'The Story of Stuff' by Annie Leonard

Read an excerpt of "The Story of Stuff" by Annie Leonard.

April 16, 2010— -- Annie Leonard is a well-known international environmentalist who has spent more than 20 years investigating and organizing on environmental health and justice issues.

The California woman has traveled around the world and seen hundreds of factories where goods are made and areas where those goods are discarded.

In "The Story of Stuff: How Our Obsession with Stuff Is Trashing the Planet, Our Communities, and Our Health -- and a Vision for Change," Leonard connects the dots between the trash we accumulate from the "stuff" we accumulate and its direct impact on the global environment.

Read an excerpt of the book below, and then head to the "GMA" Library to find more good reads.


Growing up in the green and luscious city of Seattle during the 1970s was idyllic, but the real joy came in the summertime, when my family and I piled our camping gear into our station wagon and headed for the stunning North Cascades mountains. Since this was in the days before DVD players in the backseats, during the drive I'd look out the window and study the landscape. Each year I noticed that the mini-malls and houses reached a bit farther, while the forests started a bit later and got a bit smaller. Where were my beloved forests going?

I found my answer to that question some years later in New York City, of all places. The Barnard College campus where I went for my environmental studies classes was on West 116th Street on Manhattan's Upper West Side, and my dorm room was on West 110th Street. Every morning I groggily trudged up those six blocks, staring at the mounds of garbage that line New York City's streets at dawn each day. Ten hours later, I walked back to my dorm along the emptied sidewalks. I was intrigued. I started poking around to see what was in those never-ending piles of trash. Guess what? It was mostly paper.

Paper! That's where my trees were ending up. (In fact, about 40 percent of municipal garbage in the United States is paper products.1) From the forests I knew in the Pacific Northwest to the sidewalks of the Upper West Side to . . . where?

My curiosity was sparked. I couldn't stop there; I needed to find out what happened after the paper disappeared from the curb. So I took a trip to the infamous Fresh Kills landfill on Staten Island. Covering 4.6 square miles, Fresh Kills was one of the largest dumps in the world. When it was officially closed in 2001, some say the stinking mound was the largest man-made structure on the planet, its volume greater than that of the Great Wall of China, and its peaks 80 feet taller than the Statue of Liberty.2 I had never seen anything like Fresh Kills. I stood at its edge in absolute awe. As far as I could see in every direction were trashed couches, appliances, cardboard boxes, apple cores, clothes, plastic bags, books, and tons of other Stuff. You know how a gory car crash scene makes you want to turn away and stare at the same time? That is what this dump was like. I'd been raised by a single mother of the post-Depression era who instilled in her kids a sense of respect for quality, not quantity. Partly from her life philosophy and partly out of economic necessity, my youth was shaped along the lines of the World War II saying: "Use it up, wear it out, make it do, or do without." There just wasn't a lot of superfluous consumption and waste going on in our house. We savored the things we had and took good care of them and kept them until every last drop of usefulness was gone.

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.

In school we all learned about the water cycle, the system that moves water through its various states—as liquid, vapor, and solid ice—around the earth. And about the food chain, the system in which, as a simple example, plankton get eaten by small fish, which get eaten by bigger fish, which get eaten by humans. Between those two systems, the water cycle and the food chain—even though one's inanimate and the other is made of living creatures—there's an important interaction, as the rivers and oceans of the first provide the habitat for the creatures of the second. That brings us to an ecosystem, made up of interrelated inanimate physical parts and subsystems like rocks and water, as well as all the living parts like plants and animals. Again there are systems within systems. The earth's biosphere—another word for the planet's entire ecosystem—is a system that exists inside of that much larger thing that we call the solar system.

The economy functions as a system, too, which is why there can be a domino effect inside it, as when people lose their jobs and then reduce their spending, which means that factories can't sell as much Stuff, which means that more people get laid off . . . which is exactly what happened in 2008 and 2009. Systems thinking as related to the economy also explains a theory like "trickle-down" economics, in which benefits like tax cuts are given to the wealthy so that they'll invest more in businesses, which would hypothetically in turn create more jobs for the middle and lower classes. If you didn't believe these parts (money, jobs, people across classes) operated within a system, there'd be no basis for the trickle-down theory, or for beliefs about the interplay between supply and demand. All these examples assume interrelated parts within a larger system.

