Book Review: The Story Of Stuff, by Annie Leonard (2010)

The full title is “The Story Of Stuff: How Our Obsession With Stuff Is Trashing The Planet, Our Communities, And Our Health — And A Vision For Change”. Annie Leonard brings up what many of us either don’t know or don’t think about: that it’s pretty complicated, dangerous, and irresponsible the way our stuff is extracted, processed, shipped, advertised, purchased, and thrown away.

The book in a nutshell: From the mining stage to the landfill stage, many of our products don’t do the planet any good. We can make a tiny dent in this by individual efforts, but the only real solutions (because the problem is so large and all-encompassing) can come from the top, from governments and big business leaders.

Copyright © 2011 by Wil C. Fry.
For years, it’s bugged me that we’ve been in a throwaway society. I used to (at least weekly) drive past a landfill near Earlsboro, Okla., that had become a mountain as the residents of the sparsely populated area continued to dump trash. It made me wonder about the larger cities and where their garbage was going. I wondered how long we could keep it up until every square inch of the planet was covered by the stuff we throw away daily.

I’ve never been an environmentalist for the sake of “loving Mother Earth”. But just as a selfish human being, it seems like it would make sense to buy less stuff and therefore have less stuff to throw away.

So every time I would hear a government official beaming with pride that the economy was “growing”, or read a glowing news report about the growth of the economy, I wondered why that was a good thing. I was pretty sure it wasn’t a good thing for our economy to keep growing — since “growth” by economists’ standards just means making and buying more stuff, whether we need it or not.

So I was ready to read The Story Of Stuff when I found it at a local library. It tackles these ideas, pinpointing the sources of our economic misconceptions and offering some solutions.

One major problem with the book — at least for me — as that it’s written in a “preaching to the choir” manner, rather than in a manner that’s supposed to convince someone in the opposite camp. Lets say Reader A isn’t convinced that we’re making/using/disposing of too much Stuff. Reader A is a conservative, rural Republican. They see lots of open land and fresh air. They don’t deal with smog or smoking factories or piles of garbage, so they don’t believe the Earth is in any danger. It doesn’t help to quote radical environmentalists as sources, but that’s what Leonard often does.

The author mentions “paradigms” in the introduction, explaining that a paradigm is a series of assumptions about the world that makes it impossible to see the world a different way. Yet it seems she’s so stuck in her own paradigm (regardless of how correct it might be) that she has trouble persuading someone with a different paradigm.

She uses phrases like “animals and other people” that would turn off a right-wing reader immediately.

But for Reader B (myself, for example) — someone who’s already grown convinced that Too Much Stuff is a problem — the book can be informative. It can help solidify an opinion with facts. It helps explain how we came to make so much stuff and what happens to it. The author spent years tracking raw materials from the mining stage to the landfill stage and beyond, gathering a startling amount of information along the way.

If you’re not already convinced that the economy’s “growth” is a bad thing, this book probably wont’ convince you, since it’s written from the opposite paradigm. But if you’re on the fence — or already leaning this way — then it might be the final step in your persuasion.

Before the book was the video, found here (for me, the page took nearly a minute to load, and the video itself far longer). It’s about 20 minutes long, but might be worth a look if you don’t plan to devote several hours to reading the book.

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