Monday, September 10, 2007

52 Weeks Down - Week 20 - Think Longevity

One of the things we simply can't afford to have anymore - afford in either economic or environmental terms - is a throwaway society, in which things exist for short term usage. Instead, as energy and resource costs rise, we need to make our possessions last - ideally for generations.

I don't know about you, but my observation is that old stuff is generally better made than new. This isn't universal, but I'm often surprised by how sturdy old things are, and how beautiful, how well they last. Part of that is because people simply didn't have as many things, or as much money to waste on things that promptly broke, so lasting materials and solid engineering were the norm. And part of it is because form and function didn't always operate so seperately.

Right now, I plant corn and beans with a 120 year old jab planter. I serve bread and soup from transferware dishes from the 1870s that my grandmother kept in her kitchen. My kids read stories from an ancient McGuffey's Reader, and I teach them spelling from word lists copied out of the books my great-grandfather used to teach school in Connecticut at the turn of the century - and some of the books belonged to his father.

Of more recent vintage, I chop wood with my father's axe, about the same age as me, prune bushes with a pair of loppers that are at least 40 years old, and use a potato fork from, I would guess, the 1940s. My children keep their stuffed animals in my father's toybox, and read the books of my childhood. My kids play dress up in fur hats and feathered ones that my great-aunt accumulated over her lifetime. I keep my food in tupperware containers my husband's grandmother bought in the 1950s, and warm my kids beds with comforters whose err... aesthetic dates them to the late 1960s. My husband wears a lovely black suit his Grandfather bought several decades ago.

Now I'm lucky enough to have this stuff, but for me, it illustrates the possibilities of a pass-down society, where we concentrate our (fewer) purchases on high-quality items that last a lifetime, rather than focusing on mass accumulation. That is, when we buy things, we should be thinking "can my grandchildren (or someone else's grandchildren) make use of this?" Because we simply don't have the option anymore of treating our possessions as throwaways. Not only are the environmental consequences simply too great, but more importantly, the resource that has enabled us to have so much is getting more and more expensive and harder and harder to come by. That is, whether we want our children and grandchildren to have live with the things we pass down to them or not, they may well have no choice.

Think about it. If the next generation cannot afford as many things, or we cannot afford the environmental impact of those things, what will the consequences be? Will the dishes you eat off of, the clothes you wear, the tools you use outlast the next year? The next decade? The next generation? Whenever possible, they should.

Now some things are bound to wear out - your work jeans, your children's sneakers, and other best loved items. And sometimes buying used means using things up - for example, the Dr. Seuss books my great-aunt gave to me in 1975 are now falling apart - not from misuse, but from age and love, and I'd rather see them read than preserved in plastic for some distant future. But other things don't have to.

Good clothing for adults, for example, can often last a lifetime if you choose classic styles, natural materials and good workmanship, and don't have to wear it everyday. "Sunday best" means that good shoes get taken off and replaced with work clothes, things are washed right away and stains not allowed to set. One's tools will last if you clean and oil them regularly, put them away out of the weather and preserve the handles (says Sharon whose colinear hoe is sitting out in the garden in the rain - ooops).

Dishes and household goods, many toys, children's clothes (the ones that get outgrown before they wear out), and books can last quite a long time. Acid based paper and age will take its toll eventually on books, and many children's clothes get passed around (although I have some that were bought used, have been through four and still look new - and others that didn't outlast a single child). But how would our practices change if everything we bought had to either be either used, or to last at least one lifetime?

In many cases, that could mean spending more money, or not. For example, I find heavier, more solid garden tools to be well worth the additional money. My hand tiller and that hoe I left out are both from Johnny's, and excellent quality, that will stand up to any usage. But I've also found these at auctions and yard sales for a dollar a piece. A good quality winter coat that will last a lifetime could cost you several hundred dollars - or it could be bought in a thrift shop for five. Heavy wood furniture will last a century or more, while the pressboard will fall apart. Good quality new or fine antiques are pricey. But there's a lot of older furniture made of good materials and construction that isn't fancy enough to be an antique that can be prettied up with some paint and attention - or enjoyed as is.

But what it does mean is attention to quality, seeking out things that you will enjoy long after they are "in fashion" and taking care of what you have. It means thinking in the long term - buying a toy for your kids that will be enjoyed by grandchildren and great-grandchildren, and teaching those children to take care of their possessions. It means changing the way we think about our stuff. It means valuing "visually accessible" (that is, doesn't look weird), "easily repairable" "natural materials" and "lasting" over "I want it and I want it now."

