Sunday, September 15, 2019


Nostalgia is a double-edged device that can flood the mind with positive memories, but sometimes could be tinged with regret. Recently, I came across a newspaper article titled “The Appliances That Just Go On And On.” The story featured reminiscences by respondents waxing lyrical about their time-defying domestic gadgets, several of which hatraversed two generations, and others waxing indignant about more modern acquisitions.

The standout narrative recounted Hoover fridges that were installed by English councils in the mid-1950s. A woman’s mother-in-law moved into one of those council houses in Northumberland in 1956, and guess what? The fridge is still chugging along. A couple bought the same brand, but a different model, 46 years ago and, apart from frequent defrosting, they’ve chosen not to replace it. Other Hall of Fame brands from that era include Electrolux, Kenwood, Moulinex and Swan, spanning cookers, washing machines, blenders, toasters, and humble kettles.

The resonance of these anecdotes is unmistakable because of my parallel experience. Although I cannot remember the brand, we had an imposing, slightly off-kilter refrigerator in my youth that reminded me of the Leaning Tower of Pisa. Purchased in the 1950s, this appliance outlasted flashier, newer versions procured two decades later. By the late 1980s, the old reliable would intermittently create a racket by emitting a guttural sound, as though clearing up its vocal pipes. Eventually, my father decided to retire it to our country home, whereupon the story trailed off. Also imprinted in my memory was our sturdy cooker built like a Chieftain battle tank, as well as my mother’s Kenwood food processor that never seemed to quit.

Another searing tale from that period was of a relative whose father had died, and left him possibly his most prized possession - his bicycle. By then, the son had travelled abroad, started his own family, and risen to become a university professor. On a visit to his home town, he came upon his inheritance and, to his horror, discovered that someone had vandalised his father’s bicycle. Uncharacteristically, he hit the roof. After calming down, he ensured that the bike was repaired and restored to mint condition, before carting it away.

Laugh if you will, but the care exhibited by the professor towards a lowly bicycle is comparable to the devotion displayed by individuals who inherit priceless Swiss watches, such as Patek Philippe, Rolex, anequivalent brands. Painstakingly hand-crafted by skilled artisans, these watches and similar family heirlooms were built to last, and last, and last.

From a different perspective, I have sometimes pondered the changes that have occurred within nuclear families going back in time, when couples had as many as four to six children. As the third of four myself, I recall my father taking me to his tailor periodically when I had the privilege of selecting a batch of custom-made clothes - from suits to shirts and trousers. In those days, this practice was not unusual. Nevertheless, it was commonplace for children, irrespective of social class, to wear hand-me-down clothes and shoes from older siblings and cousins. Don’t snigger. That was just the way it was, when I would contend that consumer products were markedly more hard-wearing or durable.

Then, suddenly, everything seemed to change. The dizzying rise of consumerism could be attributed to a range of factors. Here are some suggestions. First, under domestic economic pressure, the US government decided in 1971 to decouple the dollar from the international gold standard, thus ending the convertibility that had existed since the end of WW2. This led to freely floating currencies, and volatility. Second, the Organisation of Petroleum Exporting Countries (OPEC) sent shock waves through the global economy by spiking the price of crude oil, in response to the US Middle East policy. Consequently, economic stagflation ensued throughout the 1970s, causing double-digit inflation, high unemployment rates and slowing economies. Simultaneously, the world’s population had risen from less than 2.5 billion in the mid-1940s to about 4.0 billion by 1975. It is plausible that the liberal economic model adapted to changing demographics and dire economic circumstances by mass-producing affordable goods for an exploding consumer market.

Therefore, in place of the old-fashioned frugal mindset, a new throwaway culture was born. Perhaps the greatest irony was that the counter-cultural, seemingly anti-materialistic, baby-boomer generation that came of age in the 1960s then presided over the most egregious exploitation of our planet’s natural resources in history. Furthermore, by having fewer children, indulgent boomers orchestrated the nurturing of self-centred, sometimes narcissistic, children and grandchildren with a monumental sense of entitlement. Aided and abetted by wily marketing companies, advertisers promoted the idea that nothing was quite good enough, by coaxing people into worshipping the new and faddish.

In time, industrialised nations proceeded to manufacture cheaper products, with relatively short life cycles, which kept their economies ticking over. As their landfills and incinerators overflowed, a perverse version of hand-me-down between rich and poor countries took root. Before long, waste products of all shapes and sizes - second-hand cars, home appliances, hazardous electronic goods, and sundry items - were being shipped to the world’s most impoverished consumers, whose recycling savvy is marginal at best. The hypocrisy underlying this flagrant practice has never been addressed.

And, incredibly, we all wonder why the global ecosystem is straining under the weight of runaway pollution and degradation. First, look in the mirror.


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