29
$\begingroup$

This culture is approximately at the very early Renaissance levels of development. There is a cultural semi-religious taboo against repairing broken things - you are expected to take care of your objects and minor repairs are allowed (like renewing paint, or filling up cracks and scratches), but as soon as the object is damaged to the point it can't perform its intended function anymore - you aren't allowed to repair and rebuild it, instead, you are supposed to discard it in a ritualistic way, and go get a new one. This rule covers everything, from spoons to houses.

What might be the reason for that?

$\endgroup$
6
  • $\begingroup$ Comments are not for extended discussion; this conversation has been moved to chat. $\endgroup$ – L.Dutch - Reinstate Monica Nov 23 '20 at 3:48
  • 6
    $\begingroup$ Just so I get what you're aiming for: If a few tiles fell from my roof in a storm, may I replace those that broke, and put everything back up? I have a bent wheel on my bike, replace the wheel or the whole bike? My fence has a few planks that look as if they won't survive another two winters. Can I replace them now? And what does "discard" mean? Can I use the material to build sth. else, can I sell it to someone who can, or must it be cut to pieces and used as firewood? $\endgroup$ – Karl Nov 23 '20 at 12:03
  • 15
    $\begingroup$ isn't this our society today? $\endgroup$ – user253751 Nov 23 '20 at 14:56
  • 18
    $\begingroup$ Migrating this to Ask Different. $\endgroup$ – Tashus Nov 23 '20 at 16:29
  • 1
    $\begingroup$ You should really work out the feasibility and specifics of this first. Can you rebuild buildings, does the ritual allow for recycling, Are there allowances for things you can't control, "hey the bridge was damaged in the storm" "well damn I guess we sit here till we starve then" $\endgroup$ – John Nov 23 '20 at 20:45

13 Answers 13

86
$\begingroup$

I think firstly, what constitutes a "minor" repair is somewhat in the eye of the beholder. If I personally needed to retile a section of my roof I'd consider this quite a major endeavour, but a professional roofer might consider this a very minor job, so I think there would naturally be quite a bit of wiggle-room in how this prohibition is policed.

There's a Japanese folkloric concept of a tsukumogami, a tool or object that through continued use has acquired a soul and even aspects of a personality. This then influences the cultural beliefs about how tools should be treated, taken good care of, and not unnecessarily thrown away.

But let's say your people have a slightly different set of beliefs. They're animists, in that they believe that all the objects and forces around them in the world have some spiritual aspect, but unlike many real-life animist philosophies, they believe that these spirits have natural lifespans that start with a "birth" and end with a "death". This leads to a shared understanding among people about when an object is "sick" and when it needs care and healing, and when it is "dead". It's easy to see how using a dead tool, even a "zombie" tool that has been resurrected by some major repair job would be considered taboo. The appropriate thing to do with a dead tool under this belief system would be to give it its funeral and thank it for its life of service.

I'm not sure I agree with other answerers that this wouldn't be sustainable, as I think you could stretch enough life out of most tools to not get to a level where you would need a modern-level mass industrial process to supply constant replacements. It would definitely be less productive and more wasteful than real historical societies, but most tools historically were built with every intention to last as long as possible, and it's very likely that these people would make every effort to make sure their craftsmanship was up to the highest standard.

Something I think is worth considering is how universally applied this cultural belief is across this society, or how this society then interacts with outsiders who don't share this belief. Outsiders might find the idea of a society that holds funerals for tools and cremates perfectly good wood, or buries valuable scrap iron quite difficult to understand, and perhaps these outsiders will decide to turn graverobber and scavenge anything worthwhile from these tool burial pits.

An interesting historical parallel here might be medieval India, where various lines of economic activity were considered to be spiritually damaging, but, because society couldn't just do without (e.g.) sewage clearers, what emerged was a caste system where people of lower standing were expected to do certain work while people of higher standing could avoid violating their religious taboos and turn a blind eye to the sinful work of the people below them. Perhaps your society goes down a route similar to this, most people adhere to the rituals, but there is present in the society an under-caste who subsist by reusing and recycling dead tools, living in dead houses, etc. These people would be tolerated in so far as their presence allows society to smoothly function, but it's easy to imagine that they would be very vulnerable to regular persecution.

