The Stuff of Sustainability

Recently, New York Times reporter, Leslie Kaufman wrote an excellent story on an interesting and important video called “The Story of Stuff”.  Kaufman writes that: “The video is a cheerful but brutal assessment of how much Americans waste, and it has its detractors… The video was created by Annie Leonard, a former Greenpeace employee and an independent lecturer who paints a picture of how American habits result in forests being felled, mountaintops being destroyed, water being polluted and people and animals being poisoned.”    

The video is compelling and thought provoking but at times factually incorrect and misleading.  For example, when you include state and local government spending, there is no way that half of our tax dollars are spent on the military—one of the points made by the “Story of Stuff”. However, I don’t think the issue of defense spending is central to the argument made in the video. The video’s overall point is correct:  that our economic base is built on overconsumption and waste of finite natural resources. It makes the point in simple graphic terms and is easy to follow and mostly correct. It’s too bad that its inaccuracies mar its production and undermine its overall point.  It’s also too bad that it doesn’t present a workable solution to the problem it poses. Still, I urge you to take twenty minutes and watch it.

An important point raised by the video is the role of planned obsolescence and advertised based demand in the creation of the American consumer culture. The current economic climate is making many of us think about the connection of material consumption to quality of life, and that reflection is long over due. However, some of its analysis is overly simplistic and off base. The video’s treatment of garbage, or solid waste management, is a case in point. Incineration and landfills are seen as evil, with incineration’s dioxin emissions portrayed as the greatest of evils. The answer to our waste problem proposed by the video is “zero waste”.  This is, of course absurd. Perhaps we should send all those big green bags on the sidewalk to solid waste heaven instead. Waste can’t be ignored or wished away and it can’t be totally eliminated. It must be reduced, recycled and managed.

Making people feel guilty about consuming and opposing all forms of solid waste management doesn’t seem particularly helpful. Yes, we need to build more durable goods that should be engineered for re-use. Yes, we should develop waste management systems that pollute less than the ones we have. Yes, we should build our economy on renewable rather than finite resources.  But, the future of the planet must deal with the presence of seven to ten billion people. It is too late for all of us to live in rural settings in complete harmony with nature. We must learn to manage our way to sustainability.  For better or worse our survival depends on our ingenuity and our ability to develop and manage technological fixes.

The world economy is so tightly interconnected that even the slight reduction in American consumption now underway has already increased misery here and around the world. If this small decline in consumption has had a dramatic impact on the world’s economy, it should be obvious that the transition to a sustainable economy cannot be done overnight and must be carefully undertaken.

The video’s treatment of the flow of materials in and out of our economy is an important concept for people to understand. Its discussion of alternatives to consumption and the causes of over consumption are also well presented. What we need now are realistic solutions that can be sold to everyone. One problem with a non-sustainable economy is that even wealthy people are endangered by it. The politics of sustainability requires that everyone understand that wealth itself requires functioning ecosystems. We humans are biological creatures. We need healthy air, water and food in order to live. If we poison our planet, even your local, over-priced organic market will have to close down due to lack of supplies.

People like modern conveniences. These demands are not simply created for us. IPods, laptops, cell phones, air conditioning, autos and travel are attractive elements of our life style. While we don’t need a new cell phone every year, we like to use these devices to conveniently communicate with family and friends and people who provide us with services. These demands are not simply created by advertisers and capitalists. They are responses to human wants and needs.  If sustainability requires that we return to campfires and hunting and gathering to eat, it’s a concept that will never get very far. It is not only infeasible and undesirable, it would be politically destabilizing.

The answer to the “story of stuff” is not to shut down the economy, but change the way it operates. We need sustainability management.  We need an economy built on the principles of industrial ecology: Industrial production with as little waste as possible. We need to make sure that most of the raw materials that go into the production process emerge as useful products.  The goods we produce should be designed to be re-engineered and reused when they reach the end of their useful life.  Agriculture must be approached as a sustainable industry based on renewable resources. Energy must transition from finite fossil fuels to renewable solar-based sources. Waste must be reduced and whenever possible put to use as energy, fertilizer or construction materials.

The Story of Stuff raises critical issues and provokes discussion and so it is worth watching. I’ll be waiting for the sequel, I’m hoping for a video called “The Story of Sustainable Stuff”…

The Stuff of Sustainability