Lewis Dartnell: Consider the pencil

The 'Origins' author on how the Covid-19 crisis is forcing us to think more deeply about things we once took for granted – and why this is cause for hope.

Sue Black Covid-19 essay
Tim Lane / Penguin

In 1958, the economist Leonard Read published an article called "I, Pencil". I came across this essay whilst researching for my previous book, and I've not been able to stop thinking about it ever since. While it may sound like a new stylus for the latest iPad, the article is a dialogue written from the point of view a pencil, discussing its family tree – of how it is made. Just a normal pencil – the simplest tool or implement we are ever likely to use or interact with in our everyday lives.

The resounding realisation from the essay is that, even considering this simplicity of form, there isn't a single person on the planet who actually knows how to make a pencil. No one person. Because the means for production in the industrialised world are distributed. The wood for the outer sheath of the pencil is sourced from a cedar tree growing in a forest in Northern California, say. This lumber must be dried in a kill, machined in a mill, and then glued together. The inner core of graphite is quarried from perhaps Sri Lanka, the eraser stuck on the end is composed of rubber from Indonesia, and the metal casing smelted and forged someplace else. Each of these raw materials needs to be processed and refined and shaped, before finally all being brought together in a factory to produce just this simple pencil. And behind all of that are the organisational systems required for transporting everything around, generating electricity, building and maintaining the power plants, and so on.

That single pencil is just the tip of an iceberg of supporting infrastructure, its vast bulk lying invisibly behind the scenes of the modern world. It takes a village to raise a child, and a whole world to make a pencil. That was true in 1958, and the process of globalisation since then has knitted together the world’s means for making things ever more intricately – from electronic gadgets to vital medical equipment.

The international disruption of the coronavirus has suddenly shone a glaring spotlight on this Earth-spanning network of manufacture and distribution. We take a huge amount for granted in our everyday lives, without ever needing to pause and ponder where everything has actually come from. How was it made? How far does the supply chain reach around the world? That is until, of course, certain items stop just magically appearing on the supermarket shelves. As an individual, how much do any of us actually know how to make and do for yourself?

My personal obsession with all of this derives from the research and writing of my previous science book, THE KNOWLEDGE: How to Rebuild our World from Scratch. But it's not just me who's become engrossed with such 'back to first principles' exploration. If the enormous popularity of YouTube channels like Primitive Technology or How to Make Everything are anything to go by, huge numbers of others are too. During the current lock-down, the difficulty in popping out to the shops, or securing a coveted delivery slot for online supermarkets, or perhaps just that many of us simply have more time on our hands to fill, has unlocked an inner resourcefulness in many. This might be picking up a new creative hobby, or trying some other crafts or maker projects whilst home-schooling the children, or taking to grow some fruit and veg in the back garden. In particular, there has also been a huge surge of interest in the miraculous alchemy of baking -- of how to take just a few really basic materials - flour, water and some yeast - and transform them with the heat of an oven into a delicious loaf. The circumstances of lock-down have induced many of us to try our hand at making and doing things from scratch for ourselves – to reconnect with these processes that have become hidden in the modern world – and to realise just how satisfying and fulfilling even small projects like this are.

So my hope is that on a simple, individual level, one small positive outcome of this virus, and the mirror it thrust up to our society, is that when we are able to return to our ‘normal’, pre-pandemic, lives and the high-street re-opens we’ll retain this appreciation of all that is going on behind the scenes of the modern world to support and provide for us.

Perspectives is a series of essays from Penguin authors offering their response to the Covid-19 crisis. A donation of £10,000 towards booksellers affected by Covid-19 has been made on behalf of the participants. Read more of the essays here.

Sign up to the Penguin Newsletter

For the latest books, recommendations, author interviews and more