After 40 years, my parents recently sold the home I grew up in. As we cleaned out the attic, my sister and I scored. Mary nabbed an old steamer trunk she transformed into a coffee table; I snatched up my grandmother’s vintage washtub to use as a planter for a beautiful array of impatiens flowers until the whole thing became a snack tray for my dogs, Edie and Buddie. Now it serves as a lovely newspaper recycling bin.
I blather on and on about this because it reminded me yet again that the great family heirloom is quickly being replaced with craptastic cheapsakes that, instead of being passed down from generation to generation, are being passed down from generation to generation of landfills. As we sink further and further into the quicksand of our disposable society, there are fewer and fewer treasures to leave to our loved ones.
That gorgeous steamer trunk my sister Mary claimed? Pieces like that have given way to the oh-so cherished nylon duffle bag. And the laws of physics tell me that delightful item cannot be transformed into a coffee table. No, once the Taiwanese-made zipper breaks, it will end up in a garbage heap along with a zillion other bags emblazoned with the same logos of some sporting goods outfit. Hundreds of years from now, social anthropologists will look at these things and conclude that 21st century humans worshiped gods called Adidas and FUBU.
And my 100-year-old, classic metal washtub? Well, we all know technology and mass production put an end to those. Now don’t get me wrong; I’m no Luddite. I’m not living in some weird, dark, nostalgic place wishing I could go back to the good ol’ days when women scrubbed clothes with lye soap in a tub down by the river. (Although I wouldn’t mind a river clean enough to wash clothes in.) I realize the washing machine is a big improvement. But when big box stores are selling washers for 300 bucks a pop, people rush out and snatch them up with glee. And when it breaks, it’s cheaper to buy a new one than to fix it. At which point no amount of artistry is gonna transform that old, broken box o’ fiberglass into a keepsake. No, it’s toss-it-to-the-curb time. So you have to ask yourself, “How many bazillion centuries will those be cluttering America’s waste yards?” The number is assholenomical.
I blame it on our growing use of the C word: convenience. Yes, we have become a little too comfortable relying on it, and consequently, seem willing to sacrifice everything from quality, style, and most importantly our environment, if it means our lives will be even just a smidge more convenient. Convenience has its noose around our necks, and we won’t be satisfied as a culture until we can have all of our needs met without having to lift a finger, no matter what the cost to our world!
Americans have a warped sense of convenience. And the inconvenient truth about convenience is that convenience creates a ginormous amount of waste. The George Foreman Grill, the Presto Burger, the Salad Shooter? Seriously—who were the people so profoundly put out preparing salad the old-fashioned way that they needed to invent a way of shooting it into the bowl? I don’t ever want to know—it sounds like something creepy that happens in prison.
So how will all this convenience redefine the heirlooms of the future? I have the sneaking suspicion that 100 years from now, my great-great-grandchildren won’t be clamoring through my attic saying, “Oh look! It’s one of those vintage Air Poppers. I think I’ll make a lamp out of it!” The truth is, the word convenience has become interchangeable with the word shortsighted. I hope we all remember that when we’re looking for convenient solutions to stop global warming.
Story by Lizz Winstead. This article originally appeared in Plenty in February 2008. This story was added to MNN.com.