Another way to say that everything exists as part of a larger system (including systems themselves) is to say everything is connected.

It's funny: Most people's professional paths start with a general interest that becomes increasingly specialized with years of education, training, and on-the-job implementation. There's powerful social and professional validation for increasing specialization like this. I, however, took the opposite path: I started with a fascination—and outrage—about garbage, specifically about the bags of the Stuff piled up on New York City's Upper West Side. After getting a degree in environmental science, I got a job with Greenpeace International, which paid me to track the destination and the impact of all the waste loaded onto ships in the United States and sent abroad. My whole job was about investigating and stopping the international dumping of waste.

I will forever be grateful to Greenpeace. Founded on the Quaker principle of bearing witness—the idea that seeing wrong-doing with our own eyes creates a moral responsibility to inform others and take action— Greenpeace provided me with a laptop computer and rudimentary training and then set me loose upon the world to bear witness to waste trafficking and tell everyone what I saw. However, like most institutions, Greenpeace divided its work into specific issue areas that left us working in silos, disconnected from one another: toxics, oceans, forests, nukes, marine ecosystems, genetically modified organisms, climate, etc. The organization cultivated a strong culture of specific expertise. For example, the toxics people knew a scary amount about toxics—even the interns could rattle off the molecular structures of chlorinated organic compounds and explain their environmental health impacts—and they single-mindedly pursued their issue to the exclusion of everything else. Back then, we didn't spend much time understanding the connections between the problems we were each working so hard to solve.

In the early 1990s, I started traveling extensively to work with allies in other countries. At first, I prided myself on knowing more about international waste trafficking than anyone outside my team at Greenpeace. But the more I traveled, the more I realized how much I didn't know and didn't understand. I was initially shocked by the scope of work that I found others doing, in India, Indonesia, the Philippines, Haiti, and South Africa, for example. I met dozens of people who worked on a whole jumble of issues altogether: water and forests and energy and even women's issues and international trade. At first, I assumed that they had to cover so many issues because they were short staffed; I felt sorry for them having to do the jobs of multiple people while I had the luxury of devoting all my attention to one issue. After a while, I had a revelation: all those issues are interconnected. As I kept unraveling the strings of connections, I realized that garbage—or any single problem, for that matter—can't be solved in isolation. Focusing so exclusively on a single issue wasn't helping me; in fact it was retarding my ability to understand the context of the issue of garbage, to see the Big Picture. Learning about other issues wouldn't distract from my progress, it would enable breakthroughs.

And so it was that I went from poking in bags of garbage to examining the global systems of production and consumption of manufactured goods, or what academics call the materials economy. That means I cross back and forth between two disciplines that the modern world usually sees as not only sharply divided but at total odds with each other: the environment (or ecology) and the economy. But guess what? Not only are these two systems connected, one is actually a subsystem of the other, the same way that earth's ecosystem is a subsystem of the solar system.

Now, a lot of environmentalists don't really want to deal with the economy. Traditional environmentalists focus on that cuddly endangered bear or the majestic groves of redwoods or the nature preserves where they go to forget all about ugly things like the stock market. Endangered species and pristine places have nothing to do with pricing structures or government subsidies for mining or international trade agreements, do they? (Uh, actually, yes, they do.) Meanwhile, classical economists have acknowledged the environment only as an unlimited and cheap or free set of raw resources to fuel the growth of the economy. Oh, and the arena from which pesky activists sometimes pop up to challenge a new factory site based on protecting the habitat of the woodland shrew.

Yet in fact, the economy is a subsystem of the earth's ecosystem, its biosphere. You see, any economic system—like barter, slavery, feudalism, socialism, or capitalism—is a human invention. Since humans are just one of the earth's many species (albeit a powerful species, what with our written words and our weapons), any invention of ours is a subsystem of the earth's ecosystem. Once we understand that (which is not my opinion, but plain fact), it leads to other insights.

