The Wasted Years
“Our enormously productive economy…demands that we make consumption our way of life, that we convert the buying and use of goods into rituals, that we seek our spiritual satisfaction, our ego satisfaction, in consumption…we need things consumed, burned up, replaced and discarded at an ever-accelerating rate.” – Victor LeBeau, Retail Analyst Post WW II
Circling the web like a good Mom rounding up kids for school, the Story of Stuff's viral message is affectionately startling, gently nudging us to wake up to some very large elephants quickly filling up the room. Viewed over 1.5 million times, Annie Leonard’s matter-of-fact practical approach appeals to a child-like mentality, important for both the children inheriting this messy situation and the deer-in-headlights-National-Enquirer-population still obsessed with making it. Leonard’s no ordinary Mom though; she is Coordinator of the Funders Workgroup for Sustainable Production and Consumption, working for two decades to raise awareness about international sustainability and environmental health issues.
Her point is simple and straightforward: the world economy follows a straight-line growth model based on planned obsolescence, while the world itself prefers to work in a circular symbiotic relationship. Because of the causal bond marketing has with our spending habits, in just fifty years, America (and most Western cultures) has doubled consumption rates. Leonard walks us through the process from extraction of natural resources to production and distribution and finally to consumption and disposal of the accumulation of all these products (all while our government, supposedly for the people, sits back and takes direction from corporate interests). Some of the more incredible facts she’s collated:
• 80% of the world's forests are gone.
• 2000 trees a minute are cut down in the Amazon alone. That is 7 football fields a minute!
• The U.S. has less than 4% of its forests left.
• 40% of our waterways are undrinkable.
• The U.S. has 5% of the world's population and 30% of the waste.
• 75% of global fisheries have been fished beyond capacity.
• 100,000 synthetic chemicals are used in production today.
• Bromated Flame Retardants (BFR) neurotoxins (toxins to brain) are in computers, mattresses, pillows.
• Food with highest level of contaminants is mother's milk.
• 200,000 people a day are moving to cities from environments that no longer support them.
• U.S. industry *admits* to 4 billion pounds of toxic pollution released per year (likely far more).
• We see more ads in one year than people 50 years ago saw in a lifetime. 3,000 ads a day!
• Average house size has doubled in the U.S. since the 1970's.
• Average American creates 4.5 lbs. garbage a day -- an amount doubled from 30 years ago.
• For every one garbage can you put out at the curb, 70 cans were filled by all the processes needed in order to make it.
• 99% of all those things we buy are not in use after 6 months.
Comedian George Carlin’s well-known routine about “stuff” is a comical look at the strange human reliance on the many things we so often use to identify ourselves. While he puts a relevantly humorous spin to our quirky behavior, the truth is all too disturbing. We are no longer creatures born naked into this world, but consumers defined by everything from the baby stroller we go home from the hospital in, to the cars we drive and the clothes we wear, all the way to the computer monitor displaying these words. We are draped in the jewels of clever advertising, foregoing human vision quest and self-discovery for President’s Day sales at Macy’s. (What irony that the founding fathers of our nation, who fled to American soil to avoid the oppression of monarchy, are now lionized in clearance racks under the dominion of corporate capitalism.)
In 1977, President Jimmy Carter urged America to plan for the future by conserving energy. Today his words are even more legitimate: “It is a problem we will not solve in the next few years, and it is likely to get progressively worse through the rest of this century. We must not be selfish or timid if we hope to have a decent world for our children and grandchildren. We simply must balance our demand for energy with our rapidly shrinking resources. By acting now, we can control our future instead of letting the future control us.” Yet our use of crude oil has increased in the last 30 years. The U.S. consumes 17 million barrels every day, leading the world dependency on oil. The amount of motor vehicles operated in the U.S. will increase 15 million a year until at least 2010 while Americans are estimated to travel almost 4 billion miles a day.
A recent Nielsen poll revealed “nearly one in two global consumers would give up all forms of packaging provided for Convenience purposes if it would benefit the environment, including: packaging designed for easy stacking/storing at home (49%); packaging that can be used for cooking, or doubling as a re-sealable container (48%); and packaging designed for easy transport (47%).” One would not guess this the case cruising through supermarket aisles. Packaging houses more packaging of questionably valid products. Take the seemingly harmless facial tissue as an example. Kleenex, the brand that has become synonymous with this common household item (made by Kimberly-Clark), is the largest tissue product company in the world. At the expense of ancient forests, they produce 3.7 million tonnes (4 million tons) of tissue products annually amounting to net sales of $14.3 billion. Less than a century ago, the disposable tissue phenomenon didn’t exist. People carried something called a handkerchief. Not only were they reusable and more cost-effective, but also significantly more efficient than a thin piece of chlorine bleached, formerly-known-as-a-tree paper. Marketing eradicated this common sense behavior and the handkerchief disappeared. We also use an exorbitant amount of paper for everything from faxes to Post-It Notes to cardboard boxes. The U.S. consumes a third of the world’s paper, about 650 pounds per person annually. Paper production is the fifth largest energy consumer and first in water consumption per ton of product.