$\endgroup$
11
  • 3
    $\begingroup$ most simple example: a scythe. A scythe gets repaired all the time during use after just a few swings - sharpening it with a stone. It's not a long repair, but you remove material again and again. If the farmer may not even do that repair, everybody tarves. $\endgroup$ – Trish Nov 21 '20 at 16:47
  • 11
    $\begingroup$ fine answer! you already had my + for tsukomogami but the idea of castes at the end is really fine. $\endgroup$ – Willk Nov 21 '20 at 20:30
  • 8
    $\begingroup$ "Discard in a ritualistic way" does not mean that the material cannot be reused. The ritualistic way may simply be burning it with fire. In the case of flamable materials, you would still be using their energy content, but, most importantly, metals would be reborn in a smelting oven, ready to make new tools from them. $\endgroup$ – cmaster - reinstate monica Nov 22 '20 at 11:12
  • 2
    $\begingroup$ @alephzero And you are wrong on a physics and material science level: you do remove material with a water or oilstone. VERY simple test: use permanent marker on a blade. Then sharpen it. Wherever the marker is gone, you just removed some material. Sharpening a European scythe is done in the field. It is also the older, easier to repair, easier to use and lighter design btw, $\endgroup$ – Trish Nov 23 '20 at 9:12
  • 1
    $\begingroup$ The concept is spelt tsukumogami 付喪神 — see the Japanese wiki page: ja.wikipedia.org/wiki/%E4%BB%98%E5%96%AA%E7%A5%9E $\endgroup$ – jogloran Nov 23 '20 at 10:27
21
$\begingroup$

Not feasible.

At a Renaissance level of technology, everything is fixed until it is impossible to fix. Otherwise everyone starves. The luxury of throwing things away and buying new is possible only in insanely wealthy societies such as very modern times. As late as the end of the 19th century, a significant factor in the spread of disease was reusing clothes that had been worn by an ill person.

People will simply lie and say it can perform its intended function -- the shattered pot? Look, there's some water in that shard, so it's still working!

$\endgroup$
9
  • 3
    $\begingroup$ Sadly sometimes the answer is, you can't, consider you have no shipping because you can't repair your ships, you need orders of magnitude more miners becasue you can't recycle metal or stone. $\endgroup$ – John Nov 21 '20 at 18:16
  • $\begingroup$ Depends on what we consider a repair/fix. Is regular maintenance a repair? Is sharpening a scythe a repair? Or is it just maintenance? I guess replacing a broken handle certainly would be a repair and prohibited. Is patching a leaking roof a repair or maintenance? $\endgroup$ – Michael Nov 22 '20 at 16:42
  • $\begingroup$ @Mary - I disagree. It isn't a function of wealth, but a function of availability of both resources and time. Wooden things (solely wooden) were in great abundance through most of human history. The idea of "waste" of an item wasn't really a consideration so much as "waste" of time to remake something you already have. But we're anthropomorphizing anyway - on another planet or in an alternate timeline, humans could very reasonable have gone down this road. $\endgroup$ – Jesse Williams Nov 23 '20 at 19:59
  • 5
    $\begingroup$ @JesseWilliams What do you think wealth IS? $\endgroup$ – Mary Nov 23 '20 at 20:04
  • 1
    $\begingroup$ Again, you are mistaken about what wealth is. $\endgroup$ – Mary Nov 24 '20 at 15:16
13
$\begingroup$

This would be a weird cultural prohibition.

Renaissance people were a lot poorer than us. Mass production means we can discard a lot, but back then there was a strong need for repair and fixing. People couldn't afford to get a new thing every time.

They need a cheap method of mass production as such.

So, say that this culture has some plant or animal that can lay down fairly durable materials that can be used for a lot of things. It's relatively easy for them to produce a lot of material. This material can serve as a good frame for metals and such and is a fairly versatile building material.

However, it is still alive. If damaged enough, there's a risk it can become diseased, and spread that disease to this useful material.

As such, it is traditional to discard it early, before it gets too far. This is done even when it could be patched up, because of the fear of something going wrong.

$\endgroup$
1
  • 2
    $\begingroup$ I am convinced that most "reinsurance people" are richer than us. $\endgroup$ – AlexP Nov 21 '20 at 16:43
10
$\begingroup$

I think the viability of this way of life will depend on what is considered a repair worthy damage and what is an 'end of life' damage.
When things are made to last you will never get the 'throw away' environment we have now, as all items are made to be used a long time. By having 'rules' against repairing what is really broken, people are urged to repair before it is really damaged.

