The end of the "age of abundance"?

It may not be the end of the West, but it may be the end of something

When I was a child, my mom still used to darn socks that had holes in them. She would also sew old sweaters. Old shoes were taken to the shoemaker to be mended or have their soles changed. And my dad fixed lots of things at home. We were no poor by any means — not that we were rich either — but it was still customary to mend and fix any things that could be mended or fixed. And if you could do it yourself at home, and spare the repairman costs, all the better.

This didn’t last for very long. For a few decades now, it costs less to throw away old socks and buy a new pair, and the same is valid for shoes, or even computers or refrigerators. It’s not worth trying to fix anything. Just buy a new “made in China” product and get on with your life.

And with smartphones and tablets then, it’s worse — you have to buy a new one every year or so, even if nothing is wrong with it, because the apps or the operating system simply become outdated and stop working after some time.

For the last 30 years or so, most people in the West have been living in an age of abundance, at least in what regards certain more material aspects, but there are signs that this is coming to an end. Inflation is now a real issue — things are noticeably more expensive at shops or grocery stores, even if the quality of the products hasn’t really improved. Energy costs have skyrocketed and the tendency is for them to increase even more.

Some items, such as lots of cat food or certain brands of pasta, have disappeared from the supermarket shelves in many European countries — whether this is due to the current war in Ukraine, or some other reason, is anyone’s guess. Toilet paper has not yet disappeared as it did during the early period of “Covid”, but it seems that some softer brands did. I’ve read somewhere that the softer toilet paper is made from Russian birch wood, and that this is now unavailable because of the sanctions. Rough times ahead.

There may be some positive aspects to the end of this consumerist paradise. At least part of the problems in the current Western world are caused by the excessive materialism. People just don’t have enough to worry about, so they create imaginary problems for themselves. But when securing food, heating and clothing becomes again the main issue in most people’s lives, no one is going to be pushing for “carbon taxes” or transgender surgeries for children or throwing soup at paintings. At least, that’s the hope.

On the other hand, perhaps it’s silly to hope that the the end of the “age of abundance” and the coming of a new age of poverty could bring some kind of enlightenment or moral improvement. It is certainly possible that it could bring just poverty.

And yet, somehow the idea of people darning socks and old sweaters again, and fixing refrigerators instead of throwing them away and just buying new ones, fills me with a certain type of hope. Perhaps it doesn’t have to do so much with a rejection of excessive consumerism, as with the idea of permanence. I like the idea of things lasting longer in time.

Perhaps this is why I like old, vintage objects such as film cameras, pocket watches, fountain pens? Technology, and in particular communication technology, has changed so much in our own lifetimes, that it almost incredible that people used to have any objects that lasted for ten, twenty years or more.