Perspectives on greener product development and manufacturing from Sustainable Minds, our partners, customers and contributors.

Can the G-string save us from our lust for power?

By Lorne Craig on August 1, 2008

Consulting for a retail chain, I recently had the opportunity to tour the store looking for products with ‘green’ attributes. Entering the appliance section, I was faced with a serious contradiction. Here, the message seemed clear that the MORE power the appliance uses, the better. “500 watts!” boasted one blender box. “600 watts!!” screamed another. Topping the list was the Krups Motor Technik with A THOUSAND WATTS of ice-pulverizing power!!! (Don’t bother with cubes, Honey, we can buy our ice in blocks now.) This theme continued with microwave ovens, fabric steamers, hair dryers, coffee grinders, and of course – power tools.

So how hard-wired is our need for “More Power, Scotty?” And what can replace that compulsion in an energy-hungry future?

In one article, from a 1972 issue of Time Magazine, Social Science Professor David Klein postulated that it goes way back. “The derring-do that had survival value in frontier days is still extolled in the U.S.; yet it is obsolete. In an industrialized nation where most jobs are routine, a man cannot win status through on-the-job valor. To compensate, he surrounds himself with power tools, outboard motors, high-performance cars. These give him, at play, the feelings of control, power, masculinity and risk no longer available at work.”

Lev Vygotsky, a nineteenth-century Soviet developmental psychologist, took it all the way back to Darwin: “Human evolution is altered by man-made tools whose use then creates a technical-social way of life. Once that change occurs, 'natural' selection becomes dominated by cultural criteria and favors those able to adapt to the tool-using way of life.”

Great. Not only do we secretly crave the danger and opportunity of the Old West, we are trapped in a tool-centric evolutionary path that continuously rewards this anachronistic thought pattern.

So where is our escape? What social construct could possibly convince us that less is more?

A walk down the aisle to the fashion department may provide an answer. For where else can you find a swimsuit made with eight square inches of Lycra that sells for $250? Or a rack of $100 silk ties that have no discernable performance function whatsoever? And do the famed Manolo Blahnik pumps allow one to kick more ass than a pair of steel toed boots?

It could be argued, of course, that there is an impenetrable wall between fashion and function that no self-respecting tool should attempt to cross. Certainly, efficiency needs to increase and performance must be adequate for the job at hand.

But the fashion industry has got some kind of logic-defying mojo that we could co-opt for the design and marketing of power-using products, to make them leaner, greener and more appealing at the same time. Wattage be damned.

Illustration by Lorne Craig

Comments

Posted by Lorne Craig on Aug 17, 2008

Thanks for the comment... it does blur the line when we use tools for hobbies, as opposed to earning our living. Do I really need a chainsaw, or should I just pay someone who does it for a living, thereby helping the local service economy? (Certainly that's how it must have been done in the old days) This source of cheap tools and cheap power may be part of what has led to our time-starved existence.
Could less tool use = more beer drinking time?

Posted by Nils Davis on Aug 21, 2008

I think you have hit on an important balance question - when should we do something ourselves, and when should we pay or trade someone else to do it for us? Many argue that division of labor was one of the key steps for humans toward modern civilization. This is balanced against realities such as our budget - it's often cheaper to DIY - and our need as humans to use tools. (As covered in the original post and my first comment.)

There's also a third option, I suppose - don't do the thing or have it done in the first place. I don't need the cord of wood, and therefore no chainsaw is needed, if I build my house so it doesn't require additional heating beyond that from the sun and my ground-source heat pump.

And in any case, while the occasional beer is to be desired, I wouldn't want to trade the time I spend woodworking for time spent drinking - for one thing I wouldn't be able to stand up!

Posted by Lorne Craig on Aug 22, 2008

Agree. Reduction is always the best policy. But not always preferred by marketers whose success is based on category growth! That's the real elephant in the room for me.
Thanks for contributing, Nils!

Posted by Nils Davis on Aug 16, 2008

I have to admit, it was the title that caught my eye, but you raise an interesting point. We're tool users, not just men but Man, and assuming our sense of value evolved around the successful use of tools, what do we do now that tools are not the means of production for most of us? Bigger cars and boats are not sustainable - either from a planetary standpoint or for most of us from a financial standpoint.

I have two observations:
1. As a woodworker, I do actually use tools - mine are small, recycled from non-woodworking friend, and non-shiny, for whatever that's worth. And I'm helping to sequester carbon (in form of wood) to boot!
2. For a certain amount of time - until we're all living sustainably - working toward a goal of sustainability is an opportunity for "tool use." Whether you're installing PVs on your roof, or just replacing your lightbulbs with CFLs, for us guys anyway, it's back to "Tool Time."

BTW, I don't think sustainability or efficiency is the primary driver for tiny swimsuits.

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