The Cost of a Life – Part Three
December 18th, 2008 by Sonja

Lightbulbs in clamshell packagingOne of the things that both amazes me and frustrates me about life these days is plastic.  And not just any plastic, but the hard plastic packaging that manufacturers use to protect their products; it’s commonly called clamshell packaging.  It is so frustrating to get into that we now need a special instrument just to open our products when we get them home; simple scissors will no longer do.

A further disturbance in the force arises when this packaging is used to secure and protect so-called “green” products, such as these flourescent light bulbs.  I’m not certain, but to me it seems that all of the energy saved by using such light bulbs is off-set by that used in the packing of them.  Not to mention the breakage that occurs as you attempt to free the bulbs from their captivity (UPDATE – photo credit: Beth Terry @ FakePlasticFish).

On the other hand, I think this packaging is amazing.  It’s lightweight, strong and virtually indestructible.  If it weren’t so blasted difficult to get into once it has been sealed around a product, it would be a nearly perfect package.  It’s other problem is that it is lumpy and awkward.  When giving the product as a gift, you can’t wrap them easily.  I far prefer boxes for their tidy square corners and the precise way they can be wrapped.  The wrapping paper industry has accommodated the advent of clamshells by producing gift bags to be used with tissue paper.  These bags can be used one or more times, cost very little to produce and may be sold at a much higher price.

So the clamshells have become ubiquitous.  We don’t think too much about them anymore beyond cursing them as we attempt to get our prizes out of them.  But why do we have them?  What purpose do they serve?  To me they are a shining example of how we humans have become subject to the machine.  Allow me to explain.

Before the Industrial Revolution things were made one at a time.  Slowly, precisely and by hand.  The producers were known by their consumers for the most part.  Production and consumption were closely tied together.  Blacksmiths who couldn’t make a good nail lost business, regardless of how good their horseshoes were. This was because more people needed nails than needed horseshoes.  Blacksmiths were known for how good or worthless their product was.  They were also known for how fair they were.  This was true of all tradesmen and women.  The good, honest fair tradesmen and women made honest livings, others … not so much.  Young people were taught the trade one or two at a time by an older mentor in an apprentice relationship.

Then, about a hundred years ago, Henry Ford introduced the assembly line into the manufacturing process and life as we know it changed for good.

Don’t get me wrong.  There was a lot that was good in the ideas that came with assembly line manufacturing.  But as we’ve discovered in the intervening century, progress is not all it’s cracked up to be either.  I’d much rather not travel with these accommodations any longer (Photo by Shorpy – the 100 year old photo blog)

Road to Culpeper - 1920

It reminds me of the Thomas Hobbes quote about life for humans being nasty, brutish and short.

The problem, though, with assembly line manufacturing and the clamshell packaging that has resulted from it, is that it begins to treat human beings as a product of it’s own process.  Humans, creations made in the image of God, begin to be seen as products of human creation.  We see this both during the process (employees of the production company – workers on the assembly line) and the perception of the consumers who will purchase the product.  It does not suit the efficiency of the process to consider humans as individuals … whether during the process of production or during the process of consumption.  If we begin to see humans as individuals, with unique needs, unique desires, unique hopes, unique dreams, unique failures and unique successes, then they may no longer be relied upon to purchase cloned products that are spewed by the millions off assembly-lines by robots and purchased by robots.  Even though much of the labor that goes into assembly lines has now been replaced by artificial intelligence, and robots, there remains a need for human interaction with the process … eyes on.  To catch the errors.

We are not robots.  We are not clones of one another.  There is no one size that fits all … even when it comes to automobiles.  Can we turn back the clock?  No.  Not a chance in hell.

11 Responses  
  • BroKen writes:
    December 18th, 200811:06 pmat

    It is ironic that you complain about the lack smooth, uniform corners in packaging while complaining about the requirment of smooth, uniformity in mass manufacturing.

    You hint at the value of modern technology allowing the flowering of human life at the level we know today but you still seem more frustrated with it than grateful for it. Perhaps it’s because of the bulb broken while removing them from the package. Personally, I find a sharp knife works wonders (if I don’t cut myself!)

