Thursday, June 2, 2011

Review: The Story of Stuff

I just read The Story of Stuff by Annie Leonard. We normally only review fiction as well as books on the craft of writing. But I read a lot of non-fiction as research for my Terran Shift universe, especially books I expect will help refine my vision of the future. The Story of Stuff is, by far, the most important book I've read in a long time. It's also the most depressing.

Tons o' Stuff

The Story of Stuff is about all the Stuff we have in our society: cell phones, iPads, computers, books, toys, t-shirts, shower curtains, and all the other things we buy. The book charts the progress of that Stuff from ore extraction to product creation to garbage dumps. Many pages discuss the over-consuming society we live in (assuming you are in a first-world country like me) and how our current unsustainable lifestyle is destroying the planet, our communities, and ourselves.

The Story of Stuff paints a sad picture of today's world. Eliminating hunger and malnutrition in the world would have cost $19 billion in 2003. In that same year, people in Europe and the United States spent $17 billion on pet food. Also in that year, people spent $14 billion on cruises, while a mere $10 billion would have given every person on the planet a year's worth of clean water.

Our Toxic Earth

That "new plastic shower curtain" smell my brother and I both admit to liking is actually toxic cancer-inducing chemicals out-gassing. Ditto for that enticing "new car smell." The abundance of chemicals we dump into the environment as we create our Stuff is staggering. The mixture of chemicals we invite into our homes (from those shower curtains to infant toys and beyond) is disgusting. Ms. Leonard's story about the toxic ash being dumped on a Haitian beach was shocking. Our media doesn't tell us stories like this. We're too insulated from reality. I can't possibly reprint all the facts from The Story of Stuff here, but almost every page contained at least one despair-inducing fact, including this gem:

Toxic chemicals have been found in breast milk. These are chemicals linked to several neurological disorders and development problems. And, oddly enough, breast milk is still safer and better for your baby than the alternatives. How did this happen? The average woman in the US uses a dozen personal care products a day, containing 168 chemical ingredients, most of which are not actually regulated and many of which have been linked to cancer, reproductive problems, and disruption of hormones. And those chemicals pass from your body to your baby's.

Engineered to Fail

I've complained loudly, on several occasions, about products I purchased that were obviously engineered to fail - like that old DVD player with a 90-day warranty that stopped working on Day 91. Things like that are planned as part of the Stuff cycle - to force us to be good little consumers and buy replacements. Ever notice how all your fancy gadgets cannot be easily repaired? You can't even replace the battery in your iPod without minor surgery. "Upgrading" now means throwing the old one into the garbage can and buying a new one. Prices have been pushed so low that it's always cheaper to buy replacements than to have anything repaired. When my $250 printer runs out of toner, it will cost me $350 to replace the toner cartridges, and that's if I can even find someone to sell them to me. All planned as part of our consumerist culture.

Going Green

All these stories are linked if you follow the path of The Story of Stuff. This book is important. You need to read this book. It's eye-opening, often depressing, and simply outrageous. This book pissed me off (but in a good way). The saddest thing of all is that I know, as Ms. Leonard knows, that a few lifestyle changes I make to be "greener" won't matter much in the grand scheme. In fact, I think many of the solutions presented in the book are doomed to fail. Not for lack of intention, but simply because people are very attached to their Stuff and to their lifestyles. Many of the solutions come across as hippie lifestyle changes from the 60s. Granted, I believe these kinds of approaches are needed, and many of them coincide with my desire to live in a much smaller community, but I don't see the majority of people in the United States agreeing to them. We've had too many years of not trusting each other, not talking to our neighbors, just existing in our personal cocoons. I certainly don't see the corporations that benefit from this Stuff cycle relinquishing their control, or their money. While reading this book, I kept thinking of Tool's song Aenima: "The only way to fix it is to flush it all away."

But maybe I'm wrong. Maybe if everyone who reads this review reads this book, watches the movie version, and talks about it... then maybe we can have a chance to save this planet (and ourselves!). Give it a shot. Turn off the TV, go to your local library or bookstore, and grab a copy of The Story of Stuff today.

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