A pencil is from the French word pincel meaning little tail, this is because the first pencils was referring to the artists brushes that was made from camel hair (pencil, 2005). From the earliest forms of humans, being able to record important information was require for survival. This can be seen from the cave painting that depicted where the animals were or how something was done in order to show others how it was done. From cave painting to more recent documents, the ability to record information has always been important for humans. Throughout history important documents and papers have been recorded and written down. In order to preserve history the global society was tasked with producing an object that had the ability to write information down. A pen was created first from feathers and later by a small ball point at the end of a metal object. From there people had an instrument to write with but that was permanent. In order to write and have the ability to erase if a mistake was made required a new written instrument. This is where the pencil can to form. Seeing what it takes to build a pencil, how much effort is put forward by people and by the environment a simple number 2 pencil should really put into perspective how little objects can have a massive impact on the global economy.
The history of a pencil can be traced back to pre-historic times, when rocks or charred sticks were used to depict all kinds of things on cave walls. Definition of a pencil would be described as a writing instrument constructed of a narrow solid core inside a protective casting that prevents the core from being broken or damaged. According to Ruth Thomson, the Greeks and Romans used flat pieces of lead to draw lines on papyrus, which was used as paper back then (Thomson, 1987). This was the process of writing for many years after, then the discovery of graphite made something close to what we know as a pencil today. The first large scale graphite mine was discovered in England and was very easily used for pencils because of the purity and how solid it was. People were hesitant to use this because of the color and the little knowledge about chemistry in the 1700’s was thought to be lead. Mines were set up in the United States in order to find their own graphite. When the quality did not match what was being processed overseas, chemists developed a method of mixing clay with the graphite to bind it and make it more stable. Soon after this inventing of the graphite pencil factories began to pop up with the first one in Concord Massachusetts. Developing ways to create an automatic process of cutting the wood and pressing the core into each was difficult but soon companies discovered how to mass produce pencils which was useful because at that time an estimate was 240,000 pencils were each day (Franco, 2009). The wood of choice was red cedar because of the quality of the wood to hold up and not splinter when it was sharpened and the smell of this type of wood. Red cedar is a species that grows in the Northwest not in the Northeast. After stocks began to run low many wood types were tried but nothing seemed to make a good pencil stock until someone tried Incent cedar a close species to the Red cedar. Today over 14 million pencils are manufactured annually making this a market that has a lot of impacts towards the production of this object.
For my first lens I will be using a political economy perspective to look at the impact on the environment. In order to produce this product large amounts of land is needed and with pencil stock being on just one species, a large toll is taken on this species. Incense cedar, Calocedrus decurrens is a species that does not grow at a fast rate. Compared to other conifers incense cedar grows at a much slower rate making the species vulnerable to over harvesting. This is what happened to the red cedar that once was used to make pencils in the United States. Companies spend great deal of money making sure that their land has a mixed conifer species on it, this usually makes for better quality site for all trees. Having the land that is used for growing trees makes takes up space because you can not just have a little plot of land and expect to grow nice trees. The age factor also changes the amount of timber land needed to produce the necessary amount to support the market for pencils. With ever increasing demand for this product so does the amount of land that is needed to accomplish this.
For the graphite or pencil lead, is it found in the US. The answer is no there is currently no working mines producing graphite in the US. China is the leading exporter, 80% of the worlds graphite (Graphite, 2017). This is a alarming situation, not being producing any amount of this mineral that makes up so much of a market, and we are just discoursing pencils. From seeing that minerals, that are used for pencils are completely imported that has another serious impact on the ecosystem. Not it is just about taking minerals from the earth it is also about transporting them a great distance in order to be able to produce a product that millions of people use each and every single day.
There is a silver lining of this whole process the waste. After a pencil is used the waste is as fine as sawdust. Most of it is compostable and could be used as a binder for many things. This is the best part of the entire system because by creating it from living trees and mining the minerals from the earth the ability to have very little waste after all of that is shocking but good. The labor component of this whole system is minimal. There still must be companies that own timberlands and employ loggers that first choose the trees that are going to be cut. They also have to employee the people or fallers who will go out into the wilderness and physically cut the trees down, which is a very hazardous job. After that trees are cut people must move these trees to places where they can be processed and cut down to size to be able to be shipped to places where the pencil stock can be made and meet up with the graphite. The minerals on the other hand is not an easy job either, minerals are dug out of the ground using machines and then transported to sites that can transform the raw material into the straight cylinders we know to be in pencils today. After both items are processed they finally come together to produce a finished pencil. This is not the end of the human component shipping of the finished products must be accomplished. This is the finish line to produce a simple number 2 pencil.
For the second lens I wanted to take a closer look at the environmental ethics perspective of this object of concern. Thinking about the environmental ethics really dives into the topic of whether stripping the world of minerals and trees for the benefit and convenience of human lives is necessary or just wanted. Pencils are objects that we as a human society used each day from the numbers above 14 million pencils are produced annually which seems like an extremely high number but its more about what it takes to produce this amount. How much stain does the production of pencils take on the environment as a whole? Is there a point where the numbers will increase to much and begin to over take the actual level of raw product available? These are just a few questions that can be a real concern because things are changing in the environment that has been causing trees to not grow like they have been accustomed to. Increasing temperatures from global warming has made conifer species begin to migrate to higher elevations seeking the temperature range that each species prefers. What changes are going to be made if cedars do not grow if temperature gets to warm? Will a different species be produced to take over the fading cedars?
This is just looking at the trees, what about the fact that minerals will not last forever even right now graphite has been mined for over two hundred years. That’s a long time what is the timeline for the earth before humans drain the earth’s crust from these minerals. The graphite and clay that is used in the making of the pencil lead is processed and first ground to a powder. The minerals are not like trees we are not harvesting for 65 years and having large abundance of new minerals ready to be used. These minerals have taken hundreds of years to be produce and once they are gone they are gone forever. This is where the vast amounts of minerals being used for something as small as pencils can be seen as a concern for the environment.
The environmental ethics as a global citizen would be to minimize the impact of society on the environment. After seeing what it takes for a pencil to be made makes me question if we should go back to writing with ink and feathers. This would make a less of an impact of the lumber necessary to produce the pencils, but ink would have to be produced and that’s just trading one problem for another not solving them.
After looking at a couple different situation how a pencil could affect the environment if definitely shows that even minor objects that not everyone would think that could be seen as a concern could very possible be a concern. The particular puzzle that this object shows would be that from an environmental standpoint is that even though trees are a renewable resource a small object has big implications. Environment plays a critical role in being able to make this object and the societies connections with this object is important. The connection has play roles in the building of great societies, countries, and nations. With all the options that will do the same thing as a pencil, a number 2 pencil still hold true through the test of time being made at unbelievable numbers. With a global society always wanting the newest and best the old fashion number 2 pencil still is here to stay.
Bennett, Howard J. (26 November 2014). "ever wondered about the lead in pencils?". The Washington Post.
“Graphite Mining in the US.” Investing News Network, 24 Aug. 2017, investingnews.com/daily/resource-investing/critical-metals-investing/graphite-investing/graphite-mining-in-the-us/.
Michael Franco. "Famous Pencil Pushers". The Point of it All – History of the Pencil. Archived from the original on 17 June 2009.
Thomson, Ruth, and Chris Fairclough. Making pencils. F. Watts, 1987.
"pencil, n". Oxford English Dictionary (3 ed.). Oxford University Press. 2005.