Tuesday, May 11, 2010

Are Throwaway Societies More Resilient?

When I was growing up in England, it was very common to hear my older relatives say "They don't make things like they used to".  They generally had a perception that in the past, things were better made, lasted longer, and were expected to last longer.  Bedsheets used to be thicker, buildings made of stone, bridges and machinery over-engineered with lots of extra metal, etc.  By contrast, nowadays we live in a throwaway society.

It would be interesting and useful to quantify that.  However, this morning, I'm just going to throw out a half-formed idea for the sake of seeing if anyone can give me useful feedback.  So I'm just going to assume that it's basically true that in modern society, the average lifetime of an object is lower - buildings, personal possessions, etc - compared to pre-industrial societies.  Things are designed accordingly, with planned obsolescence.

Equivalently, this would translate to replacing a higher fraction of the capital stock of the society each year.  Modern societies both grow faster, and also replace more of their own fabric in any given period.  Obviously, the reason for this is that modern society operates at higher levels of energy/economic surplus - we have the wherewithal to casually throw away a bunch of stuff, and make new (putatively better) stuff.

But it is also this surplus that I have argued makes modern society more resilient to certain kinds of threats. Because there is a large energy/economic surplus, in an emergency, this can be diverted to fix the problem.

If we suppose that, notionally, pre-industrial societies replaced 1% of their infrastructure every year, and we suppose that modern societies replace 5% of their infrastructure every year (I'm making up numbers here for the sake of illustration), then a natural disaster that destroys 20% of the infrastructure can be fixed by the modern society in 4 years, but takes 20 years to fix in the traditional society.  That makes the odds that the traditional society will suffer a major loss of societal complexity in the interim much higher.

So, my hypothesis is that the throwaway nature of modern consumer society is not a marker of increased risk, but actually a marker of surplus and resilience to certain kinds of threat.  If society were to get very stressed in the future, one marker of that would be a tendency to preserve individual objects longer.  (Indeed, for example, car sales always go down markedly in recessions).

I should add, as a caveat, that I have the sense that there are entirely new kinds of risks that modern societies have that traditional societies didn't, but my thoughts on that are ill-formed (beyond the obvious cases like nuclear war).

If you have strong arguments to the contrary, comments are open...


Unknown said...

It may be true that modern society can replace 5% per year, but the past society had stuf that was designed to be repaired, so 20% may be damaged, but not all was lost.

Example 1 : a wooden house gets blown apart from a tornado, you still have the wood and bricks. With a bunch of nails and some creativity you can rebuild a shelter

Example 2 : a Vinyl buolding is blown to pieces. Try building a house from the scraps.

Gary said...

I agree with Lars - it's the cost to repair versus the cost to replace that is driving the "throw-away" mentality. If your cell phone stops working - no one is going to spend the time figuring out which of the components went bad. Even if the manufacture replaces it - it will be scrapped rather than repaired.
My concern is that if we lose the infrastructure that keeps producing the gadgets that die after 3 years, there will be no way to keep the junk running. Many things are unrepairable without specialized knowledge or equipment.

Robert said...

During my youth medical needles were autoclaved and reused. They tended to get dull which could be unpleasant. Today they are disposable and generally sharp. Some of the disposable medical equipment is expensive.

Jennie said...

My thoughts on this bit: "then a natural disaster that destroys 20% of the infrastructure can be fixed by the modern society in 4 years, but takes 20 years to fix in the traditional society. "
Would the same disaster destroy equally in both example societies? Perhaps in the modern society with it's throwaway mentality the same natural disaster destroys MORE infrastructure because it's built with less redundancy and so is destroyed easier, whereas something built to last has layers of redundancy built in and even if damaged by that disaster can quickly be repaired and operational.
Just my .02$ worth.

Burk said...

This is an interesting question. I wouldn't guess that shoes made of grass lasted very long, so our prehistoric forebears probably had something of a throw-away culture as well, if not as toxic as ours.

Societies care about different things, usually the high tech of their day, whether it is fabrics, or trains in their heyday, or consumer electrical products and cars of the 20th century, etc. Those things tend to get care and respect that declining technologies don't. Non-frontier technologies tend to be treated in a more utilitarian way.

