Special Report: Peak Oil

Industrial Graft-Vs-Host Disease and the Throw-Away Economy

Life in a post-carbon economy will be about repairing and jury-rigging our aging consumer goods; but it will also be about letting go of things that improve standard of living but not quality of life.

By Jason Allen
Published July 30, 2010

Yesterday was a frustrating evening. My iPod (for the record, a 1st generation, 20 GB model) had a problem with the headphone jack. For some reason, the headphones would not plug in all the way, and no matter how I poked and prodded, I couldn't get the obstruction (if indeed there was one) to come out. I had already replaced the battery a few months prior, and was now faced yet again with a dead iPod.

But lo and behold, I found an identical looking back cover (complete with headphone jack and on/off switch) on ebay for a lousy $7! I emailed the seller, and asked which version it was.

The donor was a match, and I won the bid, and waited anxiously for the 'organ' to arrive.

When I got home tonight, I went straight to work, carefully prying off the back cover, plugging in the cable that attached the bits on the back cover to the main iPod. It fit kind of funny, but I thought I'd make a go of it. I plugged it into the charger, and got set to rock and roll.

Did the headphones work? I'll never know. The iPod was locked, and no matter what I did with the lock/unlock button, nothing would make it unlock. In other words, the main iPod "body" did not recognize the new implant. Organ rejection was imminent.

I pried it open again only to realize that the tiny little cable was about 1 mm too small on either end to fit properly into the slots on my old iPod.

So I binned the whole lot in frustration (although to be honest, I may try pulling it out and selling it for parts on Kijiji).

Repairs in Your Future

It has been noted among many Peak Oil advocates that in the future, as the cost of a) producing consumer goods, b) shipping them from the other side of the planet, or c) both, rise with the price of oil, people will turn repeatedly to repairing that which they already own.

Unfortunately, when it comes to many (most?) of the small consumer items we take for granted, this may be somewhat wishful thinking.

The problems are twofold: Who is going to know how to fix things like cell phones, coffee makers, and Blu-Ray players (all of which have microchips and circuit boards); and where are they going to get the parts to fix them?

Back in the early days of munitions production, a trigger from one gun would never fit another gun, and a hammer from a rifle could only be used on the rifle for which it had been custom-made.

One of the things that made the U.S. such a world power was that their arms manufacturers quickly realized the importance of standard, interchangeable parts, and began churning out firearms by the bushel.

Parts-Incompatibility

Unfortunately, in the world of consumer goods, we may have returned to antebellum levels of parts-incompatibility. Brand X, Model 100 made in Malaysia is often made of parts that are incompatible with Brand X Model 100 made in Taiwan, and so on.

In the world of offshore production, the specs that most companies are concerned with are performance and durability - the 'what it does, and for how long', not so much the 'what bits it uses to do it'.

Sure your coffee pot is broken, but when you take it in to your 'guy' (as in, "I can get that fixed for you, I know a guy"), he pokes around for a few minutes and says "Oh, that's a XYZ chip board, and those are hard to find. Leave it here and I'll see what I can do."

Your options at that point are going to be limited either to getting a new coffee pot (which the manufacturers intended, but may become increasingly difficult), or to developing a taste for hot chocolate.

Lower Standard of Living, Higher Quality of Life

Life in a post-carbon economy is not just going to be about endlessly repairing and jury-rigging our treasured electronic consumer goods. It's also going to be about letting go of things that improve our 'standard of living', but really do nothing for our quality of life.

It's going to be about living more simply, making do with less, and learning to treasure things like family, friends, music played live in your living room, and homegrown tomatoes.

As for me? I've still got my old 500 MB iPod shuffle. After that dies, I guess I'm back to reading books and doing the crossword on the train.

Kind of like people have been doing since train travel was invented.

First published on Jason's personal website.

Jason Allen is a chronic hive whacker in the Kirkendall Neighbourhood.

