Today’s Solutions: February 05, 2023

How the West got rich from broken headphones.

Jonathan Rowe | March 2004 issue

Nanay and Tatay are my wife’s parents. One evening, on a visit with them a few months ago, Tatay and I went out to the bamboo shed beside the house to start the generator, the only source of electricity on the farm. Usually they light the house that Tatay built himself with kerosene lamps improvised from old bottles. But when guests come they use the generator to light the four bulbs that hang from the corrugated ceiling.

On this evening, Tatay had a Walkman in his jacket pocket. As we started the generator, somehow the headphone cord got caught in the drive belt. The cord snapped out and the headphones went flying off into the night. In the United States, this wouldn’t even be a story. Drive to the mall and buy new headphones. In the rural Philippines, it’s not so easy. It’s a half mile through the rice fields to get to the dirt road. From there, the jeepney ride to the city takes at least an hour and a half. Then there’s the expense. In dollar terms, Tatay’s cash income is in the mid-three figures at most. Pesos spent on new headphones are pesos not available to help a daughter in college.

Instead, you improvise and repair. So the next morning, Tatay and I retrieved the headphones from the bushes, and got to work. We pried apart the ear pieces, stripped wires with my wife’s manicure set, and tried to match them up correctly and twist them together. After a couple of hours we gave up. These things were made not to be repaired.

I began to grasp the distance between the prevailing notions of a global ‘economy’ and the human needs in a place such as this. The US thrives on broken headphones, figuratively speaking. The more Americans toss today, the more they have to buy tomorrow; much of what Americans call ‘growth’ is really just financial churn. If you redefine the term ‘economy’ to mean its opposite, waste, then the system seems to work, more or less.

But when you try to export this strange notion to a ‘developing’ country, the problems become more glaring. For one thing, you get an escalating need for cash. Televisions are appearing now in the part of Tatay’s village that has been recently connected to the grid. Kids are clamoring for fast food – with rice, chickens, vegetables, and fruits literally right outside their doors. Soon will come demands for toys and other things.

Then there’s trash. Traditionally, households such as Tatay’s and Nanay’s produced practically none. Food scraps went to the animals, the occasional plastic bag from the city was kept for future use. Now you see discarded soft drink cans and cellophane along the paths through the rice fields. Manila literally has run out of dump space. People burn their trash in the streets in the morning, or else toss it into creeks or vacant lots. This too often is the result when you build an economy on the principles of waste and financial churn, rather than on effective use of the resources at hand. There is much that a village such as this could gain by being part of a global economy. It could develop better and less expensive farm techniques. It could harness solar energy – sun is abundant here – and tools and appliances could be built simply so they can be repaired. Ask Tatay what he wants when the electricity comes to the farm, and he doesn’t hesitate: an electric pump so he and Nanay won’t have to lug water into the house each day.

They will get the pump. But by and large, practical things like that are not what the global economy wants to sell. Rather, its main thrust often is to increase cash expenditure and steer more of life onto a treadmill of buying. This is so even on the productive side of the economy, in the rice fields. Whatever else one thinks about the Green Revolution, Tatay says it hasn’t helped him much. The cost of fertilizers and pesticides keeps going up, but rice prices don’t. Plus, he says, the pesticides have killed the fish in the streams; now the family has to buy fish.

Coming next are ‘Terminator’ seeds that become sterile after each planting season, so the farmer has to buy new seeds each year. It’s the throw-away economy applied to agriculture.

Perhaps we should not be so surprised that many around the world suspect that the current version of ‘globalism’ was not designed for them. The US might lecture people less about the virtues of the global economy, and take another look at what it actually is selling. The issue isn’t markets versus government control anymore.

It’s the kind of market the US will push, and to what end.

With kind permission from: The Christian Science Monitor, April 12, 2002

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