This is the world we live in.
If we weren’t surrounded by it everyday, if we didn’t take it for granted, we’d be dumbstruck by it’s intricacy and brilliance.
This is an ordinary, familiar wooden pencil.
You might think a pencil is simple.
Chances are you’ve been using one since before you could read or write. But just because its familiar, doesn’t mean it’s simple.
In fact its complicated, elaborate, beautiful, elegant. Its very existence is too improbable for any one person to truly comprehend.
These are the basic materials that go into a pencil: graphite, cedar, metal, and rubber.
But if you had all the elements of a pencil, right in front of you, could you make a pencil?
It’s not as easy as you might think.
In fact, no single person on the face of the earth could do it, without the help of countless others.
And this, is the key to understanding the world.
A pencil, just like you and me, is the end result of a vast and intricate family tree. A symphony of human activity that spans the globe.
Through their work and knowledge, a vast number of people have had their hand in making this simple pencil.
Unlike your family tree, this one starts with a real tree.
The most immediate ancestor of a pencil is a cedar tree in the Pacific Northwest.
But the loggers who harvest the timber are also its ancestors. And these men don’t work alone.
They in turn are assisted by the people and industries that produce the saws and countless other tools they use.
These are also ancestors of the pencil.
As is the waitress that serves the loggers lunch, to say nothing of the thousands of people who contributed the ingredients to make that simple mid day meal. Across time and space the web grows.
Consider the roads, trucks, ships, communications systems, and the people who design, build, and maintain them.
All of them are necessary to bring the lumber to the mill and all of them are ancestors of the pencil.
And even with the work of all these people, all we have so far is a wooden slat.
But the pencil’s family tree is larger and more extensive.
The graphite is mined in China and Sri Lanka. At the pencil factory it’s mixed with clay and other materials before its extruded, dried, and baked in a kiln.
People from different continents, different cultures, cooperate to bring these materials together. They too, are ancestors of the pencil.
And the same is true of the rubber eraser. With ingredients from around the world it’s the end result of another exotic and complex branch of the pencil’s family tree.
As is the metal ferrule that holds the eraser to the pencil. Made of aluminum, zinc, and copper, mined and shipped from all over the world.
Each part of the pencil is a result of the collaboration and cooperation of millions of people.
Together they form a process that is constantly changing and adapting.
A change in the availability or cost of a material in one place might make a another source more desirable – so the process changes and adapts fluidly.
And there is a fact that is still more astounding.
The absence of a mastermind, of anyone dictating these countless actions that bring the pencil into being.
Each member of this family tree supplies only a small amount of the necessary know how, needed to make a pencil.
They do so voluntarily, not because they necessarily want pencils or like pencils… but by working to create them, they exchange their labor and skills for the wages that let them buy what they do want.
What you’re seeing is the market at work. The spontaneous configuration of creative human energy. Of millions of people with their various skills and talents, organizing voluntarily in response to human nessecity and desire.
As if led by an invisible hand, to produce and end that was no part of their intention.
Every second we’re alive, we benefit from the product of voluntary spontaneous cooperation.
This is the modern world.
It’s miraculous, it’s intricate, and it gets better everyday, so long as people are free to interact with each other.
If we can leave the creative human mind uninhibited, there’s no limit to what we can accomplish.
– By Nicole Woods Ciandella
– Based on an essay by Leonard Read