'The Story of Stuff' by Annie Leonard

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

ByABC News via via logo
March 05, 2010, 2:43 PM

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 the1970s was idyllic, but the real joy came in the summertime, whenmy family and I piled our camping gear into our station wagonand headed for the stunning North Cascades mountains. Sincethis was in the days before DVD players in the backseats, duringthe drive I'd look out the window and study the landscape. Eachyear 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 allplaces. The Barnard College campus where I went for my environmentalstudies classes was on West 116th Street on Manhattan's Upper West Side,and my dorm room was on West 110th Street. Every morning I groggilytrudged up those six blocks, staring at the mounds of garbage that line NewYork City's streets at dawn each day. Ten hours later, I walked back to mydorm along the emptied sidewalks. I was intrigued. I started poking aroundto see what was in those never-ending piles of trash. Guess what? It wasmostly paper.

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

My curiosity was sparked. I couldn't stop there; I needed to find out whathappened after the paper disappeared from the curb. So I took a trip to theinfamous 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 officiallyclosed in 2001, some say the stinking mound was the largest man-madestructure on the planet, its volume greater than that of the Great Wall ofChina, and its peaks 80 feet taller than the Statue of Liberty.2I had never seen anything like Fresh Kills. I stood at its edge in absoluteawe. As far as I could see in every direction were trashed couches, appliances, cardboard boxes, apple cores, clothes, plastic bags, books, and tons ofother Stuff. You know how a gory car crash scene makes you want to turnaway and stare at the same time? That is what this dump was like. I'd beenraised by a single mother of the post-Depression era who instilled in herkids a sense of respect for quality, not quantity. Partly from her life philosophyand partly out of economic necessity, my youth was shaped along thelines of the World War II saying: "Use it up, wear it out, make it do, or dowithout." There just wasn't a lot of superfluous consumption and waste goingon in our house. We savored the things we had and took good care of themand kept them until every last drop of usefulness was gone.

So the mountains of perfectly good materials that had been reduced tomuck at Fresh Kills made no sense to me. It felt terribly wrong. Who set upthis system? How could those who knew about it allow it to continue? Ididn'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 andcommunity organizing missions for Greenpeace, Essential Action, theGlobal Alliance for Incinerator Alternatives (GAIA), and other environmentalorganizations—not only to more dumps but also to mines, factories,hospitals, embassies, universities, farms, World Bank offices, and the hallsof government. I stayed with families in Indian villages so isolated that myarrival would be greeted by desperate parents running up to me asking "Areyou a doctor?" hoping I happened to be the international medic—on herannual visit—who would be able to cure their child. I met entire familieswho lived on garbage dumps in the Philippines, Guatemala, and Bangladeshand who survived on the food and material scraps they pulled from thestinking, smoldering heaps. I visited shopping malls in Tokyo and Bangkokand Las Vegas that were so big and bright and plastic that I felt like I was inThe 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. Andwhy were there toxics in the trashed products to begin with? Answeringthat question led me to learn about toxics, chemistry, and environmentalhealth. Why were dumps so often situated in lower-income communitieswhere people of color live and work? I started learning about environmentalracism.

And why does it make economic sense to move entire factories to othercountries: 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 agreementsand the influence of corporations on governmental regulations.And another thing: why are electronics breaking so fast and why are theycheaper 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 longway from those piles of garbage on the streets of New York City or the forestsof the Cascades. But it turns out they're all connected.

The journey led me to become what people call a systems thinker. Thatmeans I believe everything exists as part of a larger system and must beunderstood 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 wonderedif it was caused by a bacteria or a virus. A fever is a response to astrange element being introduced to the system that is your body. If youdidn't believe that your body was a system, you might look for a heat sourceunderneath your hot forehead or some switch that accidentally got flippedand raised your temperature. In biology we easily accept the idea of multiplesystems (e.g., circulatory, digestive, nervous) made of parts (like cells ororgans), as well as the fact that those systems interact with one anotherinside a body.

In school we all learned about the water cycle, the system that moveswater through its various states—as liquid, vapor, and solid ice—around theearth. 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, whichget eaten by humans. Between those two systems, the water cycle and thefood chain—even though one's inanimate and the other is made of livingcreatures—there's an important interaction, as the rivers and oceans of thefirst provide the habitat for the creatures of the second. That brings us to anecosystem, made up of interrelated inanimate physical parts and subsystemslike rocks and water, as well as all the living parts like plants and animals.Again there are systems within systems. The earth's biosphere—anotherword for the planet's entire ecosystem—is a system that exists inside of thatmuch larger thing that we call the solar system.

