Pencils Are Unsustainable?

Image drawn in pencil, on paper.

What goes into the making of a single pencil?

In 1958, Leonard E. Read asked himself that very question — and wrote an elegant explication:

I, Pencil, simple though I appear to be, have a profound lesson to teach. And I can teach this lesson better than can an automobile or an airplane or a mechanical dishwasher because—well, because I am seemingly so simple.

In his piece we’re taken step-by-step through the entire process of how a single pencil is produced.

First, there are the many materials required to make a single pencil, among them: wood, rubber, paint, lacquer, graphite, metal, zinc, wax, and many other things.

We are then shown how these materials are really only the beginning of the process, for a whole industry is in turn required to produce each of those materials.

There is, for example, the lumber industry needed to produce the wood; the mining industry to mine and mill and smelt the zinc and lead and metal; the rubber industry, of course, and the paint and graphite, and so on.

Then, within each of these industries, there are numerous sub-divisions, such as chemical industries, which make up the groundwork for paint and lacquer, and the engineering companies to supply all the tools, and the shipping and transportation companies, and even the lighthouse workers to guide the ships safely into port.

Of course there is also the singular fact that our solitary pencil could neither be manufactured nor produced without all the various other forms of transportation required to get the products from place to place, and of course this transportation requires its own set of industries (not just oil), and on and on, all of which industries — and please take a moment to process this — are, in turn, no less involved than the manufacturing of the wood or graphite or rubber.

So that when everything is said and done, the making of one pencil requires thousands and thousands of people, most of whom have specialized knowledge and specialized jobs, in thousands of different industries.

Furthermore, these people come from all over the world. No centralized planning committee or commune imaginable, even with an army of super-geniuses, could organize the countless factors that go into the making of that one small pencil.

And yet in this country, as in all developed countries, pencils are so cheap and abundant that nobody thinks twice about them.

How is this so?

The answer is devilishly simple: private property and the freedom to trade that property.

The freedom to produce and trade and then reap the subsequent rewards are what bring these thousands and thousands of people, from these thousands of different industries the wide-world over, into peaceful and mutually beneficial cooperation with one another.

Think about that.

Think long and hard about it, I beseech you.

In fact, I insist you do.

Your entire understanding of human existence — whether you’re a billionaire, a bartender, or an artist, and whether you live in a cult, condo, or commune — depends upon it.

Your life depends upon it, I submit.

Think about some of the things you use in your day-to-day existence. Think about your private path of least resistance.

Think of your eyeglasses, which Galileo and Spinoza would have given their eyeteeth for.

Think of the exercise mat upon your floor. Think of the ab-roller for your core.

Think about the utensils you use to cook and clean your food, the cups you use to drink your potable water, and the faucets you use to turn that water off and on.

Think of the hoses and the sprinklers for your lawn.

Think of sponges and your soap.

Think of rope.

Think of your chocolate truffle and think of the package that it comes in.

Think of packaging again and again (and again).

Think of your clothing, no matter how fine or how shabby it may or may not be. Think of your underwear, down to the tag we do not see.

Think critically.

Think about your toothbrush and your toothpaste, and its tube. And the cap that goes on that tube.

Think of your lube.

Think about your medicine: aspirin, ibuprofin, Pepto, Lipator, antihistamines for the cough and wheeze.

Think of braces for your elbows and your knees.

Think of your transportation — bicycle, train, plane, bus, boat, automobile, jumbo jet, or even your walking shoes — and think of the sheer number of discrete parts that each of these things contain, and which you use.

Think of other technological breakthroughs.

Can you?

How about your jacket and its worn buttons, the lovely denim of faded blue, the toothpicks and the gum you chew?

Your bedding and your hygiene and your make-up.

Think of the alarm clock that every morning helps you wake up.

Think of your books and your paints and paintbrushes. Your chisel and hammer.

Your megahertz of memory if your a computer programmer.

Think of your keyboard and your mouse, your voice-recognition software.

Think of filters for your water and air.

Think about your entertainment: wine and wine bottles, dark beer. Think of all the brandy that you’ve consumed or stored.

Think of your playing cards or tarot cards or magic cards, your hoops, your chess-or-checker-board.

Think of packaging again. Think of the packages that all your things arrive in.

