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Dispossessed, Discarded, Repaired

Can ideals of a repair movement inspire us to mend America’s working class?

In a normal year, this column would be looking at the holiday season with great concern for the environment. Americans tend to spend a lot of money on electronics, which means an increase in the volume of e-waste generated as we throw out the old to make room for the new. In a normal year, we would have discussed how best to lessen the impact of this waste through reducing consumption, reusing (ie., regifting) older but well-functioning gadgets, or sending them to a reputable recycler (the three R’s). We would also have acknowledged that our insistence on these green routines might be seen as just another of our curmudgeonly challenges to the carefree spirit of Decembers past, but then remind ourselves, as Greta Thunberg says , “We're in a climate emergency. Act accordingly.”

But this is not a normal year: 22 million Americans lost their jobs in the first two months of the coronavirus, with only about 12 million coming back. During the summer, it was estimated that one in six Americans was unemployed . From February to June, 14.6 million workers and dependents lost employer-sponsored health insurance. One in four adults have been unable to pay their bills since the outbreak of the coronavirus, about half coming from lower-income households. A high proportion are Black or Hispanic. All are threatened with eviction and hunger. Food insecurity has meant an 80 percent increase over last year in the number of food banks serving people; one in six Americans now face hunger. Meanwhile, startling images of thousands of cars waiting in line for food relief around the country were broadcast during the Thanksgiving holiday. And throughout the year, cruel political responses to the pandemic did nothing but accelerate the dispossession of America’s poor and working class.

And yet, post-Thanksgiving sales (Black Friday, Cyber Monday) reached new highs, with surprising increases over last year’s record-breaking run . That this could happen in times of trouble for tens of millions of Americans is a characteristic of our stratified class system, whose inherent contradictions were further exposed and exacerbated by the pandemic. Middle- and upper-income people whose jobs were unaffected by the pandemic-recession saved up lots of expendable cash that would have been spent on travel, fancy dining, and other high-priced activities during normal times.

The good news is that the massive carbon emissions attributable to the lifestyles of the affluent might have slowed down during the pandemic. The bad news is that extreme income inequality in the U.S. is persistent and insidious. It continues to distribute safety and suffering along class lines—the rich get richer, stay healthier, and spend; the poor get poorer, get sicker, and, somehow, mend. As one retail consultant put it, “It's a tale of two cities; for consumers whose jobs are secure, they can jump online and have stuff sent to their doors. Another part of the population is living on the margin right now.”

The public health crisis has shed light on humans being treated like the discards of hyper-consumerist society. We know it doesn’t have to be this way in the case of high-tech goods—we have the three R’s to remind us of alternatives. The life span of products can be extended by simply caring for those products during their best years, but also well after their manufacturers have abandoned them in favor of the latest update. It seems that when we care for things, we can actually make a difference to our impact on the environment. Why doesn’t this simple idea translate into a collective ethos of care for our fellow Americans?

Perhaps we can think about this by revisiting a big-hearted animated movie from 1987 called The Brave Little Toaster , a parable in which appliances (and a child’s blanket) pretend to be inanimate around humans. The film draws on traditional folktales where toys come to life, dance, and get into mischief (quite unlike today’s dystopian narratives about the coming Internet of Things).

When the appliances discover that their home will be sold, they feel abandoned and desperate. Believing that the boy they grew up with still loves them, a toaster leads her friends on a quest to find him. Sure enough, the boy wants to retrieve them from the cabin for his new home at college, only to find that they have been stolen; or so he thinks. When the toaster at last arrives with her gang at the boy’s city apartment, they face unexpected violence from new appliances there. Resenting the boy’s betrayal, and boasting of their superior “cutting edge technology,” they dispatch the old appliances to a junkyard to be crushed.

Luckily, upon his return to the city, a sympathetic older TV creates fake ads to urge the boy to visit the junkyard where he finds the appliances and helps them escape. In the harrowing climax, the junkyard’s evil machines try to stop the boy, placing him and some of his appliances on the conveyor belt to the crusher. To save them, the little toaster throws herself into the gears of the crusher, jams it and stops the machine. After her frightening sacrifice, the film ends with a display of the mutual care of human and thing when the boy refurbishes his beloved toaster.

We might see the violence in this film as a reflection of our class system, one in which the life span of working people is cut short by the social machinery that abandons them after their labor has been used up or deskilled, or when they become sick, impaired, or burned out. It’s as if the lives of poor and working-class Americans matter as little as the old devices pushed aside by cutting edge ones—both of them discarded in a scheme of planned obsolescence that denies their worth.

To challenge this system, we might call upon the model of the “right to repair” movement, which is making inroads in state legislatures , capturing the imaginations of environmentalists , finding consumers interested in extending the life of their gadgets , and highlighting the destructive nature of intellectual property protections in electronics, software, and farm equipment. An egregious instance of the corporate containment of repair rights has seen them stop technicians who needed to open proprietary locks in order to fix medical equipment used to help coronavirus victims.

If we can take heart and participate in this movement for repairing our things, we must already have the collective wherewithal to develop a right to repair ourselves and our compatriots broken by disease, health and economic inequality, and finally turn this human-made dystopia into a story of mutual care and love. Mustn’t we?