These days (21st century) we almost never repair things, even socks with holes and shirts with a rip are mostly just disposed off. If we go back less than a century, to the mid 20th century, many things would get repaired and be seen as 'as good as new' with a small patch or other mend.

One of the answers describes a house with a broken window as 'no longer fit for purpose' and I do disagree, windows are minor repairs. Even rotted window frames that need repairing are minor repairs based on the value of the house and the quality of life in such a house before and after the repair.

Your proposed 'way of life' makes that people do keep their house in good repair, as when you let your house become 'beyond repair' it loses all value. It may even get to the point where neighbours step in when they see one of the houses going poor, but still within the rules to be repairable, to avoid having to build a new house for the people who are clearly struggling to keep it going.

Knives will be sharpened often, so not to become completely dull, but even a dull knife has its uses. When a knife is sharpened so often it becomes too thin it becomes flexible in ways that allows it to be used for other work. Your 'way of life' make people realize that they need to retire that knife from its former use and now reserve it to a use that gives less risk of breaking it.

In our world's 18th, 19th and early 20th centuries very few things where left to get damaged beyond repair, only items that got worn to beyond use in normal use would be retired in the end. And even then they would often be stored in case parts could be used again.
I imagine that in the way of life you intent, repairs to common life items will be allowed but when items get to the end of being repairable, instead of being stored in the attic, they are taken to the 'temple' (or whatever you want to call it) to be said goodbye to forever. And that will be a mayor religious event, so saved for items of value that have had a long and useful life.
Likely the people in that world will not own spoons made for $/€ 1 per five, each of their spoons will have been hand made, out of good materials, whether silver, horn, wood or something else again, and by the time they are beyond use will have had many years of good service and may have been in the life of the owner for the whole of the life of that owner. And as one of a few spoons in their life, like one for each person and maybe one extra for the kitchen.

In that kind of world, people make blankets out of patchwork of the old clothes of the family, each patch can be named to the piece of clothing it came from, who wore it in the end of its life and possibly each of the owners before that. When such a blanket gets to the end of its use, people will have forgotten, as one or two more generations will have passed, or many more, and then in our world it is now chucked into the waste. In your proposed way of life, the item is allowed to be mourned and said goodbye to. (That is, if your rules allow blankets made out of scraps of used clothing.)

Taking down buildings beyond use makes for a safe environment. Buildings beyond use get dangerous with parts falling down. In the Netherlands, where I live, you do not find many buildings standing beyond the end of use, only buildings with a listing to preserve the building are not allowed to be torn down and the space they used to build something new. No ghost towns here. Nor in your proposed world.
Use a house as long as there is life in it, and to make sure you can, you build it meant to last and repair it as soon as needed to make it last.
In countries like England and France it is not uncommon to find houses which are 500 years old, and with normal care they can be used for an other 500 years. It is houses build in the last century that are often deemed 'too old to repair' as they were build of poor materials and in ways that were not proven and turned out to be less than good for the condition of the materials.
Over the centuries many houses will have been build that were not to last, and they did not last, but a well build house can last for a long time. Keep it repaired and it lasts forever. And that goes for almost everything people used to make or build.

$\endgroup$
9
$\begingroup$

I'm seeing a lot of answers simply attacking the viability of this idea and leaving it at that. However, while it's true that it's a challenge to make this work, I think it can be done:

The rule is applied inconsistently/hypocritically

There's no way around it - a culture that adheres to an obvious, straightforward version of this principle cannot possibly function. Completely abandoning reparable objects is too great a drain on resources - even if they don't outright die as a result, they will be outcompeted by cultures that are not similarly burdened. I'm suggesting that they have instead evolved to apply the rule in such a way that it still feels like they're following it, yet they sidestep many of the worst negative consequences.

For instance, a house where a window is broken is considered damaged. It may no longer be used as a house, and must be torn down. But that needn't mean that all the resources used in it (not to mention the person-hours expended in extracting and processing the resources) are wasted. Once the house is taken apart, someone else might come along and make good use of all the perfectly good lumber, bricks, glass panes etc that are now just left lying around.

What does this mean?