The economy functions as a system, too, which is why there can be adomino effect inside it, as when people lose their jobs and then reduce theirspending, which means that factories can't sell as much Stuff, which meansthat more people get laid off . . . which is exactly what happened in 2008 and2009. Systems thinking as related to the economy also explains a theory like"trickle-down" economics, in which benefits like tax cuts are given to thewealthy 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'tbelieve these parts (money, jobs, people across classes) operated within asystem, there'd be no basis for the trickle-down theory, or for beliefs aboutthe interplay between supply and demand. All these examples assume interrelatedparts 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 thatbecomes increasingly specialized with years of education, training, andon-the-job implementation. There's powerful social and professional validationfor increasing specialization like this. I, however, took the oppositepath: I started with a fascination—and outrage—about garbage, specificallyabout 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 GreenpeaceInternational, which paid me to track the destination and the impactof all the waste loaded onto ships in the United States and sent abroad. Mywhole job was about investigating and stopping the international dumpingof waste.

I will forever be grateful to Greenpeace. Founded on the Quaker principleof bearing witness—the idea that seeing wrong-doing with our owneyes creates a moral responsibility to inform others and take action—Greenpeace provided me with a laptop computer and rudimentary trainingand then set me loose upon the world to bear witness to waste traffickingand tell everyone what I saw. However, like most institutions, Greenpeacedivided its work into specific issue areas that left us working in silos, disconnectedfrom one another: toxics, oceans, forests, nukes, marine ecosystems,genetically modified organisms, climate, etc. The organization cultivated astrong culture of specific expertise. For example, the toxics people knew ascary amount about toxics—even the interns could rattle off the molecularstructures of chlorinated organic compounds and explain their environmentalhealth impacts—and they single-mindedly pursued their issue to theexclusion of everything else. Back then, we didn't spend much time understandingthe connections between the problems we were each working sohard to solve.

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

And so it was that I went from poking in bags of garbage to examiningthe global systems of production and consumption of manufactured goods,or what academics call the materials economy. That means I cross back andforth between two disciplines that the modern world usually sees as notonly sharply divided but at total odds with each other: the environment (orecology) and the economy. But guess what? Not only are these two systemsconnected, one is actually a subsystem of the other, the same way that earth'secosystem 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 bearor the majestic groves of redwoods or the nature preserves where they go toforget all about ugly things like the stock market. Endangered species andpristine places have nothing to do with pricing structures or governmentsubsidies for mining or international trade agreements, do they? (Uh, actually,yes, they do.) Meanwhile, classical economists have acknowledged theenvironment only as an unlimited and cheap or free set of raw resources tofuel the growth of the economy. Oh, and the arena from which pesky activistssometimes pop up to challenge a new factory site based on protectingthe 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 oneof the earth's many species (albeit a powerful species, what with our writtenwords and our weapons), any invention of ours is a subsystem of the earth'secosystem. Once we understand that (which is not my opinion, but plainfact), it leads to other insights.

The most important of these further insights is about limits. For one systemto exist inside of another, the subsystem needs to fit inside the constraintsof the parent system. You've seen those pictures of our pretty blue planetfrom space, right? The surface area on this hunk of rock that we call homeis 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 wouldneed 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'vegot. The earth's dimensions and capacity remain stable. That means there isa limit to the amount of land, water, air, minerals, and other resources providedby the earth. That's just a fact.

Believe me, I know that can be easy to forget, given the way most of ushere in the United States or in other rich nations live. How would we knowthat the soil is degrading or the oceans are being emptied of fish? Few of usget to see our food growing or the nets pulling our fish out of the water. Letalone 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 grocerystore is undiminished by the fact that my state of California is in a multiyeardrought. If our fruit harvest is low this year, apples still arrive fromChile. Don't worry, be happy.

But the reports of every credible scientist in the world tell a differentstory. Evidence of the environmental crisis is now so abundant that onlythose committed to serious denial continue to contest the facts. Whilemainstream economists and politicians seem blind to the very real physicallimits, environmentalists, scientists, academics, and others have raised concernsfor decades.

