Localism is precious. American Apparel's "locally made" t-shirts command a premium and are worn by hipsters the world over. "Locavore" has joined the ranks along with "vegan" and "vegetarian", and even has the approval of Oxford's. Local production has huge benefits, from reducing energy required in transport, to allowing consumers to form connections with their producers, to limiting negative environmental and social impact of manufacture. But even with so many potential benefits, the majority of materials and processes we use to make items simply do not lend themselves to local-scale manufacture.

Why is this the case? What caused us to get to a point where consumers can demand organic produce and get it in relatively short order, but be denied any local alternatives for things like bicycles, cars, computers, and even in many cases, furniture and home decor. A look back at the history of trade may provide some answers.

Humans have been trading in organized ways for as long as they have been living in groups. Generally, trade involved exchanging things which were scarce in one place for those that were scarce in another. Scarcity was gained either through differences in climate (like spices which could only grow in the tropics), geography (like cowrie shells which can only be found near oceans), geology (like lapis lazuli, a copper ore which is only present in some parts of the earth's crust) or secrecy (like silk which was kept secret by the chinese through brutal police action). The reason that scarcity mattered so much was that transport was dangerous, and whatever was being traded had to be worth the risks.

Overland caravans gave way to shipping. Shipping lead to the mapping and subsequent colonization of the world. Colonization eventually gave way to independent countries bound together by trade agreements. Fossil fuels led from sails, to propellers, to jet-turbines. At every step, risk was reduced, first by eliminating piracy, then by eliminating time to market. Every time risk went down, the cargo being traded required a little bit less scarcity to be profitable.


Eventually, some tipping point was reached, and scarcity was no longer a primary concern. Instead, trade began to be driven more by non-material factors. Some populations would work for lower wages, which made their goods or raw materials cheaper. Some populations were less aware of the value of their resources, or the environmental costs of their extraction, which made them cheaper as well. And, some countries traded political favors (like Most Favored Nation status in the US) in order to encourage certain types of commerce over others.

These new forces in trade have left us with two interesting consequences. First, raw materials for the items sold in a market don't necessarily originate within that market. Even the most basic raw materials are not immune; Iron now comes from halfway around the world, and wood is smuggled into one country to make products for sale in another. Second, people skilled in making and repairing things are less in demand in countries who have their things made more cheaply elsewhere.

More importantly, because we are now OK with loosing direct production control of raw materials like iron or aluminum, we no longer have a concept for the massive energies and resources which go into these products, because we don't see the factories down the block. Aluminum, for example, requires 4-6 tons of ore per ton of refined aluminum, and 16kWh of electricity per kilogram aluminum. Aluminum is often cited as an extremely abundant metal, but the ores from which it is available for refinement not locally available to all population centers. Similarly, the amount of electricity required for its refinement is so large that smelters can only be located near cheap (geothermal, hydroelectric) sources of energy. In the case of aluminum, it is unlikely that it would have become such a ubiquitous metal without global supply chains in place.

So, though we can see the value of local production of food and clothing, and we can imagine similar benefits in producing more of our objects in this way, we cannot simply switch over to local production. New ways of making old materials will need to be developed for locations that do not lend themselves to those materials. Some materials will not be able to be made in some areas, and some novel materials will be found to be better suited to those areas. Some materials, upon examination, will not be able to be made in any area, because their production is too energy-intensive, or toxic.

The trick is to keep in mind that adding energy to materials is not necessary to add functionality. Humblefacture will have to explore how this low energy complexification can done.


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