Annie Leonard’s new book tells the story of our obsessive relationship with our possessions, and unless we alter that relationship, the story doesn’t end well.
The book, titled “The Story of Stuff: How Our Obsession with Stuff is Trashing the Planet, our Communities, and Our Health – And a Vision for Change,” is the in-depth follow-up to The Story of Stuff video, which millions of people have viewed across the world. The book chronicles Leonard’s discoveries over a 10 year period in which she traveled the world in search of answers about where our stuff comes from and where it goes when we’re done with it. The book starts by examining the resources most of our stuff comes from: trees, water, rocks, and petroleum.
We use these resources in huge quantities. Here are some of the staggering statistics Leonard opens with (the book is loaded with stats like these, which expose us as the gluttons we are): We lose 50,000 acres of trees a day globally to deforestation to make our paper, furniture, houses, etc. In the U.S., each person uses 200 gallons of water on their lawns per day during the growing season. It takes 256 gallons of water to produce a single cotton t-shirt. The average gold wedding ring creates about 20 tons of hazardous mining waste, which gets dumped into our waters. And need anyone elaborate on the hazards of drilling for oil?
In “The Story of Stuff,” Leonard closes the gap between our products and their origins, putting our consumption habits into perspective. Simply put, we are consuming resources faster than the Earth can reproduce them. This can be rooted back to our love for short-term satisfaction and our disregard for the long-term consequences of our consumption habits. We buy something to make us happy, and when we decide we’re finished with that product, be it broken or not, we want it to go away. So we either shove it under ground or we burn it, both of which contaminate the air, water and land with toxins, and neither of which actually make anything go away.
And if we decide we don’t want to deal with the trash at home, “boatloads of our American waste are sent to other regions of the world, often under the guise of being recycled there,” Leonard writes.
The theory of making something go “away” seems to be one of Leonard’s biggest pet peeves, and now mine, too. The book emphasizes how we have trained ourselves to push trash to the backs of our minds and conclude that either nature will take care of it, or someone else will. No one wants to consider what actually happens to trash when it hits a landfill, because it’s uncomfortable.
But “The Story of Stuff” doesn’t allow readers the luxury of ignoring the trash problem.
Leonard forces readers to take a long hard look at the dark underbelly of consumerism. She brings the landfill to you, and you have little choice but to ponder the location of the plastic bottle you tossed yesterday. Leonard, an avid environmentalist and experienced Greenpeace activist, has been through a lot of trash piles, and her landfill descriptions made me wonder where my things go when I am done with them, and why I bought them in the first place if I was just going to pitch them. This sort of reflective thinking took hold of my mind the more I read, which speaks to Leonard’s storytelling skills, and the pure absurdity of our trash problem.
Leonard also exposes how our bad consumption habits are built into the system we live our lives by. We are encouraged to buy products with the promise of happiness and security, but our stuff is made to break.
Let that sink in.
It’s all purposely poorly made, and often cheaper to replace than to repair.
This built in self-destruct function is known as Planned Obsolescence, and it forces us to throw things away and buy more non-durable products we will eventually throw away, too. In the mean time, our capitalist society encourages us to buy with the reassurance that we are helping to bolster the economy. “Not to buy means to fail our workers and stifle the economy, say most economists and politicians; shopping is our duty,” Leonard writes. But we shouldn’t have to choose between the environment and the economy.
Leonard also exposes the chemicals in our everyday household items, and what they do to your body in terms of cancer risk, reproductive problems, and brain function. There is evidence that one third of our personal care products contain ingredients linked to cancer, and that everything from our sunscreen to our furniture leaches toxins. Leonard underwent testing to identify the toxins in her body and where they came from. If someone like Leonard, who is far more concerned than the average American about what she puts in and on her body, has high levels of mercury, lead and Bisphenol A (remember that stuff?) in her system, imagine what’s in yours.
But the marketing campaigns for these toxic products make us feel good about our purchases, perpetuating the perceived link between buying and happiness.
So our system encourages us to buy things that will poison us and then break shortly thereafter. We shouldn’t have to worry about our deodorant giving us breast cancer, or our baby bottles leaching toxins into the mouths of children. The fact that we do have to worry speaks for a bigger trend of complete disregard for the impacts our decisions have on both our bodies and planet.
This mindset of short-term personal satisfaction and disregard for others further materializes in our spending choices. Here comes another statistic: “In 2003, people worldwide spent $18 billion on cosmetics, while reproductive health care for all women would have come to $12 billion,” Leonard writes. Furthermore, she points out that the money we spend on ocean cruises could provide clean drinking water for everyone.
The book begs one overarching and all-encompassing question: where are our priorities?
But perhaps what I love most about “The Story of Stuff” is it reveals a number of baffling and complex problems while also providing real solutions, the simplest being a fundamental change in the way we think about our stuff. And Leonard offers readers the tools they need to take that first step toward a more responsible existence. Each chapter includes a list of reasons to be hopeful, and gives examples of people and action groups already working to usher change.
“The Story of Stuff” isn’t a book about complaining and finger pointing and grumbling about the human race, it is a call to action. It brings to light all the dark and disgusting impacts of our consumer habits, and then it tells us how to change.
Maybe, just maybe, we can rewrite the end of this story after all.
Ways to get involved:
Here are some examples and suggestions from Annie Leonard on raising awareness about our obsession with stuff and refocusing on the planet:
Extended Producer Responsibility – Make manufacturers responsible for the entire life cycle of their products, including disposal.
Ray Anderson, CEO of Interface – A leader in the green business movement. His company adopted a zero-impact goal in 1995 and drastically decreased its use of fossil fuel, water and greenhouse gases.
Bottle Bills – People receive a refund when they return their bottles to be recycled. The Container Recycling Institute says, “The most outspoken opponents to bottle bills are almost exclusively the big-name beverage producers.” By not buying their products, you can show your dissatisfaction with Coca-Cola Company, PepsiCo, etc.
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