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Vance Packard’s The Waste Makers: A late review

Vance Packard’s The Waste Makers: A late review thumbnail

Where did the Convenience Industrial Complex start? A 1960 classic tells all.

The Convenience Industrial Complex is the term we came up with to define the economy based on us buying more and more stuff we don’t need in ever larger sizes to consume more resources which we just throw away when we are bored or tired or see something fancier. It is a collusion of government and primarily fossil fuel companies to keep pumping oil out of the ground, and turning it into fuel for ever bigger cars and plastics for ever greater convenience.

After my first post, Our lives have been co-opted by the Convenience Industrial Complex, a reader recommended that I look at Vance Packard’s The Waste Makers. Written in 1960, it followed Packard’s hugely successful The Hidden Persuaders, which described how the advertising industry manipulates consumers to induce desire for products. It was not his most popular book, but it may well be his most prescient.

Bill McKibben does an introduction to the new edition, and notes: “Packard also strikes on ideas that very few were thinking about in 1960, but which now loom very large in our debates. I was amazed by the prescience he showed” including peak oil, turmoil in Venezuela, “topsoil. There is, he writes, an ‘impending water crisis,’ and ‘millions of acres of farmland’ are being ‘covered with homes, shopping centers, and factories.’ Nuclear power won’t save us because it’s too expensive, and “disposal of the mounting radioactive wastes will become a monstrous problem.” McKibben concludes:

If there’s a moral to this book, fifty years later, it’s that No One Can Saw We Weren’t Warned. If we didn’t get it from Thoreau, we should have gotten it from Packard. That we didn’t get it is indisputable, and now—as the Arctic melts and the oceans acidify—we’ll pay the price in ways even he couldn’t have imagined. But he did imagine pretty much all the rest.

Back in 1960, Packard was describing the a hyperthyroid economy where everything revolves around fashion and whim. “Already watches are being sold as fashion accessory items…Already the stockpiling and disposing of subsidized subsidized but unwanted agricultural products have become a world-wide scandal. Already some home furnishings are being built to break down within a few years.”

The people of the United States are in a sense becoming a nation on a tiger. They must learn to consume more and more or, they are warned, their magnificent economic machine may turn and devour them. They must be induced to step up their individual consumption higher and higher, whether they have any pressing need for the goods or not. Their ever-expanding economy demands it.

second homesDouglas fir Association/CC BY 2.0

Everybody is in on the game to make us buy more, buy bigger. “A campaign by the world’s largest manufacturer of wedding rings to popularize the “double ring” ceremony greatly increased the sale of gold wedding rings.” Plumbing manufacturers promoted the “privazone home” where everyone had their own bathroom. The plywood associations promoted second homes; People were told “You peasants who own only one car . . . are chained to the land like serfs in the Middle Ages.”

Today, almost everyone has a Queen size bed; we have trouble finding sheets for our double bed. Why did beds get bigger?

United States Steel, a major producer of bedsprings, in 1960 prepared a massive campaign to change American ideas about the right size for a bed. It hoped to swing North Americans away from the long-standard fifty-four-inch double bed to oversized and twin beds. United States Steel was reported prepared to spend a million dollars to put consumers and retailers into a mood to yearn for larger beds. Its campaign was called “Space for Sleeping.” In this drive it had the cooperation of bedding manufacturers, who also would benefit by any outmoding of the standard bed since there would be an increased demand for larger mattresses, frames, sheets, and all the other fixings.

It’s brilliant. US Steel sells more springs, but everyone else hops on board.

I remember when I first saw a disposable Peppermill, shortly after had bought my wife a very expensive French Peugeot last-a-lifetime Peppermill. I thought it was the end of civilisation as we know it, that people are too lazy to even buy pepper and fill the grinder. (TreeHugger’s John Laumer talks about this one) Packard tells us that even back in 1960 it was like that, with the container in products like Redi-Whip costing more than the product inside. (Much like bottled water today).

