The Story of Stuff, Annie Leonard, Free Press, 2011 (paperback edition)
Ah, stuff! Like many of you, perhaps, I have a lot of stuff, and a lot of feelings about stuff (love, hate, why is it never where it should be), and spend a lot of time getting, and getting rid of, stuff (go ahead and get your George Carlin jokes out of your system.) I also tend to think that I care at least a little bit about the environment, and hope that I encourage my kids to care as well. So when I saw this title up for review, I was pretty sure it would be an interesting topic and I might learn a little something. As it turns out, this book was much, much more than I anticipated: it is incredibly eye-opening, and more than a little moving.
The Story of Stuff is just what it says it is: the story of how the raw materials for stuff are obtained, how stuff is manufactured, how stuff is distributed, how stuff is consumed, and how stuff is disposed of. More importantly, it is the story of the destructive impact of the entire system of stuff on humans and our environment. Author Annie Leonard has traveled the world working for Greenpeace, and the book reflects both her firsthand experience and well-footnoted research. She is clearly passionate about her subject, but to her great credit, does not come off as either "holier than thou" or politically partisan. She also has a conversational and engaging writing style, resulting in a very readable and thought-provoking story.
Leonard explains early in the book that she has come to to believe that change is only possible if we humans fundamentally change our relationship to stuff. She structures the book almost as a primer with clearly defined, well developed sections: Extraction, Production, Distribution, Consumption, and Disposal. She writes very convincingly that our consuming habits are taking an unsustainable toll on the environment in every way, from use of limited natural resources, to pollution as by-product of every phase of the "stuff" cycle, to creating unmanageable and toxic waste. The structure is almost deceptively simple (you might think you could guess what would be covered in each section), but even a fairly well-read person will learn much from her. I liked that she makes an effort throughout the book to highlight areas of hope and progress, and to suggest positive action that can be taken.
While some of the environmental costs (water quality, air quality, etc.) might be familiar, some may not, and the human costs, which Leonard very eloquently describes, may be even less so. This is perhaps one of the book's greatest strengths, and some of the examples were extremely moving: for example, children in Africa mining (under horrible conditions) for the metals needed to make video game consoles for Western children; people in Haiti facing starvation after international trade policies discouraged local farming in favor of agricultural imports that became too expensive to afford; children in India playing amidst a stream of toxic factory waste running by their feet. Although Leonard states early on that her intent is not to make readers feel guilty, there are times when they nonetheless will.
There are occasional moments in the book where the details can get a bit long and dry (I am thinking particularly about the section explaining international trade and finance institutions), but they are few and far between. Readers should also be clear that Leonard's goal in this book is to present her point of view and to support it well, not to present and debate all points of view out there on the state of the environment. If you completely disagree that our consumer choices have any significant impact on the earth, this may not be the book for you.
I especially liked the way Leonard's travel tales give her personality a chance to shine through, and her enthusiasm can be infectious. She once pursued an illegal shipment of contaminated fertilizer to Bangladesh in the hopes of encouraging its return to the U.S. When she got there, most of the bags had been sold to farmers and already put on their crops. She bought the remaining bag and tracked down the farmers, who hoped the government would aid them. Leonard went to the U.S. embassy to seek assistance, but the representative said they could not be of any help. In desperation, Leonard delivered the bag of fertilizer to the embassy with a note that it contained toxic waste. As it was against the law for the embassy to "export" toxic materials off U.S. (embassy) property into a foreign country, the embassy folks were stuck with the bag. She never learned how they finally were able to resolve it, but I sure was admiring her moxie.
This is a book that everybody, and especially every policymaker, should read. The first takeaway message is very simple: use less stuff. I can say that as a result of reading this book, I am far more appreciative of every little thing I use each day, and it has inspired me to try to do a little bit better. The second, and more important, takeaway is: change the system. I absolutely gained better insight into the "big picture" issues that influence the choices we as consumers even have to begin with. Leonard clearly hopes that this book will inspire people to pressure corporations and policymakers to make more responsible choices. In addition to being an enlightening read for anyone who chooses to pick it up, I could see it being especially of interest to students, book groups, the social/environmental justice folks in religious organizations, and community leaders and activists.
A complimentary copy of The Story of Stuff by Free Press (an imprint of Simon & Schuster) as part of blog tour in exchange for my honest review. Comments welcome below; participating bloggers are also encouraged to leave a link to their reviews.
photo of our family's recycling taken by me