While 1.2 billion people suffer from starvation each year, and more than 9 million will die from it, it is estimated that $38 billion worth of food in the US rots – going completely uneaten each year. Food sent back to kitchens at restaurants for minor complaints gets thrown out. The untouched breadbasket delivered to the table, pitched in the trash because of health code violations preventing it from being re-served. Only those desperate and humble enough will mill through trashcans for food. They are actually quite fortunate; to be homeless in America means living better than most of the impoverished world.
In addition to the food we senselessly dispose of, we overproduce our food, consuming massive amounts of resources to feed and water our livestock obsession. It takes 55 feet of rainforest and 2500 gallons of water to produce one animal “meal.” Not to mention the amount of methane released into the environment and 130 times the amount of human excrement that factory farming contributes to the planet. And just this week, 143 million pounds of beef were recalled by the state of California. That is enough to feed every American two hamburgers. Yet the linear production model of more-faster-cheaper leaves enormous gaps in a system that is often detrimental to our health. Enter antibiotics and other questionable feed additives designed to “protect” our food sources. Compare that to Joe Salatin’s PolyFace farm (featured in Michael Pollan’s book Omnivore’s Dilemma) where not only is there very little waste and higher production yields, but far less probability of carelessness and contamination.
The Story of Stuff walks us through the ways in which we enslave the natural world, poison our people and brainwash ourselves through gobbledy-gook marketing nonsense. But do we realize that the biggest challenge of being so fortunate – as citizens of the western world – is not to take so much for granted? We allow ourselves to become disrespectful, petty and just plain mean. Our relationships are no longer germane to our mutual survival in a physical sense, but have become purely egotistic. This shift is what leads people to be greedy and self-serving. Once we no longer had to work so hard to maintain food, shelter and water, we became intoxicated with decadence and megalomania. Our boredom, for lack of a better term, eroded the pure essence of just "humans being" and turned us into monsters. If there are future generations, they will surely look back on these as wasted years.
As the saying goes, you can lead a horse to water... but our thirst has long surpassed something as simple as that. We need to quench rampant self-indulgence and downgrade our ego constructs. Marketing has unleashed a crisis on the human condition. We’re convinced that our salvation lies in Stuff.
Consider greenwashing. Rather than keep using the perfectly good things we have, we hear the "green" message to trash and replace them with something more "eco-friendly" – even if we end up creating more avoidable garbage in the process. Good ol’ marketing cleverly disguises itself once again. Do we really need to buy more of anything, green or otherwise?
We have so much in America. Yet we suffer epidemic levels of depression, not because of the guilt of having as much as we do, but rather from the pressures driving us to have even more. Ms. Leonard’s video shows this wheel of cyclical subservience, which forces people into the absurd state of credit card debt, creating unnecessary levels of insecurity and all kinds of self-loathing. This messge is reinforced by the media, which keeps telling us that we’re just not good enough.
Some might say that Stuff has always been here – an intrinsic part of the complex web of being human, a condition of living in a material world created when we out that extra sticky stuff within. Or maybe, stuff is just a mirror, reflecting our limitless potential and uniquely human creative genius.
Whatever the cause, we're now at the point where imbalance is being felt in all corners of the planet. Our lust for Stuff is so strong that poor nations can only rise out of poverty according to the rules defined by the Have-Mores. We promise, like all good salespeople, that they won’t be disappointed if they sell off their natural resources, contaminate their environments and corrupt their traditions and values – because the American Dream is even more precious than anyone could ever imagine!
Ironically, America is enchanted by the quaintness of tribal cultures. We place a certain amount of trust in the frail, indigenous elder espousing a mysticism and ancient wisdom that has all but vanished from modernity. But who is ready to see the actual state of a clear-cut forest in the Amazon, or mono-crop destruction in India, or the oil drained guts of the Middle East or diamond mines in Africa? These harsh realities are transforming the last places on Earth where a discernable connection to our ancestors still exists.
National Geographic’s Explorer-in-Residence Wade Davis puts it like this: “When asked the meaning of being human, all the diverse cultures of the world respond with 10,000 different voices. Distinct cultures represent unique visions of life itself, morally inspired and inherently right. And those different voices become part of the overall repertoire of humanity for coping with challenges confronting us in the future. As we drift toward a blandly amorphous, generic world, as cultures disappear and life becomes more uniform, we as a people and a species, and Earth itself, will be deeply impoverished.”
This is something no one in the world can afford, not even on sale.