Todd Martin'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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's review
Mar 27, 2011

really liked it
bookshelves: environment-science

The Story of Stuff provides a peak behind the curtain at the resources, ingredients, byproducts and environmental impacts of many of the things we use every day including computers, aluminum cans, cotton clothing and plastic bottles. As a tool for raising awareness, the book does a good job. Consumers typically rate the value of an object in terms of its cost and utility. By doing so, we fail to take into account the hidden environmental costs associated with an objects production and ultimate disposal. Because this is an important topic, I deem the book largely successful as a consciousness raising tool to get people to think before making a purchase.

Where the book fails, and it does so in a BIG way, is that it fails to place any sort of relative risk on the litany of toxic horrors described. We can all agree that death by automobile accident and death by speargun while snorkeling in a swimming pool are both undesirable events; but that one represents such a remote possibility as to not warrant our attention. Similarly, The Story of Stuff appears to conflate the dangers of heap leach mining using cyanide with the risk of contracting silicosis from the manufacturing silicon wafers (having worked in the environmental field at a semiconductor facility I can state that the risk of the latter is absurdly low to nonexistent). Although bothersome, as an environmentalist I can overlook this hysteria in service to the cause. However, I believe a better understanding and communication of risk is an essential component of sound environmental policy, and that conflation of small risks serves us poorly.

Leonard also fails to mention population reduction as a means of improving the environment. It boggles my mind how environmentalists refuse to address what amounts to the route cause of every single environmental problem. It must be the third rail of the green movement or something.

Another way to read the book (that unfortunately crossed my mind more than once during the reading) is as a laundry list of the many ways the environmental movement has failed. Environmentalism appears to have seen its heyday in the early 1970’s. Today, it plays a marginal role in national discussions, has failed to enact any meaningful legislation in the last 30 years and has not been able to capture the public’s imagination with a powerful vision of a better and more sustainable way to live. In many waysThe Story of Stuff represents The Story of Environmentalism’s Failure. Sad, but true.

With that said, the book is otherwise presented in an informal, chatty style that is easy to understand and interesting to read. It includes some very good information for consumers, but the reality is that change of the magnitude and scope needed to solve the planet’s environmental problems is unlikely to be solved by bringing a cloth bag to the supermarket.

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