“The force that gives the U.S. economy its pep is being generated more and more in the teeming aisles of the nation’s stores…. U.S. consumers no longer hold on to suits, coats, and dresses as if they were heirlooms…. Furniture, refrigerators, rugs—all once bought to last for years or life—are now replaced with register-tingling regularity.”

vintage car advintage car ad/ Xray Delta/CC BY 2.0

Packard predicted that this would not end well, particularly with automobile marketing.

If marketers have their way, American citizens will have at least forty million more vehicles on the roads by 1975. Millions of acres of land will be bulldozed for highway rights of way. More elevated highways will slash into the cores of American cities to try to loosen up the congestion. Such highways, by their size and divisive nature, seem to demean the cities they are designed to rescue. Despite the thruways, urban experts predict that congestion will grow faster than relief of congestion. When one magazine forecast that in a decade most American families would have two cars in every garage, a Boston reader wrote back that if the prediction came true then “we’ll also need two hospitals in every block.”

The Convenience Industrial Complex makes it all so easy, particularly when it comes to burning fossil fuels.

Only in America would a housewife hop into a two-ton vehicle and drive downtown to buy the thumbtacks that she forgot to buy on her regular shopping trip. And only in America do people in midwinter warm themselves almost entirely by the wasteful method of burning thousands of gallons of oil to heat up a house rather than by getting much of their warmth by wearing warm clothing.

Packard also worries about what will happen when other countries catch up to the USA.

As industrialization spreads in Asia, Africa, and other areas where per capita consumption of materials has been extremely low by American standards, demand for raw materials and energy will expand swiftly and produce scarcities that will force rises in price. If the rest of the world—even with its present population—were to achieve the level of material wealth enjoyed by the people of the United States, there would be a sixfold increase in need for materials. Actually there is no longer enough copper, tin, and lead left in the world to permit such a duplication on the basis of today’s technology.

Packard is particularly appalled with the car industry, that keeps selling bigger cars with more useless features and more powerful engines.

In 1959, a design engineer from Sunland, California, expressed dismay at the waste of resources produced by American motorcar design. He charged in Product Engineering: “I think the current auto design trend indicates a moral decay in America that is most alarming. When such a large share of the national income is squandered on useless glass, fins, overhang, etc., which require excess horsepower and attendant wasted fuels, then it is about time the federal government stepped in and placed a tax on auto body weight and horsepower.” Later he added, “If an automobile requires over 100 horsepower, it is too damned big and wasteful.” At this writing, about three quarters of all motorcars being made in Detroit are still “too damned big and wasteful” by the engineer’s estimate.

My Impreza, the smallest car Subaru sells in North America, has 148 horsepower. And it, and other cars like it, are ruining our cities; Packard writes (again, in 1960!)

City planner Victor Gruen offered the opinion that “although we are the richest nation with the highest individual living standard, we have one of the lowest ‘public living standards’ of Western nations. Our cities are littered with ugliness and choked with automobiles.” Harvard historian Arthur Schlesinger, Jr., asserted, “It is not that our capabilities are inadequate, it is that our priorities—which mean our values—are wrong.”

Nobody wants to spend any money to have nice things.

Taxes are seen as bad, as money down the drain. Business has successfully sought to picture them as destroying business incentive or as “creeping socialism.”

Kids today spend too much time wired into their electronics.

Many young Americans have been conditioned to need the noise of radio pouring steadily into their ears, whether they are on a train, watching a ball game, or studying. Officials of an Eastern college told me that pandemonium broke out on their campus when the electric power went off one afternoon for two hours. Students complained that they couldn’t study without the music of their radios to support them.

Packard has some suggestions for getting out of this rut, some sensible and some not. Personal helicopters might reduce congestion. Picture phones might reduce commuting. And “A quiet electric car would reduce greatly the drain on both metal and petroleum supplies.” He calls for a move from manufacturing industries to service industries such as “travel, insurance, restaurants, hotel and motel operation, recreation, cultural activities, health-improvement activities, and education for both children and adults.” They take fewer resources and employ more people.

Packard says we have to stop believing that tech will save us.

One is the widespread faith of Americans that their technology can solve all their problems. This faith persists even though this technology is pushing them relentlessly toward ever-greater giantism and ever greater productivity based on automation, which requires ever-greater consumption.

