Saturday, September 30, 2006

Why It's Made

I've owned the margarine tub for 13 years. I just bought the clock last week.

The story of how either one is made constitutes an amazing, complex tale of international trade, technology development, invention, and so on. If you don't believe me, please tune in to my favorite TV show: How It's Made, on the Discovery Channel. I challenge you to find more than a few objects in your home where one person gathered the materials from the natural world, crafted them, and personally gave them to you to use. You will find hundreds, even thousands of items that came to you in a vastly more complex manner.

When my kids were little, one of their favorite books (and mine) was "The Ox Cart Man" by Barbara Coonts. With a simple story and wonderful illustrations she showed how an industrious New England family in the 18th or early 19th century worked all year to grow food, make clothes, candles, and most of the things they used. At the end of the end of the story, the father leads an ox and ox cart on a several day journey. The cart is loaded with many of the products of their industry. Item by item he sells it all at a coastal city. Then he walks home with a few sewing needles, perhaps some candy, and a few coins in his pocket.

One's first thought might be how wonderful it is that the family is so self sufficient in their agrarian life. One would be wrong. The needles and the coins are made of metal that required a mining, transport, smelting, and a host of industrial processes using sophisticated equipment.

The needles were required for many of the simplest of the home projects: knitting, sewing clothes, sewing harness. Perhaps on other trips he used the coins to buy metal pots, hammers, axes, or a plow share.

Even sugar candy was a product at the end of a long chain of agriculture, industrialization, and international commerce. Sugar not made into candy or sold to bakers around the world was often converted into rum, which fueled a profitable and legal international drug trade.

Any society appreciably simpler than that of the ox cart man's is stone age. No metal. Little trade. And yet even those stone age folks may covet a new flint knife or a better loincloth. They are often willing to fight and kill to get or keep. On those rare ocassions where modern man has found what he thought to be a primitive paradise, as with the south sea islands, we were simply ignorant of what truly transpired there. In the same way we have sometimes chosen to be ignorant of the complex industries that enabled the ox cart man and his family to thrive. We turn our eyes away for a moment and do not think about the wars fought to take the ox cart man's land. We forget about the slaves taken for the sake of growing the sugar cane. We choose not to think of the miners, steel makers, and factory workers that make needles or coins.

Why are people working so hard, struggling, fighting, thinking, buying, selling? Why are all these things made? What is it we hope to gain that our hunter, gatherer ancestors or neighbors didn't have? A steady supply of food. Clothes. A warm, dry place to sleep. A few beautiful objects to admire. Entertainments of one sort or another. How It's Made is a great show. Why it's made is a question for the ages.

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