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What If It Breaks?
Charles Hugh Smith

Making your entire economy a Landfill Economydependent on the fantasy of infinite replacements and substitutions is the height of hubris and folly.

Very few people ask: what if it breaks? It's a question we can ask of a great many things: touchscreens, motherboards, tools, vehicles, supply chains and entire systems: what if it breaks?

The first thing we notice is the great number of things which can't be repaired, they can only be replaced. Good luck repairing the touchscreen or motherboard in your vehicle. Oops, the puncture in your tire is in the sidewall, no repair possible, buy a new tire.

The entire economic system assumes two things: 1) there will always be replacements for everything that can't be repaired and 2) there will always be substitutes for everything we want. Beef too expensive? Then buy fake-meat. If that's too expensive, substitute chicken. And so on: there will always be a substitute that can scale globally that will get cheaper as it scales.

Unfortunately, both assumptions are false. There are no replacements for oil and fertilizers. What we have are ifs: if we build 1,000 nuclear reactors, then we can convert this electricity into hydrogen which will be the fuel of the future. And so on. If, if, if. Nice, but getting beyond if is non-trivial: oops, we need hydrocarbon energy to build the 1,000 nuclear reactors and all the complex equipment to convert seawater into hydrogen on a scale large enough to matter.

Not only are there no substitutes for many things, there are no replacement parts, either. Too bad about your entire Smart Home system going down. The vendor of the do-hickey that's connected to your hub went out of business and so there's no replacement parts or software upgrades. Looks like you'll have to replace the entire system. But since the software was out of date anyway, it was time to upgrade anyway.

The problem is we can't replace entire systems when they break down. Sewage treatment, delivery of food, manufacture of medical supplies and medications, delivery of feedstock for plastics manufacturing--the entire global economy is now a tightly bound system with few replacements for anything that matters and no substitutions for all the things that matter.

One of the few positive movements of the past few years is right to repair. The idea here is to outlaw corporation's favorite trick to speed your old product's pathway to the Landfill by sealing the device to make it impossible to open and voiding the warranty should anyone attempt to repair what was designed to be unrepairable.

The foundation of the Landfill Economy is to make stuff that can't be repaired and is designed to fail so you have to buy a new one--and soon. But repair is not guaranteed. If you happen to own a vehicle which was manufactured in the millions, there will likely be third-party suppliers for parts. But time and cost both erode the availability of replacement parts. There is no guarantee replacement parts will be available. Yes, some can be extruded in 3D printers, but there are a great many things that can't be fabbed on 3D printers: specialty wires, computer chips, alloys, etc.

Moving on to larger scale systems: where's the replacement parts when democracy breaks? How about the systems that deliver oil and fresh food over thousands of miles?

The dependability of these unrepairable systems has given us a false confidence in their permanence and durability. As more things become sole-source, as supply chains stretch and add additional points of failure, as the dependency chains increase in complexity, all these systems--political, technological, logistics--become more fragile--the opposite of durable.

The "buy a new one" faith in the infinite powers of substitution has stripped the economy of resilience and the ability to fashion workarounds. Since things can no longer be repaired, nobody knows how to repair anything. Since everything is sealed, nobody even knows what's inside the system. Since we're assured everything can be substituted and replaced, we no longer know how anything actually works. The best and the brightest have never seen a green bean growing on the plant or considered how all the goodies that make their "money" useful-- as in, there are things available for your "money" to buy--were fabricated or grown, cleaned, packaged, shipped and delivered.

As I explain in my book Global Crisis, National Renewal: A (Revolutionary) Grand Strategy for the United Statestightly bound systems and centralized systems are essentially designed to fail. Load the system with dependency chains choked with points of failure for which there are no fixes or substitutes and then stretch those chains across the globe and you get a system optimized for fragility and failure.

What if it breaks? What's your Plan B, your workaround, your fix? What if you can't buy a new food delivery system off the shelf, or a new democracy that all you have to do is unwrap and plug it in? Where are the cheap, abundant substitutions for everything that's now chronically scarce because there are no substitutes?

Making your entire economy a Landfill Economy dependent on the fantasy of infinite replacements and substitutions is the height of hubris and folly, right up there with war is a solution that will fix everything that's broken.

My new book is now available at a 10% discount this month: Global Crisis, National Renewal: A (Revolutionary) Grand Strategy for the United States (Kindle $8.95, print $20). If you found value in this content, please join me in seeking solutions by becoming a $1/month patron of my work via


At readers' request, I've prepared a biography. I am not confident this is the right length or has the desired information; the whole project veers uncomfortably close to PR. On the other hand, who wants to read a boring bio? I am reminded of the "Peanuts" comic character Lucy, who once issued this terse biographical summary: "A man was born, he lived, he died." All undoubtedly true, but somewhat lacking in narrative.

I was raised in southern California as a rootless cosmopolitan: born in Santa Monica, and then towed by an upwardly mobile family to Van Nuys, Tarzana, Los Feliz and San Marino, where the penultimate conclusion of upward mobility, divorce and a shattered family, sent us to Big Bear Lake in the San Bernadino mountains.

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