Think of your gardening equipment, or any other metal or wood or plastic or glass items you may use.

Think of your ball-peen hammer and your nails and your screws.

Think of your tape measures and pliers, your wrenches, your saws and your multicolored chalks.

To say nothing of your electricity — the lights, the cameras, the watches, the clocks.

Your computers and modems, MP3’s and stereos, word-processors and photo-editing software — and of course your phone, your phone, without which you’d be alone.

And televisions and lights (“More light!” said Goethe, then died) and musical instruments and medical equipment and rocket ships and edible water bottles…

Think of anything. Think of airplane models.

Look around you. Is your chair metal or wood? Does your desk or table have bolts and nails?

Notice details.

I insist, I positively insist.

Think of me as a kind of oculist.

Because I promise you — I absolutely promise — that the filthy, hardcore industry, which I believe in and love so much, the industry that went into producing, for instance, just one small component of your phone, or your bicycle, or the paperback book in your hand, or the shoes on your feet, or the glasses on your face, or the contact lenses in your eyes, or the ring in your navel, nose, or nipples, or the needles which tattooed your skin, that industry was amplified a thousandfold compared with one solitary pencil, no matter how cheap or how thin.

So please take one more look — and then look again.

Take one more look at the blue-black ink across your skin.

There’s a moral to this story and that moral is this:

Embrace technology.

Look suspiciously on the buzzword ecology.

Technology got us to this point. Only technology can get us beyond.

It is a magic wand.

There’s something profoundly paradoxical in the quest for less technology and a more simple way of life, while flying the world in jumbo jets. In fact, it’s about as paradoxical as it gets.

Celebrate, rather, human progress and specialization.

Celebrate the division of labor that technology creates, thereby freeing us all to pursue the things we most enjoy and at which we excel, since we are no longer each yoked to the task of day-to-day, week-to-week, month-to-month survival, but can trade freely and peacefully with those who have the things we need and want, in exchange for the things we ourselves have in turn worked to produce — being no longer condemned to a life of drudgery and tedium.

(Money is only a medium.)

Celebrate individualization.

Celebrate civilization.

Civilization is the progress toward independent, private lives, wherein we are no longer dominated by the group, gang, tribe, or community but live freely: free to associate with others as we please, or not.

This is the fundamental thing you’ve never been taught.

It’s the only thing that’s truly sustainable. It’s what you’ll never hear from any of the postmodernists, the intellectuals, the politicos, the hipsters, the academic phonies and imposters:

Celebrate human freedom and the independent mind that freedom fosters.


  • Dave Cochrane

    August 21, 2017

    Thanks for this, Ray. I first heard the I, Pencil story as narrated by the late, great Milton Friedman some years ago. It illustrates how technological progress and productivity flourish when people are just allowed to be FREE as INDIVIDUALS to create, to invent, to manufacture, to TRADE. No coercion, no centralised planning is necessary for us to work separately yet collectively to create amazing things (that Division of Labour you mentioned), only the profit motive; indeed a central planning committee can only hinder progress and productivity, since there are infinitely more ever-changing factors in a market economy to be accounted for than can be appreciated by any committee of mere mortals. Without the indication of Price in a free market, how does one know what, and how much, to produce to meet the market demands? How many pencil erasers do we need this week?

    I’m suddenly reminded of a great Joke that Reagan famously told:

    Its hard to get an automobile in the Soviet Union; it takes an average of 10 years to get a car. One out of seven families owns an automobile. You have to go through a major process and put the money down in advance. So, this guy does this, and the dealer says “Okay, in 10 years come back and get your car.”
    “Morning or afternoon?” the man replies.
    “Well, what difference does it make?” says the dealer.
    “The plumber is coming in the morning.”

  • Ray

    August 22, 2017


    That joke is almost as good as some of your first-sentences. But not quite. But almost. But not quite. But almost.

    Just incidentally, there’s another version of I, Pencil that some economist did at some point in some book or another about a loaf of bread. You’re persuaded after reading just the preliminary part about making the flour alone — for all the technology and equipment required to produce the grain that goes into flour in order to begin making bread. It is, in my opinion, an unassailable argument against any sort of centralized planning, and if followed to its ineluctable conclusion, it devastates the very premise of so-called progressivism and blows it to smithereens.

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