Trevor's Reviews > The Story of Stuff: How Our Obsession with Stuff is Trashing the Planet, Our Communities, and our Health—and a Vision for Change

The Story of Stuff by Annie Leonard
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Mar 25, 11

bookshelves: behavioural-economics, economics, social-theory
Read in March, 2011

I haven’t seen this film – I will probably need to track it down now. This brings together a lot of things I have been thinking about lately in ways I have also been coming to slowly. However, it was just about the last place I expected to find some of these ideas. What I was expecting was a kind of sermon on the death of the planet (which it almost was in part) – in the modern world it is environmentalists who are cast as the ‘hell-fire and brimstone’ preachers (“I’ve seen the light – I will do my recycling”) and possibly our dentists and Weight Watchers who are like the new ‘father confessors’. (“Yes father, and toffee and the occasional sugary drink – I promise to do two Our Flossings every day”)

The best of this book is that it points out that we are not going to save the world piecemeal. This is not a matter of one piece of garbage at a time. As she so beautifully points out, if saving the planet needs to wait until everyone agrees to do something then we are lost – there is no hope. Just as there would have been no end to slavery if we had to wait until everyone agreed to end it.

The distinction here is that the society we have created for ourselves – a society that is obsessed onto death with stuff – is one that is literally killing us all. It is poisoning the air we breathe, it is making us responsible even when we buy shoes for the exploitation of third world children, it has the blood of nations on our hands so we can drive our SUVs and, at the same time, it is working us to death to afford this crap.

As she points out, we are generally at our happiest when we are with friends and family. Imagine us needing to be told something like that – I mean, think about that for a second. Postman says somewhere that much of social research is about finding ways to get paid for stating the blindingly obvious. But the sick part of our society is that we are killing the planet so as to own stuff we don’t even want and in the process are killing ourselves at work so that we can get the money we need that will pay for the stuff we don’t need and all that does is keeps us away from the people who really do make us happy. Hardly a virtuous cycle.

We are living in the age of trinket capitalism – where far too much of our economic capacity is directed at producing crap no one needs so we can claim we have economic growth. And this fabled growth can only be defined ‘growth’ on the very limited terms on which GDP is framed.

I really don’t know enough about Economics, but what I do know is that it ought to be the study of incentives. I’ve really resisted this concept for too long. But we have created a system where there are too many perverse incentives. A world where it is cheaper to swallow mountains for low-grade coal than to invest in renewable energy AND where wasting resources on superfluous packaging, endless advertising and pointless ‘one use’ containers creates replacement mountains of junk.

We live in a society where the hollow word ‘freedom’ is used to justify every excess and so contorted that the very concept is lost. Where the notion of freedom is exhausted in the choice between fresh mint or spearmint toothpaste we really have given up our birth right too cheaply. Remember when we were citizens? No, probably not. Not now we are merely customers and clients. Customers can only feel they are always right by limiting the range of choices they have right down to where our every choice becomes actually wrong. We have to demand to be more than just customers – we need to demand our right to be citizens again.

We need to create incentives that encourage us to more equitably share our wealth and resources. A world where the US has 5% of the population but 20% of the world’s wealth is only sustainable by force and endless wars. The joke is that not only will this sharing make the planet better off, but it will make us better off too.

We need to reinvent that other C word – not only do we need to become better citizens (or rather, to become citizens again) but we need to do that by re-forming our communities.

One of the most distressing images I’ve seen recently in Australian politics has been the leader of the opposition protesting against the introduction of a carbon tax (that is, something designed to place a cost on carbon to thereby use market mechanisms to account for externalised costs – something a market fundamentalist ought to surely understand) by standing at a petrol station with petrol pump in one hand filling up oversized cars and complaining the tax will make petrol more expensive. Well, imagine that, a limited and diminishing resource might finally cost more per litre than milk. Clearly, we live in a world with perverse incentives that this man – a racist hell bent on killing the planet – can be the alternative leader of the country. No wonder the civilised West needs to spend decades and billions propping up tyrants only to bomb them into submission later to keep the flow of oil coming. We don’t need to worry about how the future will judge us – it is all too obvious.

Something I read recently suggested that a four degree increase in world temperatures will mean a human population of about half a billion. We currently have nearly 7 billion people on this planet. Is that a subtraction problem that disturbs you or not?

We need to do fundamental renovations to our society – we need to do so much more than just recycling. The solutions we need to find are political, not motivational. They need to be tackled by us as citizens, not as merely consumers.

Read this book.
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Comments (showing 1-14 of 14) (14 new)

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message 1: by [deleted user] (new)

All her films can be viewed free online. I didn't know she had a book out now. Among Native American cultures the endless consumption of material things is considered a sign of mental illness. And yeah, I doubt dropping Tomahawk missiles into Libya is the solution.


