Hard sell: Jacques Peretti.
Show Hide image

Why does nothing last? The Men Who Made Us Spend on BBC2

The Men Who Made Us Spend (Saturdays, 9pm) is a fascinating, well-researched series but be warned: it will make you want to punch the nearest wall. Plus: Britain’s Poshest Nannies.

The Men Who Made Us Spend; Britain’s Poshest Nannies

Another morning, another skip into which another virtually new kitchen will shortly be hurled. Your street might not be like this – or not yet – but mine is and it makes me sick. Where did it come from, this relentless pursuit of the new, this complete inability to feel guilty about producing so much needless waste? Jacques Peretti – he’s roughly what you’d get presenter-wise if you put Jon Ronson and Adam Curtis in a blender and whizzed for four minutes – believes that Ikea must take some of the blame, its “Chuck out your chintz” campaign having been so effective. There are other culprits, too: Margaret Thatcher, who believed that the consumer should be sovereign; computer-aided design, which allowed manufacturers to vary their products minutely and at very little cost, the better to increase our lust; consumer credit, which allows us to spend even when we’re broke; and, perhaps most monstrously of all, the German businessman who first came up with the now widely accepted concept of built-in obsolescence by limiting the life of his company’s light bulbs.

The Men Who Made Us Spend (Saturdays, 9pm) is a fascinating, well-researched series but be warned: it will make you want to punch the nearest wall. Cynicism, denial, greed, vested interests . . . All are on display here and it isn’t pretty. The disdain some companies have for the ordinary person! Consumers might be sovereign in western capitalist terms but we’re also suckers and don’t they know it. When Peretti told Benedict Evans, a snooty, San Francisco-based “tech analyst”, that most people who lust for the latest iPhone seem to have no idea how it differs from the previous model, Evans’s contempt seemed absolute. “It’s not the consumer’s job to know how it’s better,” he said. Suddenly it was obvious why Apple, which refused to put up its own representative for interview, had suggested Evans as a proxy. All power to Peretti for having given the man enough fibre-optic cable with which to hang himself.

In California, Peretti visited iFixit, a collective whose members spend their days tearing apart technology to see how it might be mended. The iPhone 4, for instance, is held together with two tiny five-point screws that were seemingly designed by Apple specifically to keep its owner from looking inside and iFixit has created a screwdriver that will fit them (you can buy it online). Inside the handset, the company uses regular screws, which only underlines that Apple would rather you buy a new phone than attempt to replace a fading battery yourself.

Some technology is considered obsolete even before its built-in obsolescence kicks in. Peretti visited a recycling plant full of kit that had not even managed to make it out of the box before being abandoned. He also provided some pretty shocking footage of post-festival fields filled with row upon row of tents that had been used only once. For reasons I can’t quite fathom, this upset me more even than the mountains of printers and phones that had preceded it.

However much I loathe them, I’m now accustomed to the skips and to the four-by-fours that roar in once the makeover is complete. But even my jaw swung when, the other day, I saw a Norland nanny walking by, complete with a silly hat and white gloves. Where had this exotic creature appeared from? It seems she must have legged it to our litter-strewn borough hot from Bath, the home of Norland College, a fact I came by courtesy of Britain’s Poshest Nannies (17 July, 9pm) on ITV.

Will her skills come in useful in these parts? I’m not sure. These days, Norland nannies don’t just learn how to change a nappy; they’re taught how to dodge the paps (celebrity culture has invaded even the talcum-powdered world of the Victorian establishment). I suppose a defensive move with a Silver Cross pram might prove effective down the Turkish greengrocer’s should our heroine find herself fighting for the last punnet of flat peaches – but should she be tempted to kick the local Staffies “like a ninja”, she could quickly find herself in a world of pain.

Rachel Cooke trained as a reporter on The Sunday Times. She is now a writer at The Observer. In the 2006 British Press Awards, she was named Interviewer of the Year.

This article first appeared in the 16 July 2014 issue of the New Statesman, Our Island Story

Show Hide image

The government's air quality plan at a glance

This plan is largely a plan to make more plans.

Do you plan on living in a small, rural hamlet for the next 23 years? Or postponing having children till 2040? For this is when the government intends to ban all new petrol and diesel cars (and vans) - the headline measure in its latest plan to tackle the UK's air pollution crisis.

If the above lifestyle does not appeal, then you had better hope that your local authority is serious about addressing air quality in your area, because central government will not be taking responsibility for other restrictions on vehicle use before this date. Former Labour leader Ed Miliband has tweeted that he fears the ban is a “smokescreen” for the weakness of the wider measures. 

Here’s an overview of what the new Air Quality plan means for you (Health Warning: not much yet).

Will the 2040 ban end cars?

No. Headlines announcing the “end of the diesel and petrol car” can sound a pretty terminal state of affairs. But this is only a deadline for the end of producing “new” fossil-fuel burning vehicles. There is no requirement to take older gas-guzzlers (or their petrol-head drivers) off the road. Plus, with car companies like Volvo promising to go fully electric or hybrid by 2019, the ban is far from motoring’s end of the road.

So what does the new plan entail?

This plan is largely a plan to make more plans. It requires local authorities to submit their own initial schemes for tackling the issue by the end of March 2018 and will provide a £255 million Implementation Fund to support this process. Interventions could include retrofitting bus fleets, improving concessionary travel, supporting cyclists, and re-thinking road infrastructure.  Authorities can then bid for further money from a competitive Clean Air Fund.

What more could be done to make things better, faster?

According to the government’s own evidence, charges for vehicles entering clean air zones are the most effective way of reducing air pollution in urban areas. Yet speaking on the BBC’s Today programme, Michael Gove described the idea as a “blunt instrument” that will not be mandatory.

So it will be down to local authorities to decide how firm they wish to be. London, for instance, will be introducing a daily £10 “T-charge” on up to 10,000 of the most polluting vehicles.

Does the 2040 deadline make the UK a world leader?

In the government’s dreams. And dreamy is what Gove must have been on his Radio 4 appearance this morning. The minister claimed that was in Britain a “position of global leadership” in technology reform. Perhaps he was discounting the fact that French President Emmanuel Macron also got there first? Or that India, Norway and the Netherlands have set even earlier dates. As WWF said in a press statement this morning: “Whilst we welcome progress in linking the twin threats of climate change and air pollution, this plan doesn’t look to be going fast or far enough to tackle them.”

Will the ban help tackle climate change?

Possibly. Banning petrol and diesel cars will stop their fumes from being released in highly populated city centres. But unless the new electric vehicles are powered with energy from clean, renewable sources (like solar or wind), then fossil fuels will still be burned at power plants and pollute the atmosphere from there. To find out how exactly the government plans to meet its international commitments on emissions reduction, we must wait for the 2018 publication of its wider Clean Air Strategy.

Will the plans stand up to legal scrutiny?

They're likely to be tested. ClientEarth has been battling the government in court over this issue for years now. It’s CEO, James Thornton, has said: “We’re looking forward to examining the government’s detailed plans, but the early signs seem to suggest they’ve still not grasped the urgency of this public health emergency.”

India Bourke is an environment writer and editorial assistant at the New Statesman.