The Story of Stuff
Annie Leonard, Free Press, 2010
Annie Leonard would probably be happy to hear that I bought her book at a thrift shop for a couple dollars. This book takes us through the killing floor of our modern economy, by looking at extraction, distribution, our consumerist tendencies that make this revolving door of extraction and production possible, then she ends off by looking at disposal and giving us a few ideas for alternative modes of living.
The key points made by Leonard are that extraction is paramount to “wrecking the place”, by an insatiable march for resources. The resources we seek are often in poor countries, the perilous extraction, done often with toxic chemicals and horrendous externalities.
The “stuff” is often poorly designed (planned obsolescence), once it breaks we go out and buy another. Repairing your stuff has been relegated to the hobbyist class, mainstream items are typically disposable. It’s a big revolving door, and much of the stuff we buy according to Leonard is pack full of toxins and poison. Her staunch hate for PVC is made well known throughout this book (as is her hate for brominated flame retardants and aluminium cans).
This book provides a front row seat to the malaise that is happening across the globe, sometimes the details are so crisp I can virtually hear the chainsaws chomping away forests. At other times, details are vague and not forthcoming, but I suppose that is expected in a book written for a general audience.
At other times I wish she had gone further in unpacking some ideas. For instance, she discusses how aluminium cans are one of the worst items made, due to the high energy input it takes to smelt aluminium. As someone who deals with a lot of aluminium cans, I wondered what a world would look like without disposable aluminium cans. Her suggestion was one where it would replaced by some refillable containers. The idea intrigues me, but after the paragraph terminates I hear no mention of how such a plan would work in the real world.
Her personal anecdotes and stories add a lot of flavour to her central narrative. One such story that stuck with me was the tale of the “Khian Sea waste disposal incident”. The ship the Khian Sea was carrying incinerator waste from Philadelphia and attempted to dump it’s booty in a myriad of Carribean states, being turned away at each one, frustrated the Khian Sea dumped 4,000 tons (out of 14,000) on a beach in Haiti. Greenpeace informed the Haitian authorities that the “topsoil fertilizer” that was being dumped was actually incinerator ash. The Khian Sea slipped away and tried offloading it’s wares on the other side of the pond, to no avail. Undeterred by the do-goodism of Greenpeace and uptight authorities the Khian Sea got a new paint job and changed it’s name to try to escape meddling government. The Khian Sea even tried to get the original contractor to take back the goods. After putting on thousands of kilometers on it’s hull the crew gave up, overboard the ash went, dumped somewhere in the Atlantic, thanks Obama.
In the end, this book is an excellent general read. It has a healthy dose of environmentalism, a bit of economics and some politics to sew the tapestry together that is the story of stuff. But as mentioned, sometimes The Story of Stuff skimps on details and some of the alternative living situations seem untenable, but as she mentions in her book, is resistance to these ideas based on merit or because a lack of imagination?
As an anti-consumerist sympathizer, I would recommend this book, but keep in mind and the book makes no secret of this, it focuses on the environmental angle of consumerism and there is nothing wrong with that. If you are unsure if this book is for you, the 20-minute documentary gives you an idea of what Leonard discusses in the book with the same name.