Religion & Liberty Online

‘I, Pencil,’ continued: How man cooperates with nature

In Leonard Read’s famous essay, “I, Pencil,” he marvels over the cooperation and collaboration involved in the assembly of a simple pencil — a complex coordination among global creators that is, quite miraculously, uncoordinated. 

Read’s lesson is simple: Rather than try to stifle or control these creative energies, we ought to “organize society to act in harmony with this lesson,” permitting “these creative know-hows to freely flow.” In doing so, we will see similar stories manifest, fostering further evidence for a faith “as practical as the sun, the rain, a cedar tree, the good earth.”

The essay reminds us of the value of our work through the lens of trade and collaboration, but there’s another aspect that we mustn’t forget. Before and beyond the creative exchange with our neighbors, our work also involves a creative cooperation with nature itself.

In a short film from NPR’s Skunk Bear science channel, we see this cooperative process through the same example of the pencil.

The film makes no reference to Read’s essay or its themes (which have also been adapted to film), but in highlighting the invention and evolution of the pencil, it offers a fitting complement to the typical lessons about trade and cooperation. Before the miracle of creative exchange comes the miracle of creative cultivation.

This doesn’t just apply to the pencil, of course. Fundamentally, all of our work is simply the process of applying our God-given intellect and creativity to transform matter into usable things. Indeed, when we look back to the garden, we see God partnering with Adam and Eve as co-creators in nature, calling and empowering them to complete it, steward it, cooperate with it, and improve it using their reason, creativity, and spiritual discernment.

Today, that basic calling remains the same, and once we understand this, the bigger picture of creative service and stewardship becomes much clearer.

Just as we cooperate with nature, we also cooperate with each other. And as we see clearly with the example of the pencil, the modern market economy presents an abundance of channels for both!

Joseph Sunde

Joseph Sunde's work has appeared in venues such as the Foundation for Economic Education, First Things, The Christian Post, The Stream, Intellectual Takeout, Patheos, LifeSiteNews, The City, Charisma News, The Green Room, Juicy Ecumenism, Ethika Politika, Made to Flourish, and the Center for Faith and Work, as well as on PowerBlog. He resides in Minneapolis, Minnesota, with his wife and four children.