    Here is a link that might blow your mind:

    And here is another one from a friend of ours that raises some similar issues on the uses of technology. What do you think?

  • Beth Terry, aka Fake Plastic Fish writes:
    December 19th, 20084:38 amat

    Hi. I am glad that you are writing about plastic and the issues it raises. And I’m glad that you found my photo to illustrate your point. I would be happy for you to use it. However, it is customary to ask permission before using photos from other folks’ blogs and to credit the blog from which it came.

    I would be happy for you to use the photo of my irritating clamshell if you would also include a link to Fake Plastic Fish in your post with a short sentence summarizing my post. It was, after all, a lightbulb that broke in my kitchen, leading to all kinds of worries about mercury poisoning!

    If you want more ideas about reducing plastic in your life, please check out my list of plastic-free alternatives at:


  • Liz writes:
    December 19th, 20085:44 amat

    so, um, what’s your solution? I am not being flip here. It is arguable that more “progress’ has been made in the past 150 years than in all the millenia before. I see people working really hard to reduce what they use but there is also a point at which it is perhaps too far. Are you going to get rid of your car and get a horse and buggy? (well, I wouldn’t mind, but that’s because I want any excuse I can to get a horse). Are you going to stop heating your home with fuel and revert to a wood stove? How about the Amish??? I actually know people (conservative ones too) who are asking these questions and actually doing stuff about it. But there is still a point where for most people, they draw the line. It is a cruel irony that the things that have extended our lives and made them much much easier are probably also going to be the seeds of destruction. Perhaps this is simply the result of living in a sinful world. Do you really think that once people trading in horses for cars that burned polluting fuel that it would not only be a matter of time before it created problems???
    I guess I see it as even if I do whatever I can (and I do, because I consider it good stewardship) and encourage others to do likewise, catastrophe is still down the road somewhere. Oh, we may forestall it, but it will still happen. We don’t have control and we never did.

  • Sonja writes:
    December 19th, 20087:29 amat

    @BroKen … is it irony or self-deprecating humor? I wonder … the written word is so difficult to parse out sometimes. It might be helpful if you knew that I now make fabric bags to wrap gifts in.

    Once some of my more pressing engagementss are taken care of, I’ll read your first link. I read the second link long before you posted it. I have no desire to engage there as the blogger in question has no real desire to engage with me, but only a desire to mock and belittle. I have the ability to respond in kind, but that is just behaving like white washed tombs and is not in keeping with gracious Christ-like behavior. I prefer to engage with people (even of vastly differing opinions) who want to learn from me and I from them … that is focusing on what is good and pure and right as the Apostle Paul would have said. I do not find that behavior at that blog. So I stay away.

  • Sonja writes:
    December 19th, 20087:31 amat

    @Beth … my sincere apologies. It’s likely that I intended to include such links, but I began this post about three weeks ago and was interrupted several times in the writing of it, with Christmas prep and all. I will update the post and give you proper credit. Mea culpa.

  • Sonja writes:
    December 19th, 20087:37 amat

    @Liz … I support you in your desire for a horse. But returning the world (or me, for that matter) to horse and buggy is not what this post is about. Nor would I recommend a return to heating with wood. If we all returned to either of those methods of transport or heat, we’d have greenhouse gas problems on a scale that is heretofore unseen. No … you’ve missed my main point.

    My main point is that the advent of the assembly line marked a change in our perspective on people. I am not decrying the physical progress we’ve made, just the change in perspective and the evil it wrought upon us. People cannot be produced on an assembly line. Nor should they be treated like assembly line goods, yet they often are. Even in our churches. But that’s a post for another day.

