Friday, August 27, 2010

Book Review: The Story of Stuff (Book 25 of 100)

As I fancy myself a deeply evolved person who is concerned about deeply involved issues, it's fitting that I have chosen "The Story of Stuff" by Annie Leonard to mark the quarter point of 100 book endeavor. Even though, I am not in school right now, I like to learn new things. Some things are too overwhelming. This very important book which attempts to quantify the correlation between human beings and their possessions is full of such things. Originally, I thought I would review this book in sections, but my assistant said with good reason that that would only confuse my readers. So here I go. Get ready for the info dump of the century.

The first fact I learned in this book was that 40% of municipal waste is paper which is depleting our "beloved forest." Secondly, I learned that everything is connected to everything else. Nothing can be resolved in isolation. Of course, I already knew this. I would say that any smart child over the age of 6 knows this. But Ms. Leonard's book reaffirmed my knowledge over and over again. Thirdly, I learned that green technology which not save us from pending ecological disasters. Additionally, "Nothing is more important than a functioning biosphere." Now that I think about it, I agree. What good will all my tireless activism in areas such as disability rights and LGBT concerns do if no one can breathe?

One would assume that Ms. Leonard would be a strong advocate of population control, but she isn't, at least not in the traditional sense. She points out rightly that if fewer people used more stuff, it won't matter that there are fewer people. By the same token, more people could use less stuff. Therefore, it would all even out. Any population control the planet enacts must be related to human rights and not discriminate against a particular group or population.

Ms. Leonard spends a lot of time discussing the planet's carrying capacity. She says "once we cross the line, it's game-over." "Consumption," she says is "not a lifestyle, but a deathly system." Americans, by which she refers to people in the United States as she specifies for multiple pages are on a "work/watch/spend treadmill." We work too much, come home too exhausted to do anything besides watch TV, the TV tells us we need to buy more things, which means we need to work even harder. The cycle perpetuates itself.

The author argues that in fact most people are made happy not by consuming but by relating with other human beings. Our stuff which we tend to confuse with our personal worth has nothing to do with our personal worth, although we wrongly treat it as if it does. Did you know that once your basic needs are met, you scientifically don't get as much enjoyment out of acquiring stuff. For example, your first and second pair of shoes will bring you much more joy than your twelfth and thirteenth pair. Also, did you know that of the hundred biggest economies, half are corporations rather than nations. She spends nearly the entire book discussing externalized cost. This is why Walmart can sell a t-shirt for four dollars. You don't have to consider the young Asian woman who stitches in such poor lightly that she lost her vision or the freezing water used for production. Consumers don't pay for these and neither does Walmart, but the planet does. All of the above is learned in the introduction.

She breaks down the Extraction chapter into three categories: trees, water, and rocks. One ton of paper is created by using ninety-eight tons of other resources. If there are no forests, there is no flood control. Deforestation is a bigger crisis than the current banking crisis. Water runs off of clear-cut hills rather than being absorbed as normal.

All about paper. Paper is the main non-fuel product main from trees. For every ton of office paper produced, it takes two to three tons of forest. The paper used by all Americans yearly could build a ten foot high wall from New York to Tokyo. There has been movement to establish a do not mail registry. Junk mail in the U.S. equals the paper waste equivalent of clear-cutting the Rocky Mountains every four months. The author urges her readers to buy paper with the Forest Stewardship Council stamp. This ensures that the best known paper harvesting practices were used.

Water. Everyone on the planet realizes that global climate change is raising sea levels, except, of course, for a few nut-ball Republicans. But I digress. In the U.S., we spend twenty million dollars watering our lawns annually, while only one percent of the water on Earth is available for direct human use. If you want to reduce your water usage, the author recommends visiting

The last category discussed in this chapter is rocks. Americans don't realize how much we rely on rocks to maintain our lifestyle. I never did before I read this book. Everything from your computer to your engagement ring came to some degree from the ground. Most ore is waste and as minerals become hard to find, that percentage is increasing. Miners constitute 0.4% of the global workforce, but are responsible for 3% of the work-related accidents. Furthermore, there are fifteen federal subsidies which benefit inefficient, non Earth-friendly resource extraction, i.e. mining.

