The Parable of the Iron Pan

Bob Massie
Holiday 2013

Many years ago, when I was in my 20s, I lived in a small apartment in New Haven, Connecticut. I had a chair, a bed, a lamp and some books, and that was about it. I particularly lacked items for my kitchen, and I needed to eat, so I began searching for cooking utensils.

One brilliant Saturday morning in the fall, I found myself stepping carefully through an estate sale at an elegant old white-shingled New England house. In the back hall I found a 12-inch iron frying pan. It was $2. I bought it and brought it home. Made by the Griswold Manufacturing Company, it was almost 90 years old at that time, and I have cooked with it for another 35. Today it is half as old as the United States.

I often think of that pan when I am asked what kind of economy we should build in a world in which 7 billion people long to prosper on a planet with limited resources. As human beings, we are drawn to the new – new ideas, new technology, new styles. From childhood, we long to create and to grow, and to move freely. The joy of freedom and expansion has been built into everything from our economic theories to our advertising. Yet today we must recognize that exponential growth is both alluring and illusory, an instinct that is out of alignment with the lessons and limits of nature.

The goal of the emergent “New Economy” is to redirect the vast power of our forwardlooking imaginations to redefine a future that is simultaneously prosperous, just and sustainable. To succeed we will need the wisdom of both invention and conservation.

The New Economy offers enormous hope because it is a blend of the best thinking and values from the past and the future. One of its central principles is cooperation. On my city block, we don’t have a snowblower at every address; Tony, who is also one of our aldermen, runs his machine up and down the sidewalk. Ed, who lives next door, takes our dog when he goes out for a walk with his. George keeps an eye on the house from across the street.

In the New Economy, neighborly behavior is becoming common among strangers. Millions are making their possessions, their cars and their homes available, sometimes for a small payment and often for free. And it’s not just about objects; people are also offering up their learning, their ideas and their stories. They are working together in new forms of democratic businesses and associations. In fact, the New Economy is revealing something that our ancestors understood better than we do. The core idea at the heart of every economics textbook – that we are coldly rational and implacably selfish – is simply wrong. We are hard-wired to share.

What does this mean for ownership? How does it affect our sense of freedom? If there are 114 million households in the United States, does that mean that we need 114 million of everything? In my house our plumber once wanted to install the largest possible water heater to handle the peak load, just in case everyone in the whole house wanted to take a shower at the same time. We are told that we need to own one – or 10 – of everything so that our wishes can simultaneously be satisfied. But this peak-load panic creates massive duplication and waste. The impulsive satisfaction of desire is common to children and teenagers, but we must embrace a calmer and more patient path as adults.

Yet in truth, I have hundreds of things that I use only rarely. Right now the iron pan is hanging silently next to the stove. If Ed wanted to borrow it tonight, I would happily hand it over. So maybe, at least in the world of iron pans, we really actually need only 57 million of them to meet the needs of all American households. And if three families shared, we might need only about 40 million. And if every iron pan lasted more than a century, perhaps we need to make only a few hundred thousand a year.

With these kinds of ideas, New Economy thinking turns the question of possession on its head. It pushes us to examine the relationship between what we have and what we need. It asks us to rethink the boundaries of ownership, participation and cooperation. It reminds us that we don’t need to own everything in order to benefit from it; that’s why we invented public parks, public libraries and public schools. After all, we are not a nation of hermits; we form a thousand kinds of families and communities, associations and businesses to do things together. This is smart, sane and efficient.

The New Economy invites us to balance our delight for the new with respect for the durable. My house is 100 years old, and we are the third family to live here. My wife and I are caring for it so that it will serve a fourth family for another generation after we are gone. In the same way, I want to protect the woods and the water we love in Maine, just as tens of millions of Americans are caring for their own cherished places across the rest of the nation.

Viewed this way, the puzzle of how to live on this planet is not actually that complicated. We must reject the ugly image that we are primarily consumers, a kind of warm-blooded locust whose purpose is to chew through the planet. We must lighten our pressure on the world and on ourselves. We must conserve what we love and build what will last.

If you come by my neighborhood, you can borrow my iron pan. And in another few decades, after some young couple has picked it up at my estate sale, I expect they will lend it out too.

About the Author

Bob Massie is the president of the New Economy Coalition. During his career he has created or led three groundbreaking sustainability organizations. His autobiography, A Song in the Night: A Memoir of Resilience, has just been published by Nan A. Talese/Doubleday.