I'm a simple sort. I read about things like "cradle to cradle technology" where people have elaborate plans for how cell phones will be taken apart and recycled into other cell phones when they obsolete, and I think "but couldn't you just make a cell phone that lasted 20 years?" I wonder whether we'll have the energy to recycle all those things, or the market to buy them when recycled in the longer term. And then I look at the toy bus my step-mother made for my son. It'll never be anything but a bright yellow toy school bus. My kids sit on it. They surf on it. They jump on it. It never notices. They push each other around on it. If it breaks, all it needs is a replacement wheel. I can lend it to my niece when my boys outgrow it, get it back, pack it up until the grandkids arrive, and it will be there. When it finally passes on its death (and I find that hard to imagine - it is very, very, very sturdy), you can burn it keep warm. Now that's cradle to cradle.



Rejin Leys said...

I agree that we can't keep buying new, poorly made things that soon wind up in the waste stream. So many people seem to value shiny new stuff, though, and get rid of last year's model to make room for it. We need a shift in values, so more people recognize quality over quantity and trendiness.

Carron said...

My great grandfather ran a foundry in late 1800 and early 1900. We still have many of the tools from the foundry and the family farm.

They are truly beautiful objects and we have hung some of them on our walls. Unfortunately we are all city dwellers now and don't have anywhere to use the heavy saws and chisels. But we would never get rid of them.

My coworker, on the other hand, couldn't understand why we would hang on to such old, useless things. "sigh"

Heather G said...

Agree completely! That's why we invested in a high quality grain mill -- we don't want to have to buy another one thanks!

And now we're moving to the farm, where there are still many old tools and equipment -- some of it currently in use! And all of kept "just in case". Grinders, seeders, scythes, planers, and more -- we'll need them all, sooner or later.

My husband Lyle has put the old family rug loom back into service as well, this past year. Except for a 30-year gap (ending last year), this loom has been in operation for 150-200 years (creation date of loom is approximate). I'm now weaving on a smaller, 1950's floor loom that my mom used to weave on, and she bought it from couple in the late 60s. I didn't have time to weave on it in the 80s-90s, but I kept it safe and dry until I could make the time to come back to it. I love weaving, and will even be selling some of my work this autumn.

Oh, and I'm working primarily in natural fibers - wool, linen, some cotton. Thinking about bamboo, since it will grow in a northern climate -- need to do the research on growth, hazard to native plants, harvest, and processing, first. Although some of it has been growing in New England for decades, and not taken over, or I wouldn't even be considering growing it.

Life is changing and will be changing even more, but some of it's inevitable. So far, I have concerns, but am enjoying the challenge of creating the kind of life that will benefit both myself and my community.

Heather G

Anonymous said...

My wife and I have a few of those quite old, very sturdy tools and machines. Unfortunately, coming from newer suburbs, few people have those types of items to pass on. In our area, there is not history of place where people would pass on these items locally. Nor is there a critical mass needed to make a viable used item market for such things. It is far more tempting for most around us to simply pay the bucks at a nearby store where you can easily find something that will fit the bill for now. Ask me to find a sturdy old grain mill for sale within 50 miles and I might be searching for months, if not years.


Jen from Brooklyn said...

I agreed with this idea even before environmental issues were on my radar - I hate to shop. I almost never find my values reflected in what there is to buy, especially in the clothing department. Plus, I never have much money.

Your wooden school bus example, however, is somewhat less functional in the city. I live in 350 square feet. A very low-impact kind of living space, but not much storage space for an item to wait around for grandkids (or in my case, nieces and nephews.) We do have a great Freecycle community here, though, which solves the storage problem by moving objects around to where they can get used. You just have to hope that someone is done with the thing you need when you need it.

jewishfarmer said...

Hi Jen - It is true that you probably wouldn't want a 3 foot long wooden school bus in a 350 square foot apartment. You probably wouldn't want the four kids there either ;-).

I do think, however, that the day may come that those of us who benefit from the disposable culture (by buying used items and freecycling) may have fewer options, so it might make sense, when possible to meet basic needs now that there is so much available.

Richard, that's a good point - so perhaps a new, equally sturdy one would make sense. Or perhaps it might be worthwhile to give a list to a friend who lives "out." On the other hand, the 'burbs are *great* for high quality, nearly new clothing. You just don't find that stuff out here - but my mother in suburbia finds it by the ton.


Heather G said...

Oh, sorry, wasn't clear on the grain mill vs. other stuff we own/have access to. The mill we bought is new, and we ordered it over the internet. And we'll be doing much the same to get grain and beans, at least until either us or some of our friends get into growing these.

It's been a challenge figuring out which things we can and can't do for ourselves -- or find someone to do for us. Sometimes the answer is to order from farther away. Sometimes the answer is to do without (which does save up money towards getting those things we can't do without, like medications).

homebrewlibrarian said...