Members of the culture can effectively still repair things - the entire process is just constructed in such a way that they can think of it as tearing something down and building something new in its place (that just happens to use a lot of the same parts).

Directly constructing a new house from all the parts of a previous one might be seen as too obviously just 'repairing' it, so instead of sending all the bricks freed up by tearing down one house on to a single new building site, they might instead be sent to a 'communal brick pool' for others to take from as needed. Same for any other resource. This way, components become mixed, obscuring their origins.

So how does this work, exactly?

The key is that everything is made of prefabricated and interchangeable parts as much as possible. Pans, tools, utensils and farming equipment are made from several components slotted or bolted together. Shirts have their sleeves attached with buttons rather than sewn on. Perhaps houses are not even singular structures of brick and mortar, but a connected series of separate rooms a bit like shipping containers, themselves constructed largely from wooden beams.

But isn't this just cheating? At this rate, why even have the rule at all?

The members of the culture would still be entirely sincere in their traditions and beliefs. The real world is full of practices and beliefs that seem utterly contradictory to outsiders, yet make perfect sense to those who subscribe to them - Orthodox Jews are highly restricted in what they may do while outdoors on the day of the Sabbath, but also hang up wires around their neighbourhoods such that they technically count as being 'indoors' while within the enclosed area. A sizeable number of Christians believe that the Rapture will happen within their lifetimes - yet most still plan for retirement.

Also note that none of this is to say that all the negative consequences of the rule are avoided - indeed, you probably want some of them to be there to drive some part of the plot of your story, or you wouldn't have come up with the idea. But this approach gives you enough wiggle room to sidestep anything you feel just wouldn't work, while still giving you a lot to play with. It will probably be never 'this could actually happen in real life'-realistic, but it can certainly be 'this does not break suspension of disbelief'-realistic.

$\endgroup$
2
  • $\begingroup$ Much more likely that they regard the pane of the window as broken. $\endgroup$ – Mary Nov 22 '20 at 1:23
  • 4
    $\begingroup$ This actually has a parallel in today's America: Airplane engines. There are strict rules regarding how long an engine is allowed to be used before it has to be replaced, or at least overhauled. When an engine runs out of hours, they send it back to the factory where it's disassembled. Then the individual parts are tested, and if they're still in spec, they're recycled into "new" - or at least "zero time" engines. $\endgroup$ – fluffysheap Nov 23 '20 at 19:33
6
$\begingroup$

Why can't you fix something once it's "broke" (not just damaged)?

Life Force

Items are perceived as alive. They have their own life force. (perceived or otherwise) gained during creation. Think of how much blood, sweat and tears goes into creating metal spoons or simple wooden chairs.

So if you believe an item has a "soul" (or part of the life force of its creator)...

Healing: Partially

What happens when you get damaged? You can heal. Cuts scab over. Broken bones mend. Cold/Flu' come and go.

Healing: Death

What happens if you take too much damage? Cancer? Accident? Violence? Death.

Can we heal you from death? Of course not...

Why would items that contain "life" be repairable? Those items contain the "life" and "energy" from the artisans that created them. Once Broke? That life force and what made the item special is gone.

Unnatural

How can you heal death? That would go against "nature". It's dead. Bury it. Get rid of it. Move on.

"cultural semi-religious taboo"

Think of all the aspects of life that Religion delves into... I'm sure other examples of "things being alive" exist throughout history.

Photographs

There are/were places where people didn't trust photographs. Some people thought they stole your souls:

https://skeptics.stackexchange.com/a/8382/245

[Carolyn J. Marr] illustrates a change in Native Americans' attitudes towards photography from the late 19th to the early 20th century.

At first, many Native Americans were wary of having their photographs taken and often refused. They believed that the process could steal a person's soul and disrespected the spiritual world.

$\endgroup$
6
$\begingroup$

I think, this is very viable. You allow for small repairs, so anything that can be viewed as maintenance would be ok. So:

  • The people who make things would strive for extreme robustness, their customers would require this. Clothes would be mostly made of leather, woven or knitted things would be extremely rare, and only be used by people who could afford replacing them regularly.