We care about software and internet connectivity today, which is ironically about the most disposable and evanescent technology to ever have existed, despite all its power. So highest technology does not always equate to durable and careful construction.

In this connection, our sense of design in architecture and public space has suffered enormously with the advent of modernism as well. Perhaps the world was overcome with the American frontier ethic of here today, gone tomorrow to exploit the next bit of nature's bounty. I enjoyed the book "The Octupus" in this connection, which tells a story of the exploitation of the central valley of California, in the late 1800's. We have lived in a cornucupia of plenty for so long that we don't really understand the concept of resource limits or taking a long-term perspective.

jdl75 said...

"I should add, as a caveat, that I have the sense that there are entirely new kinds of risks that modern societies have that traditional societies didn't, but my thoughts on that are ill-formed (beyond the obvious cases like nuclear war)."

ill-formed, you're kidding right ? :)

Maybe you're thinking about stuff such as peak oil (or resources depletion rate in general) more than nuclear war right ?

Stuart Staniford said...


I think what you're saying is that older styles of building were more suited to repair by individuals or by forms of society simpler than the ones that created them. I agree with that, but it's not the same thing as how vulnerable modern society is to being collapsed.

Stuart Staniford said...


I tend to the view that peak oil is pretty unlikely to cause a societal collapse unless the net decline rate is very high, which there isn't much evidence for at the moment.

JoulesBurn said...


In your natural disaster scenario above, it is probably the case that the 5% of infrastructure that gets replaced yearly is not the most critical.

Regarding the "surplus", isn't it interesting that despite the possible existence of such, society cannot spare some it to adequately maintain infrastructure that would be damaged in a disaster? I'm thinking roads, bridges, the electric grid, etc. This suggests a certain level of societal disfunction.

Along those lines, everyone (especially on the right) complains about fat in government, but nobody can agree on what is fat. How will we decide exactly what is the surplus that can be reallocated to repair the stuff that is critical?

Philip Brewer said...

There's also the "resilient against what" issue. Maybe a throw-away society is more resilient in case of a natural disaster, but it's much less resilient against a "people get poorer" disaster.

Durable infrastructure can greatly ease a recession—people can get to town, goods can travel to market, clean water flows to people's houses—even if there's not enough money to maintain it for a period of years.

Throw-away infrastructure starts failing right away. That could potentially make a modest economy downturn self-reinforcing.

Unknown said...

What is the constraint on the 1% society? If they are working as hard as possible and all they can repair or replace is 1%, then sure, they are less resilient. But if that 1% is all they need and they are satisfied and conserving the rest of their capacity, then they are perhaps much more resilient.

Stuart Staniford said...


That's certainly something to what you say about society not maintaining infrastructure as well as it might. However, that's pretty clearly a choice - people could pay more taxes but don't want to. The odd rusty bridge in the corner is not perceived as an emergency - after all, the number of people dying in bridge collapses is not that large. And it's not like there's no maintenance. Just round the corner from me, we are building a whole replacement span of the Bay Bridge, because the old one is not seismically safe.

The surplus has mostly been going into stuff like building much bigger houses and much more powerful cars than people really need. They (we) certainly want that stuff and will complain bitterly if/when the government needs/wants to take it away to use for some other purpose.

So I guess the question will be under what circumstances it's politically feasible to divert the surplus. Clearly, WWII was such a time. I would guess a similar level of external threat would create a similar level of response now. It's a very good question whether internally generated threats (stuff that's *our* fault, rather than the fault of some external enemy) could generate similar responses, or human psychology/sociology will always tend to prioritize external threats.

Eric Thurston said...

Maybe I'm missing something but this seems like a case of confusing cause and effect.

Surplus resources could be seen as a cause of a throwaway society, and surplus resources could be seen as a cause of the resilience you refer to, but I can't see the implication that having a throwaway culture is somehow a cause of the resilience.

Or, like I said, maybe I'm missing something.

Stuart Staniford said...


I agree with you about the direction of causality. The idea is that the throwaway aspect is a marker of surplus, which in turn is a cause of (one kind of) resilience.

Mike "Pops" Black said...

