Shifting Perspective: The Efficiency Trap

A few months ago I wrote about the privilege of having the time and money to make homemade bread. I haven’t stopped thinking about the changes that have occurred in the world, and in modern capitalist culture in particular, that have made what used to be a basic daily task into something we no longer have the time and/or money to do. It’s been on my mind more heavily recently as I ventured into experiments with making my own soap. It’s not hard; on the contrary, the basic process involves simply combing sodium hydroxide (lye) and water with oil, stirring until it thickens (a process called saponification), then pouring it into a container of some sort to harden and eventually slice into bars. I mastered these basics on my first try and have now made four separate batches, all sliced and now spending a few weeks curing before they can be used. And how much money have I spent on the tools and ingredients to make this soap? At least a few hundred dollars for a digital scale (for precisely measuring proportions of lye and oil); a steel pot dedicated to soap making; a stick/immersion blender; a few thermometers (turns out the temperature of your lye water and oils is important); various oils (palm, coconut, and olive are the basics); various essential oils for scent; a container of lye; a steel soap slicer; and silicon molds so the soap has a nice uniform shape and releases easily when it’s ready for slicing (see the photo at the top of this post for some of my nice, round, molded soap). Of course, some of these are fixed costs that I won’t incur again; but the cost of the oil alone adds up fast.

When I mentioned this new hobby/science project to my dad, he told me that Grandma G. (already chronicled for her bread making in the homemade bread post) used to make lye soap for laundry. Daddy and his siblings would take turns stirring the big pot full of cooking grease that Grandma had saved throughout the week and combined with lye. Since they weren’t lucky enough to have a stick blender to make the process quick, the kids would stir for hours until Grandma deemed the mixture thick enough to pour. This wasn’t a science experiment or a hobby; it was a household necessity if Grandma, Grandpa, and their six kids were going to have clean clothes.

What happened to our culture that led us to eliminate homemade bread and soap from our list of things to do? It started with things like cheap bread and soap that you could buy pre-made at the store. Buying these staples instead of making them was more efficient. It made running a household easier. It freed up time. But where has that efficiency led us? Somewhere along the way, people bought into the idea, peddled by companies with something to sell, that we had better things to do than make our own bread, formulate our own soap, grow our own vegetables, make and mend our own clothes, cook nearly all of our own meals… I am tempted to go on and on with the list of things we used to do for ourselves.

What has the efficiency of the capitalist marketplace done for us? Many good things; but when you shift your perspective back to a time when we were more self-sufficient, you might start to wonder why efficiency has ended up making us busier than ever before. We end up being grateful that we can buy soap and bread at the store now, because who has the time to make their own? (For that matter, except for people like me who are privileged to have the time and money to engage in these DIY projects, I doubt anybody is consciously grateful for the store-bought staples we now all take completely for granted.) We are happy for all the fast-food outlets and “quick casual” restaurants and the recent proliferation of online services that will deliver pre-chopped vegetables and other ingredients to your door so that if you want to make a home-cooked meal, you don’t have to waste time on prep. Cooking from scratch has become a high-status hobby – we litter our Pinterest boards with gourmet recipes and fancy tools because cooking this way is aspirational – if you can afford artisanal cheeses and locally-sourced charcuterie, and hand-craft little cards identifying them at your wine party, then you’ve made it, by God! And we forget that there was once a time when the Sunday chicken dinner was considered the luxury meal to reward a week of hard work.

Of course, it can always be worse. Most of us are part of the significant proportion of the population that has nothing to sell but its labor. For a big majority, that means working for as low a price as your employer can squeeze out of you, which means that maybe you can’t afford to buy enough fresh groceries to cook for yourself every day or have the time for anything but a quick stop at the drive-through. If you have kids, maybe you and your spouse each work more than 40 hours a week trying to support your family, trying to achieve the American dream that is the hope of so many, the one that is built on our addiction to efficiency, the one that has led to lower wages and higher prices in the service of shareholder profit, the one that allows us to buy $20 jeans and $10 shirts and cheap jewelry that we stop wearing after a few months, the one that entices us to fill our houses and our lives with mounds of completely unnecessary things like battery-operated nose-hair trimmers and commemorative Princess Diana plates, the one that says BUY! BUY! BUY! at every turn, the one that won’t tell us that none of these things will ever truly satisfy us.

Isn’t that really what efficiency is about? The capitalist system is based on the majority of the population selling their labor to a tiny minority that will pay them for it, and then trading that pay for the endless conveyor belt of things that we have been tricked into believing we need, as well as the things like bread and soap that we actually do need, but no longer have the time or the resources to make for ourselves. Don’t mistake me – I am not 100% anti-capitalism; in fact, I acknowledge many of the benefits of this mode of production. But the trap of efficiency is one of the drawbacks. When people controlled their own labor and were able to provide for themselves and their families without having to rely solely on wage labor, I believe society was better for it. But now it’s all about production and growing the economy, and there seem to be few, if any, alternatives. The marketplace proliferates with new products that, when you assess them objectively, are totally unnecessary – but hey, they might make our lives easier! What’s easier than having paper plates that you can throw away instead of wash? What’s easier than a pop-up paper towel dispenser in your bathroom or kitchen instead of cloth towels that you have to launder? What’s easier than having 50 pound bags of dog food delivered straight to your door so you don’t have to make a trip to the store? With all this efficiency, why does it seem that we are busier, and poorer, and more trapped, than at any other time in human history?

2 Comments Shifting Perspective: The Efficiency Trap

  1. karen

    I agree – I know how to sew and used to make my own clothes fairly regularly – when I was in college and had spare time. During a regular work week, I’d come home exhausted after working 10+ hours and eat something like a reheated tamale (made by someone, from scratch, but not by me). However, as much as we might decry our current economic culture, and wish for a return to agrarian days, I believe we are stuck. Family farms are, for the most part, gone – absorbed by the corporate farms. And even those of us who try to avoid buying extraneous things, there are very few options to turn to.

    1. Ranthropologist

      I know… and I struggle with that knowledge. I am slowly working my way through some thoughts on how I think we might be able to change things, though. It’s not going to happen overnight, but philosophically, at least, I believe we can shrink the economy and release people from the trap of endless hours of wage labor just to make ends meet. It might take catastrophe – or revolution – to get there, though.


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