The Story of Stuff
Do you have one of these? I got a little obsessed with mine. In fact I got a little obsessed with
all my stuff. Have you ever wondered where all the
stuff we buy, comes from and where it goes
when we throw it out? I couldn’t stop wondering about that.
So I looked it up. And what the text book said,
is that stuff moves through a system from extraction to production
to distribution to consumption to disposal. All together, it is called the materials economy.
Well, I looked into it a little bit more. In fact, I spent 10 years traveling the world, tracking where our stuff comes
from and where it goes. And you know what I found out?
That is not the whole story. There’s a lot missing from
this explanation. For one thing,
this system looks like it’s fine. No problem. But the truth is it’s a system in crisis. And the reason it is in crisis
is that it is a linear system and we live on a finite planet and you can not run a linear system
on a finite planet indefinitely. Every step along the way, this system
is interacting with the real world. In real life it’s not happening
on a blank white page. It’s interacting with societies, cultures,
economies, the environment. And all along the way,
it’s bumping up against limits. Limits we don’t see here because
the diagram is incomplete. So lets go back through, let’s fill in
some of the blanks and see what’s missing. Well, one of the most important things its missing
is people, yes people. People live and work all along this system. And some people in this system
matter a little more than others; Some have a little more say.
Who are they? Well, let’s start with the government. Now my friends tell me I should use
a tank to symbolize the government and that’s true in many countries
and increasingly in our own, after all more than 50% of our federal tax money
is now going to the military, but I’m using a person
to symbolize the government because I hold true to the vision and values
that governments should be of the people, by the people,
for the people. It’s the governments job to watch out for us,
to take care of us. That’s their job. Then along came the corporation. Now, the reason the corporation
looks bigger than the government is bigger then the government. Of the 100 largest economies on earth now,
51 are corporations. As the corporations have grown in size and power,
we’ve seen a little change in the government where they’re a little more
concerned in making sure everything is working out
for those guys than for us. OK, so lets see what else is missing
from this picture. We’ll start with extraction. which is a fancy word for
natural resource exploitation which is a fancy word
for trashing the planet. What this looks like is we chop down trees,
we blow up mountains to get the metals inside, we use up all the water
and we wipe out the animals. So here we are running up
against our first limit. We are running out of resources.
We are using too much stuff. Now I know this can be hard to hear,
but it’s the truth we’ve gotta deal with it. In the past three decades alone, one-third of the planet’s natural resources
base have been consumed. Gone. We are cutting and mining and hauling
and trashing the place so fast that we’re undermining the planet’s
very ability for people to live here. Where I live, in the United States,
we have less than 4% of our original forests left. Forty percent of the waterways
have become undrinkable. And our problem is not just that
we’re using too much stuff, but we’re using more than our share.
We have 5% of the world’s population but we’re consuming 30% of the world’s resources
and creating 30% of the world’s waste. If everybody consumed at U.S. rates,
we would need 3 to 5 planets. And you know what?
We’ve only got one. So, my country’s response to this limitation
is simply to go take somebody else’s! This is the Third World, which
– some would say – is another word for our stuff that somehow
got on someone else’s land. So what does that look like?
The same thing: trashing the place. 75% of global fisheries now are
fished at or beyond capacity. 80% of the planet’s original forests are gone. In the Amazon alone,
we’re losing 2000 trees a minute. That is seven football fields a minute. And what about the people who live here? Well. According to these guys,
they don’t own these resources even if they’ve been living there for generations,
they don’t own the means of production and they’re not buying a lot of stuff.
And in this system, if you don’t own or buy a lot of stuff,
you don’t have value. So, next, the materials move to “production“
and what happens there is we use energy to mix toxic chemicals in with the natural
resources to make toxic contaminated products. There are over 100,000 synthetic chemicals
in use in commerce today. Only a handful of them have even
been tested for health impacts and NONE have been tested
for synergistic health impacts, that means when they interact with all the other
chemicals we’re exposed to every day. So, we don’t know the full impact on health
and the environment of all these toxic chemicals. But we do know one thing:
Toxics in, Toxics Out. As long as we keep putting toxics into
our inudstrial production systems, we are going to keep getting toxics
in the stuff that we bring into our homes, and workplaces, and schools.
