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Review: Creating a new cycle of reuse to manage out enormous accumulation of stuff


"Fixation: How to Have Stuff Without Breaking the Planet," by Sandra Goldmark. Island Press/provided

FIXATION: How to Have Stuff Without Breaking the Planet. By Sandra Goldmark. Island Press. 232 pages. $27.

Sandra Goldmark believes that “our massive global system of consumption is broken,” and is breaking the planet as well. It’s hard to dispute the point.

Goldmark, an associate professor at Barnard College, has thought long and hard about what can be done to transform our linear economies into more circular ones that not only recycle and repair products, but make fewer and more durable ones. But she knows how difficult it is to alter consumer habits more than a century in the making.

Her assessment of rampant consumerism, waste, resource depletion, the ruinous exploitation of cheap labor and the industries that foster it also takes aim at the long-time capitalist mantra of “grow or die.” The notion of unrestrained, unbridled, unending growth is an illusion, she maintains.

The author’s argument is not merely an ivory tower exercise, or just another anti-capitalist screed. She put thought into action.

Goldmark, also a theatrical set and costume designer, and her husband, an artisan and technician, in 2013 launched Fixup, an experiment in creating alternatives to “use-and-discard” that operated short-term, pop-up repair shops in her northern Manhattan neighborhood and other communities.

“I wondered if there was any way that I could use our backstage theater skills to create a way to both get stuff fixed and open up a conversation in my community about repair,” she writes.

By early 2019, she and her associates had operated more than a dozen short-term pop-up shops across New York City, hosted scores of educational events and fixed thousands of items.

But she was more ambitious than that, wondering what might happen if large manufacturers and retailers began (re)incorporating repair into their business models.

“What if new stuff was designed in the first place so that it could be fixed? What would a better system look like, one that values stewardship over waste?”

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We have an ardent love-hate affair with all of our stuff, so much so that our acquisitiveness often overwhelms our homes and even our lives. But does all this stuff really make us happy?

“Our stuff overflows our landfills, litters our beaches and degrades into an enormous Pacific garbage plastic soup bigger than Texas,” she says. “Manufacturing our stuff has been implicated in health problems in communities around the world, shoddy labor practices and tragedies in the workplace.”

Obsolescence is incorporated into man of our products from the start, though this is obscured. The result new products, few really needed, that constantly pour forth from factories and marketplace, to take the place of the obsolete.

Goldmark admits that if we want to start making, using and repairing fixing good stuff, we might have to pay a bit more for it, and that many who can’t afford quality “get stuck in a vicious cycle of cheap unfixable stuff that needs to be replaced all the time by more cheap, unfixable stuff.”

Noting that “the less Americans actually make, the more we romanticize making stuff,” she offers a fascinating chapter on the Maker Movement and, using its example, urges nothing less than a revolution not only in the way we make and mend things, but in what we value, our relationships to objects.

Apart from the necessity of changing individual behavior, some of Goldmark’s proposed solutions — practical, political, cultural — seem quite doable, given the will. But she can’t resist venturing down narrow ideological alleys that will not persuade the skeptical, particularly when she starts sermonizing about race, religion and American mythology. Matters are not quite so simple as she would have it, and sometimes she is almost comically out of her depth.

Goldmark also fails to acknowledge as well as she might that many of us are quite conscientious and diligent about repair, abhorring both waste and a loss of utility. We actively avoid contributing to the estimated 150 million tons of landfill created every year in the United States. The system is rigged for rubbish, yet there are ways of reusing many household items, and there are dozens of websites and books on the subject. You do not have to live in a disposable world. At least not entirely.

In the end, Goldmark asks us to have a little faith in our capacity to build a new system. Meanwhile, she encourages us to have good stuff, not too much, mostly reclaimed. And to care for it, then pass it on.

“If our actions are part of the problem, then they must be part of the solution,” she says. “Each of our small choices is the foundation for larger collective shifts.”

Reviewer Bill Thompson is a writer an editor based in Charleston.

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