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

So what happens when there's a subsystem like the economy that keepsgrowing inside of a system of a fixed size? It hits the wall. The expandingeconomic system is running up against the limits of our planet's capacity tosustain life. Economists project that, with current and projected rates ofgrowth, developed countries will grow at 2 to 3 percent per year, and Chinaand India at 5 to10 percent per year.11 Already, in generating today's volumeof 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 toreduce by 2050 in order to avoid total climate chaos.12

So that's the conundrum. Then factor in the impact of raising the standardof living for the world's poor (which inevitably means increasing theircarbon dioxide emissions). With carbon dioxide overloading our fragileatmosphere, and our demands on all the other life-sustaining services andresources that the earth provides, we're stressing the planet beyond its limits.Put simply, if we do not redirect our extraction and production systemsand 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 killthe planet. Look at the news coming through as I write these words: thefinancial markets have collapsed and were only partially resuscitated thanksto vast Wall Street/Washington bailouts; food prices are erratic and causingmisery both for farmers and for the world's hungry; carbon dioxide levelsare rising to life-threatening levels, and resources like oil, fish, and freshwater become scarcer every day.

In the face of the grim data and the stubbornness of the problem, I knowit'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 herwant to go shopping because it is such a relief to be in a situation where yourbiggest concern is if your shoes match your purse. People everywhere, butespecially the poor, are experiencing crisis fatigue. Heck, there are flu pandemics,freak storms, unemployment, and foreclosures to worry about. Thething 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 HealthNetwork: "Nothing is more important to human beings than an ecologicallyfunctioning, life sustaining biosphere on the Earth. It is the only habitableplace we know of in a forbidding universe. We all depend on it to live andwe are compelled to share it; it is our only home . . . The Earth's biosphereseems almost magically suited to human beings and indeed it is, for weevolved through eons of intimate immersion within it. We cannot live longor well without a functioning biosphere, and so it is worth everything wehave."13

While the challenges are interconnected and system-wide, the responses areoften partial, focused on just one area—like improving technologies, restrictingpopulation 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 economicactivity so efficient with energy and other resources that our problems canbe solved this way. They point out that there's less and less environmentaldestruction per unit of activity (per dollar of gross domestic product or perton of product made). They're not wrong. Many technologies are gettingmore efficient. But that progress is canceled out by the fact that—at least adverse environmental impact is still increasing, regardless of more efficienttechnology.

The reason that green technologies will not save us is that they are onlypart of the picture. Our collective impact on the planet—how fast we reachthe limits of the earth's capacity to sustain us—results from a combinationof how many of us there are, what kind of technologies we use, and howmuch we're consuming. In technical terms, this is often represented by theI=PAT equation, which was conceived in the 1970s during debates betweenthe camp that believed that technologies and consumption patterns werethe 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), andT is the technologies used—recognizes the interplay between all these factors.

The equation helps us see how these factors can interact; generally wecan decrease our impact by reducing population and/or improving technologies.Generally, but not always: not if other variables cancel out thechange. Fewer people consuming much more Stuff, for example, stillincreases 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 needto do is see those hockey-stick-like graphs on page xv to know that one ofthe big reasons that exponentially more of everything (trees, minerals, freshwater, fisheries, etc.) has been used up in the last fifty years is because thereare exponentially more of us. It took us two hundred thousand years (untilthe 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 current6.7 billion and counting.14

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

We don't know what the actual carrying capacity of the planet is, butwe know it isn't one inflexible number; it depends on our levels and patternsof production and consumption. That raises huge issues about equity inuntil the economic crash of 2008—there was more absolute growth overall:more people extracting, using, and disposing of more Stuff. (Even thedecline in production from 2008 to 2009 was relatively small, and if pasttrends 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 anddecide on our answers together. We need to do this because there is nodoubt we will reach the planet's carrying capacity; we're heading in thatdirection now. And once we cross that line, it's game over: We depend onthis planet to eat, drink, breathe, and live. Figuring out how to keep our lifesupportsystem running needs to be our number-one priority. Nothing is moreimportant 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 gonehaywire—the take-make-waste economic growth machine—then it's onlylogical to consider dismantling and rebuilding that machine, improvedupon by all that we've learned over the previous decades.

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