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Recently on Facebook, various friends have been posting and reposting the above image, which describes the various elaborate processes that humanity goes through in order to make a simple plastic spoon. The underlying message is that going through all of this effort is somehow wasteful, and that instead of using plastic spoons and then throwing them away, we should simply wash the spoon and be done with it.

Of course, washing a spoon is itself only possible because of a long and elaborate process, consuming much time and resources, involving burying pipes underground, pumping the water for miles to your faucet, and then disposing of the runoff through some sort of treatment or sewage system (and that’s assuming that you are going to wash each spoon by hand, rather than using a washing machine).

Still, what the posting describes really is something amazing. In “I, Pencil” the economist Leonard Read famously described the elaborate process by which an ordinary pencil is made, and how, despite the fact that no individual on earth possess all of the necessary knowledge and skills to make a pencil by himself, pencils are cheap and abundant. And the same is true for both the plastic spoon, and for the fact that we can wash a spoon just by lifting a lever on a faucet.

All of this isn’t to say that you should never wash a spoon. Most of us do wash spoons much of the time rather than always using plastic disposable ones. But we also use plastic spoons sometimes when washing would be inconvenient, and that’s fine too. 

The real point is that through such seemingly arcane concepts as the division of labor and human ingenuity, things that can only be done through a bewilderingly complex and intensive process are nonetheless so cheap do to that we don’t even give them a second thought.

When you get right down to it, that really is pretty amazing.