And, duh, our bodies. Like BFRs,
brominated flame retardants. They are a chemical that make things
more fireproof but they are super toxic. They’re a neurotoxin–that means toxic to the brain
What are we even doing using a chemical like this? Yet we put them in our computers, our appliances,
couches, mattresses, even some pillows. In fact, we take our pillows,
we douse them in a neurotoxin and then we bring them home and put our heads
on them for 8 hours a night to sleep. Now, I don’t know, but it seems to me that
in this country with so much potential, we could think of a better way to stop our heads
from catching on fire at night. Now these toxics build up in the food chain
and concentrate in our bodies. Do you know what is the food
at the top of the food chain with the highest level of many toxic contaminants?
Human breast milk. That means that we have reached a point where the
smallest members of our societies – our babies are getting their highest lifetime dose of toxic
chemicals from breastfeeding from their mothers. Is that not an incredible violation? Breastfeeding must be the most fundamental
human act of nurturing; it should be sacred and safe.
Now breastfeeding is still best and mothers should definitely keep breastfeeding,
but we should protect it. They should protect it. I thought they were looking out for us.
And of course, the people who bear the biggest
of these toxic chemicals are the factory workers,
many of whom are women of reproductive age. They’re working with reproductive toxics,
carcinogens and more. Now, I ask you,
what kind of woman of reproductive age would work in a job exposed
to reproductive toxics, except for a woman with no other option?
And that is one of the “beauties” of this system? The erosion of local environments
and economies here ensures a constant supply
of people with no other option. Globally 200,000 people a day
are moving from environments that have sustained them for generations, into cities, many to live in slums, looking for
work, no matter how toxic that work may be. So, you see, it is not just resources
that are wasted along this system, but people too.
Whole communities get wasted. Yup, toxics in, toxics out. A lot of the toxics
leave the factories in products, but even more leave as by-products, or pollution.
And it’s a lot of pollution. In the U.S., our industry admits to releasing
over 4 billion pounds of toxic chemicals a year and it’s probably way more
since that is only what they admit. So that’s another limit, because, yuck, who wants to look at and smell 4 billion pounds
of toxic chemicals a year? So, what do they do? Move the dirty factories overseas
Pollute someone else’s land! But surprise, a lot of that air pollution is
coming right back at us, carried by wind currents. So, what happens after all these resources
are turned into products? Well, it moves here, for distribution. Now distribution means “selling all this
toxic-contaminated junk as quickly as possible.” The goal here is to keep the prices down, keep the
people buying, and keep the inventory moving. How do they keep the prices down?
Well, they don’t pay the store workers very much and they skimp on health insurance every time they
can. It’s all about externalizing the costs. What that means is the real costs of making stuff
aren’t captured in the price. In other words,
we aren’t paying for the stuff we buy. I was thinking about this the other day. I was walking
and I wanted to listen to the news so I popped into a Radio Shack
to buy a radio. I found this cute little green radio
for 4 dollars and 99 cents. I was standing there in line to buy this thing
and I was thinking how could $4.99 possibly
capture the costs of making this radio and getting it into my hands?
The metal was probably mined in South Africa, the petroleum was probably drilled in Iraq,
the plastics were probably produced in China, and maybe the whole thing was assembled
by some 15 year old in a maquiladora in Mexico. $4.99 wouldn’t even pay the rent for
the shelf space it occupied until I came along, let alone part of the staff guy’s salary
who helped me pick it out, or the multiple ocean cruises and truck rides
pieces of this radio went on. That’s how I realized, I didn’t pay for the radio.
So, who did pay? Well. These people paid with the loss
of their natural resource base. These people paid with the loss of their clean air
with increasing asthma and cancer rates. Kids in the Congo paid with their future –
30% of the kids in parts of the Congo now have had to drop out
of school to mine coltan, a metal we need for our cheap
and disposable electronics. These people even paid, by having to cover
their own health insurance. All along this system, people pitched in
so I could get this radio for $4.99. And none of these contributions
are recorded in any accounts book. That is what I mean by the company owners
externalize the true costs of production. And that brings us to the golden
arrow of consumption. This is the heart of the system,
the engine that drives it. It is so important that protecting this arrow has
become the top priority for both of these guys. That is why, after 9/11,
when our country was in shock, and President Bush could have suggested
any number of appropriate things: to grieve, to pray, to hope. NO.