On jewelry. I'm never been a big fan of rings, bracelets, and bobbles. After reading this book, I'm even less so. If someone wants to marry me, they are not going to get a yes just because they trot out some rock that they spent a month's salary on. If you want to show me that you love me, spend the month's salary feeding children or supporting disability rights. Then I might find you more endearing. But I know there are those people who feel differently. The author recommends that jewelry purchasers check out and use the Kimberly process when buying diamonds. In this way, one can be more assured that their engagement ring did cause anyone injury or death.

I bet you didn't know how much of your computer or other electronic device is actually rock. The author advocates making electronic equipment "updatable, recyclable, and repairable." Many electronics are none of the three. It's often easier and cheaper to just buy a new machine than to find someone who can fix it. I learned this the hard way a couple weeks ago when the fuse on my chair's charger died while I was in Washington, D.C. The repair place I found had no fuses and charged $99 just to have someone look at it. The new model charger was only $12 more. Ms. Leonard says the reason that nothing gets fixed in the U.S. anymore is because big corporations can sell us things cheaply due to the fact the U.S. doesn't pay to pollute other countries or exploit workers overseas. We, as consumers, are not even encouraged to look into these facts or consider them. Ms. Leonard does not advocate getting rid of electronics. Rather, she believes that electronics should be repairable and have expanded life spans. Furthermore, when they finally do have to that gray electronic junkyard in the sky, it should be the original company's responsibility, not consumer's to deal with the resulting hazardous waste and disposal. If that were the case, I can bet that Fortune 500 companies wouldn't be so quick to make things that were dangerous and easily breakable with no way to repair them. These people think with their wallets not their souls. I say, let's go after their wallets and teach them how to be behave in a more socially responsible manner.

Lastly in this category, the author discusses fuel. In terms of petroleum, peak oil is expected to be reached by 2020 and we would need to find six new Saudi Arabias to keep up with the expected increase in demands at currents by 2030. Many people have been killed over oil. Perhaps the most notable person is Nigerian activist Ken Saro Wiwa. He was wrongly accused of murder and upon his execution, said "Lord take my soul, but the struggle continues." I have resolved to read his autobiography even if I can't find it on audiobook. From Ms. Leonard's description, he sounds like on of the bravest people ever to walk the planet.

Finally on the subject of coal. Did you know that in the U.S., 49% of electricity is made by coal. I didn't. Furthermore, did you know that the literacy rate in the coal mining section of West Virginia is the same as that of Kabul Afghanistan which is an abysmal 43%.

In the next section of the book, the author details how stuff is made. Did you know that there are 100,000 synthetic compounds in use in today's society. Very few of them are ever tested for safety around humans or pets. Did you know that the country of Uzbekistan which used 80% of its national water supply to grow cotton is now a desert. Did you know that the amount of cotton grown today could make fifteen tee shirts for everyone on the planet. No wonder Ms. Leonard specifies cotton as "fluffy, thirsty, and toxic."

After this, Ms. Leonard went on to describe the making of three of the most common items: tee shirts (mine too), books (mine), and computers. Do you know that every T-shirt you own, even its organic, uses 3.5 Lbs of carbon per shirt. Furthermore, The T-shirts often formaldehyde--yes, that's the same stuff you used to kill frogs in science class. Finally, did you know that because cotton is hard to dye, 1/3 of the dye runs off, so it's often needs to be redyed two or three times. I guess I'll be rethinking my beloved t-shirt collection or as Ms. Leonard suggests, perhaps I'll wear them until their too worn to even be worn in the gym.

On books. Did you know that before pages were made from paper, they used to be printed on sheep skin. It took three hundred sheep to print one bible. Globally, we used 20 billion tons of paper in 2007. A lot of paper is dyed with chlorine, a potential cancer-causing agent. I, like Ms. Leonard, would prefer my paper to be "slightly brown or tree colored...instead of containing carcinogen."

Nowadays more with-it manufacturers are using soy-based inks and printers such as Inkworks, Ecoprint, and New Leaf are making it more possible to produce books without all the chemical side effects. The most important thing Ms. Leonard did for me in this section was answer a question pertaining to the environmental awareness. Pre-consumer recycling is better than post-consumer recycling because the former means that it was made from already recycled materials whereas the latter means the product will be turned into recycled materials when you return it.

