After September 11th, then President Bush told us all to go shopping. Because America is a nation of consumers, and consumerism is the prime constituent or definition of our identities. But it’s no secret that consumerism is evil (and that it’s not the best way to deal with a traumatic terrorist attack). Everyone should watch The Story of Stuff with Annie Leonard. It is a short and excellent video that breaks down American consumerism and sums up why “stuff” and buying stuff is such a major problem in this country.
Leonard starts with extraction – using the planet’s resources for all of our needs and wants. What’s the problem here? Well, we are using too much stuff, especially more stuff than we need, and this creates inequities in the world where people are deprived of basic necessities while we are basking in luxuries of stuff we don’t actually need. Not only are we using a ton of stuff that we don’t need, but we are also selfishly hogging up that stuff and not sharing with other people or countries that need them. The way we get all the stuff that we don’t need is harmful to the planet, and we’re extracting stuff at a faster rate than the stuff can replenish itself. This is not sustainable.
The second part of The Story of Stuff is about production. So many problems here. Most production occurs in factories with toxic chemicals and severely underpaid and mistreated workers. First of all, toxic chemicals = toxic toys for children, toxic food for everyone, health problems for workers, environmental problems, etc. Secondly, since the US realizes that toxic chemicals and poor working conditions create serious health, environmental and ethical issues, we outsource this to other countries. Aren’t we brilliant?! We bring our toxic chemicals and wastes over to other countries where we can exploit people and their resources.
Next is distribution – this is about actually getting our stuff. The point of this is to transport and to sell stuff as quickly and cheaply as possible. The price tags on the stuff we buy do not accurately represent the cost and human effort that went into making them (this is called externalizing the costs). So while prices may seem dirt cheap (like a $4.99 radio that she mentions in the video) and like great bargains, they actually are not. The expenses (our environment, our children, ourselves) of having such cheap prices (Walmart) are high.
This ties right into the next thing, consumption. Current consumer behavior and habits are not sustainable on so many counts. Most Americans live in a continuous cycle of going shopping to buy a shit ton of stuff we don’t actually need but make us feel better about ourselves, working a ton of hours a week (we are the country that works the longest hours and has the least amount of vacation time and sick days) so that we can do more shopping, and watching television or reading magazines with ads that constantly tell us that we suck and need to go shopping and buy x, y and/or z in order to be a better person. Vicious cycle, no?
If exploiting our planet’s resources and people just to make a ton of cheap stuff to sell quickly to a ton of people does not sound sustainable, just, or fair, it’s because it’s not. One thing I learned from the video though is this did not just come about. It was cooked up by a man who I believe is named Victor Lebow following World War II as a way to “ramp up the economy”. He said:
President Eisenhower thought this was smart and so he agreed. So, the US became a consumer nation. Leonard explains that this was enabled with the help of “planned obselensence” and “perceived obselensence”. Planned obselensence is intentionally making products that are quickly discarded or replaced. Think of all the plastic bags, disposable silverware, paper and styrofoam coffee/tea cups, etc. that Americans go through daily. Perceived obselensence is the whole idea of “keeping up with the Joneses” and feeling like you need to keep getting new stuff to keep up with the changing times and to fit in. Like getting the iPhone even though you have a perfectly working iPod and cell phone alread.
The last step in The Story of Stuff is disposal – getting rid of shit we no longer want or need. A fact from the video: “6 months after we Americans buy stuff, only 1% of it is still in use!” We are such a wasteful country!!!!! Where does all our waste go? What do we do with toxic stuff that is not necessarily recyclable or reusable? How do we get rid of it?! …That’s the problem, there is no completely safe and sustainable way to dispose of all our stuff. It’s way too much to recycle, but burying or burning it all can cause more harm to the environment.
If all of this leaves you feeling helpless or depressed, don’t be, because this problem of stuff was created by people so it can be solved by people. It’s about activism and being educated and passionate enough to care and actually do something. Even though it may seem like such a big and overwhelming problem that you don’t know where to start,“the good thing about such an all pervasive problem is that there are so many points of intervention.” This means that there is no one right way to take action and everyone can make a difference if we all try.
Leonard gives us a list of ten things that we can do. In the end, it comes down to transforming our identities as American citizens from consumers to active members of a democratic society. Do your part in ending the problem with stuff.