He said to shop. TO SHOP?! We have become a nation of consumers. Our primary
identity has become that of being consumers, not mothers, teachers, farmers,
but consumers. The primary way that our value
is measured and demonstrated is by how much we contribute to this arrow,
how much we consume. And do we! We shop and shop and shop. Keep the materials
flowing, And flow they do! Guess what percentage of total materials flow
through this system is still in product or use 6 months after the date of sale in North America? Fifty percent? Twenty? NO. One percent. One!
In other words, 99 percent of the stuff we harvest, mine, process, transport –
99 percent of the stuff we run through this system is trashed within 6 months.
Now how can we run a planet with that level of materials throughput?
It wasn’t always like this. The average U.S. person now consumes
twice as much as they did 50 years ago. Ask your grandma. In her day, stewardship
and resourcefulness and thrift were valued. So, how did this happen?
Well, it didn’t just happen. It was designed. Shortly after the World War 2, these guys
were figuring out how to ramp up the economy. Retailing analyst Victor Lebow
articulated the solution that has become the norm
for the whole system. He said: “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.” President Eisenhower’s Council
of Economic Advisors Chairman said that “The American economy’s ultimate purpose
is to produce more consumer goods.” MORE CONSUMER GOODS? Our ultimate purpose? Not provide health care,
or education, or safe transportation, or sustainability or justice?
Consumer goods? How did they get us to jump on board
this program so enthusiastically? Well, two of their most effective strategies are
planned obsolescence and perceived obsolescence. Planned obsolescence is another word
for “designed for the dump.” It means they actually make stuff
to be useless as quickly as possible so we will chuck it and buy a new one. It’s obvious with things like plastic bags
and coffee cups, but now it’s even big stuff: mops, DVDs, cameras, barbeques even,
everything! Even computers. Have you noticed that
when you buy a computer now, the technology is changing so fast
that in just a couple years, it’s actually an impediment to communication?
I was curious about this so I opened up a big desktop computer
to see what was inside. And I found out that the piece that changes each year
is just a tiny little piece in the corner. But you can’t just change that one piece,
because each new version is a different shape, so you gotta chuck the whole thing
and buy a new one. So, I was reading industrial design journals
from the 1950s when planned obsolescence was really catching on.
These designers are so open about it. They actually discuss how fast
can they make stuff break that still leaves the consumer
having enough faith in the product to go out and buy anther one.
It was so intentional. But stuff cannot break fast enough
to keep this arrow afloat, so there’s also
“perceived obsolescence.” Now perceived obsolescence convinces us to
throw away stuff that is still perfectly useful. How do they do that? Well,
they change the way the stuff looks so if you bought your stuff
a couple years ago, everyone can tell that you haven’t contributed
to this arrow recently and since the way we demonstrate our value is
contributing to this arrow, it can be embarrassing Like I’ve have had the same fat
white computer monitor on my desk for 5 years.
My co-worker just got a new computer. She has a flat, shiny, sleek monitor. It matches her computer,
it matches her phone, even her pen stand. She looks like she is driving in
space ship central and I, I look like I have a washing machine on my desk. Fashion is another prime example of this.
Have you ever wondered why women’s shoe heels go from fat one year to skinny the next to fat to
skinny? It is not because there is some debate about which heel structure is the most healthy
for women’s feet. It’s because wearing fat heels in a skinny heel year shows everybody that
you haven’t contributed to that arrow recently so you’re not as valuable as that person
in skinny heels next to you, or, more likely, in some ad.
It’s to keep buying new shoes. Advertisements, and media in general,
play a big role in this. Each of us in the U.S. is targeted
with over 3,000 advertisements a day. We each see more advertisements in one year
than people 50 years ago saw in a lifetime. And if you think about it, what is the point of an
ad except to make us unhappy with what we have? So, 3,000 times a day, we’re told that
our hair is wrong, our skin is wrong, our clothes are wrong, our furniture is wrong,
our cars are wrong, we are wrong but that it can all be made right
if we just go shopping. Media also helps by hiding
all of this and all of this, so the only part of the materials economy we see
is the shopping. The extraction, production and disposal
all happen outside our field of vision. So, in the U.S.
we have more stuff than ever before, but polls show that our national happiness
is actually declining. Our national happiness peaked in the 1950s,
the same time as this consumption mania exploded. Hmmm. Interesting coincidence. I think I know why.