One of the reason to throw away the broken stuff is because the person who put it together works for a dollar a day and whoever would be doing the fixing needs to make that at least every 3 or 4 minutes.

Complexity and "efficiency" are all well and good but engineering to the lowest possible input cost doesn't make a system resilient. My '99 pickup is much more comfortable, safe and efficient than my '69 pickup but it is not in any way more resilient. The '69 could be set on fire then driven into a lake to soak for a few days and be repairable in a short time with basic skills, tools and materials - wire, tires, hoses, etc.

The '99? Naw, all specialty parts, chips, sensors, etc.

Sure, I could go out and by a replacement for $30k (or whatever the price would be with demand very high and infrastructure broken) that is if my personal economy was resilient enough. How resilient was the economy after Katrina in NOLA? How is the throwaway economy improving the results in Haiti?

Lets face it, we all choose the 2 For One deal over the lifetime warranty, always have, and I guess we always will until we can't.

Geoff said...

The drive to make a profit reduces the quality of goods produced, this is readily seen in things like a set of the metal shelves you can get for the shed. 20 years ago the metal was around 1-2mm thick, now it's razor thin. The old ones are still around today, the new ones, well, put a bit too much weight on them and they crumple into an unusable mass, so they are subject to even more modes of failure than their predecessors.

As I see it resiliency is based on a number of factors:

1. How many modes of failure is the system subject to? If you can lower the opportunities for failure then the system has less chance of failing, so is more resilient.

2. The capacity to respond. In the event of a failure can sufficient resources and skills be brought to bear to weather the episode and rebuild/restore functionality?

3. Availability of resources. Can you obtain the resources needed to fulfill that capacity at (2)?

There are no doubt more, but I think these are key here.

Throwaway society fails on two out of these three:

1. We have increased our modes of failure, just like the metal shelves. Something that isn't robust, strongly built, well designed is more prone to fail.

Take New Orleans for a relatively local example to you. Which houses were still standing after the storm went through? Stone buildings last a lot better than wooden ones, and give you a place to weather a storm. Wooden, throwaway, buildings create national disasters.

2. This is the only one modern society wins on. Due to the throwaway nature of society industry needs to have a great throughput of resources and the capacity and skill to turn those resources into the junk we buy and toss out, at ever increasing rates to keep the profits up.

This means that every time a portion of the system is wiped out we can rebuild swiftly. We might be considered resilient if we lose an arm or leg and can grow it back quickly, but I'm dubious about how far that really goes.

3. Here we fail again. The very fact of being so good at (2) means we have dug up and tossed out a massive proportion of our readily accessible resource base. We've moved more essential energy and materials to the great pool of entropic blankness in the sky than we have invested in a strong structure for the future.

Resource scarcity implies longer lead times, and greater investment of other resources to solve any problem.

If I toss out my pile of salvaged building materials then I've got to travel 30kms and spend money to buy materials to fix any problem around the house. Having the materials here means I can select an appropriate piece and be back up and running in a matter of hours, with only expenditure of energy based on my capacity to do work.

Of course we enter a region of chicken and egg thinking, wondering whether we would ever have developed the capacity for action if we hadn't gone down this path of a throwaway society.

I personally think that can be countered by asking whether the lower rates of work of "ye olde times", producing more robust solutions, actually balances out in terms of resilience.

Spending 10 years to build a stone dwelling in which I can weather almost any storm would seem to be much more preferable than building a new dwelling in 3 months, and doing so annually when the weather's treating us badly.

With the stone building we have invested energy and resources in a solution with a lower number of modes of failure that can be passed on to future humans. With the wooden building we're relying on so many other aspects of a complex system (insurance, finance, resource provision, resource conversion) that are prone to failure, to provide an illusion of resilience.

Lars-Eric Bjerke said...


Economist S. Burenstam Linder showed 40 years ago that increased productivity in industry and higher salaries will lead to the behavior that we buy more goods rather than services as the cost of services will increase. We will also not decrease working hours as the cost of not working rather than working becomes higher. This will also lead to the behavior that consumers will be less thorough in the selection of goods and will buy things they will not have the time to repair or even use. This also means that the relative benefit of an increase in the GNP will become lower and lower.