Why do I like to make amateurish attempts to build furniture? Or brew beer, bow-hunt for deer, keep chickens, or grow food? Matthew B. Crawford helped me connect the dots towards the end of Shop Class as Soul Craft:
It is rather to suggest that if we follow the traces of our own actions to their source, they intimate some understanding of the good life. This understanding maybe hard to articulate; bringing it more fully into view is the task of moral inquiry. Such inquiry may be helped along by practical activities in company with others, a sort of conversation in deed.
To me, it is part of the good life to be able to see something through, create, and have my hands get messy during the means of production. This is due to the satisfaction of attempting to feel skillful and engage thoughtfully in a project, and also knowing that some things I use or consumer aren’t negatively impacting other people and places.
We are too disconnected from the environmental impact of our consumer choices, and there is something refreshing, both morally, spiritually, and physically, with being able to make or grow something. To some people, the beauty of the global economy and its plethora of choices is the fact that we don’t have to worry about where things come from. We can walk down the aisles of a grocery store or department store and see the magic of material options. Inquiring into where things come from, Crawford states, forces us to consider the morality of our choices.
Perhaps nowhere has the morality of consumer choices been publicized more than in the arena of food. Some of us wonder if it’s worth it to buy meat from industrial agriculture, knowing that the cheap prices are due to government subsidies for commodity crops, disgusting feeding and slaughtering conditions, and a greater risk of e-coli and other contaminants. It can be taxing to consider the implications of our actions.
I recently learned about this concept of a Life Cycle Assessment (LCA). It is mind-boggling to try to grasp that EVERYTHING we see and have in some way traces back to the earth and the extraction of some sort of resource. It’s mind boggling because besides hunting and growing my own food, I never see where my stuff originates from, how it comes to be, and whether or not its existence is the result of a process I’d be comfortable with.
I’m glancing back and forth from my keyboard to the clutter on my desk. I see a small external hard drive, a plastic cup, some shoe polish, a wooden lamp, a mouse pad, and a random assortment of scrap paper and pens. What if the wooden map is made from cheap wood surplussed from clear-cutting rainforests, then the wood had to be transported thousands of miles to a factory in China? Where the heck do all the minerals needed to create micro-processors and hard drives come from? Or what if, if I fail to recycle my cup, it ends up floating around in the Pacific Ocean? Should we care about the LCA of everything I purchase? Of course we should.
If you accepted the consequences or moral implications of your consumer actions down to the source and hoped to investigate further, it would become completely overwhelming. I wonder if eventually all products will have an LCA rating on them by some objective measure or organization. It’s so complicated. Eventually, we’ll hit a tipping point and considering a LCA for everything will be a part of everyday life. Will it happen in my lifetime? Probably not, but who knows?
In the meanwhile, I’ll take some solace in being a conscientious consumer. Time and patience withstanding, I’ll continue trying to grow, build, and create in a way that engages me in as many steps of the LCA as possible.