This is a selection from Future Here Now, a daily series that I provide to subscribers to help them anticipate and prepare for a future that will be drastically different from what we’re used to. Every week’s Future Here Now has five daily sections — and one of those is The Big Idea, an original essay that digs into some aspect of how we are changing and how that will impact all of us. The others section range from curated news you probably missed to practical exercises for putting what you’ve learned to work.
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The Big Idea.
Climate change. Seahorses holding on to Q tips. Forever chemicals in the tap water. Children in struggling countries picking through garbage for bits that they can sell for a few coins.
You know all about the legacy of detritus.
And you know that we make progress — sometimes small, sometimes big, sometimes easy, often not. But the pile of detritus is so massive, it doesn’t seem to change in total.
That, on the whole, looks like it will be one of the central defining characteristics of the Fusion Era. And while different kinds of detritus will have different impacts, and different ways to mitigate their negative impacts, and different costs, one issue that I don’t see getting much attention is the way that the proliferation of detritus is already changing basic societal, economic and community assumptions.
One example: our relationship to consumption is changing fast. The second hand goods retail sector has exploded in the last 10 years. As a low-income kid, my only choice when I needed clothes was cheap retailers like K-Mart, or my cousin’s 10-year-old hand me downs. Today, my kids and younger friends haunt thrift and vintage shops, while I find it far less frustrating to find my weird shoe size on ThreadUp, where I can get three good options for less than I would pay for one mid-range pair, and they’re higher quality.
There are some interesting outgrowths of that — impacts that we’re already starting to see in some corner, that are only likely to become more common
For one, luxury loses its value. My son’s partner now carries a Coach purse, a gift from him for her birthday. He found it at a thrift store for a small fraction of its retail cost. With so many luxury goods produced over the past 20 years, and many of them so easily available on the resale market, who would buy new? Having that bag no longer signals that you have wealth: the status symbol no longer conveys actual status.
For another, perfection isn’t a significant value add. A second hand product will probably have a scuff, a scratch, a crease somewhere where it’s not supposed to be. And what you realize when you shift from new to secondhand is that the kinds of marring that makes traditional retails send it to the clearance rack…aren’t noticeable to most of us. The mark on the heel of that shoe doesn’t bother me, because I know that as soon as I actually use it, it will get another. What we used to call “seconds” are just fine with us…so what value is there in being brand new?
Those might seem like pretty shallow, inconsequential issues to dwell upon. But if you project forward from these, we can see the potential outline of a massive disruption of a huge component of late 20th/early 21st century economic activity. And that’s without looking at repurposing and remixing, or the resurgence of demand to repair, or markets for secondhand products such as Legos.
What happens to mass retail when mass retailers are directly (and disadvantagedly) dealing with direct competition from the products they themselves sold in years past?
Does the nature and volume of consumption change when people of modest means have secondhand access to items with the high-quality construction commonly associated with high expense?
Does secondhand retail as a sector undergo the kinds of consolidation we saw in traditional retail, or does the more peripatetic nature of secondhand goods work against that?
What happens to lower income communities if the current glut of cheap products dries up — either because Big Retail fades, or because higher income people are dominating the second hand market?
And if we think about the fact that our choices inform our assumptions, how do these shifts change how we think about old places and old buildings? Do we accept more imperfections and shortcomings? Does a lack of interest in supporting the maintenance of lower quality construction lead to a loss of existing building stock available to lower income people? What happens then?
Do our assumptions about what it means to grow, to succeed, change — either for ourselves, or for our communities?
This is why I chose to write about the Legacy of Detritus, not the (very legitimate) crisis issues that we typically hear about. Even if we manage to head off the worst threats facing us as a result of our Industrial Era environmental damage, we will still spend the next 100 years surrounded by the leftovers of mass production in virtually every sphere of our existence. And how we collectively use that detritus will have impacts that go far beyond the thrift store deal.