We are in a stuff crisis. We are either consuming it, acquiring it, complaining about it, cleaning it, moving it from store to car to house to garage to a Pod parked in the driveway. We are worried about it. Bored about it. Happy about it. Our stuff has become our baggage.
We used to be able to fit all our stuff in that Honda Civic we drove across the country. But now we have basements creeping with stuff. Attics weighed down with stuff. When our houses are full of stuff, we buy bigger houses and stuff them with more stuff.
Our obsession with stuff is trashing the planet, says Annie Leonard, author of the new book The Story of Stuff.
Leonard spent 10 years traveling to 40 countries, visiting hundreds of factories, tracking where our stuff is made and where it is dumped, “witnessing first-hand the horrendous impacts of both over- and under-consumption around the world,” she says. She visited incinerators and garbage dumps, revealing the stories behind our stuff, explaining why it costs less to buy a new television than it does to repair the broken one.
She investigated “how the promotion of ‘perceived obsolescence’ encourages us to toss out everything from shoes to cellphones while they’re still in perfect shape.”
And all the while, she says, this stuff is not making us happy. “We work so hard to buy stuff that we quickly throw out,” she says. “There is only so much stuff the planet can hold.”
Here at the Washington party for Leonard’s book, there are people who have thought about their stuff and are religious about not consuming more.
“I’m a great opponent of stuff,” says Mary Harding, 78, a retired nurse who wears other people’s stuff. “This sweater, these pants. My shoes and my underwear are my own. I buy as much from a thrift store. I feel for people who believe they are what they wear, that having designer labels makes them special.”
There are people wrestling with being happy with what they have and wanting more. “I feel our culture is overly concerned about material things,” lawyer Danny Oshtry, 50, says. “People’s sense of meaning and life and fulfillment and happiness comes from things other than material things. I want to simplify my life. I don’t want all this junk.”
Across the room is Ralph Nader. He appears taller than he did on televised presidential debates. You ask him, “What is our relationship with our stuff?”
“The sum of what we have is greater than its parts,” Nader says. “We don’t take into account the aggregate of all the stuff to deal with. We don’t take into account the environmental and geopolitical wars for oil. We buy stuff. And pretty soon the stuff owns us.”
Leonard, he says, has helped people understand the stuff crisis. “She has a new way of communicating, symbolized by the word ‘stuff,’” Nader says.
Two years ago her 20-minute video, also called The Story of Stuff, went viral, 8.5 million hits. That led to the book, a simple narrative with graphics.
Leonard is pointing to stick figures and black-and-white drawings on a storyboard. “In the past three decades alone, one-third of the planet’s natural resources base have been consumed. Gone,” she says. “We are cutting and mining and hauling and trashing the place so fast that we’re undermining the planet’s very ability for people to live here.”
Leonard seems like the girl next door as she rolls out dire statistics. “Forty percent of waterways have become undrinkable. And our problem is not just that we’re using too much stuff, but we’re using more than our share.” She says the United States has only 5 percent of the world’s population but consumes 30 per cent of its resources and creates 30 per cent of the world’s waste.
She talks about turning the video and book into a movement. “For a long time, I was the girl who talked about garbage. I was a little lonely,” she says standing in front of a packed room. “For a long time, it was hard to get people to talk about garbage. It’s amazing what stick figures can do.”
Leonard grew up in the Pacific Northwest. She and her mom, a public school nurse, spent a lot of time camping. “We were not rich,” she says in an interview. “I grew up with a disdain for waste.”
She went to college in New York City, where every day she passed garbage on the way to class. “It got me thinking as I would walk blocks up Broadway to campus and I would walk home at night and thought, `Where does it go?’ “ She ended up at the dump. “You stand there and look out and in every direction, just waste... I thought, something is deeply, deeply wrong with an economy that facilitates that level of waste.”
She graduated from Barnard College in 1986, studied city and regional planning at Cornell University, then worked for environmental groups, including Greenpeace.
Did you know there are people who are called international waste traffickers? “Some hazardous waste costs up to $1,000 to $2,000 a ton to get rid of,” Leonard says. “They would go overseas and dump it in Third World countries or lie about it. A U.S. company that had very toxic mercury waste sent it to South Africa, where it leaked into a river people used for bathing, drinking and cooking.”
She calls for bans on toxins in any products.
Society pushes us to acquire more stuff, she says.
“So we are in this ridiculous situation... where we got to work, maybe two jobs even, and we come home and we’re exhausted so we plop down on our new couch and watch TV and the commercials tell us, ‘You suck,’ so gotta go to the mall to buy something to feel better. Then we gotta go to work more to pay for the stuff we just bought so we come home and we’re more tired so we sit down and watch more TV and it tells you to go to the mall again and we’re on this crazy work-watch-spend treadmill and we could just stop.”
There is a fine line between need and want. We are attracted to things like birds are attracted to ribbon. Our old hunter-gatherer instinct consumes us. It’s an instinct that has to be tamed if we are to do what Leonard proposes: “Green chemistry. Zero waste.”