Civilization Is a Plastic Spoon

Have you ever gone on a picnic and taken along disposable plastic cutlery, even though you have perfectly good re-usable cutlery at home? Think about that for a minute. You have someone drill into the bowels of the Earth for you, extract millions-of-years-old fossilised plant remains to be turned into plastic and then formed into the shape of a spoon, packaged with other spoons of its kind, shipped off to a wholesaler and thence to a retailer, where you go to buy it. All of that so that you can get out of having to wash a metal spoon. Once.

Such is the everyday magic of capitalism. Thanks to the enormous degree of division of labour enabled by a modern capitalist economy, a plastic spoon – an artifact so sophisticated that all the wisest men in Periclean Athens, Augustan Rome, or Elizabethan England could not have produced it if they devoted their entire lives to nothing else – can be bought for the equivalent of a few seconds’ wages.

To be sure, plastic spoons are not a big deal. We could do perfectly well without them. But they do make our lives just a little bit more convenient, and they are just one of thousands of similar products that each raise our standard of living by a small amount. Put them all together and an ordinary person in a modern capitalist economy enjoys a higher standard of living than the kings and emperors of bygone centuries.

And yet we show not the slightest appreciation for this miracle. We just take for granted that a few minutes of labour pay for paper and writing utensils that would have taken a pre-modern person weeks of labour to produce (and in inferior quality). We think nothing of the fact that we can costlessly and instantaneously communicate with someone on the other side of the Globe, where sending such a message a few centuries ago would have been dangerous, enormously expensive, and would have taken months. We take it as a matter of course that our homes are brightly illuminated at night at the mere flick of a switch and at negligible cost, whereas a per-modern person would have – at best – a small lantern that produced more smoke than light.

The next time you use a plastic spoon, please take a moment to reflect on the incredible wealth you’re holding in your hand.

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