Paul Andersen: Fair Game
November 14, 2010
At the local lumber yard, a 10-foot-long 2-by-4 costs $3.79. A sheet of 4-by-8, half-inch plywood goes for $12.95. A 2-by-10 plank, 10 feet long, straight-grained and kiln-dried, sells for $9.20. Lumber is cheap.
I did a little home repair project on my deck last week and was amazed that a lumber company can charge so little for the quality wood products I used. I had a similar revelation when my boiler needed repairs (also last week), forcing me to replace a 90-degree elbow joint of 6-inch stove pipe.
I went to the plumbing supply store and told the guy what I needed. As he looked over the shelves, I looked over the girlie calendar on the wall featuring a shapely young woman seductively posed in … well, never mind. The clerk placed the shiny new pipe configuration on the counter. He rang up the item and said, “That’ll be two-fifty-eight.” I gulped. “You mean two-hundred and fifty-eight dollars?!” “No,” he smiled, “two dollars and fifty-eight cents.”
I suddenly understood why the scale of building in America is off the charts. Aside from labor costs, super-sizing a building is a matter of adding a few more dollars for cheap materials. I commented that the price seemed ridiculously low. That’s when a plumber at the counter next to me bristled. “Hey, don’t say that!” he admonished. “We like this stuff cheap.”
The guy at the cash register paused in reflection. “How do they sell this thing so cheap and still make a profit?” he asked. “Because they make a million of ’em at a time,” said the plumber. “Mass production drives down the price. If they made just one, it would cost a hundred dollars.”
Plato understood this more than two thousand years ago, noting that the formation of a society fosters specialization and division of labor. Agriculture broke ground on that concept 10,000 years ago as man’s foremost achievement. Farmers created a surplus and spurred population growth, culminating in a world that will struggle to feed 9 billion people by midcentury.
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Plato had it right, but he never envisioned paying $2.58 for a 90-degree aluminum elbow, an absurdly low price for something requiring a long and intricate stream of production, starting with an aluminum strip mine and ending with the flue on the roof of my house.
It’s the same for the lumber I bought, which cost almost the equivalent of firewood. Those 2-by-4s started as seedlings and ended up on my deck as finished lumber. The costs of the processes in-between – silviculture, harvesting, milling, treating, shipping – are reduced by a mass-produced discount that makes the per-unit product almost valueless.
The low cost of goods is due to economies of scale, but it’s also defrayed by the invisible costs to the biosphere, which are not calculated on the sticker price. Aluminum strip mining, smelting ore into metal, and manufacturing metal into pipe yields negative outputs. These costs are absorbed by the biosphere, for free.
Add transportation industries and fuel production to the overlay of aluminum production, and the environmental impact on that 90-degree elbow goes global. Track the production of lumber, and it generates the same web of industrial impacts. For every 2-by-4, there is a cost that we ignore, a cost buried in the Commons, which underwrites the biggest discount for our material wealth.
There are great advantages to production at scale, most notably in discounts to consumers. This is what keeps the economy moving. The advantages taper off, however, with limits like peak oil, climate change, water shortages, deforestation, species extinctions, etc. Eventually, there is an end to the discounts furnished by nature. We seem to have reached the point where many of the hidden costs to the biosphere are coming due at once.
The hope of industrial civilization is that technology and innovation will carry us through in perpetuity and that nature will remain resilient enough to meet all our needs and wants. Unfortunately, by drastically discounting goods, the resources from which they derive appear to have no value at all. In our utilitarian approach to nature, we compute the price of everything and the value of nothing.
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