Friday, May 6, 2011

Why we move things

Before I write more about moving things around, I wanted to discuss why we move things. This may seem obvious, but it's a good idea to put it down. Often we assume that things are a particular way, but once we come out and state these assumptions we realize that they're not that way after all.

Let's think about a relatively simple product like apple juice. Apples are grown on trees in an orchard in the country. They are picked and transported to a juicing plant, where the juice is extracted, pasteurized and packaged. I assume the pulp is used for compost if nothing else. The containers of juice are then brought to the store, where a customer brings them home.

The customer drinks the juice, uses up the energy, and then pees and shits the rest into the toilet, where it gets flushed to a sewage treatment plant. Eventually the sewage gets separated into fertilizer, which is sent back to farms and orchards, and water, which is released into the water system.

When we think about moving stuff around, we can break it down into stages. First, raw materials are grown, mined or collected, usually in rural areas. They are brought to a plant and processed, possibly multiple times, and then moved to one or more storage facilities. Finally they are distributed to the consumer and consumed.

But wait, that's not the end! The consumer may convert some of these products into energy and gaseous emissions, which more or less dissipate by themselves. But there are usually solid or liquid waste products that need to be removed from the consumer's location. Some of these may be reused or recycled, but much of it just needs to be put someplace where it won't be in the way.

Some people live near farms. Some live near mines, oil wells or reservoirs. Some live near factories, bakeries and warehouses. Some live near shops and restaurants. Despite the efforts of planning boards around the country, some even live near dumps and sewage treatment plants.

It may be possible for some people to meet many their needs within a short distance, but it's not possible for anyone to meet all of them. Laura Ingalls Wilder's Little House books were marketed by her libertarian daughter as an example of self-reliance, but if you read them closely you'll notice that the Ingalls family actually fails to self-rely, over and over again, even when a weak government allows them to take over other people's land for their own benefit. When they prosper they trade their produce for manufactured goods from "back east." When they fail, they are saved by Doctor Tan's imported quinine or Pa's migrant labor.

So we need to move things around. That said, it's important to note that we don't always need to move them as far as we currently do. We can reduce pollution, obesity and carnage, and increase efficiency, equality and quality of life by reducing the distances that things have to be moved. We can also do that by reducing the way we move them, which is the topic of the rest of this series about freight.


Matthew M. Robare said...

Just nitpicking, but I find it amusing that in your post about "Desire Lines" you're puzzled as to why Michael Kimmelman misuses the term, revealing his biases and here you contort the term self-reliance to mean the completely different concept of autarky in order to bash Rose Wilder Lane and libertarians.

Try considering the beam in your own eye.

Cap'n Transit said...

No, Matt, I'm not using "self-reliance" in some technical sense where it's different from "autarky." I'm using it in a general sense that is pretty widely understood. Whatever you call it, I think the point that the actual stories contradict the intended libertarian message stands.

Kimmelman, by contrast, uses a term that only has a technical sense, and gives its well-known prototype. He then goes on to use the word to mean something completely different.

So no, there's no beam in my eye, thanks.