them and isn’t a fancy sportscar that .has them that I’ve ever seen. We also lobby for transit — buses are very durable. Props to Freegeek. I wish there was a program with a similar ethos focused on the small mid-80s compact and subcompact cars rather than merely Scrap-It which destroys ‘old stock’ regardless of its quality. Today’s ‘small’ cars are larger, and consume more fuel in many cases than the little oil-shock mobiles of the mid-80s. Also, people with modest means often can’t afford them.

Dec 01, 2011
5:42 PM

Almost 4 years ago, I started a program called Computer Rescue, whose sole purpose is to refurbish older computer systems and donate them back to the less fortunate, seniors and charitable organizations such as The Canadian Mental Health Association and The March of Dimes to name a few. I became a Microsoft Registered Refurbisher, to allow for the installation of genuine Microsoft products. The program is self sufficient, and receives no funding. In 2010, I was nominated for York Region Character of the year award, and received the Nature Conservancy of Canada Award in recognition of the work I do. In the last year, I have witnessed a madness sweeping the recycling initiative. The York Region Board of Education refused to donate refurbishable computers and peripherals, that would aid the students they are supposedly there to support. They are sending all their decommissioned items to be destroyed, never to return to their students. Lately, I signed an agreement with a recycling company to hold collection events in order to obtain sufficient quantities of computers, laptops, monitors, etc, to be able to continue this initiative. The recycling company then turned around and contracted to a major big-box store (in a lot of major cities), to have permanent collection centers, not allowing anything to be refurbished, and all collected, to be destroyed! To me, this is absolute madness, as the big-box store is showing us their corporate greed, as they sell electronics, and are attempting to eliminate competition. What they fail to realize, is that the people who receive computer systems from me, will never be able to afford to buy a new one anyway. So, let the madness continue, and we will pay for the greed and ignorance and apathy on behalf of those we have elected to protect us!

Nov 28, 2011
5:41 PM

I feel really sad that our society thinks that people who choose the reusable route rather than disposable are odd/strange. Very backwards attitudes.

Nov 28, 2011
7:46 AM

It is a good idea to reuse old things….it is better for the earth

Nov 28, 2011
5:23 AM

As much as I sympathize with thoughts of recycling and double utilities from years of efforts of personal responsibility. Recent events made possible with an inheritance have made the “B” word the worst profanity. Berlu Berlusconi that is… He is a 1000 times richer and greedier than the other G8 leaders combined and with flood anatomy spirit channel inbreeding and cannibalism is as close to omnipotent as anyone can get. Don’t bullshit about Obama, 6 years ago almost nobody knew who he was and in 5 years he’ll be a has been, while 3 time prime minister Berlusconi with 45% propriety of Italian television from the propriety spiritual capitol of the world. I’m still hopeful that David Suzuki will turn the corner on this issue and allow these comments about the freakish avarice greed of Silvio Berlusconi. Complaints about a racist greedy psychopath are not racism.

Nov 27, 2011
5:39 PM

You can’t have technological progress without obsolescence. If a new and improved widget doesn’t make a existing widget obsolete, it won’t sell, its manufacturer won’t make a profit (sorry for using the P-word), and won’t be able to afford the employees who develop, produce, and sell the widget.

Blaming corporations and the profit-motive distracts your audience from the real culprits: your audience. It’s consumers who select the fashionable and disposable over the durable and serviceable. It’s voters who are duped by, and elect the politicians. And it’s politicians who don’t protect our collective environmental interests.

It’s naive to think that sermons and appeals to conscience will effect real change. The only tender spot on a consumer is their wallet, and rightly so. We need an informed electorate, who support the taxation of activities which deplete our resources, so the prices of raw materials capture their true environmental cost. Then there’d be an incentive to develop environmentally friendly products, like a repairable digital camera. Even so, with the fast pace of innovation, it might still be cheaper, in both an environmental and economic sense, to recycle the old camera, if the new one works twice as fast with half the power consumption.

If products were environmentally priced, people and markets would adapt. If gasoline were $6 per litre, maybe crude could be extracted from the oil sands, refined and consumed with carbon-neutrality. Consumers would endure the disadvantages of electric cars and companies would innovate to mitigate same. Gasoline vehicles would last longer and get better gas mileage.

The good news is, burgeoning demand will eventually deplete a finite supply and prices of fossil fuels will rise, making alternative fuels attractive. The bad news is, it may happen too quickly for us and our children (who have the most to lose) to adapt.

So your wife should exercise her power as a consumer and be sure her next phone has an industry-standard connector, or a proprietary connector with a long history. Mini-US, micro-USB, and iPhone-style connectors will be available for years, and are used on a wide variety of personal electronic devices. And insist on minimal packaging. Sooner or later a marketing executive will notice a new buying pattern.

Nov 27, 2011
1:37 PM

I wonder how long it will take for governments to start seeing the lack of sustainability found in our economic system (as described in this post). I wonder if this latest economic crash and slow recovery are signs that we are hitting the limits of that system…

@ CL: My wife and I each have our own computers. And together, they have 9 years of work in them : )

Gotta love MACs.

Nov 27, 2011
10:05 AM

I am reading your post on my MacBook which used to be my daughters. She had it for at least 5 years and I’ve had it now for a year. It all works fine except for the disc drive. For other projects I use the Sony desktop that she gave us 5 years ago (when she bought the MacBook!). I remember when we were kids and had the same black and white tv for years until we upgraded to a colour one which we had for the rest of my years at home. I recently bought a pair of expensive boots (Dubarry’s Goretex lined) which I am hoping to leave in my will! They have a good reputation for lasting long and have been in business for over 70 years. Paying for something that lasts forever is what I look for. Unfortunately you’re right about the gadgets not being made to last.