On computers and TVs. Ninety-five percent of households in the U.S. have TVs. There are 200 million TVs in the U.S. Technology mecca Silicon Valley has the most Superfund sites in the world. Superfund sites are sites which are so toxic, they've been given priority over other places in terms of government money for clean-up. In fact, for every microchip in your computer, seventeen grams of waste paper was created, not to mention all the lead and mercury.

The author says that if she could get rid of two things in the effort to save the planet, they would be aluminum cans and polyvinyl chloride (PVC) pipes. PVC is often not labeled in product but according to the author if it smells bad, it likely contains PVC. A lot of plastic toys used to be made with it until it was removed because it was found to cause cancer, but apparently, it's safer for adults who tend not to put non-food items into their mouths. As stupid as that sounds, kids plays with things that are not designated as toys and put them in their mouths. To not remove this agent from all plastic items in equally unsafe.

The second thing the author would eliminate is aluminum cans. This surprised me. I thought aluminum was a highly reusable resource because of recycling, but the highest rate of aluminum recycling dates back to 1992 when it was 65%. That's hardly worth all the pro-aluminum hoopla that's been going on.

On the subject of cosmetics. I'm not a big makeup girl. In fact, I think it's mostly stupid and a waste of money. However, if you are going to buy makeup, you should check out before you buy. This lists all the chemicals in commonly used cosmetics. The average American woman exposes herself to 106 "risk chemicals" per day just in her care products alone. Risk chemicals have been linked to diseases such as various cancers, Alzheimer's, and chemical sensitivity disorder. A lot of these chemicals are fat-soluble and are found in meat products as well. Two to four times the amount of lead is in lipstick than in legally allowed in candy. The hair relaxers that most African American women used have been linked to various cancers, although a defensive study is still anticipated. The same is true for the skin bleaching agents some Asian women use. While there may be no definitive study on these agents, the point is why risk it. If your man or your mother doesn't love you as much because your hair is not as straight as it could be or your skin is not white as it could be, I would advice turning them both in for new models.

I was perhaps most shocked by the amount of chemicals in babies and breast milk. There are 287 chemicals typically found in umbilical cords. There is flame retardant in breast milk, although numerous studies have shown that "[breast] milk is still best." Perhaps it's times that we adopt the REACH principle this is used in Europe. This is the Registration, Evaluation, Authorisation and Restriction of Chemicals. It is a way to prove a chemical is not toxic before you can put it into products used by human beings. Two websites for more information on these topics are and

While up until that point in the book, the author had been focused on what all this consumption does to consumers, workers received the unfiltered brunt of all these chemicals. Tony Mazzocchi who is called the Rachel Carson of the labor movement, was a driving force in getting labor and environmental factions to adapt to each other and work to build equitable solutions for all. As toxic waste has moved out of the U.S. due to pressures on industry surrounding air and water concerns, it's moved to what's called the Golden Corridor. These are places in which there is no environmental regulations and cheap labor. Most notably, Gujarat, India. The author visited this place and described how one man lived in a five foot by six foot room with a chemical pumping machine which he was on duty to fix 24 hours a day everyday for a year.

Environmental justice. Many people have heard this term. It refers to the fact that most polluting industries inhabit the poorest parts and countries and the poorest countries, to boot. Most of these communities are heavily inhabited by people of color because this group is perceived as having less education and civic involvement. This perception often proves true and facilitates the exploitation of these industries. These communities are less likely to fight back and are seduced by the promised of a few low-wage jobs by these multi-national corporations which never fully explain the health costs and quality of life costs associated with these industries. The first report on environmental justice was completed by congregational members of united church of Christ, of which I am a member. It was published in 1989 and ruffled quite a few feathers in the traditional environmental movement. It was called toxic waste and race. Sadly, when the follow-up report "Toxic Waste and Race at 20" was released in 2009, not much had changed. Polluting industries are still largely found in regions of rates of illiteracy and low rates of civic involvement. This egregiousness is punctuated by the new trend of shipping American garbage, polluting factories and industries to foreign countries.