Trevor She mentions the fact that your famous ad with the crying Indian for Keep America Beautiful actually stars a person of Italian background and that the whole Keep America Beautiful project is a large part of the problem. I never knew this - but any society that wants a future surely must start treating endless consumption as an illness.

My daughter recently signed an avaaz.org petition calling for a no fly zone - she has since regretted her decision (and not through anything I have said). The problem is the standard one - we live in a world that 'doesn't do' history. We watch footage of some mad man bombing his own people and we say, 'something must be done' - but who sold him the planes in the first place? Was he any less of a mad man then? (you know, this is the guy that advised the Palestinians to commit mass suicide on being exiled from Lebanon) And what did we think he would use those planes for when we sold them to him? Ornaments? And who are these 'freedom fighters' we are protecting with our no fly zones? I can only assume - given our level of support - that they are people who understand that Bedouin tribes have no right owning oil resources and that these need to be given back to their proper and traditional owners - Shell, BP, Exxon, Mobil.


message 3: by Velvetink (new) - added it

Velvetink Preaching to the converted here, although this books sounds like it says it all better than I think it. Co-incidently it's voting day down under, the problem is all the options politically on offer currently have major flaws.


Trevor Yes, I assume your in NSW - I pity you. The Labor Party has much to answer for- but the idea that the Liberals are going to get in in yet another state makes me feel ill.


message 5: by Hazel (new) - added it

Hazel Trevor wrote: "She mentions the fact that your famous ad with the crying Indian for Keep America Beautiful actually stars a person of Italian background and that the whole Keep America Beautiful project is a larg..."

I resisted the urge to sign those petitions for just that reason. Sometimes things seem so complex that I feel paralysed. The hypocrisy of our governments is breathtaking.


Helen (Helena/Nell) Ok. I'll read it.


Trevor Interesting wee film from the people at RSA Animate on the paradoxes of choice:

http://www.youtube.com/watch?v=1bqMY8...


Helen (Helena/Nell) I haven't seen one of these before. Fascinating.


message 10: by Jim (new) - rated it 5 stars

Jim Outstanding review. I started the book last week and have been extremely impressed with it. Both the dire assessments and the positive steps toward solutions are (or should be) a real jolt to the sentient reader.

It will be a long and difficult slog here in the US, I am sorry to say. But there are people here who get it, and I have hope that the thing can be turned around.


message 11: by Trevor (last edited Feb 01, 2012 05:14PM) (new) - rated it 5 stars

Trevor Thanks Jim. It surprises me how much of the 'debate' about these issues is based on wishful thinking and what is seen as self-interest - although how much anyone's self-interest can be connected to a dead planet is an amusing question in itself. Today there is a report in one of our newspapers here in Australia (the one not owned by Murdoch) about our richest woman (who is hoping to buy that newspaper to increase her political influence) and who wants to investigate the use of nuclear weapons to make mining easier. I wish I had the imagination to make this stuff up - I'm sure if I did I could retire on the benefits... Although, admittedly, if you made up something like that people would just think you were taking your irony a couple of dozen steps too far.


message 12: by Jim (new) - rated it 5 stars

Jim That is a great story, Trevor. I can only imagine what sorts of stories are in the Murdoch newspapers...

Here in the US, the idea of a carbon tax is getting no traction at the moment. The idea of NOT teaching evolution in the public schools, however, is quite the hot item. Many schools are already teaching Creationism as an equally plausible 'Theory'. It gets worse from there, but I am sure that you can see the picture quite clearly.

I hope we can continue this discussion in times to come (friend invitation on the way). I see a lot of my favorites in our books-in-common list. For now, I can recommend Bill McKibben's books - Eaarth: Making a Life on a Tough New Planet in particular - and his 350.org as an organization that is beginning to make a difference.

Cheers,
Jim


Trevor Yes, we do seem to have read lots of very similar books. I went to a book launch of The Value of Nothing: How to Reshape Market Society and Redefine Democracy and he talked there about 350.org. You are right, they do offer some hope, as does the occupy movement.


message 14: by Jim (new) - rated it 5 stars

Jim Thanks for the friend add and the book referral (it looks great!). I am very interested in the occupy movement in all its forms. I am equally interested in learning more about behavioral economics, and its vast potential for reshaping how we think about the world and our place in it.

I look forward to learning more from your reviews and book selections, and to sharing thoughts about a better way forward. And I do believe that committed individuals, and groups, can make a difference. The truth is out there, and it will come home.

Cheers,
Jim


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