Sounding like Veblen, he worries that we have become obsessed with conspicuous consumption.

The lives of most Americans have become so intermeshed with acts of consumption that they tend to gain their feelings of significance in life from these acts of consumption rather than from their meditations, achievements, inquiries, personal worth, and service to others.

The most remarkable thing about this book is how little has changed in almost sixty years. Every problem and crisis he lists is still with us, just worse. And I think today, people just want to return to before it all came to this.

I find myself often seeking out the older New England villages that have changed relatively little—except for a gas station or two—in recent decades. I, too, feel a freshening of the spirit when I stroll about the tree-shaded village green, peer into the lovely old spired, clean-lined churches, visit the still picturesque stores, chat with the natives, and walk among their two-century-old homes.

Don’t we all.

 

treehugger

 

 



24 Comments on "Vance Packard’s The Waste Makers: A late review"

  1. penury on Wed, 31st Jul 2019 4:33 pm 

    The mantra of government that a minimum of two per cent growth in consumption per year is required to maintain the health of the nation drives a large portion of the actions that are required to increase not the welfare and safety of the population but the wealth of the upper 1 per cent. You can figure out qhy we have the policy.

  2. Douglas Gardens on Wed, 31st Jul 2019 4:37 pm 

    We have a patient missing. Please report Juan Pablo if he is sighted.

  3. Another Lunatic Davy Sock Puppet on Wed, 31st Jul 2019 5:11 pm 

    Douglas Gardens on Wed, 31st Jul 2019 4:37 pm

  4. makati1 on Wed, 31st Jul 2019 6:32 pm 

    The tax slaves in the US of Debt are in for a life threatening shock when the SHTF and their pretend lifestyle goes POOF! That includes their pseudo empire and delusions of exceptionality. 2020? We shall see.

  5. Davy ID theft on Wed, 31st Jul 2019 6:34 pm 

    makati1 on Wed, 31st Jul 2019 6:32 pm

  6. muhamadbinpedoalameriki-aka-juanpee on Wed, 31st Jul 2019 6:40 pm 

    makati1, I am not happy with the Muzzi situation in the Ps. Please explain this to me.

  7. committee for fraudulent behavior on Wed, 31st Jul 2019 6:44 pm 

    Site owners please boot the asswipe juanpee

  8. I AM THE MOB on Wed, 31st Jul 2019 7:18 pm 

    White supremacist gang leader, 1 other escape Arkansas jail

    https://www.yahoo.com/news/white-supremacist-gang-leader-1-172849874.html

  9. I AM THE MOB on Wed, 31st Jul 2019 7:20 pm 

    Mak

    The US can spend unlimited amounts of money..Debt is a non factor because they have the worlds reserve currency..You should read about Modern Monetary Theory..

  10. I AM THE MOB on Wed, 31st Jul 2019 7:29 pm 

    28% of Europeans can’t afford a 1 week annual holiday
    https://old.reddit.com/r/europe/comments/ck62fk/28_of_europeans_cant_afford_a_1_week_annual/

  11. More Davy Sock Puppetry Fraud on Wed, 31st Jul 2019 7:52 pm 

    committee for fraudulent behavior on Wed, 31st Jul 2019 6:44 pm

  12. I AM THE MOB on Wed, 31st Jul 2019 8:59 pm 

    Holy shit, the US is sending its navy to “secure” the Strait of Hormuz

    When will the Iranian aggression end?

  13. Another Insane Davy Sock Puppet on Wed, 31st Jul 2019 10:05 pm 

    muhamadbinpedoalameriki-aka-juanpee on Wed, 31st Jul 2019 6:40 pm

  14. makati1 on Thu, 1st Aug 2019 1:39 am 

    MOB, you should have some common sense and know that they cannot print forever. That time is coming to a close. So is the USD as the world reserve currency. Don’t you notic3e that the amount of dollars used in world trade is shrinking fast? Obviously not. The gravy days of the US are drying up. I hope you are prepared. I am.