Given the sheer amount of stuff for sale in garage sales everywhere I go, I wonder how long a period of scarcity would have to be before the more "desirable" things at these sales (ie: old tools, used clothing, kitchen stuff, etc.) would stop being available. In some cases, because of cash scarcity, there might be even more for sale at these sorts of sales.

I'm sort of in Jen's position. Small apartment, not lots of storage space. What space I have right now (a second bedroom which doubles as the guest room and all my eBay sale paraphenalia storage) is being turned into a cold pantry for food storage. I've got a box of potatoes and one of apples plus some cheese aging, some dying daikon radishes and some jars of dried berries. That's really all I want to do with that space.

Personally, I'm not into hanging on to things I'm not using. In fact, I'm the only one in my family to break the genetic code to not only save everything but keep getting more. I neither keep what I do not use nor acquire more unless I really need it. What I do acquire I usually get from a thrift store unless it's something unique like a lefse board or a pressure canner.

I see the value of stocking up on things like clothing and tools but, frankly, I believe that I should be able to find suitable items when I need them for the foreseeable future. I am also building my "tribal" community where we don't all have to have the same tools, etc.

Being a single person does allow me more flexibility in terms of geographic area but also in terms of what I can do to help others. Maybe in the "tribe" I'll be the gatherer since I don't have children of my own. But my point is that I don't think everyone needs to keep storehouses full of things "just in case." Particularly if you've got a community of folks working with you.


jewishfarmer said...

Kerri, I agree with you - I don't think everyone needs to keep a storehouse of things "just in case" - I think those of us with kids, and farms and things do probably need to keep more things, particularly if we expect to host other people, but I agree with you. The focus of this post isn't stockpiling, but having better longevity with the things you have.

I'm not really talking here about storing stuff, so much as being able to meet your basic needs with things that will last a long time. Some of us have those things already, but if you don't, I'd tend to suggest that people acquire them now, while they are still available used or very cheaply. For example, some shoes simply aren't structurally sound enough to be repeatedly resoled - and it might be wise to find some that are. Such things are widely available used here, but not widely shared since you both tend to want them at the same time.

I agree with you that as we get poorer, we may see some of these goods out on the market quite cheaply, as people sell off their possessions, but I admit, I don't want to count on the notion that I would be able to afford them, rather than being among those strapped and selling off.


Bedouina said...

Re: the tools as ornaments - my parents (American mom, Lebanese-American immigrant Dad) returned to Lebanon in the 90s to live for a decade. They had a small city apartment in Beirut, and then used a large, empty family flat in the ancestral home in our village in the south on the weekends and holidays.

My grandparents, who built the original part of this house, were farmers but my relatives are not - they just live on the old farmsteads, in a village that is now a suburb of a largeish city.

Anyway - my parents decorated the village flat with traditional implements they found for sale second hand and very cheap in the souk: brass coffee grinders, farm implements. Village relatives would come to visit and say "I remember that old thing, we used to use it to do such and such. Why do you have that in your salon?" Mom also bought traditional baskets by the dozen. And Dad had his friend at the photo studio in town blow up and mount all his photos of Lebanese antiquities. Furthermore, my parents bought living room furniture secondhand in Sidon from Muslims.

This is the worst of the worst to a Lebanese Christian nouveau bourgeois. It's bad enough that my parents were buying secondhand, but that they bought the castoffs of Muslims - shudder. The relatives hated it all. Why couldn't my parents buy new gilt leafed, brocade upholstered furniture, and decorate with tapestries of the Last Supper and cloisonne vases filled with silk flowers? Where is the taste in all that old peasant Arab junk?

I don't know what happened to all that stuff. My parents moved back to the States five years ago; my father died; my uncle reoccupied the house and fitted it out with the "best" of everything, brand spanking new and glitzy as a Saudi Prince's hotel. Not my parents' style, nor mine, but it is his house and his money. I wish I had some of those old farm and cooking implements, and the baskets and clay pots too. Sigh.

Jessica at Bwlchyrhyd said...

You write, "...people have elaborate plans for how cell phones will be taken apart and recycled into other cell phones when they obsolete, and I think "but couldn't you just make a cell phone that lasted 20 years?"" -- I do have a cell phone -- one of the last remnants of my life in the city -- but when it dies I will not be replacing it -- instead I will make do with my Grandmother's black rotary dial phone which is still working fine after over 50 years! :)

Anonymous said...

One of the many nice things about my little enclave is that we pass children's clothing around. Some of it is very good quality -- Laura Ashely, etc. and it's really nice to see a dress you replaced buttons on years ago heading off to kindergarten on the 5 or 6 or nth child.