Nov 26, 2011
3:33 PM

You make an excellent point, now how do we get our children to understand that restoring an antique is better than going to the Ikea store and buying junk that lasts a year or two at the best? I fear we have created a generation of “disposers” (Sorry to use the D-word), for whom flash is more important than quality. Sigh. Thanks so much for broaching this!

Nov 25, 2011
3:45 PM

Thank you, sir. As an eighth grade science teacher, I spend many days appalled at the amount of waste even the youngest in our society have been programmed to accept, and — even more — the presposterous polarization of youth by “branding”. My sneakers aren’t Nike, Jordans, or Reeboks. They’re sneakers, and they keep my feet dry and warm(ish).

Again, thank you for your insights: they are always appreciated!


Nov 25, 2011
2:46 PM

Now many families are too embarrassed to admit that their kids all shared the same coat let alone boast. They’re afraid others will think they are poor. Frugality isn’t appreciated and other kids will pick on them. And what about things that are actually called disposable? They litter the planet. Do you ever see ceramic mugs lying on the ground? Or stainless steel forks? Of course not. It’s all paper coffee cups, plastic forks, candy

Nov 25, 2011
2:12 PM

@CL @Karin

Thank you for your comments and suggestions! It looks like we should add a 4th R: Reduce, Reuse, Recycle, Resist (planned obsolescence).

Nov 25, 2011
10:54 AM

we don’t use the d-word, cuz they aren’t—we ‘landfill’ as in ‘landfill diapers’ cuz that's where they end up. but maybe we should call them ‘ocean fill’ or ‘air fill’ or just cut to the chase and call them ‘planet fill’, tho even a planet doesn’t seem big enough for us.

Nov 25, 2011
10:36 AM

Boy, have you ever hit a cord with this article. This has been one of my pet peeves for nearly 15 years now. It started when “Game-boys” came out. That’s when I really realized just how much the industry controls what and when people buy. It started simple enough, one little hand held device that kept the kids entertained for hours. And yet easy enough to set aside when life called. All was good. Then the new model came out and lo and behold, the ‘old’ games would not fit into the new model. So, people had to buy a new device in the range of $200 and a whole new set of games to go with it. And of course, it could not come out in Nov/Dec, it wouldn’t be ‘released’ until Jan. As a single mother working hard and trying desperately to not have her children feel the effects of a dead beat dad, you can only imagine the stress and frustration. Yes, they got their games, but not without a full education of my opinion of the system. That year and every year since. Now, they’re young adults and into the computers, so called smart phones, etc. And Mom’s still yippin’. As you say.. torn jeans bought for $200 minimum!! Are you kidding me?? You just threw out a pair of jeans cause they were torn!!!

I’ve had a personal protest with today’s marketing for a very long time. I’ve never been much of a shopper to begin with, but today’s system sends me crazy. I buy most of my household items at the second hand store or obtain them from Freecycle. (Much to my children’s chagrin, I might add). Food is carefully priced and the eagle eye for sales is constant. If only I could do something about the price of gas. That probably irritates me more than the electronics industry.

Anyway, enough of my rant. Just couldn’t stop myself from commenting this time. This article just really raised the hackles on the back of my neck!!

Thanks so much Dave, I always love your ideas and perspectives! Have since I’ve been a small child. Growing up in a world that ‘recycling’ was a dirty word but yet fully believing in it, you were often my stalwart beacon of light!! :)

Nov 25, 2011
10:28 AM

Well said David. It’s so difficult to find work as a technician in some repair fields these days that many of the college programs for these professionals have closed due to lack of sufficient demand.

Consumers, (just about every one of us) are the most manipulated group on the planet. The head of research and development at General Motors from the early 1920’s to mid 1940’s (Charles Kettering) was once quoted as saying “The key to economic prosperity is the organized creation of dissatisfaction.” The Economist John Kenneth Galbraith stated that the new mission of business was to “create the wants it seeks to satisfy” around the same time. So the seeds of the system were sewn so long ago that it feels almost normal and essential today and consequently will be very difficult to change.

It’s upsetting to understand that most of our choices in life are being controlled by others rather our own will and there is something inherently wrong with this scheme. It’s not how capitalism, the game we all think we’re playing, with it’s inherent checks and balances, is supposed to work. It’s like playing a game with the kid who used to make up new rules to his best advantage all the time. Come to think of it he’s doing very well for himself these days.

To help the environment in a meaningful way, we need to get off this treadmill and get back to the basics of meeting OUR NEEDS and not the wants instilled by entities that would perpetuate our environmental problems.

My starting point is getting control of my own choices again. I know I can do this and

Nov 24, 2011
4:33 PM

I've been using the same laptop since 2008. It looks like a piece of junk (compared to the latest Macbooks), makes buzzing noises, and even has a small hole in one corner. But I use it daily to get my projects done, watch videos, and surf the web. It has served me well for almost 4 years. (Ironically, it's made in China). Yes, part of me want to throw it in the trash and go down to the Apple store, but a bigger part of me refuse to give in to the glitz created by the big corp to constantly "upgrade" my electronics. I think this article has a good point about companies perpetrating the disposible mentality. However, if each of us can exercise some self-control, and hold out just a little longer to trade in our "dinosaurs", hopefully, it will send a message to the companies.

Nov 24, 2011
3:25 PM

This is why Freecycle and Free Geek are such great organizations. I bet your wife could find what she needs for her cell phone on Freecycle with some patience-if it doesn't pop up the first time keep trying. People furnish entire homes through Freecycle and I have referred people to Free Geek for computer help. They are both excellent organizations.

Nov 24, 2011
3:12 PM

You're my hero. <3

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