The two biggest contemporary disasters I will discuss here are the Bhopal, India Union Carbide disaster which occurred in 1984 and is the worst ecological disaster in human history. The plant had six safety systems, all of which failed. The plant refused to admit wrongdoing or culpability until hours after the incident. Had officials been informed of this occurrence and given basic information about the chemicals release, they would have been able to save countless lives by enacting simple safety methods such as shielding eyes and noses from exposed toxins. At the Union Carbide plant in West Virginia which was billed as a having a similar safety system to Bhopal, people became nervous especially when it was discovered that 28 smaller leaks had already occurred in West Virginia without being reported. This lack of public awareness is due to the fact that environmental regulation varies state by state.

Interestingly enough, this is like home care. While I don't think that home care regulation should vary from state to state and inhibit an individual's freedom to live wherever they wish, I damn well know the air shouldn't. The government cannot regulate where air stays. We need national standards for air quality. My right to breathe clean air is no less important than the right of someone in West Virginia to breathe clean air.

The second disaster occurred in Haiti. A Philadelphia company burned chlorine-containing garbage which created the cancer-causing agent known as dioxin. For every three tons of incinerated garbage, a ton of ash is produced. A certain company in Philadelphia dumped this ton of ash onto a beach in Haiti and simply left it there. Finally on November 5th, 2000, Governor Ed Randell of Pennsylvania said he would bring the ash home to Philly. This is the same man who forced me to move out of Pennsylvania because I couldn't get enough services and whom my friends much battle daily, so they do not end up in nursing homes. A former student of mine seems to be correct when she asserted in her thesis that the same ten idiots are trying to destroy everything. I think it's more like twenty. In all seriousness, however, it is disturbing how often we see the same cycles of destruction with the same names attached repeating themselves. Sadly, most of the good guys are single-issue. That needs to change.

I'm also alarmed by the amount of U.N. conventions the U.S. doesn't sign on to. We were already left out of the Kyoto Protocol. In this book, I learned about yet another convention to save the Earth, which we are only one of four countries not to sign. This was the Basel Convention, an attempt to inhibit companies from dumping garbage and pollutants into someone else's yard. Why is it that if I attempt to do this, I would end up in jail or made to hefty fine that would probably equal my yearly income? My government is free, however, to do this without penalty.

The last thing Ms. Leonard discusses in the book is the influence of International Financial Institutions or IFIs. Everyone who knows me knows that I passionately despise IFIs. If you get me started on the World Trade Organization (WTO), prepare to have a very long conversation. The point of IFIs is to remove all trade barriers from existence. This doesn't refer to discrimination or socially reprehensible behavior, rather the undermining of local business, child labor law, labor unions and so forth. If the WTO had its way, every law I have helped pass in my entire life would be eliminated since they act as trade barriers. In a truly scary future world that I hope we never reach, allowing people to have funding to hire workers to support them in their own homes might be considered a trade barrier to the nursing home industry. In a word, Yikes!

Along these lines, one U.S. official in Haiti actually said in reference to flood of cheap rice into Haiti from U.S. subsidized farms, "If there are fewer farmers, there can be more garment workers. But if someone from Haiti really wants to farm, they can grow organic mangoes for high-end export market." What?

I do not have time to talk about everything I learned in this book. It would constitute a separate book. I will rate this book a 9.7 out of 10 and tell you that you should own it. Buy it from an independent book store. Before I go, I will drop exactly three more facts on you. The U.S. is only 114th in terms of national happiness according to Happy Planet Index. Globally, we spend 1.46 trillion on war in 2008. That's the 4% increase since 2007. Lastly, according to Nation Priorities Project based here in Western Massachusetts, so far the wars in Iraq and Afghanistan have cost Ms. Leonard home state of California 115 billion dollars. This is one full year of health care to 47 people or purchase 350,000 affordable housing units forever.

I don't know what I'm going to do, but this book has convinced me to do something, whatever that something might be. I need to figure out ways to plug in the culture of reciprocity where people help each other because they want to I'm not as Ms. Leonard all for giving of funding and expecting your friends to help you with whatever problems you have. For someone like me that would not work. For some who just needs minor, occasional help, it might work. Besides, who says it has to be all or nothing? You can try to help your neighbors more while still paying for what they need and spend less if they help you. This book like everything else is about achieving balance. Reading it made me realize that my life which I wrongly believed was going well (in terms of my dedication to the environment), was out of balance

No comments:

Post a Comment