Sunday, 04 June 2006
ImageFixing, mending and reusing things was common practice in the days before mass production. Waste not want not, people said, taking their cue from nature, in which there is no such thing as rubbish. But once industrialization took hold, as Heather Rogers recounts in her eye-opening history of garbage, "Gone Tomorrow," companies needed to induce people to buy products regularly whether they needed them or not, so thriftiness was deliberately maligned, craftily linked to poverty and ignorance, even denigrated as un-American. Citizens were turned into consumers and lured into an endless cycle of acquisition and throwing things away. But there is no "away"--there is just out of sight, out of mind.

 Garbage can be a dirty business--literally and ethically. Rogers, a shrewd observer and a witty and agile writer, commandingly documents the flaws in landfill and incinerator design that allow the release of pollutants into water, soil and air. She reveals the machinations behind the beverage industry's forcible eradication of returnable glass bottles, thus creating today's plague of discarded plastic bottles, and she reports on the terrible inadequacies of today's recycling efforts. Equally disturbing is information about how organized crime has formed a garbage cartels and how vast amounts of garbage are shipped illegally to developing countries. The most egregious form of transported garbage is e-waste: electronics such as computers, VCRs, TVs, cell phones and fax machines, devices full of lead, cadmium, mercury, zinc, toxic solvents, and polychlorinated biphenyls, or PCBs.

 Rogers pairs the hard facts about the criminal mishandling of garbage with a cool dissection of "greenwashing," corporate public-relations campaigns designed to sooth the public's worries about pollution, waste, environmental decimation and health threats. This practice is as ubiquitous as plastic, yet there was a time when a significant segment of the population wasn't buying it. The counterculture movement rejected consumerism and demanded environmental protection, and it succeeded in establishing bans on certain types of packaging, and getting the Clean Air and Clean Water Acts passed.

 Thirty years later, it's time for a critical new assessment of the well-concealed deleterious impact of manufacturing and the hazards of the ever-increasing volume and toxicity of garbage. Rogers believes that if the public knew the truth about the corrupt politics and health and ecological woes associated with rampant production and the resulting high tide of waste, people would demand a fresh round of reform.

 Rogers touches on the practice known as built-in obsolescence. Giles Slade devotes an entire book to it. "Made to Break: Technology and Obsolescence in America" is a fascinating, vexing, even enraging history of our "throw-away ethic." Drawing on a wealth of rarely consulted primary sources and writing with lucidity and vigor, Slade documents the creation of consumer culture and the engineering of obsolescence.

 He, too, addresses obsolescence's worst form of fallout, e-waste, and provides some arresting numbers: In 2004, "about 315 million working PCs were retired in North America." Most went "straight to the trash heap." As did more than 100 million cell phones in 2005, creating 50,000 tons of e-waste. These all add up to a "toxic time bomb," one that will only increase as more people throw out their old corded phones and, once HDTV peaks, millions of analog TVs.

 How did we come to this almost surreal conjuncture? The first phase involved "psychological obsolescence," the carefully choreographed arousal of dissatisfaction with the old and irrepressible desire for the new and fashionable. It didn't take carmakers long to discover that cosmetic changes induced consumers to "trade up for style, not just for technological improvements, long before their old cars wore out." The fashion imperative, the need to have the latest thing, has worked with any number of products over the years. Slade relates amazing lore regarding the success of disposable razors, the invention of the wristwatch, the cutthroat battle for the radio market and the advent of the calculator, the gadget that jump-started the electronics revolution.

 Informative and entertaining, Slade reveals the thinking behind so much of what we take for granted today in terms of branding, extravagant packaging, ever-changing styles and the many forms of overt and covert advertising that dominate our media and public spaces. But the real shock is found in his thoroughly researched revelations regarding "planned obsolescence," manufacturing techniques used to "artificially limit the durability of a manufactured good in order to stimulate repetitive consumption." This is the secret of the made-to-break strategy, a shameful, shadow side of American know-how.

 Slade chronicles the practice of planned obsolescence in a host of industries, including those spawned by such breakthroughs as the transistor and integrated circuits. As Slade analyzes such ever-evolving products as software and computer games, he considers the sources and consequences of our ongoing fanaticism for new things, called "neophilia" by Colin Campbell, a sociologist of consumerism.

 Not only is "Made to Break" rich in history and analysis, it also contains vivid profiles of seminal inventors, advertising pioneers, inventive business moguls and prescient social critics. Creativity and greed, innovation and irresponsibility, malevolence and hubris, conformity and dissent--all combine in a tale of American ingenuity run amok.

 If Rogers and Slade leave the reader seeing green and wanting more evidence of the folly, malfeasance and dire consequences of the electronics boom, they will find a treasury of information in Elizabeth Grossman's "High Tech Trash: Digital Devices, Hidden Toxics, and Human Health."

 Grossman traces the entire electronics footprint, beginning with the environmental destruction and social injustice attendant on the mining of the metals used in computers and cell phones. She moves on to delineate in compelling technical detail exactly how silicon wafers and semiconductors are manufactured, then visits Silicon Valley and Endicott, N.Y., where silicon-wafer and semiconductor manufacturing has resulted in major toxic-waste sites and groundwater pollution.

 Even more alarming is her expose of the troubles associated with polybrominated diphenyl ethers, or PBDEs, synthetic chemical compounds found in flame retardants used in TVs, computers and phones. PBDEs do not remain locked up in these objects, but instead drift into the air and infiltrate the living world. They are in our food and our bodies, and their ill effects can be drastic.

 Finally, Grossman offers her perspective on the horrors of e-waste shipped in massive quantities to India, Nigeria, Pakistan and China, where children, women and men bereft of protective clothing and proper tools break apart our discarded electronics by hand. These exploited laborers are exposed, at grave risk, to permanent biological toxic substances, poisons that also flow unchecked into rivers and seas and the air we breath.

 We depend on writers like Heather Rogers, Giles Slade and Elizabeth Grossman--writers working in the great tradition of bold and rigorous American thinkers, observers, critics and muckrakers from Henry David Thoreau to Upton Sinclair, Aldo Leopold, Rachel Carson and Bill McKibben--to shake us awake, dispel the fever dream of consumerism and reveal the true cost of our love for technology and our obsession with machines and disposable goods. And as precise as Rogers, Slade and Grossman are in their coverage of the garbage crisis, they are equally meticulous in their explications of solutions.