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UG#534 - The Lightbulb Conspiracy (Planned Obsolescence, Bottled Water etc.)

Robin Upton | 18.01.2011 08:45 | Analysis | Ecology | Sheffield | World

Did you know that in Livermore, California a bulb has been lit constantly since 1901 and is still going strong? This week's headline piece is a radio adaptation of The Lightbulb Conspiracy, a film about how the first international cartel not only increased prices but to decreased the lifetime of lightbulbs. We also hear Juliet Schor on overproduction and radio adaptations of Annie Leonard's The Story of Bottled Water, The Story of Cosmetics and The Story of Stuff, plus Heather Rogers' The Hidden Life of Garbage.

ug534-hour1mix.mp3 - mp3 27M

ug534-hour2mix.mp3 - mp3 27M

Our first hour is a radio adaptation of Cosima Dannoritzer's film The Lightbulb Conspiracy, which has a range of content centred around the topic of planned obsolescence. It tells the story of the world's first international cartel. Started in 1924, it was first called Phoebus, though it changed its name several times in an effort to help maintain a low profile. Nominally about standardisation of bulbs, its members sought to bring all the world's lightbulb production under their control so that the could both increase prices and reduce product lifetime. We also hear about Epson's strategy of placing counters inside their inkjet printers, which disable them after a certain number of prints. We hear about consumers' efforts to tackle this directly, and how a group of Russian hackers have created software which can disable or reset the counter in many Epson models! The phrase "planned obsolescence" was coined by a real estate broker, Bernard London, who travelled the USA giving speeches to promote its adoption as a way to tackle the great depression. All products should be declared legally dead after a certain length of time, he said, and turned over to the government for destruction. Whilst it was never adopted by government, twenty years later, the principle had been understood and adopted by many of the world's large corporations. We hear from the creator of the movie which sparked a class action lawsuit against Apple after it emerged that they had built the iPod with a non-replaceable battery designed to fail after 18 months and render the product unusable.

We conclude the first hour with the soundtrack of Annie Leonard's animated short, The Story of Bottled Water (2010), about how - anticipating elevated health concerns around soft drinks - beverage companies created the market for bottled water, and about the health and environmental costs of the product behind the deceptive advertising.

Our second hour starts with a talk by Juliet Schor to Harvard Law School entitled Colossal Failure, The Output Bias of Market Economies . She explains traditional economists' theories of how industry and ecology might balance, as well as why they don't in practice. One crucial shortcoming which she mentions is the lack of a social model of consumption, which explains why there is a bias towards overproduction and consumption of goods and services and a corresponding overprovision of labour. Her conclusion is that even in classical economic terms, many market outcomes are profoundly dysfunctional and that many of the problems stem from increasing skewness in income and property ownership.

We continue with the soundtrack of two animated shorts by Annie Leonard. First, the Story of Cosmetics (2010), which explains in simple terms the toxic reality behind the attractive images on cosmetics bottles. Next, her first film, the very successful Story of Stuff (2007), which tells the story of the problems associated with consumer goods, and how short term the capitalist system is in terms of its inability to address issues of sustainability.

Following obsolete goods to their logical conclusion, we conclude with Heather Rogers' 2005 film, The Hidden Life of Garbage, about waste disposal and pollution, especially in the last 50 years. This reveals that one of industry's most successful tactics was the creation of 'litter' as a concept, which shifted public concern away from the manufacturers of disposable products onto their consumers, emphasising personal responsibility for the problem and minimising corporate responsibility.

Thanks to Annie Leonard, Cosima Dannoritzer and Heather Rogers for their great films
The Wikipedia entry on Pheobus is disappointingly thin, and could be increased by citing shown found in the film. Does anyone feel like doing a bit of research to document this better? :-)

Robin Upton
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