The Apple Core: Machine Meets Fruit

I just bought an apple corer- peeler-slicer, a mechanical devise you attach to a counter top to core and peel apples or pears in preparation for canning or cooking. It is an interesting technology. It has multiple moving parts, and it is all hand-powered. It has no digital controls and it is constructed it entirely from metals. Only the pad at the end of the screw that holds it to the kitchen counter top and the crank handle are plastic.

Apple.Mate.3

It cores! It peals! It slices!   Photo: R. Christie

I suspect someone designed and patented it in the late nineteenth century and that the patent has long run out. I found no patent notice in the paperwork, or on the box, or machine itself. Oh, there is the “Made in China” label! Could I be less surprised? All that international shipping and it is still only twenty-eight bucks. I bought it at a local upscale cookery store.

You will probably not find such devises at big-box stores, which are only interested in mass-appeal items. Who now processes their own fruit? Besides, mass consumer culture demands that all appliances by digitally controlled and electrically powered. Some might consider my new gadget an archaic throwback. Surely, one could have designed an automated electricity-driven device to perform the same function without my hand cranking it.

But why?

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Our apple Harvest, 2017.   Photo: R. Christie

We have only a couple of fruit trees, one apple and one pear. Several years after planting them, they finally have begun to bear fruit, beyond the one or two seen in recent years until last year and this. Suddenly, in mid-summer we now face baskets full of ripe apples and pears. We have a wine and root cellar, so we can store the fruit for a while as we prepare to can and cook with what we didn’t give away to our friends. Last year, we peeled and cored by hand all the fruit we canned, using kitchen knives for the work. That proved immensely “labor-intensive” and time consuming, so we decided to mechanize the process this year, mostly to save time.

Innovation in technology has played a central role in driving industrial development and economic growth for the past two centuries. The invention of complex mechanical tools and devices allowed craftsmen to make many products efficiently by hand, without steam or fossil-fuel power in the late eighteenth and the nineteenth centuries. Then came the steady onslaught of increasingly automated machinery driven by fossil-fueled engines or fossil-fuel driven electrical motors.

The latest innovations have achieved remarkable success in microelectronics and the miniaturization and acceleration of the speed of electronic technology in processing information. Computer Aided Design (CAD) feeds Computer Aided Manufacture (CAM), now implemented abroad, where the remaining needed human labor is cheapest. We see it everywhere. Automated information processing drives much of industrial production. Industry needs less labor and more intellect to produce more and more consumer products. Those products, in turn, involve more and more abstract engagement of the user with images and symbols built into the product. Products themselves are increasingly detached from the material world, although some involve more and more control at a distance, as in the case of drones.

We know deep down that this cannot last. We are rapidly reaching the material, ecological, and climate limits of fossil-fueled economic growth. Economic growth itself is near terminal. The road ahead requires massive downsizing of energy production, use, and waste. Those who adapt to the use of new as well as clever old technologies driven by human power for human use are far more likely to survive in relatively comfortable and interesting engagement with the real world than those who insist on living in an automated bubble of shrinking life expectancy.

Laws of Nature and “Laws” of Economics

Most people believe that the laws of physics and the laws of chemistry are real and the legitimate facts resulting from scientific investigation over the past few centuries. Most people also believe that economics is a science. Well, it’s not quite that simple. Human behavior often follows consistent patterns – not quite “laws” – but as we all know people “break the law” frequently enough. In fact, people are partly rational, partly irrational, and partly non-rational. Neither economics nor sociology/anthropology, neither political science nor psychology, are entirely scientific.

Recent debates between conventional and behavioral economists testify to the limits of trying to force economics into a purely scientific model of knowledge. The purely “rational actor” conventional economics imagines, demonstrates those limits. The person who always seeks only the most monetarily profitable outcome does not exist. People choose their actions on any of numerous criteria, not just economic rationality. Besides, it’s often not all that easy to make the most economically rational choice.

Even the laws of natural science operate within limited parameters. We observe the laws of Newtonian physics to be entirely consistent within their limits. But they do not explain much in the post-Einstein world of quantum mechanics. The far less reliable “laws” of “free market economics” do not apply when markets are not free – which is most of the time. Yet, a great deal of effort is expended trying to convince government policy makers and the public otherwise. Corporate lobbyists want us all to believe that the corporatist economy must be retained because it is an expression of the laws of free markets – which it is not.

“Laws” of Convenience
In conventional economics, the underlying factual problem is that markets dominated by a few corporations are not free at all. In fact, the influence of the ‘free market’ ideology results in a lot of federal laws that have given more and more power to corporations. But that process is part of a package of claims that help sustain an oligarchy of corporate convenience, in part by perpetuating the fiction of free markets.

Another key ingredient supporting corporatocracy is the ideology of economic growth. The claim that well-being of the population depends on continued growth of the economy serves the economic elites quite well, if nobody else. The bankers get their compound interest; the corporate executives get their bonuses based on increased stock prices; the congressmen get their corporate campaign contributions and ‘dark money’ electoral support. Nature knows no political laws of economic convenience.

We ordinary actors in the economy are anything but free. But our willing participation in the consumerism that enables economic growth increasingly depends on debt. Corporate control and suppression of labor participation in the fruits of production require increased consumer indebtedness to keep consumption and growth going. The increasing concentration of power, income, and wealth in the economic elites, can only continue through debt-based consumerism.

Experiencing the Laws of Nature
In the debt-driven economy, we are constantly bombarded with incentives to consume more and more questionable products. That is what keeps the economy of growth going. But the so-called convenience of the many superfluous but cleverly distracting products ultimately becomes a burden, both physically and economically. Look at all the storage units spread across the suburban landscape. Too much stuff.

The consumerism of the endless growth economy drives continual demand for more energy to drive the factories and factory farms, and run the vehicles, appliances, and various toys of the consumer culture. The result is unequivocally clear. Massive carbon emissions over the 200 years of the industrial era have come home to roost. Drastic reductions in the burning of fossil fuels are necessary for survival. So are reductions in energy consumption. Both are needed to reduce carbon emissions.

Some energy production can be converted from fossil-fuel to renewable sources such as solar and wind. But every energy production technology requires energy to manufacture and install. We must also reduce the wasteful use of energy; that means reduce consumption. As Ozzie Zehner put it, “…the united states doesn’t have an energy crisis. It has a consumption crisis.”*

Most talk of reducing emissions involves replacing fossil-fuel energy production with renewable sources of energy production: solar, wind, and the highly counterproductive nuclear and biomass strategies. But far more efficient and economical strategies are readily available now. Retro-fitting existing buildings and factories to reduce energy consumption would create many jobs and require no new technology research. Local production for local consumption should become the norm. Just doing it is necessary. But whatever the mix of strategies, none of it will work until the consumerist culture recognizes that we will always experience the fruits of our labors in the laws of nature.
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* Ozzie Zehner, Green Illusions: The Dirty Secrets of Clean Energy and the Future of Environmentalism. Lincoln, NE: University of Nebraska Press, 2012.