  • Things would be built to become a case of maintenance rather than repair. Scythes, knives, etc. would be build to allow for next to eternal resharpening (= maintenance), but never to break. Parts that are subject to wear would be made to be replaceable, when they break, they would be taken out, discarded with proper ritual, and replaced with freshly made parts. Shoes, for instance, would likely have iron soles with holes into which replaceable pegs are inserted to provide grip and take the brunt of wear (similar to the way the romans inserted iron nails into the wooden soles of their caligula). Likewise, teeth on gears (like those you need in a mill) would be separate parts (this has actually been done in mills).

  • The ritual for discarding things would include burning it with fire. Things that can burn would obviously still serve to provide heat. Metal parts, however, would effectively be smelted, allowing the material be "reborn" and thus reused for new tools. The very smiths that create metal tools would also be the priests that assist in the disposal of their tools.

I think, it would be cool to know what kinds of things such a society would come up with to ensure the longevity of the things they build. We could learn so much from them...

$\endgroup$
5
$\begingroup$

The question isn't clear whether you're asking for the purported reason or the functional reason. These kinds of taboos, especially ones based on superstition, almost always have separate purported reasons (the explanation people tell their children and that gets incorporated into stories) and functional reasons (the role that the taboo has in the ordering of society, and how it came to be along with that ordering). But since the former can basically be any ridiculous thing you want, I think it's more interesting to focus on the latter.

As others have said, taken to the extreme a ban on repairing things can't work without extremely efficient production systems. A society that adheres to it will be seriously disadvantaged by one that doesn't, and just impeded by natural obstacles as well even if there are no competing societies. However, a taboo like this already exists in our world to a large extent: repair of old things is highly looked down upon as an indicator of status, unless you have overwhelming other displays of status to override.

The function of this taboo in maintaining order of society has many arms. In our world it serves post-industrial-revolution capitalism, which probably doesn't make sense in yours. But even without that it serves to maintain a class-stratified social order. Assuming items that were broken then repaired are visibly not-new, the taboo forces the very-poor to display publicly their lack of virtue by using broken or repaired items, and forces the rest of the poor to waste their resources replacing perfectly good repairable things to avoid presenting as very-poor. The middle classes, while burdened, can manage to replace things without becoming poor. And the elite can break the taboo but cover for each other. Not only does this give economic benefit when the items are very high-value; it also builds an "in-group" feeling of unity and loyalty among those doing it, as well as a threat hanging over the heads of anyone who betrays the group. This is similar to a topic I covered on an answer to a question about drug prohibition on the SE sister site Politics.

$\endgroup$
3
$\begingroup$

The answer may be discarding broken utilities in ritualistic way - it's mandated by their belief system. However, they do not believe those broken things are to be thrown away, they are to be repurposed. Their spiritual leaders are the only ones with some ability (maybe knowledge or tools) to repair said objects. Then the wares are redistributed around the country based on need in some kind of ceremony, so previous owner will never see it again.

If you need objects scarcity then you may add to this some monopoly for the temples to manufacture such items at all or control use of the resources used for the repairs.

$\endgroup$
2
$\begingroup$

By decree of king! For Economic stimulus

The bane of spoon makers and house makers is people repairing things. When a spoon head is fused back onto its handle, the blacksmith only gets half the money he would have if he sold it new, the miner doesnt sell any ore, the mine supply shop doesnt sell any shovels, the shovel maker goes hungry, and the innkeeper near the iron mine doesnt have any customers.

By outlawing repair, money flows through the economy much faster, giving more wealth for the citizens, big businesses, and more tax for the king!

Decades later, the thought of allowing repair is taboo as it would cause mass unemployment.

$\endgroup$
6
  • 1
    $\begingroup$ This only works if the blacksmith is not already full up on work to do. $\endgroup$ – Mary Nov 21 '20 at 15:31
  • $\begingroup$ @Mary exactly - this would encourage him to hire apprentices, or work the forge 24/7 in shifts. Or encourage a second blacksmith to ooen in town. Eventually they start specialising in what they can make fastest, they'll make jigs and templates to speed the process up with economies of scale by making batches. $\endgroup$ – Ash Nov 21 '20 at 15:37
  • 2
    $\begingroup$ How? Leaving aside that blacksmithing is not a skill where you can hire a kid and teach him enough to be useful in a week, there are no kids for him to take on as apprentices. They are working the fields, or weaving, or spinning. There is no slack of the kind you are imagining. $\endgroup$ – Mary Nov 21 '20 at 16:25
  • $\begingroup$ Blacksmiths did not make spoons. (A blacksmith dealt with iron. A pewter spoon would be made by a whitesmith.) $\endgroup$ – AlexP Nov 21 '20 at 16:34
  • 3
    $\begingroup$ The immediate result is that farmers can't make any more food, because a farmer constantly repairs his scythe only to cut the grain by sharpening it. And he can't pay for a wagon load of new scythes - Let alone that there is enough supply on the market! Or even enough ore mined to fulfil that sudden new demand. $\endgroup$ – Trish Nov 21 '20 at 16:42
2
$\begingroup$

