Column: Disposable Culture

David Suzuki
By David Suzuki
September 12th, 2018

My parents married during the Great Depression. After the 1929 market collapse, people had to learn to make do, help each other out and live on meager incomes. Those times were seared into my parents’ attitudes and values.

Although we were all born and raised in Canada, my family was seen as the enemy during the Second World War. Because of our Japanese ethnicity, the government confiscated our property and incarcerated us in camps deep in the Rockies. When the war ended, we were shipped to Ontario where my parents worked as farm labourers. Winters were cold and I needed a coat, which they bought with their limited resources. I was in a growth spurt and quickly outgrew it, so they passed it on to my twin sister. Half a year later, she had outgrown it so our younger sister inherited it. For years, my parents boasted, “This coat was so well-made, it lasted through three children!”

Durability was a prized attribute of clothing and other products. What’s happened since? Would a child today happily wear a well-used hand-me-down? How many parents even think of passing clothing on that way?

War pulled the North American economy out of the doldrums, but as it was drawing to an end, politicians worried about how to transition a war economy to peacetime. The answer was delivered by the president’s economic advisers: Get Americans to worship at the altar of consumption, they advised, so they buy things, use them and buy more. It worked. Today, 70 per cent of the American economy is based on consumer goods. And where America goes, a world enmeshed in the global economy follows.

The 1945 global population of about 2.5 billion has now exploded threefold. This huge consumer group has fed a steep rise in the global economy. To maximize consumption, businesses market products to children, seniors and sectors of the developing world. Holiday celebrations have become sales opportunities, none more than around American Thanksgiving with its Black Friday and now Cyber Monday.

Everything we consume comes from the Earth and goes back to it. Our home is the biosphere, the zone of air, water and land where all life exists. Many “resources” we exploit — air, water, soil, trees, fish — cleanse and replenish themselves. If we use them carefully, we can live in balance. But explosive growth in human numbers, consumption and the economy result in overexploitation and destruction, undermining the planet’s life support systems.

In this critical moment when our energy decisions hold the key to our species’ future, we must rethink our place in the world. That means re-examining our consumer-driven economy with its constant repetition of the need for growth.

Reflecting on the coat that “went through three kids,” I wonder about the three Rs — reduce, reuse and recycle — that environmentalists pushed in the 1970s and ’80s. Product durability means sales will dry up or at least diminish — not a good strategy in a business cycle demanding growth as the measure of success.

In a time of environmental crisis, the most obscene word in our language is “disposable.” Disposability implies that something we’ve finished using disappears. In the biosphere, nothing goes away or disappears. Everything ends up somewhere.

During the 1950s, the phrase “planned obsolescence” became a critical element of industrial output to ensure continued markets for everything from buildings to cars. This mentality underpins the very notion of “fashion.” Clothing is something we wear to cover up and keep us warm in cold weather and cool in hot. But appealing to people’s thirst for novelty clothing epitomizes disposability. Few things flaunt disregard for the environment more than proudly wearing pre-ripped jeans costing hundreds of dollars. Those jeans are a tribute to the need to push unnecessary product onto easily manipulated consumers.

The planet is overrun with an insatiable predator, humankind. As we run out of places to dump our wastes, cities are reducing the waste stream by banning disposables such as plastic dishware, cutlery and bags. This is a first step to re-examining our unsustainable ways and the need to rediscover values of frugality and thoughtfulness about our place on Earth. Let’s start by teaching our children that “disposable” is a bad word.

David Suzuki is a scientist, broadcaster, author and co-founder of the David Suzuki Foundation.

Learn more at www.davidsuzuki.org.

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