Vance Packard's 'The Waste Makers': A late review

Poster in Rome
CC BY 2.0 Seen on a wall in Rome/ Claire Alter

Where did the Convenience Industrial Complex start? A 1960 classic tells all.

The Convenience Industrial Complex is the term we came up with to define the economy based on us buying more and more stuff we don't need in ever larger sizes to consume more resources which we just throw away when we are bored or tired or see something fancier. It is a collusion of government and primarily fossil fuel companies to keep pumping oil out of the ground, and turning it into fuel for ever bigger cars and plastics for ever greater convenience.

After my first post, Our lives have been co-opted by the Convenience Industrial Complex, a reader recommended that I look at Vance Packard's 'The Waste Makers'. Written in 1960, it followed Packard's hugely successful 'The Hidden Persuaders', which described how the advertising industry manipulates consumers to induce desire for products. It was not his most popular book, but it may well be his most prescient.

Bill McKibben does an introduction to the new edition, and notes: "Packard also strikes on ideas that very few were thinking about in 1960, but which now loom very large in our debates. I was amazed by the prescience he showed including peak oil, turmoil in Venezuela, topsoil. There is, he writes, an ‘impending water crisis,’ and ‘millions of acres of farmland’ are being ‘covered with homes, shopping centers, and factories.’ Nuclear power won’t save us because it’s too expensive, and 'disposal of the mounting radioactive wastes will become a monstrous problem.'" McKibben concludes:

If there’s a moral to this book, fifty years later, it’s that No One Can Say We Weren’t Warned. If we didn’t get it from Thoreau, we should have gotten it from Packard. That we didn’t get it is indisputable, and now—as the Arctic melts and the oceans acidify—we’ll pay the price in ways even he couldn’t have imagined. But he did imagine pretty much all the rest.

Back in 1960, Packard was describing the a hyperthyroid economy where everything revolves around fashion and whim. "Already watches are being sold as fashion accessory items... Already the stockpiling and disposing of subsidized but unwanted agricultural products have become a world-wide scandal. Already some home furnishings are being built to break down within a few years."

The people of the United States are in a sense becoming a nation on a tiger. They must learn to consume more and more or, they are warned, their magnificent economic machine may turn and devour them. They must be induced to step up their individual consumption higher and higher, whether they have any pressing need for the goods or not. Their ever-expanding economy demands it.

second homesDouglas fir Association/CC BY 2.0

Everybody is in on the game to make us buy more, buy bigger. "A campaign by the world’s largest manufacturer of wedding rings to popularize the 'double ring' ceremony greatly increased the sale of gold wedding rings." Plumbing manufacturers promoted the 'privazone home' where everyone had their own bathroom. The plywood associations promoted second homes. People were told, “You peasants who own only one car... are chained to the land like serfs in the Middle Ages.”

Today, almost everyone has a Queen size bed; we have trouble finding sheets for our double bed. Why did beds get bigger?

United States Steel, a major producer of bedsprings, in 1960 prepared a massive campaign to change American ideas about the right size for a bed. It hoped to swing North Americans away from the long-standard fifty-four-inch double bed to oversized and twin beds. United States Steel was reported prepared to spend a million dollars to put consumers and retailers into a mood to yearn for larger beds. Its campaign was called “Space for Sleeping.” In this drive it had the cooperation of bedding manufacturers, who also would benefit by any outmoding of the standard bed since there would be an increased demand for larger mattresses, frames, sheets, and all the other fixings.

It's brilliant. US Steel sells more springs, but everyone else hops on board.

I remember when I first saw a disposable pepper mill, shortly after I had bought my wife a very expensive French Peugeot last-a-lifetime pepper mill. I thought it was the end of civilisation as we know it, that people are too lazy to even buy pepper and fill the grinder. (TreeHugger's John Laumer talks about this one.) Packard tells us that even back in 1960 it was like that, with the container in products like Redi-Whip costing more than the product inside, much like bottled water today.

“The force that gives the U.S. economy its pep is being generated more and more in the teeming aisles of the nation’s stores.... U.S. consumers no longer hold on to suits, coats, and dresses as if they were heirlooms.... Furniture, refrigerators, rugs—all once bought to last for years or life—are now replaced with register-tingling regularity.”

vintage car advintage car ad/ Xray Delta/CC BY 2.0

Packard predicted that this would not end well, particularly with automobile marketing.

