People often argue that capitalism is efficient, and that it strives for efficiency, but even a cursory glance at the reality around you should tell you otherwise. There are countless other examples of the inefficiency of capitalism, but I want to provide you with one detailed example first.
I was walking up the road from my house when I saw a man using one of my most hated devices, the leaf blower, a device which is a very common and typical example of the failures of capitalism … let’s take a look at exactly how redundant and wasteful this device is.
What does it take to design a broom ( or a rake )? Well, first of all, a child can do it with a reasonable chance of success, and with no more research or education than just looking at a broom/rake, or even simply describing the task; it really is that simple. You may get as many different designs as there are people doing the design, but for a device so simple, I’d be surprised if the vast majority of those designs didn’t at least basically function.
All of which wouldn’t even require necessarily a pencil and paper, you could easily go to a junk yard and randomly design a perfectly functional broom on the fly, deciding on the go based on the parts you find … which may or may not be possible for a functional leaf blower, even if you have all the skills AND the junk yard had all the basic components required.
Now compare that to a commercially available leaf blower … it’s a vastly different set of circumstances:
- Multiple specialists required:
- technical designers / engineers:
- CAD/CAM/CAE software operators;
- electromechanical engineers;
- electronic engineers;
- injection molding specialists;
- aesthetic, packaging, marketing designers;
- logistics, warehousing, manufacturing, and distribution specialists;
- IT support specialists;
- administrative support and business specialists;
- technical designers / engineers:
- Office buildings, office furniture, manufacturing facilities;
- Expensive computer equipment and software, plus manufacturing equipment;
- Massive power and water supply / consumption;
… you get the idea – it is beyond merely unlikely anyone could complete this process alone and without massive resource input.
In terms of materials we have the same situation all over again:
- deforestation for mining of raw materials;
- displacement and death of local organisms;
- resultant loss of biodiversity;
- pollution of soil and water, possibly also the air;
- conflict minerals issue, plus modern day slavery and child slavery;
- massive resource investment in mining machinery, plus operational resource expenditure;
… and the list goes on and on and on.
Now sure, you could turn a forest into a broom factory, doing a similar amount of damage, but it would not be as much, because you’re not also destroying the Earth and soil to the same degree – but mainly because it isn’t necessary, as you could create a broom factory based only on recycled wood, or on wood exclusively taken from storm damage to trees ( fallen branches ), perhaps also just taking branches but not actually chopping down whole trees.
So we have spent vast resources already between design and materials sourcing, and we have done immense ecological damage, yet we haven’t even manufactured the damn thing yet … so what happens when we now include that in the equation?
On top of all the equipment already listed, we need to deforest an area for the factory ( plus storage/warehousing etc. ), or lose previously deforested but otherwise agriculturally fertile land from food cropping potential.
The manufacturing itself takes place from multiple locations, because you have at least one plant for the actual smelting of metals, at least one other for processing petrochemicals into plastics and other synthetics, and then at least 1 for the construction and assembly of the final product, if not actually a great many for the manufacturing of various component parts prior to final assembly – each of which requires more buildings, offices, shelves, paperwork, computers, etc etc etc.
Everything listed and everything yet to come needs to be shipped from location to location, often around the world, and all of which requires the design, construction, operation, and maintenance of various fleets of vehicles, containers, plus various ( often non-biodegradable and disposable ) packaging materials, with further immense costs of energy and resource expenditure.
The end consumer of the product cannot necessarily travel a long distance to purchase it, and so we need distribution centres on top of all this, which ok would be required anyway if you’re going to sell brooms, but which require a great deal more floor space to cope with all these nonsensically wasteful products on top of the brooms, not to mention all the replacement parts, service desks, etc etc etc.
sales and marketing:
Now as a consequence of the fact that your product is completely redundant, you need to expend vast resources selling it to people via a range of media channels, and because you need to make a “profit” ( according to the oxymoron definition of profit under capitalism ), you have to sell as many of them as you possibly can – which means convincing people they need it, even if they don’t. Thus huge resources are added to our already gigantic list of wastefulness.
Now that you’ve actually gotten the product into the hands of the consumer, let’s have a look at how they will use it.
I probably don’t need to tell you that a leaf blower is marketed as a time and energy saver, but have you ever questioned whether this is actually true or not? Let’s do some critical analysis here:
- Which weighs more? Arguably the leaf blower is going to weigh a fair bit more than a broom or a rake, which means your energy expense in just carrying it and moving it around is greater.
- Physical cost of usage? In terms of usage, one could argue that a broom or rake needs to be pushed/pulled, but in the case of a broom, you’re usually going to be pushing things around on a flat surface, you can rest your own weight against the broom in many cases if you’re tired, and it’s not actually a hard job in most cases, unless you’ve got a hell of a lot of it to do … plus the broom is more functional for dust, as a blower will kick up the dust and force you to wear breathing apparatus, not to mention being very ineffectual for collecting the dust in one spot, therefore you need either a different device for sucking, or a blower with a reverse setting and the capacity to add a dust collection bag, but which is redundant if you already have a vacuum cleaner.
- Machine cost of usage? The broom expends zero energy, and all the energy you expend comes from food and produces zero pollution. The leaf blower by comparison uses an extremely high amount of energy to very inefficiently push a bunch of air around which is great enough to overcome the air and ground resistance of the things you’re trying to move.
- Accuracy / Efficiency? The broom or rake can collect things exactly where you want them with minimal effort, the blower has no such capacity, and moves things rather randomly in both direction and distance.
I could go on all day, you get the idea.
A broom requires minimal maintenance, and it is basically an heirloom if it’s reasonably well constructed, because the only thing you need to do from time to time is either replace the bristles, or replace the entire head and refurbish the old head with new bristles … this of course isn’t what is generally done under capitalism, which instead has even turned the broom into a throwaway disposable object, but the point is that it’s possible, and the fact capitalism does such a thing is just further evidence to the point being made anyway.
But what about a leaf blower? Now we have replacement motors, wiring, circuit components, and physical / mechanical structure, all of which is very high materials and engineering cost compared to a broom.
The other difference of course is in terms of the fact that the broom can be made from entirely biodegradable materials, so its maintenance has a negligible ecological impact if done sensibly.
As stated, a broom can be a potential heirloom – there’s no reason it cannot last decades with just occasional maintenance, especially if good quality materials are used, and if it is used with care. However even if it is abused, it can still last a very long time.
By comparison, it is unlikely you’ll ever have a leaf blower as an heirloom, as its mechanical parts will wear out, become redundant ( e.g. via inbuilt obsolescence ), and the cost of maintaining its lifespan will be vastly higher, requiring outside sources instead of things you can potentially get done yourself, or just by anyone with a handful of rudimentary tools ).
thermodynamic efficiency difference:
So let’s have a look at the total difference here … we have a device which is simple, does the job equally well or better, requiring a tiny amount of energy and skill both to produce, operate, and maintain, with a vastly longer lifespan per unit of energy and resource input … and then you have this monumental waste of gigantic resources at every stage of design, production, and operation.
Imagine putting some numbers to this … not the pointless numbers of money, but real units of energy and emergy ( embodied energy ), plus the waste/loss of entropy … there is simply no competition … this is like comparing the energy output of a small calculator battery versus the fusion engine of a star.
Yet for some reason, capitalism prefers the leaf blower … so ask yourself: how the hell can such a system ever be truly sustainable, and how many other places can you see the exact same kind of waste going on.
Also published on Medium.