Sunday, February 3, 2008

The Story of Stuff and why you should care.

Thanks to Jenna for sending me The Story of Stuff. This video is the best presentation that i've seen to date of America's massive consumer problem.

You should absolutely watch the video, it's a great presentation of this enormous problem that needs a lot more attention. The video breaks up the process into 5 parts: extraction, production, distribution, consumption, and disposal. Here's my summary of why "stuff" is such a huge problem in our country:

Let's start with extraction. We use the planet's resources for everything that we need. Obviously some of the stuff made fulfills actual needs. We can't expect everyone to live like Thoreau, especially in contemporary America when having all the latest gadgets and designer "stuff" is crucial to survival (ok, a wee bit of sarcasm there but for real, we can't just expect people to give up consumer goods that they think make them happy). So what's the problem at the stage of extraction? 1. We're using too much stuff; 2. The way we're getting the stuff is damaging our planet; 3. America get's an F in kindergarten (aka: we're not sharing our stuff).

Next we move on to production. This is where we actually make the stuff that people think they need. Since this is all done in factories, with toxic chemicals, the problems at this stage are endless. For example, toxic chemicals = toxic products... what's that? toxic toys for your toddlers? Shit... that seems like an issue already. Not to mention the workers that are outsourced, underpaid, and treated unethically due to the harmful effects of these chemicals on humans and the environment. Oh and did i mention, the US realizes this is a health and environmental issue so we outsource this step to other countries. Yeay to globalization! We can bring out toxins into countries where we know there will be people willing to work for not enough money, in hazardous conditions, while we use up their natural resources... awesome.

That's too depressing. Let's talk about distribution, this is the part where we actually get our stuff. The goal here is to sell stuff quickly and cheaply. But at what expense? We pollute the environment by getting the stuff from these other countries to the US, use up natural resources faster than the planet can replenish them, and harm human beings. Basically, sure it's cool that the price tags on our stuff (think: WalMart) don't actually represent the cost of production (remember planet resources, people's health, our ozone), but is it all worth it? Personally, I don't think so. Sorry, i got ahead of myself...

I think that was along the lines of consumption. This whole cycle of trashing our planet to make cheap stuff doesn't seem very sustainable. That's because it's not. The crazy thing is (and I did not know this until watching "The Story of Stuff") that this whole cycle was engineered by a really smart man (I think named Victor Laboe, but if anyone can correct me on this i'd really like to know more about him) after WWII as a way to "ramp up the economy." He said the following:
President Eisenhower thought this was a great idea and that the US's main purpose should be to produce more goods... How is this possible? Well by making products that will be quickly discarded or replaced, this is called "planned obselensence." For example, my biggest pet peeve is the constant flow of coffee cups, water bottles, and plastic utensils that Americans go through daily. Is it really that difficult to bring in silverware to work and wash it after lunch? "Over 380 billion plastic bags, sacks, and wraps are used in the U.S. each year, and 1 trillion worldwide - over one million per minute! Billions of plastic bags end up as litter each year."

Still on consumption, there's also "perceived obsolescence." This is the idea that even your new or perfectly working stuff should be replaced. You know, to "keep up with the Joneses." IPods, laptops, cell-phones, TVs, even clothes are all examples. If you don't have the latest trend, everyone knows that you haven't contributed to the consumer market lately. Anyone watch The Real Housewives of Orange County? They're a perfect example. Is this still prevalent in politics now? Absolutely: After 9/11, Bush suggested for the American people to SHOP. I don't know about you but shopping doesn't seem like a healthy way to mourn. However, since "we have become a nation of consumers and it makes up our identity," this seemed to be Bush's main concern... well that and finding WMDs (but that's a different post altogether)...

Finally, disposal... First, an outrageous fact: "6 months after we (Americans) buy stuff, only 1% of it is still in use!" Another words, 99% is discarded. Talk about wasteful. Here's the problem, after extraction (using up natural resources to make the stuff we "need"), production (sending harmful chemicals and toxins into our atmosphere to make the stuff we "need), distribution (getting people the stuff they "need"), and consumption (people using up the stuff they "needed"), there's disposal. Disposal (well and extraction) is the part of this whole cycle that scares me most. Disposal is getting rid of all this stuff that people once "needed" and now used up... Where can we possibly put all this stuff that isn't necessarily recyclable? Do we bury it (thus filling up our earth with non-recyclable and possibly toxic stuff)? Do we burn it (thus sending even more chemicals - that are actually even more toxic than they were in the first place - into the air)? How do we dispose of all this stuff that we once "needed?"