If marketers have their way, American citizens will have at least forty million more vehicles on the roads by 1975. Millions of acres of land will be bulldozed for highway rights of way. More elevated highways will slash into the cores of American cities to try to loosen up the congestion. Such highways, by their size and divisive nature, seem to demean the cities they are designed to rescue. Despite the thruways, urban experts predict that congestion will grow faster than relief of congestion. When one magazine forecast that in a decade most American families would have two cars in every garage, a Boston reader wrote back that if the prediction came true then “we’ll also need two hospitals in every block.”

The Convenience Industrial Complex makes it all so easy, particularly when it comes to burning fossil fuels.

Only in America would a housewife hop into a two-ton vehicle and drive downtown to buy the thumbtacks that she forgot to buy on her regular shopping trip. And only in America do people in midwinter warm themselves almost entirely by the wasteful method of burning thousands of gallons of oil to heat up a house rather than by getting much of their warmth by wearing warm clothing.

Packard also worries about what will happen when other countries catch up to the USA.

As industrialization spreads in Asia, Africa, and other areas where per capita consumption of materials has been extremely low by American standards, demand for raw materials and energy will expand swiftly and produce scarcities that will force rises in price. If the rest of the world—even with its present population—were to achieve the level of material wealth enjoyed by the people of the United States, there would be a sixfold increase in need for materials. Actually there is no longer enough copper, tin, and lead left in the world to permit such a duplication on the basis of today’s technology.

Packard is particularly appalled with the car industry, that keeps selling bigger cars with more useless features and more powerful engines.

In 1959, a design engineer from Sunland, California, expressed dismay at the waste of resources produced by American motorcar design. He charged in Product Engineering: “I think the current auto design trend indicates a moral decay in America that is most alarming. When such a large share of the national income is squandered on useless glass, fins, overhang, etc., which require excess horsepower and attendant wasted fuels, then it is about time the federal government stepped in and placed a tax on auto body weight and horsepower.” Later he added, “If an automobile requires over 100 horsepower, it is too damned big and wasteful.” At this writing, about three quarters of all motorcars being made in Detroit are still “too damned big and wasteful” by the engineer’s estimate.

My Impreza, the smallest car Subaru sells in North America, has 148 horsepower. And it, and other cars like it, are ruining our cities; Packard writes (again, in 1960!),

City planner Victor Gruen offered the opinion that “although we are the richest nation with the highest individual living standard, we have one of the lowest ‘public living standards’ of Western nations. Our cities are littered with ugliness and choked with automobiles.” Harvard historian Arthur Schlesinger, Jr., asserted, “It is not that our capabilities are inadequate, it is that our priorities—which mean our values—are wrong.”

Nobody wants to spend any money to have nice things.

Taxes are seen as bad, as money down the drain. Business has successfully sought to picture them as destroying business incentive or as “creeping socialism."

Kids today spend too much time wired into their electronics.

Many young Americans have been conditioned to need the noise of radio pouring steadily into their ears, whether they are on a train, watching a ball game, or studying. Officials of an Eastern college told me that pandemonium broke out on their campus when the electric power went off one afternoon for two hours. Students complained that they couldn’t study without the music of their radios to support them.

Packard has some suggestions for getting out of this rut, some sensible and some not. Personal helicopters might reduce congestion. Picture phones might reduce commuting. And "a quiet electric car would reduce greatly the drain on both metal and petroleum supplies." He calls for a move from manufacturing industries to service industries such as "travel, insurance, restaurants, hotel and motel operation, recreation, cultural activities, health-improvement activities, and education for both children and adults." They take fewer resources and employ more people.

Packard says we have to stop believing that tech will save us.

One is the widespread faith of Americans that their technology can solve all their problems. This faith persists even though this technology is pushing them relentlessly toward ever-greater giantism and ever greater productivity based on automation, which requires ever-greater consumption.

Sounding like Veblen, he worries that we have become obsessed with conspicuous consumption.

The lives of most Americans have become so intermeshed with acts of consumption that they tend to gain their feelings of significance in life from these acts of consumption rather than from their meditations, achievements, inquiries, personal worth, and service to others.

The most remarkable thing about this book is how little has changed in almost sixty years. Every problem and crisis he lists is still with us, just worse. And I think today, people just want to return to before it all came to this.

I find myself often seeking out the older New England villages that have changed relatively little—except for a gas station or two—in recent decades. I, too, feel a freshening of the spirit when I stroll about the tree-shaded village green, peer into the lovely old spired, clean-lined churches, visit the still picturesque stores, chat with the natives, and walk among their two-century-old homes.

Don't we all.

Vance Packard's 'The Waste Makers': A late review
Where did the Convenience Industrial Complex start? A 1960 classic tells all.

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