So the mountains of perfectly good materials that had been reduced to muck at Fresh Kills made no sense to me. It felt terribly wrong. Who set up this system? How could those who knew about it allow it to continue? I didn't understand it, but I vowed to figure it out. After two decades of sleuthing, when I'd figured it out, I called it the Story of Stuff.
The Story of Stuff journey took me around the world—on research and community organizing missions for Greenpeace, Essential Action, the Global Alliance for Incinerator Alternatives (GAIA), and other environmental organizations—not only to more dumps but also to mines, factories, hospitals, embassies, universities, farms, World Bank offices, and the halls of government. I stayed with families in Indian villages so isolated that my arrival would be greeted by desperate parents running up to me asking "Are you a doctor?" hoping I happened to be the international medic—on her annual visit—who would be able to cure their child. I met entire families who lived on garbage dumps in the Philippines, Guatemala, and Bangladesh and who survived on the food and material scraps they pulled from the stinking, smoldering heaps. I visited shopping malls in Tokyo and Bangkok and Las Vegas that were so big and bright and plastic that I felt like I was in The Jetsons or Futurama.
Everywhere I went, I kept asking "why?" and digging deeper and deeper. Why were dumps so hazardous? Because of the toxics in the trash. And why were there toxics in the trashed products to begin with? Answering that question led me to learn about toxics, chemistry, and environmental health. Why were dumps so often situated in lower-income communities where people of color live and work? I started learning about environmental racism.
And why does it make economic sense to move entire factories to other countries: how can they still sell the product for a couple of dollars when it's traveling so far? Suddenly I had to confront international trade agreements and the influence of corporations on governmental regulations. And another thing: why are electronics breaking so fast and why are they cheaper to replace than repair? So I learned about planned obsolescence, advertising, and other tools for promoting consumerism. On the surface, each of these topics seemed separate from the next, unconnected, and a long way from those piles of garbage on the streets of New York City or the forests of the Cascades. But it turns out they're all connected.
The journey led me to become what people call a systems thinker. That means I believe everything exists as part of a larger system and must be understood in relation to the other parts. It's not an uncommon framework: think about the last time you came down with a fever. You probably wondered if it was caused by a bacteria or a virus. A fever is a response to a strange element being introduced to the system that is your body. If you didn't believe that your body was a system, you might look for a heat source underneath your hot forehead or some switch that accidentally got flipped and raised your temperature. In biology we easily accept the idea of multiple systems (e.g., circulatory, digestive, nervous) made of parts (like cells or organs), as well as the fact that those systems interact with one another inside a body.