Congratulations: You (might have) killed off the culture!

Your people banned repairs

as soon as the object is damaged to the point it can't perform its intended function anymore

This means you are never allowed to re-sharpen a dulled blade, because a blade is intended function is to cut, and a dulled blade doesn't cut.

So (if taken as a total ban) you can't sharpen a blade. The most common blade in medieval and renaissance culture is the scythe. But farmers no longer are allowed to sharpen their scythes which happens dozens of times in a field. Farmers constantly repair the edge of their scythe! A Scythe dulls through the first swing and needs to be resharpened again and again. The European scythe is designed to be sharpened in the field even! To mow a field a farmer would need wagonloads of scythes, and farmers were not rich - in general, medieval farmers couldn't even buy one replacement scythe with the money they earned in a year!

Even if new scythes were cheap, constantly replacing the scythe and the sheer amount of scythes would mean you haul truckloads to a single field - and the energy put into making a single scythe and bringing it to the field would be more than harvested with it before it is dulled too much. So the whole economy operates at a massive loss energywise!

Not enough gets harvested. Winter hits, everybody starves to death.

$\endgroup$
3
  • 3
    $\begingroup$ As someone who owns a scythe, I can affirm that everything I've seen confirms that you need to sharpen them often, sometimes a couple times an hour (I haven't used mine enough to verify from direct experience, though I do keep a whetstone for it). Also, while I haven't managed to ding mine yet, they often need to be peened as well. (OTOH, I have a crappy machete that badly needs to be peened, but given how easily it got damaged in the first place, I'm not sure I want to bother...) $\endgroup$ – Matthew Nov 21 '20 at 18:37
  • 1
    $\begingroup$ Don't worry, there's no metal to make scythes with anyway. Miners can't fix their picks to get enough ore. And there's no wood. Ever heard of "Give me six hours to chop down a tree, and I will spend the first four sharpening the axe."?? There are no wars, nobody can fix armor. OP's "renaissance culture" devolved into hunter-gatherers living in heaps of trash. $\endgroup$ – Mindwin Nov 24 '20 at 13:54
  • $\begingroup$ ON second thought, sharpening might be included under you are expected to take care of your objects and minor repairs are allowed $\endgroup$ – Mindwin Nov 24 '20 at 14:15
1
$\begingroup$

Good question. The importance of the velocity of money has so enamored lawmakers that the concept (which is supremely important) has culminated in a society that will dispose of expended material with minimal recycling (e.g. used plastic containers, wrist watches and automobiles) as if we lived in an open system i.e. there is no limit to the available resources for manufacture. Defective by design provides higher profit as well as funds research & improvement. It's hard to argue against profit. Change is not possible until raw material for manufacture becomes too scarce or expensive to continue as before. The "culture against fixing" (in the media and the repair shops) is a reflection of that. "Culture" is a matter of perspective, and that perspective is highlighted when talking to an auto mechanic or searching online for a wristwatch.

$\endgroup$
0
$\begingroup$

Something like this has been written about in Aldous Huxley's Brave New World. In that novel, things are thrown out and made from scratch because it is seen as being a benefit to society by providing jobs. Of course, that novel takes place in a post-scarcity utopia/distopia, but I think you might be able to take another page out of Huxley's book to make it at least partially work. In Brave New World, there is a pretty severe caste system! If production isn't up to that standard, have only the higher castes engage in the behavior of excessively throwing things out. Perhaps the middle class can engage in it occasionally, or you can have this behavior be a way of enforcing sumptuary laws.

$\endgroup$

Your Answer

By clicking “Post Your Answer”, you agree to our terms of service, privacy policy and cookie policy

Not the answer you're looking for? Browse other questions tagged or ask your own question.