Nearing Limits

The most important of these further insights is about limits. For one system to exist inside of another, the subsystem needs to fit inside the constraints of the parent system. You've seen those pictures of our pretty blue planet from space, right? The surface area on this hunk of rock that we call home is 197 million square miles (roughly a third of that is land).3 To wrap a (long) piece of string around the middle of the planet at the equator you would need 24,901.55 miles (40,075.16 kilometers) of it.4 The total water supply— in all its states—measures about 326 million cubic miles.5 That's what we've got. The earth's dimensions and capacity remain stable. That means there is a limit to the amount of land, water, air, minerals, and other resources provided by the earth. That's just a fact.

Believe me, I know that can be easy to forget, given the way most of us here in the United States or in other rich nations live. How would we know that the soil is degrading or the oceans are being emptied of fish? Few of us get to see our food growing or the nets pulling our fish out of the water. Let alone where and how our T-shirts, laptops, books, and other Stuff is made, halfway across the planet. From where I sit in my cozy Berkeley bungalow, the world looks pretty good: the weather's nice, the vast selection in the grocery store is undiminished by the fact that my state of California is in a multiyear drought. If our fruit harvest is low this year, apples still arrive from Chile. Don't worry, be happy.

But the reports of every credible scientist in the world tell a different story. Evidence of the environmental crisis is now so abundant that only those committed to serious denial continue to contest the facts. While mainstream economists and politicians seem blind to the very real physical limits, environmentalists, scientists, academics, and others have raised concerns for decades.

There are literally hundreds of books and reports, from countless reliable and trustworthy sources, that document how things are going on the planet. Here are just a few highlights:

In July 2009, we reached 387.81 parts per million (ppm) of carbon dioxide (CO2) in the atmosphere. Leading scientists around the world have identified 350 ppm as the maximum level that the atmosphere can contain for the planet to remain as we know it.6

Toxic industrial and agricultural chemicals now show up in every body tested anywhere in the world, including in newborn babies.7

Indoor air pollution kills 1.6 million people per year, with outdoor air pollution taking another 800,000 lives each year.8

About one-fifth of the world's population—more than 1.2 billion people—experience water scarcity, and this resource is becoming increasingly scarce.9

Global income inequality is staggering. Currently, the richest 1 percent of people in the world have as much wealth and Stuff as the bottom 57 percent.10

So what happens when there's a subsystem like the economy that keeps growing inside of a system of a fixed size? It hits the wall. The expanding economic system is running up against the limits of our planet's capacity to sustain life. Economists project that, with current and projected rates of growth, developed countries will grow at 2 to 3 percent per year, and China and India at 5 to10 percent per year.11 Already, in generating today's volume of goods and services across the world, we're producing more than five times (closer to six, actually) the level of CO2 emissions to which we'll need to reduce by 2050 in order to avoid total climate chaos.12

So that's the conundrum. Then factor in the impact of raising the standard of living for the world's poor (which inevitably means increasing their carbon dioxide emissions). With carbon dioxide overloading our fragile atmosphere, and our demands on all the other life-sustaining services and resources that the earth provides, we're stressing the planet beyond its limits. Put simply, if we do not redirect our extraction and production systems and change the way we distribute, consume, and dispose of our Stuff—what I sometimes call the take-make-waste model—the economy as it is will kill the planet. Look at the news coming through as I write these words: the financial markets have collapsed and were only partially resuscitated thanks to vast Wall Street/Washington bailouts; food prices are erratic and causing misery both for farmers and for the world's hungry; carbon dioxide levels are rising to life-threatening levels, and resources like oil, fish, and fresh water become scarcer every day.

