The accumulating effects of individual activity

Don't buy handmade...
Don’t … unless you really want to …

There are plenty of good reasons to buy hand-made or bespoke goods. There is the support of individual craftsmanship, high-quality originality, and ensuring that life doesn’t become a mass of hum-drum sameness.

Declaring that “hand-made” is more efficient and better for the environment is not one of them.

Yet this is precisely what the HandMade Project declares: “The accumulating environmental effects of mass production are a major cause of global warming and the poisoning of our air, water and soil.” This being the third-tier of their justification for promoting “handmade” over “factory-made”.

Purely logically, that doesn’t hold. The peak times for electricity consumption happens to be 18h00 to 21h00 … AFTER people come back from work and start preparing dinner, bathing, and watching television. In small family groups.

Given that South African electricity monopoly, Eskom, hasn’t invested in their network for thirty years these effects are important since the grid falls down at peak consumption periods.

Power companies are familiar with the network effects of people finishing viewing their favourite television shows and turning on the kettle for a quick “cuppa”. In the UK, the biggest recorded power surge ever was 2,800 megawatts after England’s 1990 World Cup penalty shoot-out against Germany.

Individual production is hardly efficient. If it were those terrible leaches on society – capitalists – who would sell their own grandmothers, children and wives to make mincemeat to sell to horses to make craft-glue-macramé-sandals if there was a profit in it – would be divvying up their factories into small job-lots.

Mass-production is more efficient. If everyone on earth agreed to wear the same clothes, eat the same food and live in the same place, the world would use a fraction of the things we consume today. It is precisely our individuality that makes us use more things and produce a wider variety of goods.

Our individual requirement to have our own computers is also inefficient. Something the wise boffins at Berkeley realised when they developed SETI@home in 1999. This screen-saver uses the spare capacity on ordinary PCs to sift through radio-telescope data for signs of extraterrestrial intelligence. The results are sent back to Berkeley.

More impressively, Stanford University, using a similar system for their Folding@home project – which simulates protein folding (and mis-folding) – has just passed the combined computing capacity of one petaflop (a quadrillion mathematical operations per second).

Clearly mass-production is the way to go if you want to get a vast amount of sameness for the lowest possible cost at the maximum efficiency.

This festive season, buy what you want for the right reasons. Not because some idiot tried to guilt you into buying a good that supposedly is more environmentally or socially “beneficial”, when it clearly isn’t.

Categories: Energy, Environment/Nature

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10 replies »

  1. Fortunately, there’s no real tendency here in the US toward individuality. Lots of lip service, of course, but mainly we all want to be individuals just like everybody else. The idea of buying something unique and handmade when you could have something that expresses your individuality perfectly from The Gap? Please.

  2. These people are claiming that hand-made is better for the environment? Talk about either a) not doing their research or b) lying in order hitch a ride on the global heating bandwagon.

    There are plenty of valid reasons to buy hand-made without making false connections to global heating. Similarly, there are plenty of valid reasons to deal with global heating on its own, without resorting to tugging fake heartstrings over hand-made products.

  3. Devil’s Advocate thoughts (i.e. I’m not totally disagreeing with you, but there seemed to be a few points you didn’t address):

    Yes, it’s true that more electricity is used at home. An automated factory can even function in the dark with the heating/air conditioning turned off. However, I wouldn’t think the machines themselves would be as efficient as organic lifeforms at harnessing and expending energy. How much energy would it take for a machine to make a sweater versus a human? Factor in the costs for generating fuel for both systems. I don’t know, but my guess would be that the human requires less energy for the task and has fewer direct environmental consequences. So, if the human were living off the grid, eating a locally-grown vegetarian diet, in a temperate climate, requiring little temperature management and so on (admittedly, a best case scenario), could it not potentially be better for the environment?

    Furthermore, one of the greatest direct consequences of mass production is over production. Even if machines were more efficient, power-wise, at creating the aforementioned sweater, that advantage is likely lost by all of the sweaters that go unpurchased. If a person making handmade goods finds that his sweaters aren’t selling, he’s likely to stop knitting them after he has a few too many to go around. Sure, no self-respecting capitalist goes into any venture looking to hurt his margins via over production, but it happens all the time. If people do not buy the goods, they often end up in landfills. Financially, it’s better be able to manufacture too many than to fall short of demand, as Nintendo is currently experiencing.

    Further still, one likely wouldn’t have a sweater factory in every town, as the infrastructure costs become cost prohibitive. But if one buys handmade items locally, the fuel savings from transport must also be factored in as an advantage.

  4. It would be interesting to compare the joules of energy required to produce a sweater comparing man and machine. It would be a rather complex process,adding up all of the energy required to build the machine, run it, transport the goods, create the fibers. Every step would have to be accounted for and added up. The same calculation would have to be done with man’s effort to create the same sweater. It would be an interesting comparison. Three areas the machine would do better is in efficiency, time saved and work output. Man made sweaters would probably be of better quality, but that depends on the skill of the worker.


  5. You also have to factor in things like what kind of materials are being used and where they are coming from. ie, are they locally and sustainably produced or shipped halfway around the world, using lots of oil, and produced using large-scale, environmentally damaging techniques (eg high-pesticide cotton monoculture, to continue using the gap as an example)? Mass production tends to favor the latter.

  6. Does this apply to all the unsold new cars sitting on the lots and all the empty new houses dotting the US landscape?

    I kinda missed the segue from the Handmade Project to the electricity points.

    Btw, I think we should clear up a point on the term capitalist also. Most people aren’t “capitalists” (mostly because it’s been wrongly defined). From “The Gospel of Work vs. the Gospel of Wealth” by Russell Mokhiber and Robert Weissman
    “If we look at the United States in the 19th century, we see a popular culture that was, in a word, anti-capitalist,” Doukas said. “And this was reflected very much in the political scene of the time. You had to be in favor of the working man. You had to support and praise the common man. The basic idea is that work is what dignifies a person. It is an anti-aristocratic ideology. It goes way back, really. Aristocrats were characterized as parasites, as people who lived off the work of others. Whereas good, virtuous American people worked hard and were expected to enjoy the fruits of their labor.”

    So, for example, Abraham Lincoln, in his first annual message to Congress in 1861, makes his statement about capital and labor: “Capital is only the fruit of labor. Labor is the superior of capital and deserves much the higher consideration.”

    But when the corporations came in and took over, the major message was — no, it’s capital, not labor, that produces the wealth of society — it’s capital that deserves the greater consideration.”

  7. Ah, knitonomics – most handmade sweaters (except for arans) made for public sale are actually produced by a combination of small machine knitting and handwork for the patterned finishing. So there’s another category of “handmade” for you… Then there’s wool from family farms, cooperatives, and corporate-owned ranches, all of which might receive various government subsidies. Then there are hand-spinners, small mills, and big mills; individually-owned or chain store yarn distributors for the home knitter and wholesalers for the factories, mill ends and off lots… and that doesn’t even begin to touch on the garment industry end of the equation.

    That would be one hell of an equation.

  8. Ann said:
    “That would be one hell of an equation”

    You ought to see some of the estimates that go into the net energy of ethanol from corn…now, that’s an equation.


  9. Earlier today I made the conscious decision (& took the action) to purchase an item at a local hardware store rather than a Big Box. Although it is highly likely that the item I purchased in the local hardware store came from the same country as a similar item in the Big Box, at the very least, I put money into local pockets and not Bentonville pockets. Individuality, not collectivism, is a wonderful thing!