Planned obsolescence versus saving the planet

An entrenched need to regularly replace and renew the products upon which we rely is damaging our planet, and engineers must take some responsibility for this, writes our anonymous blogger.

As warnings become ever more alarming and predicted timescales to irreversible crashing of the planet ever shorter, I'm surprised by the widespread response to climate change. I'm not talking about politicians or big business, well not directly, but rather the man and woman in the street. There's plenty of  angst about the amount of packaging used by companies and even calls to give up meat due to its ecological impact. However, these always strike me as being window dressing at best  and conscious self-delusion at worst. Never mind the amount of plastic cradling your new smartastic-phone-3000, why are you buying a new one in the first place? I'd bet that mostly its because “its the latest thing” rather than the old one being broken or compromised beyond usefulness.

planned obsolescence
Should we be balancing our buying habits with the threat of extinction? Credit: rospoint via

This is no new phenomenon. A friend of Mrs Secret-Engineer's has regularly renewed the contents of her wardrobe every couple of years since adolescence - whether the garments were worn out or just barely worn. She, and those who queue through the night for the latest big thing are the cornerstone of the conspicuous consumption that the first world, and increasingly the whole world, rely on to create power and wealth. The rather worrying downside is that its killing the planet. As ever, we need only turn to the motoring sector for clear examples of how this mindset is created and exploited.

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The pre-war years saw cars as either luxury items or minimal requirement runabouts, the emerging comfortable family car being temporarily postponed by hostilities. As the 50s hit their stride though car companies had already established the idea of regular new models and updates to entice the newly affluent buyer into parting with their cash.  The car had become fashion statement and status symbol, so long as you kept up with the Joneses. The double whammy came with the scruffy, cast-off cars being bought by those who couldn't afford better, but crucially aspired to. Where to after this? The introduction of planned obsolescence. I clearly remember a consultant at one place proudly claiming he'd introduced a small recess under the crown of a certain  manufacturer's pistons. An additional machining operation on a car component is not something undertaken lightly, but this one virtually guaranteed failure after a known life. Chances are the car would subsequently be scrapped, meaning somewhere in the food chain a replacement would have to be bought new.

As a significant number of engineers rely directly on the perpetuation of the status quo for their livelihoods, any move to a reduction in consumerism is likely to critically affect us all

Look to the future and Tesla may well be leading the way, however not in the way its advocates would suggest. Increased complexity and integrated computing has been seen as the way forward for a while and Tesla has taken this to heart. All well and good but what happens when sub-systems go down or, as with your home PC, the software becomes unsupported? Whether intentional or not this is another way that a car can be forced into obsolescence, although it is too soon to see if this is a  planned strategy. Regarding the present, I was surprised to see a fairly forthright environmental-change pundit on television suggesting, amongst other things, “if you buy a new car buy an electric one.” I remain highly sceptical regarding the potential ecological benefits, cradle to grave, of electric cars but this was not the main issue for me. It was that he missed the opportunity of questioning whether we should be buying new cars at all.

The chance of a sudden radical change in our buying habits and coping with the seismic socio-economic upheaval this would trigger seems as close to zero as makes no odds. However, against this there is the reportedly large probability of extinction. As a significant number of engineers rely directly on the perpetuation of the status quo for their livelihoods, any move to a reduction in consumerism is likely to critically affect us all. Equally though we cannot help but also be at the heart of enabling solutions. Whatever happens we are obliged to fulfil the requirements of our employers, but perhaps it is time some of us were a little less proud of our role in creating this mess?