Maeve said...

Bedouina mentioned brass coffee grinders, which reminded me I was going to comment that a lot of the time, the more people-powered a tool is, the longer it seems to last. I have a treadle sewing machine which was my great-grandmother's, built around 1905, which still works.

I've been keeping my eye out for a hand-cranked coffee grinder. :)

One of my favorite thrills is when I need an article of clothing, or a kitchen gadget, and I can find one of good quality second-hand.

I would rather have a few things that look nice, wear well, and last forever, than to be endlessly buying coffeemakers or clothing.

I just have to say that some habits people have with buying stuff is truly baffling. Example, scrapbooking. The very concept is using bits and bobs of things you've collected or found or scrounged, to create a book of memories. And yet... people buy packages of bottle caps. BUY packages of bottle caps. When, even if you don't drink beer or soda in bottles, you can still walk along nearby most any bar and find plenty of free ones on the ground.

I'm hoping that as resources become scarcer, more people will start demanding that things be made of higher quality, with a concept of long life, rather than shoddy planned obsolescence.

Rosa said...

You can't do that just by changing consumer preference, though, there have to be larger forces (either legislation or plain natural limits) forcing producers to make sturdy, long-lived products.

People's values shifted away from the qualities you mention under the force of availability and marketing of shiny new items with planned obsolescene built into them. It will take a shift on that level to push the majority back again.

I remember the first time I heard someone refer to a "used" house as if a solidly built 40 year old home was inherently inferior to a giant beige box if the the beige box was new. It was a culture shock for me - but I think it's a very mainstream sentiment.

Leila said...

Buying bottlecaps - well here in the East Bay we have the Center for Creative Reuse (Oakland) Depot Store, where you can buy all kinds of doodads rescued from the waste stream, from tiny glass jars and old printers' paper samples to big pieces of furniture.

Last time I was there I found gorgeous glass bead earrings for a dollar. Their selection of beads and bead jewelry was so extensive and so ridiculously cheap that I'm never buying gifts anywhere else again.

If I thought I needed bottle caps and didn't have a source for a lot of them, I would check the Center for Creative Reuse.

I love the old, unused notebooks and composition books and ledgers you can buy there, as well. And you can always find untouched calendars with gorgeous art, or old picture frames with pictures inside, or yarn, fabric, whatever.

Of course I understand that the focus on this blog is NOT buying stuff, even if it's diverted from the waste stream stuff. But hey, I don't shop at Target or other such stores. And I hardly ever go to the Depot either. I'm just saying - if I feel I must get somebody a pair of earrings, I am checking the Depot first.

Leila said...

By the way - Bedouina = Leila. I don't know why it comes up different names on different computers. One is a blogger thing, one is a google thing, I can't remember the passwords for either so I rely on what's stored in the PC I'm using. Argh. I'm not trying to pretend to be two different people.

Anonymous said...

Actually I think the largest force IS consumer preference. If we stop buying throwaway stuff, they'll stop making it.

As long as there is a market for cheap throwaway stuff, it will be available. No amount of legislation will make it go away.

Lynnet from Colorado

Amelia said...

A pair of five-year-old leather shoes needed new heels and a good polish, and it was work to find someone to do it: two of the cobblers listed had closed their doors between issues of the phone books.

The search was worth it: they look new, (which spares me having to go out shopping) and they're near the Indian market where I buy bulk spices, rice and lentils, but it shouldn't be that much effort to get something mended. I have another pair that need to be sorted before winter, and they'll hopefully go up by the end of the month (a lot of unexpected medical expenses this pay period).

And finding the tools to keep things in good repair is also more work than it should be: I called every kitchen shop and hardware store in town trying to track down a diamond file to use on chipped glassware, and most of them not only didn't stock it but didn't know what it was! Thank goodness for the Vermont Country Store and places like them!

Leila said...

A diamond file for chipped glassware - I never heard of such a thing. I thought you had to throw out the glass.

Thanks for the tip!

Amelia said...

Well, if it's a crack it should go straight into the recycling bin, but a little nick out of the lip? Wet it down, wet the file, smooth it and put it back in the cupboard. I've got four glasses and a couple of bowls that are still in use because I was able to track down that file.

As the glasses do break beyond repair, I'm replacing them with Luminarc Working Glasses: they're very heavy-duty and come with plastic lids, so they can be used for storing bits of leftovers in the fridge or small amounts of dry goods in the pantry.

jewishfarmer said...

Amelia, that is a great idea with the diamond file.

I'm a total and utter klutz, and we break an embarassing number of dishes and glasses every year. I'm thinking of spending some money on enamelware dishes, which hopefully will last forever.


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