Flip Phone
Credit: cyrillicus via Flickr

That cool flip phone you bought last year is not so cool any more.

With the widespread increase in green technology, it is widely assumed that the "green revolution" has made the world, and our lives, a better and safer place. But the reality is that there are other forces, both economic and practical, at work that help to negate the positive impact of the green movement. Many of these forces are even at work within the same companies that promote their positive environmental impact. Promoting an awareness of what these forces are, and how they undermine our efforts at cleaning up the environment, is central to making sustainable progress. Let's discuss a few examples.

Apple is widely admired among technology companies for its innovative concepts, elegant designs, and visionary marketing. Its most recent creation, the iPad, has been repeatedly praised for its "environmentally friendly" aluminum and glass design, which is chemical-free.

One aspect of Apple's products, however, that peeves customers and reviewers alike is its penchant for withholding features in its products, a practice called planned obsolescence. In the age of the cell-phone upgrades, planned obsolescence has become the standard for many companies. Why give a customer the full range of options and features now (and sell one phone), when you can dole out features bit by bit through new releases and updates (and sell several phones)? Planned obsolescence not only creates "repeat buyers", it also creates a buzz around a company and its products: When will the iPhone be enabled with multitasking? Should I buy a 3D TV, when I just bought an LED TV a year ago? Don't the Droid 2's new features make it more attractive than the first Droid?

Planned obsolescence is the dark side of innovation, an inevitable (and probably necessary) byproduct of capitalism that takes advantage of the endless consumerism of American society. It is easy to pan it, but hard to imagine succeeding in the modern economy without it.

Few people, however, consider the environmental impact of planned obsolescence. In a need-based society, items are thrown away only whenever they are broken or nor longer retain their usefulness. In an "upgrade society", objects are discarded whenever a better model is available. The result is an exponential increase in waste that is in direct proportion to the rate of progress. The faster we improve technology, the more quickly we throw away our old technology, and the more we end up polluting. It can be convincingly argued that the accumulated result of such waste more than makes up for the development of "eco-friendly" products; that is, our products may be less toxic to the environment, but the amount of waste may increase tenfold! This is the dirty little secret of modern society: that our best efforts at progress are always thwarted by the rate of progress.

Another major feature of planned obsolescence that is perhaps even more disturbing is the steady increase in disposable products. We may point out that some disposable products, such as shopping bags, are beginning to be phased out in favor of reusable items, but the fact remains that studies show that we have more trash per capita from disposable waste NOW than at any other time in world history! By and large, reusable, eco-friendly products have become a luxury of the rich, while disposables are increasingly popular in other sectors of the world.

The most obvious example of this is bottled water. While trendy "green fiends" in the Western world carry around their reusable water containers, water in disposable plastic bottles has become ubiquitous in countries where the water supply is unreliable or tainted. In places such as this, boiling and saving tap water is a time-consuming task, and the resulting liquid often smells bad or leaves a residue of harmful chemicals or minerals. The convenient, planned obsolescence of disposable water bottles is often the safest, cleanest choice. There is little doubt that this trend will only continue to grow in the foreseeable future, resulting in countless billions more non-biodegradable plastic bottles being released into the environment, including lakes, rivers, and oceans.

Planned obsolescence is an undeniable reality of modern life. Learning how to control and manage it is a difficult task not easily solved, one that we may not successfully confront in our lifetimes. We can only hope to get it under control before it's too late.