Planned Obsolescence also known as “The Light Bulb theory” is an economic method that seeks to shorten the lives of products to increase consumer demand and ensure a return custom. While this may be considered to be a smart method in increasing profit margins, it is done so at the expense of the planet’s environmental stability.

Early incandescent light bulbs could last up to 2,500 hours and the filament in these light bulbs was invented to last (Adolphe Chaillet’s formula is considered to be a mystery). This is significant as this invention was the first victim of planned obsolescence. The Phoebus cartel (comprised of several companies) in turn would control consumption and implement less optimised light bulbs as it was considered to be more “efficient” in terms of preserving the company’s future. In other words, lasting light bulbs was considered economically disadvantageous thus leading to the company’s appointment of the “1000 Hour Life Committee”. By 1924, an average light bulb would last up to 1,000 hours, despite the fact that if optimised more efficiently, it could last up to 2,500 hours but this is not conducive to a free-market orientated mindset. This tactic is ultimately based on the erroneous notion that we live in a world of infinite resources. Despite the fact that there are bulbs that can last up to 100,000 hours (especially today, the emergence of LEDs, which are part of Consumer Reports’ lightbulb Ratings, and which manufacturers claim could last up to 50,000 hours), it is unlikely that these will ever reach the market, precisely due to the fact that companies will not be able to ensure an increase in profits.

The USSR’s economy did not see planned obsolescence as a necessity. Their economy was not ruled by the free market but was centrally planned by the state. However, chronic shortage of resources rendered the notion of planned obsolescence, obsolete. In former Eastern Germany, fridges and washing machines were designed to be more optimised. Also, East German company Narva presented long living bulbs and wanted to sell these to the US during an international light fair. However, western buyers at the fair rejected the product and after the collapse of the Berlin wall, the factory bulb and long live lamp went out of production. Interestingly, we see how planned obsolescence was used to achieve political goals as well as economic ones in this context. For example, in Giles Slade’s Made to Break: Technology and Obsolescence in America, Slade discusses how Gus Weiss (a White House policy adviser on technology, intelligence and national security) came up with the idea of lifting the US embargo on microchips and computers (which the USSR needed to exploit and harness their reserves of oil and gas to earn the foreign currency) but on the grounds that these products would have an inbuilt obsolescence which led to a plethora of industrial accidents, which Slade claims was a decisive factor in the defeat of the USSR during the Cold War.

During the late 1920s, an emerging consumer society was on the rise but was soon greeted by an economic recession. People no longer queued for goods but for work and food. Bernard London suggested ending the depression by making Planned Obsolescence compulsory by law. All products would be given a set expiry date and would be rendered “legally dead” once the expiration date was reached. Consumers would then have to return the said goods to the government agency which would subsequently destroy them. Although this was ignored, it is significant because of another idea that resurfaced in 1950; the idea of not forcing, but seducing the customer. Brooks Stevens (the man who popularised the idea of planned obsolescence) emphasised the acquisition of “things”. “Instilling in the buyer the desire to own something a little newer, a little better, a little sooner than is necessary”. This continuous introduction of new products ultimately becomes a cycle of endless consumption but does not ensure the functional utility that could be implemented, thus generating endless waste.

Resource collapse: We have been living under conditions of resource overshoot since the late 1970s, and have already reached peak oil. The Washington consensus world economy already consumes three times the annually produced interest on the capital of objective-physical world resources, and is eating into the natural capital of the world in an unsustainable way. If the world economy doubles in 20 years, by 2034 the world will be using up six planet Earths, hence collapse. And if you try to avoid this, then you get the collapse of capitalism and hence the collapse of the USA by default.

Implications are:

A) Move to a post planned obsolescence balance load economy, but forgo the throughput economy needed to back up present day debt and money claims and the escalating US and world debt and therefore collapse.

B) Retain the throughput attrition economy to sustain all money claims – especially US dollar ones – together with the debt system based on the dollar or any other “succeeding” hegemonic currency- and achieve resource collapse. The combination of escalating unsustainable debt in the USA and across the world, combined to the fact that money/debt claims are always implicitly claims about future resources THAT NO LONGER EXIST IN THE PHYSICAL SYSTEM OUTRIGHT dooms the US and its world system, and, with it, the world as we know it. (Yes, you can do a Buckminster Fuller on all this and save the human race: But such a feat would destroy the capitalist system, the USA and world economy as we know it: therefore collapse)

However, if we resort to Buckminster Fuller’s methods, and design use values and infrastructure to last; and hence establish a low throughput, low resource attrition, re-localized low logistics – but high quality – material society, then we might end up with cities, countries and societies that are no longer so dependent on far-flung resources; no longer dependent on so much fraud and deceit – i.e., “trade” – to secure those far-flung resources; and no longer so much dependent on war as the alternative to trade to secure the same. In so far as “power” is a set of institutions, relations and psychological complexes built on the want of far-flung resources, the same power structures would be far less prominent in a future society that has heeded Buckminster Fuller’s prescriptions.

Understanding this in the context of planned obsolescence, adopting this system would completely render the need for products to fail given that more emphasis will be placed on efficient, durable as well as sustainable strategies that take into consideration the importance of our planet. It would not be decoupled from our planet’s stability but rather attempt to synthesise and sustain its integrity and environmental equilibrium. There would be an intelligent management of the finite resources on this planet, whereby the ceaseless extraction and consumption of things for the sake of profit and “economic growth” would be rendered obsolete. Strategic preservation and efficient use of resources in a “steady-state” economy would be implemented.

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