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By matthewsweet (registered) | Posted July 30, 2010 at 11:32:35

This is only slightly related, but it reminds me of a great piece from CS Lewis when discussing transportation in the modern age:

I number it among my blessings that my father had no car, while most of my friends had, and sometimes took me for a drive. This meant that all these distant objects could be visited just enough to clothe them with memories, and not impossible desires, while yet they remained ordinarily as inaccessible as the Moon. The deadly power of rushing about wherever I pleased had not been given me. I measured distances by the standard of man, man walking on his two feet, not by the standard of the internal combustion engine. I had not been allowed to deflower the very idea of distance; in return I possessed 'infinite riches' in what would have been to a motorist ‘a little room.’ The truest and most horrible claim made for modern transport is that it ‘annihilates space.’ It does. It annihilates one of the most glorious gifts we have been given. It is a vile inflation which lowers the value of distance, so that a modern boy travels a hundred miles with less sense of liberation and pilgrimage and adventure than his grandfather got from travelling ten. Of course, if a man hates space and wants it to be annihilated, that is another matter. Why not creep into his coffin at once? There is little enough space there.

Comment edited by transitstudent on 2010-07-30 10:33:08

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By FenceSitter (anonymous) | Posted July 30, 2010 at 15:29:39

Check out this from the Spec last week

http://www.thespec.com/article/813318

There are still a few 'fix-it guys' around and thriving.

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By jasonaallen (registered) - website | Posted July 30, 2010 at 16:01:08

@FenceSitter - thanks for that, it's a great article (and I actually have an older Smart Phone that needs fixing, so I may take it to him!). The point I didn't make all that explicitly, is that the parts he is using to fix those phones, he is also getting from overseas.

If the price of bunker fuel (the dregs of the refining process that power our cargo fleet) goes through the roof as we bump our economy up against the global oil production cap - not only is it going to be unfeasable to ship brand new shiny iPhones from overseas, it's not going to make sense to ship their parts either.

At that point, some sections of the economy go into salvage mode, as has already happened with the modern day equivalent of beachcombers going into abandoned subdivisions in the U.S. Southwest and stripping the air conditioning units of valuable metals. To say nothing of all of the people I know who have had the catalytic converter hacksawed off of their car while parked somewhere for the day - all for a few lousy grams of platinum.

In an economy where repair of these precious electronic items is based on salvage, the incompatibility of their parts is a game changer.

Granted, this is probably quite a few years away, but really all it would take would be a good old fashioned coup in Saudi Arabia, or an all out civil war in Venezuela and Nigeria, and a comfortably distant future problem would suddenly be knocking at our door.

Comment edited by jasonaallen on 2010-07-30 15:05:35

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By Mr. Meister (anonymous) | Posted August 02, 2010 at 13:34:54

Maybe you should buy a really big box of Ipods or cellphones and put them away as an investment if you actually think that the price and parts are going to go the way you claim. I see prices falling and capabilities increasing.

No doubt that oil prices can and will increase but how much of an increase will it take to reduce consumption to meet production levels? probably not all that much. Of all the places in the world we are among the most capable of dealing with that challenge if and when it comes.

E Car charging will become available at work and school and in some cases already is in isolated cases. Why would it not? The cost of installing a charging station is minimal and can easily be recouped by the markup of electricity over the life of the charger. The same holds true for apartments. Your underground parking spot will some day come with an electrical hookup that is included on your apartment meter. As e-cars become more mainstream the infrastructure will be built. Just like some people said the automobile would never catch on because there were no gas stations.

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By UrbanRenaissance (registered) | Posted August 04, 2010 at 12:14:02

E Car charging will become available at work and school and in some cases already is in isolated cases. Why would it not?

Go anywhere up north and a lot of places already have outlets in parking spots for block heaters! Out of all the "next gen" fuel solutions (hydrogen, compressed air, etc.) electricity is the most straight forward to implement, we already know how to run electrical conduits after all.

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By Kiely (registered) | Posted August 05, 2010 at 17:02:58

Do the e-car advocates think that ANY employer will add plugs in the employee parking lot? - Anonymous

If they still want their employees to show up at work they may have to.

Comment edited by Kiely on 2010-08-05 16:03:19

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