Here in lies the problem - we, as a people, can't possibly recycle ALL the stuff that we consume and burying & burning our old stuff only creates more problems... the only solution is to use/purchase/own/want less stuff. Yes, regulating production so that it's cleaner and uses less natural resources is a great place to start. And yes, composting and recycling should be an expectation for everyone, but ultimately, this problem... of "stuff"... will remain a problem until people stop wanting, using, and "needing" so much.

Because, like always, it's all about activism, here is what YOU can do to change this cycle:

2. Host showings, talk about it, educate others - activism begins with education.
3. Change yourself and your "needs." Do you really need that new cell phone just because it has one upgrade or is your, perfectly working phone, sufficient?
4. Reduce, Reuse, Recycle. It's really as easy as that.
5. Cloth shopping bags have been all the rage lately, jump on that bandwagon and i promise you'll find the cloth bags are not only earth saving but much more convenient (the strap is easier to carry and doesn't cut into your hand like plastic).
6. If you forget your cloth bags at home, carry your items (either by hand or take the cart to your car and unload without bags) if that's not an option for you, ask for paper bags.
7. Use tupperware instead of aluminum, styrofoam, or plastic wrap.
8. Reuse discarded paper for scrap, or print on both sides of the document.
10. Here to learn more about what you can do to take action and help stop this vicious cycle.

Please watch the video, and definitely leave feedback as well as other ways to stop this cycle. What do you do to live a more sustainable life? Leave tips for fellow readers! :)


~JennaBella~ said...

yay! to spreading the word : ) And kudos to you for writing a super explanatory post about it - I tip my hat! : )

~JennaBella~ said...

oh, and I also recommend washing, saving and re-using any plastic, metal or glass containers that your food already comes in.... cottage cheese, sour cream, whip cream, peanut butter, coffee.... all these items come in containers perfectly suited for re-purposing.

Speaking of 're-purposing', that and 'maintain' are 2 non-alliterated words to add on to 'reduce, reuse and recycle'. Probably 'conserve' too, yah, that one's always good as well : )

Anonymous said...

I googled "consumption our way of life" and came up with The name Victor Lebow. Seems like there's a number of books out there dealing with that philosophy.

I found your site because I spelled his name the same way you did.

As to your poll, I can't even consider myself a humanist, just a plain old earthian living here with the rest of life diversified.

SiouxGeonz said...

Tip for buying less: drive less :)

Maha said...

I wanted to comment regarding Victor Lebow as a "really smart man". We are learning through our mistakes that the really smart ones are often lacking in wisdom. When we hear someone of wisdom, we know, it is intuitive. Smart often requires a lot of manipulation, contrivance and convincing. Wisdom is often a simple truth that transends.

Anonymous said...

I really like these ideas. The lists of ways to help are easy and effective!

Tahra said...

The Story of Stuff and why you should care should be something shown and taught in schools. I know that in my class a lot of stuff that i've learned has actually shown up in this video. It's disgusting that consumers and people are all involved with this circle that is deteriorating the planet. No one is guilty for single-handedly ruining the planet but we are all going to be guilty of ruining the planet if we don't do anything to help stop it or at least slow the process down. I mean 2,000 trees from the amazon a minute instead of taking it from places full of exstinct lifeform, take them from places that don't need those trees as much as the amazon does. Sure those places give lifeform too but not exstinct lifeforms and surely not going to affect as much when it's out in the middle of nowhere. Or how about we plant more trees in the areas that we take them out.So in 20 years when they're full grown again at least we can't blame ourselves for just letting the land go to shit.
Alot of good points made and only makes more of an activism stand and shows we need to do something and not just sit on our asses and consume products for 8 dollars from a sweat shop isntead of making sure that it's not from a sweat shop and spending a little bit more. Yeah, i've shopped at walmart, and other shops like that but it's not until recently that i haven't because of what i see it's doing to people. And i wont stop shopping there all together, but i am conscious of what's going on. that's what people need is to be more aware.