Waste of the world

The Story of Stuff
Annie Leonard
Constable; £9.99

IT’S A tragic but inescapable fact that the generations living now will be the first ones to leave the world in a radically worse state for future generations than how they found it.

The environmental effects we experience are cumulative with origins going back decades. Perhaps the hand-drawn graphs that show increases in wealth, car use, water and paper consumption and the proportionate loss in woodland, biodiversity and normal temperatures are the most significant feature of this work. The ‘tipping point’ after which all the graphs turn into a steep climb – or “hockey stick curve” – is after the 1950s, with an ongoing 70-degree climb in the decades ever since the ‘baby boomer’ generations started to arrive.

Climate change is now an incontrovertible fact but is only one of many side effects of relentless consumption of the environment’s resources.

“We don’t know what the actual carrying capacity of the planet is, but we know it isn’t an inflexible number,” writes Annie Leonard in The Story of Stuff. “We cannot live long or well without a functioning biosphere, and so it is worth everything we have.”

In July 2009, our atmosphere reached CO² levels of 387.81 parts per million, with a general scientific consensus that 350 is the maximum level the planet can sustain to maintain conditions as we know them.

The trend may not be readily reversible but can at least be steadied, which will ultimately be determined by how people choose to live their lives. Persuasion and communication, therefore, is all and a book that can gather all the data, facts and arguments into a single volume and communicate them persuasively is a potentially valuable weapon that has the potential to changes people’s behaviour and lifestyles.

According to Annie Leonard, a Seattle-based environmentalist who has worked with Greenpeace for most of her life, the engine behind the planet’s destruction through consumption and pollution is simply people’s increasing appetite for “stuff” – essentially anything we produce and consume for profit.

Whether cultivated through advertising or plain greed, the consumer boom of the past 50 years is the culprit behind the destruction of the earth’s resources and the resulting environmental mess we are increasingly finding ourselves immersed in.

Leonard explains how she originally started this project in order to trace the origins of waste, only to recognise that the waste being generated by our consumerism and capitalism was the very thing that keeps our high spending, high growth economic system going.

We can modify our behaviour and unlead our petrol, but as yet few us have given up on cars to use bikes. The inevitable, required change in lifestyle will ultimately demand sacrifice, whether it results from consensus or coercion, or results from preventative motives or enforced survival. It cannot go on, it will simply stop.

Leonard hopes that a succession of small shifts in people’s attitudes and behaviours will result in the changes and reassessment of our priorities that will enable us to live our lives with more modest, realistic and sustainable demands.

“Above all, I invite the citizen in you to become louder than the consumer inside you and launch a very rich, very loud dialogue within your community,” Leonard writes. It is all terribly important and The Story of Stuff is a book that is difficult to read without provoking moments of panic or anger. Unfortunately, much of the worthiness of the book gets dissipated in a relentless flood of data, rants and overly earnest monologue.

However commendable Annie Leonards’ passion may be for her subject, it seems almost irresponsible that she could not have ensured the book was better edited to read like something other than a group cert school exam project, with just too much self-righteous exuberance for her arguments to appear balanced.

The Story of Stuff remains a potentially important book that brings a great many facts and arguments into a single volume, but which then fails to communicate very much by the paucity of craft in putting it together. There is however an excellent short accompanying video on www.thestoryofstuff.com, but the book, though worthy and largely well argued, is unlikely to attract many converts from outside the ranks of the environmentally aware, which at this point is hardly what is needed.


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