  • Liz writes:
    December 21st, 20083:18 amat

    do you REALLY think this started with the assembly line??? I think in the good ole days you had a lot of people doing low level agricultural work. Some were valued but more often they were seen as commodities. Sometimes even their own children. Why do you think people had a bazillion kids? Besides the death rate, it was also to breed your own workforce. I just don’t think it started with the assembly line. I am sure it’s a good feeling to blame stuff on the bad ole American capitalistic system, but I think more of it is human nature that just gets regurgitated into every single culture in various ways. Anyone who thinks that there was the pre-industrial utopia is living in an absolute fantasyland. There has never been a culture that does not use people. I am not saying it is right. I just think that it is more of a product of the fall than it is a product of any particular social phenomenon or not. I think this current crop of socially aware evangelicals is forgetting the fact that without a regeneration of the spirit through Christ just about every manmade system is doomed to self destruct in some fashion or another. You cannot fix society by just applying social theories. As soon as you plug up one hole, another one will open up as a direct result of plugging up the former. It is only through Christ that there is healing. It is only directly through Christ that there is redemption. The fact that we live in a world that is doomed to die with people who are doomed to die does not mean that God cannot and will not repair “some” of it on earth. but it will never be perfect until He comes again.

  • Rick writes:
    December 24th, 20081:08 pmat

    I have no desire to engage there as the blogger in question has no real desire to engage with me, but only a desire to mock and belittle. I have the ability to respond in kind, but that is just behaving like white washed tombs and is not in keeping with gracious Christ-like behavior. I prefer to engage with people (even of vastly differing opinions) who want to learn from me and I from them … that is focusing on what is good and pure and right as the Apostle Paul would have said. I do not find that behavior at that blog. So I stay away.


    I’m as interested as you are in what you call engagement. I’m just more honest about it. And I don’t get all pious and holier-than-thou on those who disagree with me.

    See the difference?

  • Sonja writes:
    December 24th, 200811:20 pmat

    @Liz … no, I don’t for a moment believe it began with the Industrial Revolution. [sigh] I really wish you’d stop for a moment and give the people who’s blogs you comment on the benefit of the doubt. Most of us are at least as smart as your horses. Some of us have even done graduate work in history. What I do believe is that the trend to view people as objects for others gratification became much more intense with the development of the assembly line. People were viewed as part of the assembly line and therefore could be made to be more and more efficient given the proper stimuli, rewards and punishments. But we are not machines and do not operate according to procedures.

    @Rick … wow. I’m not quite sure what to say. I’m pretty sure that’s the first time ever in my whole life anyone has ever even alluded to calling me pious or holier-than-thou. Thanks for the back-handed compliment. However, it still doesn’t excuse you. You can call what you do whatever you want … it’s still bullying whether you call it honesty or truth. I don’t care what you call it, when people routinely walk away from conversation feeling demeaned and belittled, you are not behaving in a Christ-like manner. So I will not participate in conversation with you. And that’s all I have to say about that.

  • Liz writes:
    December 30th, 20082:55 amat

    I think the benefit of the doubt works both ways too. I seem to remember learning about medieval history in high school and about serfs and peasants and such. There was just as much objectification going on then as there is now. Maybe even more. Then it was people who could be pressed into agricultural service; now factories. I live out in the west and so am pretty familiar with frontier history. Life was very cheap back in those preindustrial times. Miners. Building the railroads. Vigilante justice. And while some cultures and eras are worse than others, I don’t think any culture/time is free of it. I guess what bothers me is that so much of this talk is about bashing modern American culture, which I don’t think is the great evil that some are making it out to be. Yeah, there is room for improvement, but where ISN;T there room for improvement. Do not take this the wrong way, but most people who spend time criticizing modern culture are the very ones that seem to be enjoying the fruits of it the most.
    The people I know who are really trying to simplify, simplify, simplify are, for the most part, actually politically very conservative.

  • Sonja writes:
    December 30th, 20085:53 amat

    Hmmmm … highschool vs. graduate school … okay, whatever. Go back and read my post again, Liz. Read it with the title in mind. Was I criticizing? Or was I asking us to count the cost of our modern conveniences in a way that we do not normally think of doing? I am much more nuanced than you would like to think I am.

    You might want to widen your circle of friends. I actually know quite a few people who are politically liberal and live simple lives. I grew up with two of them.

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