Tuesday, September 6, 2016

Disposable, Renewable or Enduring?

I was raised in a very thrifty environment, a direct result of my parents working hard to hang onto the lowest rung of the middle class ladder.  I remember my great uncle telling stories about earning 10 cents an hour polishing beans for the local grocer.  I was amazed.  "Polishing beans?" I asked.

"Yes, and I was glad for the job at that time.  Beans would sell for a few cents more if they were shiny, so I would take some wax and dip my hands in the beans and work them until they were clean and shiny."

This man was the same man who never had more than 20 dollars at a time in his pocket all the years I knew him.  I suspect it was the same 20 dollar bill as I never saw him buy anything.  "Everything you need is already at the local dump.  And it's free for the taking."  It turns out that when he died, we discovered he had substantial savings accounts in dozens of banks across the country, so that wherever he visited he had some reserves, if needed.

That durable and practical generation which lived through the Great Depression is now just a faint memory.  What the world experienced in the past decade was shocking but nothing compared to the 1930's.

I have spent my life restoring historic furniture, saving it from the trash heap of time.  I have a deep respect for those who had the knowledge to select the proper tree, and be able to transform it into a beautiful and practical object using only wind, water and human power.  We could learn a great deal of important information if we would just take the time to analyze those objects and understand the process which produced them.

Antiques represent a culture which is enduring and still important for us to appreciate even centuries later.  Of course, not everything was wonderful.  There was disease, poverty, poor sanitation, uneven distribution of wealth, war and conflict.  As I list these problems, I realize that they are still part of our society today.  I guess we haven't evolved as much as I thought.

I ask myself, "What will my generation leave for the future?"  The answer is not pretty.

When I was born the United States had just dropped the atomic bomb on Japan.   I am the child of the first nuclear age, and, like others who came of age during this time, I was fascinated with the prospect of understanding the atom.  So much so that I built an electron accelerator ("atom smasher") in High School and took several awards at the Science Fair, going on to work at Brookhaven Labs and getting a degree in Applied Physics at UCSD.

I know a few things about the atom, I guess.  Enough so that I decided to walk away from my chosen career over 40 years ago when I realized that science could not solve the nuclear waste problem.  Science can create radioactivity but cannot find a way to keep it out of the environment.  Talk about an enduring legacy:  It is a fact that human generated radioactive waste will be polluting the earth thousands of years after the pyramids have fallen into desert dust.  That is what my generation will be remembered for...

At the same time, we live in a disposable society which has no concern at all about making and selling computers and phones with toxic materials, at great expense, only to make them obsolete after a few years of use.  Make, Consume, Discard.  How much longer can we sustain this business model?

It seems logical for corporations to find workers on the other side of the planet who will work for less and make something a few cents cheaper than someone else.  However, what is the real carbon footprint of that object by the time it reaches the consumer?  Take IKEA furniture, for example.  Much of the material used in IKEA furniture is manufactured using toxic chemicals and synthetic materials.  Then it is transported a great distance in shipping containers which are disposed of by the consumer in a landfill.  It is "cost effective" and serves its purpose but lasts only a few years before it falls apart and is replaced by a similar, but cheaper item.

Compare that with a piece of antique furniture.  The tree was either locally harvested by hand or transported by ship using wind power.  The wood was processed by water driven saws and shaped by human talent.  It was transported overland with water or horse power, and later by steam.  It was only when steam was created by burning coal that it started to produce a carbon footprint.

That same piece of antique furniture produced subsequent jobs for workers who repaired, polished, upholstered and restored it from generation to generation.  It created memories and connections to the people who used it, strengthening family history and direct connections to the land.  It provided comfort and a sense of culture as times changed, providing a constant reference point in a world of flux.

In simple words, it was a renewable source of material culture, and will continue to function in that important capacity as long as we respect its integrity and original purpose.  That is why I have devoted my talents to restoring antique furniture.  It gives me a great deal of pleasure knowing I have saved something from the past and that it will continue to exist long into the future.


Steve said...

Just before reading this I read a headline "On the eve of iPhone7, one third of iPhones are over 3 years old."

What a sad state that this is cause for alarm.

I didn't read the article.


Matt McGrane said...

Patrick, this was a really powerful post. You touched on some things that I think about often, particularly how our money-driven society will sacrifice the future for profits today. When will it end? There are some really smart people at the top of these corporations but they don't seem smart enough to leave a better world for their children and grandchildren. Perhaps it is because they know that, with high probability, their children will be the next CEOs who will live among the 0.01% and who will also not care about what the future holds in store for the 99.99%.

Wish I knew the answers to this dilemma. If things changed to use fewer chemicals, manufacture at home, build things to last, etc., the all important world economy would take a big hit. How do you reverse the trend? (I'll do my small part by building furniture that will last generations from wood that is sustainable.)

António said...

Mr Patrick
When I turn adult I got my home I bought furniture where ever I could and afford...
In the last 3 years (learning from your blog and other like you sir) I was able to do tables, a bed, and small cabinets for myself and friends out of 2nd grade pine and sometime spending less money then Ikea equivalence objects.
Of course it take me more time to built, not as fashion, It have lots of 'character' to it -still learning, but their stronger and if it broke I'll be able to fix it or reuse the wood!
So Mr Patrick, Thank You sir for the blog!

Mark Bortner said...

Hi Patrick, any chance you can post "Welcome to the Past...The History of American Furniture" on youtube?

Chris Bame said...

Amen!!! Could not say it any better. Thanks Patrick

Desktop Repair Dallas said...

"Antiques represent a culture which is enduring and still important for us to appreciate even centuries later" Agreed...!!!
Good Work and Appreciate your thought and concern for Future...