Pencil in one carbon footprint

Published in 1958 by Leonard E. Read, this famous essay continues to delight young and old. It describes the natural system of collaboration, in which the mere insubstantial vapour of human desire recruits people, products and processes in a sublime, perfectly co-ordinated, yet undirected, dance of duty and productive effort leading to universal satisfaction.

“I, Pencil” [Milton Friedman says] illustrates the meaning of both Adam Smith’s invisible hand—the possibility of cooperation without coercion—and Friedrich Hayek’s emphasis on the importance of dispersed knowledge and the role of the price system in communicating information that “will make the individuals do the desirable things without anyone having to tell them what to do.”

Clearly, Leonard Read wrote this modern morality tale to teach economics, yet it succeeds on many levels and today provides useful instruction about the foolishness of calculating an item’s so-called “carbon footprint”. For who could possibly know everything done in every capacity contributing to the item’s eventual production? Such knowledge is literally impossible.

Yet such extensive knowledge is required, if we are to determine all of the “carbon” used in an item’s design, production and distribution.

Here is that story; it is a cautionary tale against the hubris that tempts us all with: “We know everything”. When it drifts away from production, read it simply as a guide to economic principle. Continue Reading →