We live during a time in which centralized manufacturing and distribution threatens to transform our world and our concepts of work. Centralized manufacturing is based upon automated warehousing and packaging, and low cost transportation, thus placing a low value on energy. This enables shipping over vast distances to make sense versus higher-cost local production.
When we “click” to buy items with free shipping we are making a decision to support the rise of automation.
If the button read “click here to make your job redundant” perhaps our choices would be different.
These new concepts being applied to consumer goods threaten to downplay, or even entirely dismisses, the value and contributions of people to every aspect of what makes a society great.
The centralization of manufacturing and standardization of products and services enables the rise of automation. When a large number of a specific product are to be made each year, the economic appeal of eliminating costly human labour with cheaper-to-maintain-and-employ machines is becoming too much for many companies to resist. As we watch the rise of the robots, which not only threaten manufacturing, sales and distribution jobs but even technical work, we see a world where people's futures are ever more precarious.
We work each day with the looming threat of automation replacing us, which serves to undermine all five of Maslow’s hierarchy of needs – physiological, safety, love/belonging, esteem and self-actualization. We realize that without a job, or any prospect of a meaningful job, our actual existence is threatened. And that threat is both physical and emotional.
Over five million manufacturing jobs are estimated to have been lost to automation since the turn of the 21st century, even as the world’s population continues to grow. As plants close, tens of thousands of people lose their place as producers in the world. Unless we allow them to starve and die they remain, necessarily, consumers, but with an ever diminishing quality of life and dwindling self-esteem. Without people producing things for each other, and the associated exchange of goods and services, society as we define it will cease to function.
A recently published series of studies concluded that in the next decade 47 percent of American jobs are susceptible to automation, and that 800 million jobs worldwide will be wiped away with no replacement jobs provided for the stranded work force to fill. It is therefore imperative to understand how automation is instigated and how it permeates our society. And we need to decide whether this is what we all want.
The mistake ordinary people make every day is to think that “rich people and big anonymous corporations” control our world, that they are making decisions to automate and that individuals are “powerless” to influence these decisions.
Nothing is further from the truth. We and all of our friends are making decisions to increase centralized manufacturing and automation every time we make a purchase. When you purchase a cheap item, lured by the price and the promise of free shipping, you are casting a vote for expending more of our ever-dwindling resources on automation and transportation. This practice consumes significant amounts of resources and energy, which in turn are being diverted from your fellow working people.
Henry Ford was a pioneer of what has been called welfare capitalism, wherein he paid workers twice what other companies were paying. Efficiency meant hiring and keeping the best workers, so he enticed them to stay by paying them well. In doing that, he made sure his many employees could afford the very cars they were producing. And the money those employees pumped into the local economy enriched it, thus creating more customers for Ford’s product.
When you buy food grown locally you minimize the energy footprint of the food you are consuming, help create local jobs, and are “voting” for local production rather than centralized distribution. When you purchase locally made furniture rather than cheap imports from half way around the world you are investing in your own community. Our desire as a society for “cheap toasters” has led to the development of millions of products that are cheaply made from cheap materials, and last just long enough to meet the promise of their warranty. We too often dismiss the value in buying products which will last a lifetime and can be repaired, opting instead for the glamour of the latest, greatest. A short time later we send that likely broken “must have” to a landfill, then hit the “buy” button on a newer fad.
In simple terms, we need to re-build our economy keeping in mind the values of using less energy and fewer resources. This does not mean reducing our quality of life. It means striking a healthy balance between locally grown and imported goods, locally made and globally sourced goods, and ensuring that all products produced fit into a cradle-to-grave plan to ensure that the resources put into them are recaptured when they reach their useful end of life.
How do we accomplish these lofty goals to maintain a balanced society? Easy. Our purchasing decisions cast our vote. Let local grocers know that you will support locally grown products by purchasing them, even if their cost is a bit higher. Shop at local stores. Ask the owners to source locally and regionally produced goods where possible, then support them by purchasing these goods. Look for products which last longer and have an actual recycling plan in place – not just a label saying that recycling is possible. And remember, free shipping is not really free shipping.