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In Repair: towards a post-throwaway society

Intro: Most of us know by now that we will imperil the planet and our wellbeing if we continue along our current path of consumption, and that simply modifying our habits by repairing what we have would go a long way to pulling us back from the brink. So what’s stopping us? Does this simple alteration of habit require a much more profound mental shift, and if so, what?

In 2009, some colleagues and I wrote the Repair Manifesto. It was a call to action for designers and producers to make their products repairable, and for consumers to have what they bought repaired when necessary. In other words, it advocated repair as a sustainable alternative to the throwaway mentality. It was provocatively promoted as an even better solution than recycling, since to recycle is still to throw something away. The manifesto was widely and internationally commended, and provided the impetus for many to start schemes promoting a more repair-oriented culture. New initiatives like the repair café (which is still going strong) also revealed the communal and social qualities of repair work.

Now, 8 years later, we’re still having discussions about how to deal with all the trash we’re generating. We’re producing so much trash that our concern now extends beyond the environment to our very health. Concepts like cradle-to-cradle design and the circular economy are being promoted as ways to address this major problem, but these concepts are still predicated on the practice of throwing things away, though their implementation makes for a lighter environmental footprint.

I am astonished that we still lack a more singular and widely endorsed vision of the parameters and possibilities of a repair economy — and I use the word “repair” in its widest sense, which includes all manner of mending, healing, recovering, upgrading and improvement activities that, if allowed to occupy a more central place in our daily lives, could give rise to a significant collective mental shift, one that the sociologist Hartmut Rosa (Resonanz. Eine Soziologie der Weltbeziehung, 2016) describes as: “Going from feeling alienated from the world to being in resonance with it.”

So what would society look like if repair were central in our thoughts and actions?

Let me start with myself. How central is repair in my own life? If we accept my broad conception of “repair” as described above and I start from the human body itself: am I not in a constant state of repair? I have a bruise on my arm that I know, from its colour, will take another week to heal, courtesy of the body’s unerring ability to heal itself. I have visible scars that remind me of past accidents and illnesses, and invisible ones borne in my heart and soul, though these have mostly healed over with help from friends or family, or thanks to professional therapy. These inner scars have made me stronger and more resilient, and have contributed to who I am and explain why I do things the way that I do.

I have also done many things wrong. Yes, I have binned products that malfunctioned, disappointed people, broken at least one heart (as far as I know), haven’t always been honest and fair, and I am far from perfect. But I have tried to make up for my actions, I have learned how to repair and improve in a variety of ways, how to connect. And I am fortunate to have learned some of the repair skills needed for self-improvement and to have witnessed the results. For instance, repairing my capacity for moral judgement has allowed me to better monitor my actions, regain the trust that was damaged on account of previous actions, and trust my own instincts again. This process hasn’t always been easy, and not always immediately successful, but it made me grow up, made me wiser, and taught me to take responsibility. Failure is a great teacher.

We need not look far to find things in need of repair, or to see that much of what surrounds us is dysfunctional or in need of some form of improvement. A cursory glance at the headlines reveals our many dysfunctional relationships: between generations, between citizens and the state, between genders, nations, and between ourselves and nature. Cities, systems and services eventually malfunction, or they become dysfunctional, owing to human errors built into the systems, our character flaws, unforeseen circumstances, or natural disasters. Ongoing topics of debates include gentrification and its consequences, the widening gap between rich and poor, and how to come to proper terms with our colonial past. So much repair work to be done.

So why is it, then, that whenever I try to emphasise the urgency of realigning our thinking towards a repair economy, I am typically met with expressions of incomprehension along the lines of: Are you serious? We don’t need repairs; we need new things, radical innovation and rapid growth! In other words, changes that allow us to continue more or less as is, and remain in what philosopher Peter Sloterdijk describes in his book In the World Interior of Capital as “Our comfort spheres of consumption”. Could it be that we are failing to see the connection between the repair and improvement of the self — a concept that appears to be gaining wider acceptance — and the repair of things? Is it that not enough of us have made the connection between our health and that of the environment? Have we internalised the dictates of consumerism to such an extent that they continue to override our understanding of the necessity for change? Are we no longer seeing individual objects for what they are, and lumping them together as “goods”? Is there now such a disconnect between the craft that goes into the clothes we wear and the specificity of each item, that they have become mere tokens of fashion, in one season out the next? Are we now defining friendship according to Facebook “likes”, and has the ease with which we’ve learned to discard these “friends” merely reinforced our habits of consumption, to the extent that everything becomes replaceable because we can always find something or someone new? And, if so, how do we provoke a sufficiently powerful collective shift in thinking?

Some philosophers and critics have suggested that we need a new perception of time. We are preoccupied with “the now” (the new) because it shows us the way to the future and the future (whatever that might be) is what we make of it right now. The ancient Greeks’ visual description of time suggested an opposite perception of time. The future is the past and the past is now. Therefore, we create the past right now.

The American Professor Emerita in the History of Consciousness Donna J. Haraway speaks about an ongoing now (Staying with the Trouble: Making Kin in the Chthulucene, 2016), and offers the concept of an ongoing flourishing in which we collaboratively search for ways to stay creative with and for the other (both human and non-human). I love this concept. It entails embracing open-endedness in all aspects of our lives.

When we envision society functioning exclusively on the repair economy, we see one in which greater prominence is given first to what was, and then to what is and what it can become. It is a society based on a lifelong exercise in mending, patching, repairing, restoring, hacking and caring. A society in which imperfections and malfunctions are seen as welcome opportunities for (re)connection, openings for improvement and growth, and a chance to find new methods of repair.

Keeping the past alive helps us avoid chronic collective amnesia, and allows us to take responsibility not only for a performance in the instantaneous present, but also for its consequences through time.

We should develop a better past to build upon.