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The Story of Stuff

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I’ve spent the summer doing my absolute best to avoid the startling problems that have become evident with my dissertation, by spending an awful lot of time watching TED videos (www.ted.com – seriously excellent stuff) and reading similarly inspiring books. This has caused me to be uplifted and then crash harder than the diet of vending machine corn syrup snacks I spent most of July living on causes me to. There’s something about finishing a book which really challenges your assumptions, helps sharpen your aim and uplift you that can really, really depress the hell out of you. Something, I would imagine, caused by the vast gulf between the world you want to live in and the world you actually live in.

This has happened again this summer after reading The Story of Stuff. A 2009 book about the West’s consumer society, it is an eye-opening tale that takes the reader through the five stages that go into the life-cycle of an item of Stuff (everything to do with manufactured and mass-produced goods, including the packaging of these items); extraction, production, distribution, consumption and disposal. Many of the issues that these five stages create are already widely known – coltan mining in the Congo and the decades long civil war that it has caused, the true costs of our reliance on oil (it’s been estimated that the true costs of oil are 5 times more than the consumer pays, due to the fact that oil companies are heavily subsidised and don’t have to pay much of the externalized costs of extraction and refining), the issues of dumping waste on third world countries and other similar issues. This book though is the first that summarises and explores the full life-cycle of a product, as well as providing much further information on other issues.

In short, the book demonstrates the utter foolishness of much of the West – the groundlessness of it’s political, economic and social basis. We already know well enough that our society uses more than the planets resources every year (currently we use 1.4 planets worth of stuff – if every country consumed as America does that figure would be 5 planets worth). Our economies are based on the idea that growth is the only thing that matters – trade is now the end of our means, rather than being one of the means towards what should be our goal – increasing the health, prosperity and living standards of everyone in the world. Trade is now what we aim for, at the expense of the majority of the population of the world, and of people in our own countries.

The argument against this is that there simply isn’t the money or resources to direct towards changing the way we live, or that by increasing the standards for the rest would hurt our own people. Ignoring the out-and-out parochialism and self-interest of this, is this true? Well, in some ways it is. But according to figures in the book, even small changes on our part could do much to make dramatic increases in the standards of living of the rest of the world. $18 billion was spent on cosmetics in 2003, where as reproductive health care for every woman in the world would have only cost $12 billion. Eliminating hunger and malnutrition would have cost $19 billion – weigh that against the $17 billion we in Europe and the US spent on pet food. Overall, domestic consumption expenditure increased by nearly $20 billion in just a decade up to 2005. The spread and widening of the personal electronics market is a large contributor to this, but are we really saying that the basis of our happiness is electronic gadgets? I’m not immune to this, God knows, but we are in a time where the planet cannot support our consumption, where the toxins necessary for our consumption are taking us to the brink of chaos and where the majority of the world are suffering because of it. And people who suffer needlessly for long enough will not carry on doing that.

It’s not all doom. Leonard proposes various solutions to many of these problems, ranging variously from political solutions, social solutions and industrial solutions. The field of bio-plastics is fast emerging. The $85 billion being directed to fund tar-sands oil (identified as by far the worst form of oil) could be directed to many different forms of alternative energy sources. Instead of allowing businesses to externalize the costs of the damage their actions cause, they should be held responsible. This would drive up the prices of many consumer items, but numerous studies have shown that once people have met a certain standard of living, people’s happiness does not increase proportionally to wealth or possessions. Happiness and consumption have been linked by an endless exposure to adverts that make use of psychology to make us believe that this is so, when it isn’t.

Ultimately, the path forward does not rely on us choosing to become more ethical consumers, but to accept that consumption does not make us happy. Happiness comes from a sense of safety and well-being and social interaction. The question is not “What should I buy instead?”, but “Why do I feel compelled to buy this?”. Capitalism is right – the market will decide what path we take, but the mistake we have made is to think that the market is the dog and we are the tail. By making the decision to settle for what we think of as less, we will find much, much more waiting for us.

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