Local production and the human ecological aspect

The concept of sustainable development requires us to consider not only the quantifiable aspects of products, but equally the economic and social ones. Although the social and ethical aspects of building materials are not the focus of this book, it is important to consider the connections involved; for each building component has, in addition to its physical or ecological properties, a 'footprint' relating to what kind of social system, worker environment and community it has required. Basically there are three different ways of manufacturing a product:

• It can be manufactured by the general user, based on personal needs and skills and usually in accordance with local cultural tradition.

• It can be manufactured by a craftsman who has developed a method of manufacture through experience.

• It can be manufactured through a production engineer who directly or indirectly, including through electronics, informs the worker or machinery of the steps to take.

The first two methods share a common factor: the spirit of the product and the hand that produces it belong to the same person.

Until the early Egyptian dynasties of around 3000 BC, the dominant form of all manufacture was home production. Most people knew how a good hunting weapon should be made, or how to make a roof watertight. Certain people were more adept and inventive than others, but they shared their experience. Knowledge was transferred through generations and became part of the cultural heritage. In most countries, especially in rural communities, home production was the dominant form of manufacture until relatively recently; and this is still the case in many of the so-called developing nations.

Craftsmen have existed for at least 5000 years. During the Middle Ages, guilds were formed; apprentices learned from their masters and further developed their own knowledge and experience. In this way they became masters in their own trade. The working situation of a quarry worker was such that all his senses took part in his work. The quality of the stone was decided by how 'it stuck to the tongue', the resonance of it when struck, the creaking when pressure was applied, the smell when it was scraped or breathed on, or the colour of the stone and the lustre given by scraping it with a knife or nail. The potter, lacking advanced measuring instruments relied on personal judgement to know when the pottery had reached the right temperature in the kiln. This judgement consisted of a potter's own experience of the colour, smell and consistency of the material. As long as the products satisfied customers, the potter could decide how the product was manufactured. The method of production was not split into different parts; the craftsman knew and followed the product through the whole process.

This kind of manufacture, where manual labour was the main resource, continued well into the industrial revolution. In the American steel industry of the nineteenth century, the workers themselves controlled production. They made decisions, led the work and were responsible for engaging new workers. In 1889 this principle became a contractual agreement between workers and their employers, giving them control of all the different parts of production. As we know, this changed. The factory owner Cyrus McCormick II came up with the idea that if he invested in machinery he would be able 'to weed out the bad elements among the men' (Winner, 1986) - that is, the active trade union members. He took on a large number of engineers and invested in machinery, which he manned with non-union men. As a result, production went down and the machines became obsolete after three years. However, by this time, McCormick had achieved what he set out to achieve: the destruction of the unions. Together with the engineers he took full control of production.

People like McCormick introduced the third form of manufacture, which is today the established norm, controlled by the engineer. From the beginning, the engineer has been on the side of the capitalist. In this way, the worker lost control of the manufacturing process; experience and sensitivity were replaced by machinery, instruments and automation.

After the restructuring of the steel industry, many industries in the newly industrialized world followed suit. The car industry switched to engineer-dominated production within just two years. The paint and paper industries followed. In certain other areas, expert-controlled production came somewhat later. The largest bakeries were already under expert control during the 1930s, whereas the timber and brick industries were not broadly controlled by engineers until after the Second World War.

The traditional use of timber as a jointing material disappeared during this period, partly because of new standardization regulations. They were replaced by steel jointing materials, bolts and nails. Whereas steel components of a certain dimension always have the same properties, the properties of timber joints are complex and often verified through experience rather than calculation.

Does it matter which method of manufacture a product undergoes? Adam Smith, one of capitalism's first ideologists, states in his book from the beginning of the industrial revolution, The Wealth of Nations (1876):

A man is moulded by the work he does. If one gives him mundane work to do, he becomes a mundane person. But to be reduced to a totally mundane worker is the destiny of the great majority in all progressive societies.

By work is understood the activities intended to fulfil our needs - and most of our life is filled with different kinds of work. In many situations today, specialization and professionalization have transformed work from self-development to mere 'doing'. However, most will agree that work is not just a means to an end, but an important activity of the community and of the human spirit: a process of self-realization, learning, communicating, and discovery where one learns more about the material one is working with, about oneself and about the world.

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