Book review: The story of a system in crisis

Annie Leonard's Story of Stuff: "252-page story to the centre of consumerism"

by Ajit Thamburaj

“Going green” increasingly becomes a lifestyle fad for the Indian middle-class. The green Indian  buys FabIndia-kurtas, turns off  the Tata Safari at the signal and switches off the light during Earth Hour. Meanwhile, some environmentalists doubt whether we can simply shop our way out of the ecological crisis. These critics stress the systemic origins of the devastating trajectory. The Story of Stuff is the latest release from this fraction of environmentalists.

The book is a 252- page journey to the centre of consumerist society. In five main chapters, Annie Leonard illustrates why the current consumerist model is a system in crisis: our “obsession with stuff” is trashing the planet, ruining communities and is bad for our health, while it doesn’t really make us happier.

The book sets off by reminding us that mining for raw materials — like iron ore or bauxite — destroys the habitats of millions of people, threatens the lives of workers that are exposed to toxics, and fuels conflicts as in the case of diamonds and Coltan. In order to guarantee the raw material supply, natural resources are over-exploited and are thus rapidly depleting. According to the author, the earth loses forests twice the size of Paris each day, while millions of litres of water are extracted from the hydro-cycle each day to just to produce cars.

In order to maximize profits, parts of the production costs are externalized  to consumers, workers and the environment. Contrary to popular belief, the IT industry, wrongly conceived as a clean alternative to industrial production, is highly polluting. The book states that the legendary Silicon Valley has become one of the most toxic landscapes in the USA due to the use of solid Trichloroethylene (TCE) for the production of computer chips.

With production constantly shifting from high-wage, stringently regulated economies to low-wage countries where environmental regulations are lax or poorly enforced, direct pollution from manufacture and the pollution from transporting goods from production centres to consumption centres through a highly subsidized global network of transport further pollutes the planet. The shipping industry, the biggest mode of transport mode for commodities, is responsible for 30% of the global CO2 emissions.

Finally, after an ever-shrinking life-span of products, their “disposal” in landfills and incinerators marks the toxic end of the story of stuff.

These facts won’t come as a surprise to any attentive citizen. What makes the Story of Stuff unique is the way it frames mere facts into a bigger picture. Linking the current ecological and social problems to the consumerist model, the author cunningly guides the reader to a “systemic approach” towards the multiple crises of the 21st century.

Annie Leonard’s ideas are obviously inspired by Herman Daly. In his seminal book “Steady State Economics”, the eminent ecological economist points out to the natural limits of growth of each sub-system within a larger society. By turning the mainstream economists world view upside down,  Daly (and Leonard) conceive the economy as such a sub-system of the biosphere, not the other way round.

Consequently, Leonard lashes out at the idea that unlimited growth could be an indicator for progress. She stresses the fact that GDP  growth neither accounts for external effects nor does it discriminate between economic goods and “bads,” such as weapons of mass destruction or toxic products.

life as a rat race: "does shopping and working really make us happy?"

Ironically, destroying the planet in the name of “consuming stuff” does not make us happier. For Leonard, consumerism is like a rat race, where people work harder and harder in order to buy more stuff. As a result, we have less and less free-time, thereby losing our social relationships, which we again compensate by shopping more stuff. Eventually, we are unhappier than ever before.

Some critics have decried the Story of Stuff as a hidden Communist agenda. But Leonard is far from being a “Marx with a pony-tail”. It is exactly the non-ideological language and the absence of verbose Marxist analysis that makes this book so refreshing. At the same time, the distance to a larger theoretical framework also leads to some problems. In the epilogue, the author calls for radical changes at the policy-, law- and regulation level. But history showed that controlling the means of production means controlling the power relations in a given society. As radical reforms will certainly go against the interests of the ruling classes, how can Leonard expect real changes from them? In this regard, the Story of Stuff reminds of a sprinter with bad stamina-management: overwhelming at the start, but short of breath at the end.

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