In the face of the grim data and the stubbornness of the problem, I know it's tempting to tune out, give up, and resign oneself to the way things are. One friend told me that reading this kind of information actually makes her want to go shopping because it is such a relief to be in a situation where your biggest concern is if your shoes match your purse. People everywhere, but especially the poor, are experiencing crisis fatigue. Heck, there are flu pandemics, freak storms, unemployment, and foreclosures to worry about. The thing is, we don't have a choice. In the words of Joseph Guth, a lawyer, biochemist, and the legal director of the Science and Environmental Health Network: "Nothing is more important to human beings than an ecologically functioning, life sustaining biosphere on the Earth. It is the only habitable place we know of in a forbidding universe. We all depend on it to live and we are compelled to share it; it is our only home . . . The Earth's biosphere seems almost magically suited to human beings and indeed it is, for we evolved through eons of intimate immersion within it. We cannot live long or well without a functioning biosphere, and so it is worth everything we have."13

Fragmented Solutions

While the challenges are interconnected and system-wide, the responses are often partial, focused on just one area—like improving technologies, restricting population growth, or curbing the consumption of resources.

Proponents of techno-fixes, for example, believe that cleaner, greener, and more innovative technologies will make our industrial and economic activity so efficient with energy and other resources that our problems can be solved this way. They point out that there's less and less environmental destruction per unit of activity (per dollar of gross domestic product or per ton of product made). They're not wrong. Many technologies are getting more efficient. But that progress is canceled out by the fact that—at least adverse environmental impact is still increasing, regardless of more efficient technology.

The reason that green technologies will not save us is that they are only part of the picture. Our collective impact on the planet—how fast we reach the limits of the earth's capacity to sustain us—results from a combination of how many of us there are, what kind of technologies we use, and how much we're consuming. In technical terms, this is often represented by the I=PAT equation, which was conceived in the 1970s during debates between the camp that believed that technologies and consumption patterns were the main driver of environmental destruction and the opposing camp, which argued that increasing population was at fault. The I=PAT equation— in which I is impact, P is population, A is affluence (aka consumption), and T is the technologies used—recognizes the interplay between all these factors.

The equation helps us see how these factors can interact; generally we can decrease our impact by reducing population and/or improving technologies. Generally, but not always: not if other variables cancel out the change. Fewer people consuming much more Stuff, for example, still increases impact. More people consuming less Stuff could decrease impact. There are many ways these variables can relate to one another.

Of course total population growth is part of the problem: all you need to do is see those hockey-stick-like graphs on page xv to know that one of the big reasons that exponentially more of everything (trees, minerals, fresh water, fisheries, etc.) has been used up in the last fifty years is because there are exponentially more of us. It took us two hundred thousand years (until the early 1800s) to reach 1 billion people; then a little over a century (1960) to reach 3 billion; and we've more than doubled since then, with our current 6.7 billion and counting.14

Yet historically, interventions aimed at stabilizing global population have usually been driven by those in the overconsuming regions of the world and have often ignored the fact of vastly unequal consumption patterns. Often places with the most rapidly expanding populations are using very few (too few) resources. Meanwhile the very small slice of the global population that owns most of the world's wealth (the top 1 to 5 percent) is producing the lion's share of greenhouse gases and other environmental destruction. It's important that whatever strategies we democratically decide to employ in order to stabilize population must be grounded in an unshakable commitment to human rights, especially women's rights, and equity.

We don't know what the actual carrying capacity of the planet is, but we know it isn't one inflexible number; it depends on our levels and patterns of production and consumption. That raises huge issues about equity in until the economic crash of 2008—there was more absolute growth overall: more people extracting, using, and disposing of more Stuff. (Even the decline in production from 2008 to 2009 was relatively small, and if past trends are any guide, we will revert to growth soon enough.) So the overall resource distribution and value judgments about how much is enough.

Should we be asking how many people the planet can sustain at the U.S. level of consumption or at the Bangladesh level of consumption? And, importantly, who decides the answer?

The questions are complicated, but we need to have the conversation and decide on our answers together. We need to do this because there is no doubt we will reach the planet's carrying capacity; we're heading in that direction now. And once we cross that line, it's game over: We depend on this planet to eat, drink, breathe, and live. Figuring out how to keep our lifesupport system running needs to be our number-one priority. Nothing is more important than finding a way to live together—justly, respectfully, sustainably, joyfully—on the only planet we can call home.

If what's getting in the way of that is this human invention gone haywire—the take-make-waste economic growth machine—then it's only logical to consider dismantling and rebuilding that machine, improved upon by all that we've learned over the previous decades.

Click here to return to the "Good Morning America" Web site.