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Last week I started on the issue of repairs in a disposal world

In this country there’s a huge supply of cheap consumer goods, often manufactured in places like china and india. The stories of child labor in Nike factories are all too true, but nobody asks why more kids keep showing up to work. Sometimes their parents have essentially sold them into slavery. And sometimes the factory is the best, or only, game in town. It’s factory work or prostitution, slave wages or starvation.

So, with reservations, we might stipulate that third world factory and cottage goods are a good thing for these developing economies, bringing hard currency and (barely) living wages to rural populations. And certainly the flow of cheap stuff into the US and western Europe helps supply the ever-growing consumer marketplace.

Then something breaks… One of the dining room chairs you so love, part of a set picked up at Pier One a few years ago. They’re long since out of stock, you can’t go buy a matching chair. The cabinetmaker just laughs at you, “Even if I could fix that thing, it’s not worth what I’d charge you.”

And it’s true, you can buy a handful of new chairs for what you’d pay in US labor costs to simply repair the broken chair.

So we buy another dining room suite, consigning the old to the rec-room, or goodwill, or a landfill. More trees come down, more fuel to drag cheap furniture halfway ‘round the world, more scarce resources go into the landfill, and a third world factory worker makes a few more cents.

The raging torrent of goods and energy flowing into this country, (and western Europe) is almost incomprehensible. All most of us can do is try to understand it on a more human scale. Look at a sneaker, a barbecue from Wal-mart, or a chair from Ralph’s Dinettes, and realize it came 6000 miles, from a dark and noisy factory, assembled by a child, or a father, or a daughter, happy to have a nasty dangerous job so they might help their family survive, maybe send another child to school.

You hold some little blister packed toy, a highly packaged piece of complete junk and try to grasp the web of connections it embodies: plastics first refined in Korea from Middle Eastern oil, molded into product in chinese factories, packaged on pulp from African forests, shipped across the Pacific to entice some american child to scream ‘till he owns it, to be broken and lost within hours. Shall we be proud of our global marketplace, or weep at our foolish profligacy?

I never seem able to wrap up this story, more soon.