Coffee Pots and the Decline of the West

This morning our coffee pot packed it in. It was a Black&Decker Spacemaker under cabinet coffee pot with the thermal reservoir. We liked it, willingly put up with the drips that seem endemic to the design (and so many complained about). The thermal pot kept coffee hot for hours — a great thing on one of those damp, cold mornings we are having so many of lately. And as with all its predecessors, it just simply refused to switch on. I suppose we should count ourselves lucky — it did not catch fire like some of the units I have read about in the consumer opinion sites. It just stopped working after almost exactly two years of use — a record.

Since my faithful Mr. Coffee quit on me 10 years ago, my kitchen counter has had a succession of coffee makers that just died one after another. The average life span was 1 year — we were lucky one time and had it die just before the warranty ran out and got a new one shipped to us. But we were sans fresh coffee while the wheels of justice ground along…

It used to be that one had small kitchen appliances that just ran and ran. Eventually we grew tired of them or passed them on to the kids. They were usually stainless steel and hard bakelite — with nothing more complicated that an on-off switch. But no more — a trip to the local store will reveal a dazzling display of similar products. All plastic with the minimum amount of glass — and a host of buttons for every conceivable function — even off and on. I think they are all made is some back alley in Shanghai.

The problem with all of this is that these pots are all cheaply made and built to be thrown away. I suppose the manufacturer would be happy if we did not even bother to unwrap the thing, just take it from the store and pitch it in the trash. They certainly seem to wear well enough for that purpose. Seems a pity that the intent of the energy that was used to form the glass and plastic and make all those computer chips was really, almost intentionally, wasted. To say nothing about the plastic that was made from that same oil and will most likely not be recycled.

Makes me think that these pitiful products are a metaphor for our civilization — it all comes down to matters of form, going through the motions of being a productive society but just wasting what we do. Raw materials go in, energy is expended, people employed, distribution chains exercised and so forth — but nothing of value results. Shoddy goods that are garbage the moment they are bought are a net drain on the world — we are taking value in the form of raw materials and combining them in ways that make them useless.

It makes me wonder just how much longer our civilization is going to last, if we can no longer make goods for the population that have reasonable service lives? Have we become so obsessed with making ever cheaper goods that we have forgotten why we are making them? I would hope that it is not just to move materials from one hole in the ground to another. But somehow I fear that the concept of waste for the sake of waste has taken hold and we have lost our way.


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