It does, you know. You just have to get it hot enough.

Saturday, March 15, 2008

Review: _Why Things Don’t Work_, Papanek and Hennessey

Every now and then, I find a book that I wish I had discovered much earlier in my life. _Why Things Don’t Work_ is such a book, but I think it’s just as useful to read now as when it was published in 1977.

Papanek and Hennessey’s primary focus is on both needless consumption and poorly designed things that people really don’t need. However, instead of a long rant against conspicuous consumption and designed-in obsolescence, they point out flaws in products and systems then suggest alternatives. Starting with the home bath and ending with community-level resources (like fire engines), many things we take for granted or assume cannot be improved upon are looked at with a critical eye. Their line of questioning includes things like, “how can this be improved?”, “why don’t we do this the way people in another country do?” to “do you really need this thing in the first place?”

These questions are ones that I think anyone interested in design or sustainability should be learning to ask about everything they encounter. An interesting proposal in response to over-consumption is shared ownership of resources and objects that one only occasionally uses. We do this for all sorts of things, from fire engines to library books, but why do we stop with institutions created in the past century?

For example, why don’t we share lawnmowers?

I own two — a reel mower that I normally use and a gas mower given to us by a relative. Both of my neighbors also own gas mowers, and I think it’s a reasonable assumption that any of my neighbors who don’t hire a gardener probably own a gas mower. When I use my mower, it’s rarely for more than 20-30 minutes every other week or so; the same is true for all the mowers my neighbors own.

So why do we all have to own our own mower, each requiring a fair amount of regular maintenance even though we only use each for a few hours a week? What if we each put a few bucks a week into the “mower fund” and were able to check a mower out from a local storage shed? (Similar arguments are made for shared deep freezers in apartment buildings and other shared appliances.)

And if we are all going to own so many mowers, do we all need gas mowers? I’ve mowed my yard with both the reel mower and the gas mower, and the reel mower tends to be faster, quieter, and easier to store. Factor in down-time for refueling, tweaking the spark plug, and the cost of gas/oil, and the reel mower starts to make a lot more sense, at least for smaller lawns. I’m pretty certain that my reel mower will also last much longer than the gas mower, and it cost about half what a new gas mower would cost.

Taking their argument a step further, why do we have grass lawns that require so much maintenance to begin with? Just because they were popular with the Victorians doesn’t mean we need to waste water growing plants just to keep them closely cropped. On a personal level, we’ve started redesigning our own front yard so that we will no longer need to mow or water it other than occasional spot watering during a drought. It just doesn’t make sense for us to water and maintain 500 square feet of grass simply because it’s green.

It’s this sort of process and thinking that makes the book of value. While many of the specific suggestions they make are irrelevant today (such as rethinking typewriters), the processes Papanek and Hennessey use to critically look at the world around us and improve things for the better.

Cite (if you’re interested in my generating BiBTeX refs in future reviews, please speak up):
Hennessey, James and Papanek, Victor. Why Things Don’t Work, Pantheon Books, 1977, 0-394-70228-X

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posted by jet at 15:16  

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