|My son, Ian, and I riding on Tommy 36 years ago|
The NYT recently reported on the new ‘Right to Repair’ movement, a coalition of both Democrats and Republicans, pushing for laws to make it easier to fix cell phones, cars, and the avalanche of other appliances and gadgets that we mindlessly throw away when they break. Advocates say legislation is necessary because manufacturers are making it increasingly difficult “to repair things by limiting availability of parts or by putting prohibitions on who gets to tinker with them.”1
Massachusetts may soon be the first state to pass such legislation. Bills have even been introduced in N.H. but none yet has passed. I see it as a fight pitting regular folks against corporations. But beyond allowing people to fix their own things, it is part of a larger movement challenging our ‘throw-away’ society.
Planned obsolescence wastes money, misuses scarce resources, and chokes landfills. Worse yet, it is an increasing trend, accelerating climate change. For instance, according to the U.S. Public Interest Research Group, if Americans could extend the life of their cellphones for one year, it would be the climate-saving equivalent of taking 638,000 cars off the road.2
Nevertheless, Apple is one of the companies prominently mentioned in the NYT article, because they curb consumers and independent contractors from repairing their iPhones. Another company cited is John Deere, who uses license agreements with farmers that forbid them from even looking at the software running their tractor.
That tractor reference triggered a vivid personal memory of how much things have changed. When my dad came home from World War II in 1945, the first thing he did after having me was to purchase a brand-new Farmall Cub tractor, complete with every farm implement. After being on the high seas in the Navy for 4 years, he was striving to lay down roots and gain control of his destiny. With his new purchase, he was able to plow the driveway in the winter, cultivate the gardens in the summer, mow the fields, and bask in the pleasure of improving his property.
Unlike new, high-tech tractors, the Farmall Cub was a simple machine with no software except Dad’s brain. He took pride in his tractor because it was well built and easy to fix. I loved the tractor because he loved it and enjoyed, from the age of a toddler, helping him work on it.
Early on, my parents read me an endearing storybook, ’Tommy Tractor,’ by G. E. McPherson. From that point on, the tractor was reborn as Tommy. After my father passed on, I inherited Tommy, who I continue to care for, while he does his part helping to maintain my 21 acres.
Tommy runs as good today as he did the day my father first bought him, and my son, schooled in the Tommy tradition, loves him as much as I do and will proudly drive him into the future after I am gone.
For me, Tommy tractor is the perfect symbol of what we have lost in the last 70 years. I see ‘Right to repair’ legislation as part of a much larger movement back to the future: Back toward self-sufficiency and acting locally, as manifested in the explosion of small scale farms springing up in every community. And gardens sprouting up in more and more yards.
What is most significant to me, however, is Tommy Tractor’s wizardry, giving me that priceless gift of merging my thinking with doing in a way that that’s almost spiritual: I’m talking about how Tommy gets me out of my head – churning with its computer-dwelling cauldron of racing thoughts – through the physical act of working on him using my hands.
I would like to return to that long-lost world, now inhabited only by children and indigenous people, who understand that even inanimate objects like rocks and tractors have personalities we can relate to and love.