I think this is a really important book. There is a lot of bad news, and it is not what we want to hear, but we certainly need to. There is also goodI think this is a really important book. There is a lot of bad news, and it is not what we want to hear, but we certainly need to. There is also good news - a long list of positive suggestions, with links, that point the way out of the trash and into a sustainable future.
I read dystopian novels, in part, to get a sense of what horrors the future may hold, and how people can or cannot adapt to them. The fact that many of those books are ripping good reads is also a big attraction. There is also (presumably) some sick fascination for me over the unspeakable crimes against Earth that were (presumably) committed by previous generations, and their ghastly aftermath.
I also read nonfiction books – like this one - about unspeakable crimes against Earth that are being committed today. I do this to get a sense of 1) why these horrors are happening – in this case, as a ‘cost-effective’ strategy to support a consumer-driven lifestyle and economy; 2) how the perpetrators are getting away with it, and how they might be impeded or stopped; and 3) what steps could be taken to diminish or avoid the dystopian world of those other books.
In The Story of Stuff, Annie Leonard has done the world, and the United States in particular, a huge favor. Drawing on her first-hand expertise on the flow of materials through the ‘pipeline’ of extraction/production/consumption, she shows in graphic detail the impossibly stupid way that we are living today, and the disastrous consequences that inevitably follow. She systematically dissects the textbook, business-school model of the production-consumption ‘pipeline’, and then asks and answers the obvious question: what happens to all the Stuff that comes out at the post-consumption end of the pipe? Hmmm.
Short answer: it gets dumped. Somewhere, anywhere, preferably where no one of any ‘importance’ will see it or have the means to stop it. In the textbook model, there is a cost for the act of dumping, but in general there are no costs – on the typical corporate balance sheet under current accounting practice – for the damage to the planet of all the Stuff that gets dumped. And that is a HUGE problem.
Leonard also shows that most of the dumping of Stuff actually takes place at earlier stages of the process – the extraction and manufacturing steps, in particular. Furthermore, a lot of toxic crap is put into the products at these stages, and the balance sheets don’t account for the effects of those, either. In general, the companies don’t bother to tell you about the toxins you are buying. In many cases, they are not required to list them on the product labels. Hmmm. A little legislative collusion, perhaps?
This is all very, very bad news - we seldom hear it, and would prefer not to know. That is the way our brains work, and companies know this. But ignorance of such things is not bliss, and knowledge of them is the beginning of power to change. Leonard hammers on both of these messages to great effect.
But the biggest strength of the book, in my view, is the discussion of practical, powerful, and happening steps that can begin to turn this monstrosity around. Issue by issue (with cartoon guideposts), she provides examples, practical advice, and links to hundreds of groups that are working in creative ways to right the wrongs. This is all very, very good news. It is also the biggest favor that the author does for the planet (the U.S. in particular).
For a quick (20 minute) guide to the bad news portion of the book, I strongly recommend the online movie that led to the writing of the book. The website has other movies and a lot of useful information, but here is the original movie:
Here are some quotes (in italics) and summaries to illustrate the bad news/good news quality of the book. I checked the links that are included, and added comments here and there:
In fact, all of us on the planet collectively are consuming more resources than the planet produces each year; we’re consuming about 1.4 planets’ worth of bio-capacity resources annually.
Unfortunately, we only have 1.0 planets.
It’s just not going to work. There isn’t enough for everyone to consume at this high bar. And if we were to make the selfish and immoral choice of going any farther down that path, then we would have to build bigger walls and fences and hunker down, because it would get ugly. As an official of the U.N. World Food Programme said, “A hungry world is a dangerous world. Without food, people have only three options: They riot, they emigrate or they die.”
Sounds a little dystopian, doesn’t it?
Lots of specific problems are discussed in the book, and allocation of fresh water is one of them:
Hardly anyone looks at a cotton T-shirt, a car, or a light switch and thinks about water. Virtual water is the amount of water embedded in food or other products based on how much water was needed to extract and produce that item. If you’re curious, you can go to www.waterfootprint.org and get a rough calculation of your own water footprint.
My rough calculation from this site was not pretty to look at.
Another problem is how electricity gets made:
I wanted to investigate any links between my own lightbulbs and blowing the tops off of mountains in Appalachia, so I went to the www.ilovemountains.org website, which allows anyone in the United States to type in a zip code and see which mountains were destroyed for your power.
Using this site, I found the mountain that was destroyed to provide my power, assuming that we used the standard provider for this area. Good news – we switched to green alternatives (wind/small hydropower) several years ago. We pay a little more for it, and feel a lot better about it.
A third major problem is the dumping of poisons. Some, but by no means all of these are reported (in the U.S.) in the Toxics Release Inventory (TRI):
Currently about 22,000 industrial and federal facilities are covered in the TRI. In 2007, those facilities reported that 4.1 billion pounds of 650 different toxic chemicals were released into the environment, including both on-site and off-site disposal. The data compiled in the TRI is available to the public through both government and nongovernmental websites. My personal favorite is Scorecard (www.scorecard.org), which allows you to look up major pollution sources and chemicals by zip code.
The scorecard for my county was not good. Here a toxic dump, there a toxic dump.
Now for some good news. For each problem, Leonard discusses ways and means for solving it:
Another revolution in the production of our Stuff is both necessary and possible. With existing and developing approaches, within a decade we could transform today’s most destructive processes and eliminate the most toxic ingredients from our factories and products.
Rather than focus on reducing any one population’s (like children’s) exposure to hazardous chemicals, the simplest solution is to phase out toxics altogether and replace them with safe materials…
She talks about two strategies for doing this: green chemistry and biomimicry:
Pioneering green chemists are designing new materials from the molecular level up to satisfy all our requirements, while also being fully compatible with ecological and human health. To learn more about green chemistry, visit Clean Production Action at www.cleanproduction.org.
The Biomimicry Institute notes, “nature, imaginative by necessity, has already solved many of the problems we are grappling with. After 3.8 billion years of research and development, failures are fossils, and what surrounds us is the secret to survival.”
In the meantime, we need ready access to better information about the toxins that are embedded in the products we buy. Leonard discusses a very powerful way to do that:
GoodGuide, a free online searchable database, allows you to get current data on the environmental, social, and health impacts of everyday products and their parent companies. In late 2009, GoodGuide launched its iPhone application that allows shoppers to simply point their phone camera at a product’s bar code and immediately receive environmental and health data on the product, far beyond what any label will reveal. GoodGuide provides all of us massively increased access to information about the supply chains of the products we use, so we can make better choices—better choices for our families, the workers making this Stuff, and the global environment. Some people call this “voting with our dollar.”
This is my strongest recommendation from the book:www.goodguide.com and/or the mobile app. It is a work in progress, but getting better and getting noticed. You can get a toolbar for your browser that will report on products as you look at them, on sites like Amazon and on Google searches. Don’t like the score for your product? Send feedback, with a few mouse clicks and specific comments. And buy a better product, from the list of alternatives that GoodGuide has rated.
Try it; I think you will like it. I canceled an Amazon subscription for an item that had a low GoodGuide score. Amazon asked for a comment about my reasons, and I told them. I also said that I would look for an alternative with a higher GoodGuide score. That easy.