The high cost of an easy-care, low-maintenance world — Guest Post from Kurt Cobb

I may be a member of an endangered species. I prefer a perfect crease in a pair of pants resulting from the use of an actual iron rather than a crease maintained by a toxic brew of chemicals that can make cotton-fiber pants not only “wrinkle-free,” but also “stain resistant.”

Once you finally get such chemically-enhanced britches dirty, you can put them through a wash augmented by artificial perfumes and other noxious chemicals found in liquid softeners and dryer sheets.

The maintenance of clothing isn’t thereby eliminated. It is simply transferred to chemical companies, clothing manufacturers, and purveyors of household products who concoct and apply formulas which require considerable energy to manufacture and deploy. One can adduce many other examples of our obsession with a low-maintenance life. (I will include a few below.) But, I write to contest the whole idea that a low-maintenance existence is in itself a good thing.

In general, entropy obliges us to maintain those objects which serve us. In doing so we must give them attention; we must give them a sort of love. We must become involved with their needs and not only our own.

By abandoning the duty of maintenance we owe to the objects in our lives, we are distancing ourselves from the physical world and essentially sending the entropy elsewhere for someone else to deal with, whether human or non-human.

I used to have an electric razor, the cutting block of which could be sharpened. A jeweler in the building where I worked had the equipment to do it. Later, it was cheaper just to replace the cutting block, and so, equipment that would sharpen it was scarce. Now, a new shaver that I just purchased—after many good years of service from my previous one ended with the motor shutting down—this new one is clearly designed simply as a throwaway.

Yes, there is nothing particularly new about planned obsolescence. But once again the maintenance task has simply been transferred to the landfill operator who must care for the objects we discard. This also shows that we should not conflate low-maintenance with durable.

I am not opposed to durable objects which require little maintenance. But we have created a world of low-maintenance objects which are low-maintenance merely because they are disposable. Sneakers that aren’t resoleable are low-maintenance, but not long-lived. On the other hand, well-made wool clothing can last a lifetime with only an occasional cleaning.

In our gardens and on our farms we have transferred the care and maintenance associated with weeding to the world’s chemical industry. The consequences of that are not only embedded in our soil, but also in our health care system—and in the degraded ecosystems upon which are lives depend.

Easy care and low maintenance are merely local phenomena. Once we pull back and see the bigger picture, the entropy produced by them creates a maintenance burden on others, on society and on other living organisms and natural systems.

As it turns out, maintenance has gotten a bad wrap. Maintenance is really a form of caring. Modern philosophers bemoan our love of material things. But I believe that we modern, industrialized people do not actually love material things. We wouldn’t treat material things the way we do if we truly loved and cared for them.

Instead, the material world has become merely a substrate for our dreams of mastery. We do not want involvement with the material world and all the limitations which that implies. Rather, we want liberation—liberation from its constraints.

We think easy care and low maintenance are steps toward that liberation. But as we have seen, those characteristics only impose maintenance tasks on others and sometimes even rebound to sicken our bodies. More important, they separate us from a material world that should naturally summon our powers of care and concern.


Kurt Cobb is an author, speaker, and columnist focusing on energy and the environment. He has been a regular contributor to the Energy Voices section of The Christian Science Monitor and is author of the peak-oil-themed novel Prelude. In addition, he has written columns for the Paris-based science news site Scitizen, and his work has been featured on Energy Bulletin (now Resilience.org), The Oil Drum, OilPrice.com, Econ Matters, Peak Oil Review, 321energy, Common Dreams, Le Monde Diplomatique and many other sites. He maintains a blog called Resource Insights and can be contacted at kurtcobb2001@yahoo.com.


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