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Winona LaDuke, Published April 05 2014

Letter: Be handy, be a fixer, buy used

I recently took a trashed iPhone to the “ICare” shop in Fargo. I arrived, embarrassed at the state of the phone, and was reassured that it could be fixed. It was, and I was grateful. I was grateful because I like seeing things fixed, and I hate seeing things thrown away.

I grew up in a household that was somewhat minimalist in the things department – we used whisks to mix, cooked from scratch; when gramma came to visit, torn and buttonless shirts were mended. My grandfather, a house painter and carpenter, fixed things at the house for a busy family, and made small items for delighted children.

I am happiest when things can be fixed, or when I choose something that can be fixed by an ordinary person – like my sewing machines. Yup, that is me. I know I am not alone. It’s a generational thing, I’m sure.

Many of us have moved away from being handy. We fix less, buy more. I could say it hurts the planet, the environment and charismatic mega fauna like, well, gorillas in the Congo (think: blood coltan for cellphones). It hurts us. We lack agency, buy more things, have people take care of us, and that’s a problem in society.

We create a linear society, in which one of our largest industries is waste. And 70 percent of our economy is based on consumption. Not production, not services, but consumption. In about three months, a lot of what we’ve bought is at a landfill. Most of that came from China, and we owe them a lot, it seems.

We generate about 3 trillion pounds of waste annually, or 1,242 pounds per person. And this doesn’t count “waste water.” “Waste water” – that’s a strange construct on a planet with only so much water. We are making a lot of waste water in western North Dakota, for sure, as if there’s a water fairy coming to see us in 20 years.

And then there’s the social production of waste: prisons. We’ve got more prisoners per capita than any country in the world – of the 9 million prisoners in the world, some 2.2 million are in the U.S., and that’s a growth industry as well. It’s a bad idea – throwing people away.

When someone says “throw it away,” what does it mean? In 1987, the Mobro barge got our attention. With a New York landfill at capacity, the barge was filled with 3,100 tons of garbage. It traversed the globe, more than 5,000 miles in 112 days, stopping at five countries looking for a place to dump its load. Unsuccessful, the Mobro returned to New York with the garbage. The barge became a symbol of our own stupidity, and helped create pressure for the recycling programs and the 1990 Clean Air/Clean Water Act.

But not all stories end well. A lot of those barges have landed in Somalia. A country of political instability became a victim of international dumping, with a long and voluptuous coastline, unguarded. Then came barges of toxic waste dumped on their shores. Then came the fishing of their waters illegally by international fleets, and then came the pirates that we saw in the movie “Captain Phillips.” Pirates came from circumstances; they did not come from Never-Never Land.

What’s the antidote? Quit dumping stuff. Get handy. Get stuff fixed if you can’t do it yourself. Buy stuff that you don’t need to throw out. Buy used.

I still like to fix up clothes, patch pants, sew buttons, and all. I like the idea that I don’t have to buy everything and that some of us are still handy. I still see the cobbler – I think the name is still used – for something besides a berry cake.

I’m a bit handy, but you don’t want me to fix a car or anything mechanical. That’s why I was happy when the cellphone was fixed. Thank you, handy guys. May there be more of you.

LaDuke is executive director, Honor the Earth, and an Objibwe writer and economist on Minnesota’s White Earth Reservation.