Clark University, USA
Published online Sep 22, 2010
Graduate School of Geography,Clark University,Worcester, MA 01610 USA (email: firstname.lastname@example.org)
The Story of Stuff by Annie Leonard is an expanded and more in-depth version of her 2007 Internet film sensation “The Story of Stuff.”1 The 20-minute, animated film has been viewed over 10 million times and explains the harmful effects of capitalist systems of production, consumption, and disposal on the environment, economy, and health. Although not necessary, viewing the film before reading the book might be a useful starting point.
The volume is divided into seven sections including: an introduction; five chapters based on the life-cycle of “stuff”—extraction, production, distribution, consumption, and disposal; and an epilogue that summarizes Leonard’s prescription for a more promising future. Within the chapters, Leonard does much more than follow the life-cycles of various goods (which she does with “stuff” like laptops, tee shirts, and aluminum cans). She also briefly delves into a variety of concepts, issues, and historical events within each of the chapters, expertly tying these back to the chapter headings. The breadth of topics covered in each chapter is extensive, representing the main strength and/or weakness of the book depending on the audience. For example, in the “Distribution” chapter Leonard briefly explains all of the following: supply chains, just-in-time production, branding, the GoodGuide to consumption, trans-portation pollution, the distribution systems of H&M, Amazon, and Wal-Mart, the perils of big-box stores to urban sprawl and communities, the North American Free Trade Agreement (NAFTA), colonization, the International Monetary Fund (IMF) and World Bank, Third World debt, the World Trade Organization and protests against it, the actions of the United States Agency for International Development (USAID) in Haiti regarding farming, the “water war” in Cochabamba (Bolivia), Bill McKibben’s book Deep Economy, and local food movements.
While this shallow analysis of many economic and environmental issues might be off-putting to professionals versed in environmental or social justice issues, the book provides an useful introduction for readers new to these issues and would therefore be an excellent addition to high school or university curricula. As well, one of the major strengths of Leonard’s work is her ability to tie seemingly disparate issues together within and across chapters. This might encourage even veterans of the sustainability field to more consciously connect their own work to a variety of local and global environmental, justice, health and labor issues and to collaborate across these imagined divides.
One of the main highlights of The Story of Stuff is Leonard’s writing style, which is friendly, humorous, and widely accessible. She intersperses numerous facts and statistics throughout the book with references to popular culture, cartoon-like illustrations, and personal anecdotes from her many adventures as an environmental activist following waste around the globe. Sustainability advocates should take note of how Leonard manages to clearly explain concepts (such as the IPAT equation, the resource curse and criticisms of gross domestic product, and the background on well-known historical events—such as the 1984 gas leak in Bhopal and the Ogoni’s resistance to Shell in Nigeria during the early 1990s). Another highlight of the book is Leonard’s ability to keep her tone relatively upbeat despite the depressing subject matter by sharing signs of hope and alternatives throughout the chapters.
From the title of the book one might think that Leonard would highlight sustainable consumption as a main alternative for confronting the environmental, economic, and social problems with “stuff” that she identifies throughout the book, but this is not the case. When it comes to sustainable consumption Leonard is not optimistic. Although she promotes consuming less and being more aware of where and how products are made and disposed of, she chides sustainable consumption as being too individualistic. She laments the loss of citizen-politics to the consumer-dominated politics popular today. Many of the solutions Leonard champions are “upstream” rather than “downstream” initiatives (for example industry-wide taxes on the amount and type of product packaging used). She ultimately claims that individual behavioral adjustments are useful, but not large-scale or ubiquitous enough to provide the kinds of changes that our harmful capitalist system warrants. The kinds of changes that we need, she asserts, are based on entire paradigm shifts.
In the Epilogue of the book, Leonard outlines four such shifts that she hopes will lead to a more ecological and equitable future for all. These include: 1) Redefining progress (i.e., using a well-being index rather than a growth index); 2) Doing away with war (i.e., redirecting military spending to social and environmental needs); 3) Internalizing externalities (i.e., environmental, health, and otherwise); and 4) Valuing time over stuff (i.e., working fewer hours, buying less stuff, and participating in more community-oriented activities in this newly acquired spare time). While these ideas are not new (see e.g., Victor, 2008; Schor, 2009), they may be to Leonard’s intended audience. Her hope is that she will induce readers to get personally involved in lobbying for these broader paradigm shifts through nongovernmental organizations, communities, or government.
The possibility of Leonard convincing readers of this need and actually enabling these paradigm shifts is where I fear a potential downfall to The Story of Stuff lies. There are two fronts on which Leonard falls a little flat in her argument. The first is the fact that the book is often very anthropocentric in its tone; for example, she argues for the protection of rainforest species on the grounds that they may have potential cancer-fighting properties for humans. While this could be an editorial choice, to speak to certain audiences, I am concerned that this tone may not sit well with some readers and more importantly does not disrupt many of the paradigms with which Leonard herself is concerned (for example the commodification of nature). The second downfall is the incomplete attention paid throughout the book to issues of privilege and inequality. While Leonard is quite diligent in discussing global inequalities and injustices, she largely overlooks the potential hardships that many readers may face in finding the time, information, and resources to act on her many recommendations. More attention to these issues, as well as to potential opportunities for collaboration across spatial, educational, and socioeconomic boundaries, would have made Leonard’s excellent argument even stronger.
In sum, The Story of Stuff is a terrific book in terms of its broad overview of the life of our “stuff” and the connections this “stuff” has to society, the economy, and the planet. However, this book is not a sufficient reference for an in-depth understanding of any single issue. Leonard’s strength is most definitely in the accessible and insightful way in which she distills and brings together enormous amounts of information about environmental, economic, and health issues while suggesting alternate paths for a more sustainable and just world.
Schor, J. 2009. Downshifting to a carbon friendly economy. In C. Andrews & W. Urbanska (Eds.), Less Is More: Embracing Simplicity For a Healthy Planet, a Caring Economy and Lasting Happiness. pp. 228–234. Gabriola Island, BC: New Society Publishers.
Victor, P. 2008. Managing Without Growth: Slower by Design, Not Disaster. Northampton, MA: Edward Elgar.
Roberta Hawkins is a PhD Candidate in the Graduate School of Geography at Clark University. She is interested in thinking about consumption through the lenses of feminist theory and political ecology. Her dissertation research investigates the various North-South connections between people, places, and natures that are highlighted and hidden through ethical consumption discourses.