Thursday, August 7, 2008

The Story of Stuff

As a fellow member of the 'consumer' culture, you may never stop to think about where our 'stuff' comes from, or where it goes when we are done with it. Most folks only see a small fraction of the process: we go pick things up at a big store and then set them out on the curb for someone to whisk away in a big truck. I found a short movie that examines this life cycle a little deeper in an engaging and sometimes humorous format, The Story of Stuff.

The author delineates the five main sectors of the "Materials Economy", basically the life cycle of "stuff".

  1. Extraction
  2. Production
  3. Distribution
  4. Consumption
  5. Disposal
Each of these sectors is examined in detail, with many statistics peppered throughout to drive points home.

I'll first summarize the positive points I took away from the video, saving my critiques for the end.

Overconsumption - As I have highlighted in other posts, I feel we consume an extreme amount of goods. Americans, on average, consume more of our 'fair share' of the Earth's natural resources. You may argue we also are more affluent than the average world resident, many of us consume far more than we produce and/or afford.

Unsustainability - Obviously our demand for fossil fuels is not sustainable, as they are not renewable resources. However, many of the demands on the world's renewable systems are simply not sustainable, as well. Many agricultural systems are being depleted, as well as fisheries and forests.

External Costs - I have talked about external costs in previous posts as well, these can range from pollution and environmental degradation to suppressed wages and unemployment. The current system does a very good job of pushing these onto anyone but the consumer. The consumer must be given the lowest possible price to keep the goods flowing.

Linear Nature of the Current System - This is another way to depict unsustainability. We currently use resources to create things that we then throw into a pit and cover up with dirt. The linear nature of this system is rather unsustainable...however, this is an extremely simplified depiction. There are many subsections of the process that currently are sustainable and decidedly non-linear...which are not mentioned. This leads me to the negative points of the film...

The video seems to play a little too loose with the facts for my tastes. Many of the claims seemed a bit over the top, but in the creator's defense, an exhaustive list of references is available, allowing for your own review.

Military Spending - They quote the US military budget from a group who suggests that we evade the portion of our taxes that support the military. Not very fair and balanced. These kinds of tricks tend to make me doubt the validity of other claims.

'Toxic' Chemicals - I'm sure there are tons of things that deadly to us that we encounter every day. I'm also sure that it is probably a good idea to limit our exposure to some of them. But just because they haven't been tested does not mean they are necessarily dangerous. Also, almost everything is dangerous at a high enough concentration. So, I'm somewhat on board with searching out new dangerous 'chemicals' (which I've always found to be an interesting term, since technically most everything is made of some type of chemical), but let's be smart about it. That being said, we have a hard enough time keeping lead out of kid's toys, so they might be on to something.

Breast Milk - Highlighting the levels of toxic chemicals in breast milk could have the distinct possibility of discouraging mothers from breastfeeding. While they make the point that breastfeeding is still be best way to feed your baby, I can see how scare tactics such as these would cause folks to think twice. I'm not sure of a good solution on this one, but throwing the baby out with the bathwater does not seem to be helpful.

Role of Government - The creator definitely has a distinct role that they believe the government should play in our lives. Many people might disagree.

Short on Solutions - The many problems with the world are expounded upon, but they leave us quickly without heavily examining the solutions. They mention several ideas at the end, but it is up to us to do more research on our own. Since the solutions will no doubt be wide ranging and complex, this is understandable. The website has a good list to start.

Slickly produced, designed quite well to hook in the hip, iPod generation. Tons of easy to remember facts and stats to impress your friends and shame them for not caring about the world as much as you do. Perhaps this was intentional, as the creators believe that these folks need the message the most; or perhaps more sinisterly, will be the most receptive.

Unfortunately, I think a complete overhaul of our materials and energy intensive consumer-based economy is highly unlikely...unless perhaps it crashes and must be rebuilt from scratch. I believe any wide spread changes to a localized economy will be driven by economic necessity; not altruism or environmentalism.

Overall, it is a good reminder that we should take our surroundings into account when we make choices. If one wants to induce change, it will most likely be done with a pocketbook. Every purchase of 'stuff' is a vote. We must keep this in mind everyday.


Nimic said...

I'd have to agree that the changes will need to come from economic need. It's unfortunate, but we've basically painted ourselves into a corner.

There's no way we're going to get the number of people we need to stop consuming at the pace that they do.

I think they got the idea for evading taxes from the movie "Stranger than fiction." One of the main characters in the movie is being audited for that reason, and it's a big part of the plot.

People need to understand that the IRS is a business. If you evade taxes, they're just going to take everything you own to pay for em' and possibly throw you in jail, or put you into an economic downward spiral it will take years to recover from. Anyone who has ever been on an IRS payment plan should know (raises hand). Then they'll use that money to hire more people to enforce tax law, and get the other offenders.

Chief said...

Re: Voting with our pocketbook.

This hinges on the key provision that the consumer can trust the labeling of the product. Terms such as 'organic', 'free trade', 'sustainable forest', etc, must be narrowly defined and defended. When they lose their meaning, we lose our ability to vote.

Katie said...

I liked the Story of Stuff, but it was preaching to the choir for me, really.

We hardly buy anything and don't shop at big boxes, but certainly look at how the money we spend affects our local economy - farmer's market, local shops, etc.

I definitely vote with my wallet and have been encouraging others to do the same!

Chief said...

Katie - Thanks for visiting!

We've been trying to frequent the farmer's market a lot more this year.

The Minimalist said...

I love this movie. It really explains why stuff is so cheap in the US. I can think of a lot of items the cost the same or even less than in the 80s. I love how this points out all of the ways the Earth and her people are paying for it along the way. When I think of all the people who have so little in the world and then think of all of the hoarders we have who have to pay people to organize their junk or go on a TV show to get organized, it make me sick. THis movie points out how Americans have been brainwashed to consume! This is why I am a minimalist!

Chief said...

Yes, it is important to remember all the costs (implicit and explicit) of our purchases...not just the price tag.

Chief said...

Update: Two years after the original posting I have a slightly new viewpoint. I stand by most of what I wrote...especially inducing change through economics and free choice. Value is subjective and free trade between consenting parties is the most efficient and perhaps the only way to create wealth. Government intervention and coercion destroys wealth. This article does a good job of pointing out the fallacies and inconsistencies in the video.

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