Thursday, January 12, 2012

true value, real cost...

I grew up in a house full of antiques. The bug for old things came from my Aunt Allene who had an appreciation for all things fine and all things old, but along with all the old things came an understanding that objects told the story of our civilization and of community. Even scratches and wear told the story of those who came before.

So while our neighbors were sometimes swapping out furniture for the latest style my sisters and I were learning a few things at greater depth, and holding a few fine old things dear.

Our consumer economy is based on planned obsolescence, on a rapid exchange of goods, all made by large manufacturers and sold for low prices. These objects, large and small are manufactured whereever they can find the cheapest labor in steady supply. These objects are kept until we are bored with their design, until their design is eclipsed by newer products or until the cheap and often toxic materials with which they are made lead to the decline of their usefulness.

Outside many of our major cities there are mountains made from these objects mixed with the trash of our civilization, and inside the cities and throughout the surrounding countryside are lives trashed by our failure to engage our citizenry in the values of fine craftsmanship.

And so there are true values, real costs, that are hidden below the surface of our understanding. Only those having been exposed to the making of beautiful and useful objects and knowing the transformation of self that occurs in being so engaged, would likely understand the intrinsic value of hand-crafted products and hand-crafted lives. But I will come to that in a minute.

The cost of the cheap objects that fill our lives is hidden from us. We do not readily perceive the effects of burning of fossil fuels in the making of these things, or transporting them from great distances to us. The long-term environmental impact is a cost not reflected in the purchase price of these goods. At the checkout counter we are not charged disposal costs as the accumulation of these objects spill from our homes to be gathered in huge landfills where they poison the earth and ground waters with the toxic content that seeps from them as they decay. Then there are opportunity costs to reckon in our equation. When objects are not made in our home communities, our citizens are too often left without meaningful work in lives that too often lack the dignity and self-respect that a life of craftsmanship would have conferred.

The true value of hand-crafted objects is that someone grew in their making. That growth involves both the intellect and character. As meaningful records of that growth,  these objects might become precious to us, kept as symbols of our highest aspirations, human attention to detail, and the quest for true beauty. So our simple choice is to continue as a nation of consumers as we are, or to become a nation of craftsmen. We can continue towards the decline of human culture or shift toward greater nobility.

Make, fix and create...


  1. Apropos our waste of meaningless, shoddy stuff, here's some required viewing (you probably already know about, but must be acknowledged):

    This perspective, though, needs to be augmented by your crucially important point about wasting working lives.

  2. well yes I am certainly with you on that one Doug all the way.

  3. I have an affinity for these ideas, but we might incur other costs if we were a nation of craftsmen as Mr. Stowe suggests. Computers, for example, are not hand crafted objects and would not be affordable or practical without the economy of scale to support the infrastructure needed to produce these objects. That is not to say that we should be alienated in our work. On the contrary, we all should have dignity and satisfaction in our occupations.

  4. I doubt that we need to go back to where every thing would be made by hand. For example modern tooth brushes give far better care to the teeth and gums than a willow stick. And computers are pretty darned good for getting information and sharing ideas. We don't need to go back to the tom toms in order to have a nation in which craftsmanship is valued and opportunities for growth of character and intellect abound.