In 1964, Leonard Read wrote a genealogy from the perspective of a pencil, demonstrating the vast, complicated web of the structure of production that is handled by the division of labor on free markets. The pencil explained that no one knows how to make a pencil because of the myriad production processes involved:
My family tree begins with what in fact is a tree, a cedar of straight grain that grows in Northern California and Oregon. Now contemplate all the saws and trucks and rope and the countless other gear used in harvesting and carting the cedar logs to the railroad siding. Think of all the persons and the numberless skills that went into their fabrication: the mining of ore, the making of steel and its refinement into saws, axes, motors; the growing of hemp and bringing it through all the stages to heavy and strong rope; the logging camps with their beds and mess halls, the cookery and the raising of all the foods. Why, untold thousands of persons had a hand in every cup of coffee the loggers drink!
The pencil then detailed the remaining work required for pencil production, which included making flat cars, rails, and railroad engines; shipping the logs; developing communication systems; supplying heat, light, and power; building a factory; forging mining tools; mining graphite; and shipping the materials to one place. Continuing, it described the supplies needed to paint the pencils and the process of painting, labeling, and adding brass tips; mining zinc and copper to make the brass; and fabricating the eraser.
While the division of labor required to fabricate a pencil is impressive, consider how many more steps are required to manufacture complicated things such as smartphones or computers. Yet each step requires one particular resource—energy.
When people discuss fossil fuels, they typically weigh the pros and cons of the electricity in their houses and the fuel in their cars. They usually do not consider what was required to build those houses and cars—much less the pencils they use to write. Fossil fuel advocate Alex Epstein writes in his book Fossil Future: Why Global Human Flourishing Requires More Oil, Coal, and Natural Gas—Not Less about the machines needed to build houses:
Today’s unprecedented shelters are possible only because today’s shelter-building industry, like the food industry, employs a massive staff of fossil-fueled machine laborers that cost-effectively do incredible amounts of work for us.