  15. forbin on Thu, 1st Aug 2019 3:57 am 

    ” And I think today, people just want to return to before it all came to this.”

    the man is either stark raving mad , a delusionalist , or has a book to sell …… ah wait …

    who wants to go back to the mangle, TB, cold winters with no heating , and so on. He visits, as a tourist ( ahhaha) a village and would like the peace and tranqulity of it all . Sure right , its a dormer village for the nearest big city. the locals can,t get a job to afford local housing because of all the city commuters…

    oh deary me

  16. Dredd on Thu, 1st Aug 2019 7:53 am 

    Moscow Mitch is proud of garbage in garbage out (Snoring While Woke – 4).

  17. Sissyfuss on Thu, 1st Aug 2019 8:59 am 

    I found this article a tad bit lugubrious so I am in need of a little” retail therapy” to make the bad mans words go away. Gee, I hope all the neat little motorized carts at Walmart are fully charged.

  18. Outcast_Searcher on Thu, 1st Aug 2019 12:27 pm 

    If you don’t like the treadmill, refuse to play.

    I began my quest to do that at age 25, after reading “Money and Class in America”, which was an eye-opener for me at that age, and came at the problem from the status seeking and endless spending to keep up with the Joneses angle of the American consumer — at ALL levels of the the income spectrum.

    I ignore virtually all marketing, unless *I* am seeking specific information about a product *I* want or need. No TV. (Only streaming commercial free). No Radio — far too many ads. Ignore internet ads.

    It’s hard for them to convince you to spend on crap if you simply ignore them and refuse to define yourself based on what you have compared to others.

    Oh, and being frugal let me retire 27 years early, so there’s that.

  19. Outcast_Searcher on Thu, 1st Aug 2019 12:28 pm 

    Oops — per the last post I can’t do quick math — should have been 17 years early. Still pretty significant vs. the typical 40+ish year career.

  20. Robert Inget on Thu, 1st Aug 2019 1:45 pm 

    Not satisfied with destroying America, Trump tales on Earth.

  21. Duncan Idaho on Thu, 1st Aug 2019 1:54 pm 

    “So far in July, the Greenland ice sheet has lost 160 billion tons of ice — enough to cover Florida in about six feet of water. According to IPCC estimates, that’s roughly the level of melt a typical summer will have in 2050 under the worst-case warming scenario if we don’t take meaningful action to address climate change.”

    So fellow mammals, are you ready to exit this scene?

  22. DerHundistLos on Thu, 1st Aug 2019 1:58 pm 

    I don’t recall Americans being consumed with a consumer culture until starting in the “greed is good” 1980s.

    Through the end of the 1970s life was as it had always been- people worked hard, were grateful for the little things in life, TV and radio programming were clean, informative, and the news reported on by professionals in line with the Edward R. Murrow school of journalism like Walter Cronkite, Howard K. Smith, Roger Mudd, Eric Sevareid, Chet Huntley, Frank Reynolds, David Brinkley, Howard Chancellor- you know, when grey hair and maturity were a sign of wisdom, Radio Mystery Theatre with E.G. Marshall on the CBS radio network.

    Look at the garbage on radio and TV today.

  23. DerHundistLos on Thu, 1st Aug 2019 2:01 pm 

    Excellent post by Dredd:

    (Snoring While Woke – 4)

  24. DerHundistLos on Thu, 1st Aug 2019 4:27 pm 

    An example of an excellent local/regional radio station was 100,000 watt 1120 AM KMOX radio out of St. Louis, known as the jewel in CBS’s crown due to high listenership and consistent profitability. Mr. Robert Hyland ruled the station with an iron fist as a benevolent dictator. As I recall, he started with KMOX in 1949 and remained as GM and SVP up until his death from cancer in the early 90s, which also marked the beginning of the end for KMOX.

    Recently, I traveled through STL so I had to listen to my old standby. What I heard almost caused me to lose control of the car. The station now broadcasts for its afternoon programming consummate hater and big mouth, Rush Limbaugh. The first thought to enter my mind was, poor Mr. Hyland is now spinning in his grave. i doubt he ever would have imagined such a scenario. It’s probably a blessing he’s not around to know what happened to his baby.

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