the hidden cost of the magical egg
the world has gotten pretty interconnected, and i think pretty clearly evident by the extended supply-chain issues in the wake of covid-19's effect on the global economy. we take it for granted that the grocery store has eggs from who knows where, bananas probably shipped from afar, and peanut butter that's spent who knows how long in processing and storage, until it's made its way to the shelf for your perusal. sure, the egg came from a chicken somewhere, the bananas were grown on a tree somewhere, peanuts processed somewhere, but it's become so second nature that we might not stop to think about this arrangement until something gives us pause.
having an interconnected network of free trade has definitely given us many benefits in technological progress and standard of living in spite of popular critics like kaczynski (better known for other work) et al. and yet, in spite of the grand achievement of getting to pick between 18 slightly different formulations of ketchup at the grocery store, it does feel like we've lost something, hasn't it? this isn't as sarcastic of a question as you might think, there are many people who don't particularly care or believe that it's necessary for everyone know exactly where their egg came from.
i was having an interesting conversation with someone with a strong self-professed love of communism and labor theory, and i'm going to attempt to recreate their argument as accurately as possible, but most likely completely butcher it 😩. much of modern day technology, such as vaccines or semiconductors, is so complex that it necessarily requires extensive and highly reliant supply chains to be viable. by objective metrics, this has proven to substantially increase quality of life, and regression from this ideal, as suggested by critics such as kaczynski (again, better known for other work) is either malicious or misguided at best. instead, efforts should be made towards improving overall system trust, efficiency and resiliency; just because a system grows beyond a single person's scale doesn't make it inherently bad, there just needs more work to be done.
i can appreciate this argument, but as you can guess, i beg to differ: supply chains need to be community-sized because the egg matters, for several reasons:
- awareness: without awareness of the entire production of a product, of course we will naturally underestimate the labor and material cost involved. at best, this can just be a benign lapse, like forgetting an ingredient in a recipe after making it. more often, it can lead to dramatic amnesia, such as when naysayers of electric cars love to point out the heavy effects of lithium mining or the burning of coal to power the electrical grid. at worst, corporations, with a vested interest to make their product seem greener than it might actually be, might maliciously mislead consumers and obfuscate its components.
- value: with increased awareness, we can begin to appreciate products beyond a simple market-priced monetary value, but with the full wonder of the sum of its whole production. what was once an egg that magically popped into existence moments before arriving on the grocery store shelf suddenly becomes an egg grown by one of Jim's chickens, transported and stored by Cheryll, who was then purchased by you. in this model, the social value of a egg can change dramatically if sourced from a farm known for unethical practices for example, even while the market value remains the same. the same cannot be said of the magical egg, stripped of any social or communal value, which could be replaced by a farm halfway across the country without you even realizing it.
- conscientiousness: this may seem self-evident, as a natural consequence of increased awareness and value. and yet, its importance can not be understated. only with increased awareness can consumers produce fully accurate valuations of products, which you might be more inclined to use before it goes bad than a magically instantiated egg. in this way, decreases in consumption occurs naturally and effortlessly from the bottom up, rather than a top-down method of gating consumption at the time of purchase. the psychological benefits of such a less cognitively-intensive model shouldn't be ignored.
- decentralization: shortened supply chains may not be able to service as many people, but with less dependencies, they can be proliferated in a more decentralized way. while there may still be common, traditionally-produced materials used in these local supply chains, most of the supply chain being distributed means that consumers won't just have more options in total, but also that producers will have the chance to uniquely tailor their products directly for their local community.
- resiliency: by promoting decentralization in supply chains, they will naturally be more fault-tolerant to remote instability due to their local nature, and will also have more decentralized options to source alternatives from. recovery will be less bottlenecked by singular outages, improving responsiveness.
- participation: finally, with more local production, consumers will have more opportunities to shape products with their consumer habits, and even get directly involved with producers. where personal relationships were once impossible, now has the opportunity to help communities grow stronger as they can work to better meet each other's needs.
so how do we do this? it's easy, and doesn't require changing how technological progress occurs, only where we apply it. instead of only applying technological improvements to the total efficiency of production, we can target towards a combined heuristic of efficiency given scope. while this may decrease total efficiency on paper, i believe that the listed benefits will greatly reduce consumption, waste, impact and emissions more than any marginal increase in efficiency could ever bring.
however, there's one final benefit that i believe might be one of the most valuable of all. as focus shifts from incremental improvements in efficiency to that of self-sufficiency and versatility, singular technological advancements can be applied exponentially through decentralized supply chains, resulting in massive improvements to overall production that aren't even possible with marginal efficiency increases of conventional supply chains. (computer scientists will groan as i reference big o notation. don't lie, you were thinking of it)
3d printing is a good example of this in action in recent history. on the surface, it may seem like a less efficient method of production that generally results in weaker materials than an equivalent one milled from metal or wood. however, where before you might have had to ship materials out to a dedicated milling facility where they used incredibly expensive and complicated machines to create custom objects, or buy lots of specialized tooling to carve things out of wood, things can now can be flexibly and easily printed with the touch of a button. far from being useless or simple toys, i think the ingenuity of the 3d printing community can speak for itself, as they've found so many ways to produce replacement parts for complex machinery like tractors, or even full, resilient tools like guns. the value of technological advances like 3d printing doesn't just come from easier creation of individual bespoke components, but instead from allowing these previously-prohibitive production chains to become more accessible, since one object no longer requires expensive/special machinery which all have their own dependency chains on their own.
there's a lot to be gained from shorter supply chains and luckily, each of us has the power to make this a reality by buying locally, or from companies committed to keeping their production as local as possible. as you might begin to think about the production chains in your life, i urge you to consider not just total efficiency, but overall scale and structure as well. and then you might agree with me, that those eggs could be so much more valuable if they just had a little less magic.
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