Capitalism, Obsolescence and the Planet…
I’ve finally bitten the bullet and bought a new iPhone which I’m picking up tomorrow. This came with a huge chunk of buyer’s guilt as there is nothing technically wrong with my current 4-year old model, just a litany of problems with updating apps, the operating system, storing audio files and pics, and, I have to admit it, the lure of the new whizz-bang gizmos. I, dear reader, am a (semi-willing) victim of planned obsolescence.
Planned obsolescence is the backbone of the modern consumer society. Popularised in 1924 when Alfred P Sloan’s General Motors embarked on a strategy of annual car design upgrades to make drivers want to ditch their current car in favour of a new model long before it breaks down, it is often held up by anti-capitalists as the epitome of waste and greed.
Up to a point I agree. But the flipside is that obsolescence represents a huge driver for the technical innovation we need to create a better world. Without creative destruction, we’d still have smog-choked cities, people stuck in hardscrabble subsistence farming, and the crudest of medicines. And, importantly, with a few Government incentives, it is capitalism and its attendant innovation which are giving us the current clean energy revolution. I’d rather live now than anytime in history, quite frankly.
I’m always bemused by those who believe that state socialism is the answer to our environmental and social problems. I was inspired to dedicate my life to sustainability by witnessing the colossal environmental destruction left behind by the Soviet-era in Russia in 1997 (the reporting of which was still leading to the harassment of journalists and activists). China is hardly the cleanest, greenest and open of the world’s nations. Venezuela’s socialism is powered by oil and intolerant of dissent.
Plus, there’s nothing more ironic than seeing an anti-capitalist activist enjoying freedom of expression to tweet about the evils of consumerism on their smartphone via a 4G mobile phone network. Right on, comrade!
Don’t get me wrong, I’m not an emotionally frozen free-marketeer either. The market can’t be trusted to operate on its own, it needs a broad steer in the right direction. On top of basic state services, we need Government interventions: regulation on the most destructive activities, smart incentives for emerging technologies, the internalisation of externalities (aka the polluter pays), the funding of socially useful research, and the breaking up of vested interests locking us into destructive paths. Driving change for the good, in other words, but never smothering it.
It’s probably quite healthy that I get a pang of guilt whenever I upgrade my phone. But I’d be lying if I claimed that I’m not looking forward to it too!