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Black Lamb

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Now in its 14th year of publication, this magazine was created to offer the discerning reader a stimulating selection of excellent original writing. Black Lamb Review is a literate rather than a literary publication. Regular columns by writers in a variety of geographic locations and vocations are supplemented by features, reviews, articles on books and authors, and a selection of “departments,” including an acerbic advice column and a lamb recipe.

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Wal-Mart to the rescue

Marching gratefully, and greenly, into the future

March 1st, 2007

BY GREG ROBERTS

Under a spreading chesnut tree the village smithy stood. Thank goodness the unproductive lout is now gone, or we’d all be in the poorhouse.

blacksmiths2.jpgImagine it’s the year 1814 and you are a gravedigger who needs a new shovel. You ask the blacksmith to pound one out for you, which he does, in about six hours, and charges you three bucks. You earn a buck a grave, and you’re averaging one per day, so that means three days work to buy the shovel. And Longfellow is looking back fondly at this miserable economy? It’s fond, alright, in the ancient meaning of the word: idiotic.

The village smithy was dismayed when a peddler came along with a wagon full of shovels, hoes, pliers, and scissors, all mass-produced in New England factories. The tools were of good quality at one-tenth the price of the hand-forged versions. Soon each villager could hope to own a few implements to ease the slavery of farming and homemaking.

History could be written as a series of professions getting kicked in the ass by technology. Calligraphers must have hated the invention of moveable type. Candlemakers must have hated the coming of whale oil lamps. A weaver, Ned Ludd, went crazy and smashed commercial looms that were replacing his cottage industry. (Better for folks to squeak by on one pair of pants every three years than to replace Ned and his guild of Gandhi-like starvelings.)

The liveryman, the iceman, the milkman — they all disappeared overnight. The linotype operator dropped away in the 1970s with the coming of the integrated circuit, the same little creature that abruptly snuffed out the Curta hand-held calculator that was state-of-the-art for twenty-five years.

As sad as it is to see workers replaced by technology, the change has almost always been a good thing. If the thing replaced had been allowed to exist, it would have smothered us. Take horseshit. If the automobile had not been invented, we would be knee-deep in equine fecal material. The world would be intolerably filthy. Even the village blacksmith was a worse polluter than the modern Chinese factory slave who is cranking out screwdrivers all days for a bowl of beetle-infested rice.

If the blacksmith burned up twenty pounds of coal to make a shovel — smoking up the whole neighborhood with his inefficient forge in order to produce a couple of tools a day — he makes the Chinese factory a marvel of environmental sensitivity deserving of the Sierra Club Lifetime Award.

It’s called economy of scale. Without it we might as well be living in 1350, emptying our chamber pots in the street and bringing out our dead every day to the plague wagon. Example: Paper was once made by pulping cellulose in a box and drying it on a screen, one sheet at a time. If that process still prevailed, the thing you are not holding would cost fifteen dollars even before we put ink on it. (The ink, painstakingly extracted from insect galls, would itself add another buck to the production costs of each Black Lamb if technology had not intervened.)

The logical conclusion is that economy of scale helps more people live happier lives and has lessened the environmental damage caused by primitive technologies. A school bus is a better idea than forty Subarus each delivering one kid, and a much better idea than forty horse-drawn carriages each delivering one kid.
Likewise, if Wal-Mart brings in a ship’s container from China loaded with screwdrivers, that one container can serve the screwdriver needs of a major city — if all the citizens shop at Wal-Mart. The alternative is for two dozen small hardware stores to each order a carton of screwdrivers delivered by truck, at a higher cost and with more diesel fumes polluting the air. That is the deadly price we pay for having these small-time players on every street corner.

Obviously Wal-Mart is the green choice, especially since the small, wannabe stores are selling the same bowl-of-rice-a-day screwdrivers as the ones you get at Wal-Mart.

The planet is going to stay greener and more efficient as we simplify our way to five or six mega-corporations delivering goods to billions of people. This is essential because we are still breeding like cockroaches, making inefficient systems downright suicidal.

Wal-Mart will provide almost everything that is needed by almost everyone, at the best price and the least damage to the earth. You won’t even have to go to a Wal-Mart store. Just pick the items you want on the touch screen, and the Wal-Mart delivery van will have them at your door in less time than it would take you to drive there and back. A delivery vehicle serving your neighborhood leaves the central warehouse complex every eighteen minutes. There is no need to leave your module, ever. You would only be polluting the air if you did.

Wal-Mart will supply ninety-five percent of the people with ninety-five percent of their needs, but some specialty items are in such little demand, they won’t be bothered with by the corporation. Think of lute strings, live mysid shrimp for feeding sea horses, a two-ounce bottle of fox urine that trappers carry to dribble onto their sets, miniature trees, pigs, and water towers to dot the landscapes of model railroads, and one-hundred-percent cotton snake bags for herpetologists to transport their specimens.

These are the cottage industries of the future. If you don’t want to work for Wal-Mart, you might want to look into selling fox urine and snake bags. Or you could even be a blacksmith. My friend Richard Anderson of Clear Lake, Wash. has a business called Savage Forge. He makes axes, scorps, and other primitive tools for use by mountain men who rendezvous in the summer and pretend it’s 1850 again. It’s a good thing this activity is limited, or we’d all be dead. •

Posted by: The Editors
Category: Roberts | Link to this Entry

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