We have more stuff, but we have less time for the things
that really make us happy: friends, family, leisure time.
We’re working harder than ever. Some analysts say that we have less
leisure time now than in Feudal Society. And do you know what
the two main activities are that we do with the scant
leisure time we have? Watch TV and shop. In the U.S., we spend 3 to 4 times
as many hours shopping as our counterparts in Europe do.
So we are in this ridiculous situation where we go to work, maybe two jobs even,
and we come home and we’re exhausted so we plop down on our new couch and watch TV
and the commercials tell us “YOU SUCK” so we gotta go to the mall to buy something
to feel better, and then you gotta go to work more to pay for the stuff you just bought
so you come home and you’re more tired so you sit down and watch more T.V.
and it tells you to go to the mall again and we’re on this crazy work-watch-spend treadmill
and we could just stop. So in the end, what happens
To all the stuff we buy anyway? At this rate of consumption,
it can’t fit into our houses even though the average
house size has doubled in this country since the 1970s.
It all goes out in the garbage. And that brings us to disposal.
This is the part of the materials economy we all know the most because we have to haul
the junk out to the curb ourselves. Each of us in the United States
makes 4 1/2 pounds of garbage a day. That is twice what we each
made thirty years ago. All of this garbage either gets dumped in a
landfill, which is just a big hole in the ground, or if you’re really unlucky, first it’s burned in
an incinerator and then dumped in a landfill. Either way, both pollute the air, land, water
and, don’t forget, change the climate. Incineration is really bad. Remember those toxics
back in the production stage? Well burning the garbage releases
the toxics up into the air. Even worse, it makes new super toxics.
Like dioxin. Dioxin is the most toxic man made
substance known to science. And incinerators are the number one
source of dioxin. That means that we could stop the number one
source of the most toxic man-made substance known just by stopping burning the trash.
We could stop it today. Now some companies don’t want to deal
with building landfills and incinerators here, so they just export the disposal too.
What about recycling? Does recycling help? Yes, recycling helps.
reduces the garbage at this end and it reduces the pressure to mine
and harvest new stuff at this end. Yes, Yes, Yes, we should all recycle.
But recycling is not enough. Recycling will never be enough.
For a couple of reasons. First, the waste coming out of our houses
is just the tip of the iceberg. For every one garbage can of waste
you put out on the curb, 70 garbage cans of waste
were made upstream just to make the junk in that one garbage can
you put out on the curb. So even if we could recycle 100 percent of the
waste coming out of our households, it doesn’t get to the core of the problems.
Also much of the garbage can’t be recycled, either because it contains too many toxics, or it
is designed NOT to be recyclable in the firs place Like those juice packs with layers
of metal and paper and plastic all smooshed together.
You can never separate those for true recycling. So you see, it is a system in crisis.
All along the way, we are bumping up limits. From changing climate to declining happiness,
it’s just not working. But the good thing about such
an all pervasive problem is that there are so many points
of intervention. There are people working here on saving forests
and here on clean production. People working on labor rights and fair trade and conscious consuming and blocking
landfills and incinerators and, very importantly,
on taking back our government so it is really is by the people
and for the people. All this work is critically important
but things are really gonna start moving when we see the connections,
when we see the big picture. When people along this system get united,
we can reclaim and transform this linear system into something new, a system that doesn’t
waste resources or people. Because what we really need to chuck
is this old-school throw-away mindset. There’s a new school of thinking on this stuff
and it’s based on sustainability and equity: Green Chemistry, Zero Waste,
Closed Loop Production, Renewable Energy,
Local living Economies. It’s already happening. Now some say
it’s unrealistic, idealistic, that it can’t happen But I say the ones who are unrealistic are those
that want to continue on the old path. That’s dreaming. Remember that old way didn’t just happen.
It’s not like gravity that we just gotta live with People created it. And we’re people too.
So let’s create something new. Subtitles by the Amara.org community