11:13:11 Old & Worthy

Recently, I read an essay by Stewart Brand, founder of The Whole Earth Catalog (TWEC), titled "Good Old Stuff Sucks." At age 69, Brand argues life experience has taught him to throw out the old in favor of the new. Brand seems to be atoning for an early-70s, back-to-basics agenda, widely promulgated in TWEC, by claiming he was wrongheaded and anti-progress. Now give him "100 percent not-cotton clothing, genetically modified food (from a farmers' market, preferably), this year's laptop" and so forth.

[butcher steel]Like many who argue a glittering generality, Brand doesn't lay out all particulars for his case in an admittedly brief essay.

I agree progress improves some of our material life. I would not argue for a return to vacuum-tubed radios housed in resonant wooden consoles. No, that ignores what solid-state electronics gives us: the manufacture of circuitry on chips increasingly as cheap as printing on paper!

What I reject is the blanket condemnation in Brand's argument about old stuff. For example (and related to Brand's disenchantment with the "old buildings" he formerly championed), I live in a 95-year-old house. A Colonial Revival with the same double-hung sash windows Brand now reviles in favor of Andersen manufactured windows.

It also has about three dozen working shutters alongside those windows. Shutters with movable slats, hinged so they can be closed. The first thing I did when I moved in was take down the shutters, have them professionally stripped to bare wood. Freed from decades of paint, I rebuilt all as needed (for some only the slats were salvaged and the whole frame rebuilt). Okay, I'm a competent woodworker and saved with DIY. But unlike Brand with his senior wisdom, I fail to see rehabilitating, repainting shutters as any burden whatsoever. It was, for me, a small price to pay for the privilege of living in this house.

No, I believe, selectively, old stuff matters and has worth. Why else the saying, "It's stood the test of time." As another example of my reverence for old stuff, I offer my grandfather's butcher steel. Probably as old as my house. The butcher at our local Whole Foods backs me up in saying only a steel puts as keen an edge on a kitchen knife.

Progress is selective and we must not lose sight of the fact that new (especially disposable) is not always better, not always sustainable, and probably unavailable in any post-petroleum future! So Stewart Brand, keep your hi-tech GMO apples. I'll stick with ones longer in the making.

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The Cat at Light's End

Read Charlie Dickinson's story collection, The Cat at Light's End, as an ebook in these downloadable formats:

.mobi (Kindle)
.epub (most other readers)
.pdf (for PCs)

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