Overconsumption is costing us the earth and human happiness

21/6/2010 Guardian  Overconsumption is costing us the earth and human happiness.Story of Stuff creator Annie Leonard’s new book examines the high
price of the western world’s obession with all things material

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  Tweet this Comments (…) Celia Cole, Monday 21 June 2010 10.45 BST  larger | smaller Article
If you really want to understand a country, a society, or even a civilization,
don’t turn to its national museums or government archives. Head to the tip.
According to Annie Leonard – former Greenpeace activist, unwavering optimist and
waste obsessive – the tip is akin to society’s secret journal. “Stuff” became a
fascination for Leonard in her teens, choosing field trips to landfills while at
university when she began to question how we came to build an economy based
purely on resources.
That was 20 years ago, and a lot has changed. Waste and recycling are now
burning policy issues. Forty countries, hundreds of factories and still more
landfills later , Leonard worries we have not grasped the fundamental problem
with our materials economy. “It is a linear system and we live on a finite
planet. You cannot run a linear system on a finite planet indefinitely. Too
often the environment is seen as one small piece of the economy. But it’s not
just one little thing, it’s what every single thing in our life depends upon.”
In 2007, Leonard tried a novel medium – a YouTube video – to convey the message.
The Story of Stuff was a frank and cleverly animated short film telling the
story of the American love affair with stuff and how it is quite literally
trashing the planet. Three years on and it’s a viral online phenomenon; seen by
10 million people in homes and classrooms all over the world. Now she has
followed up the video with a book of the same name.
Leonard has surprised many, though, by not actually being against stuff. She
isn’t even anti-consumption. In fact, she feels lots of people should be
consuming more. Just not most of us in the western world who often over-consume.
Consumption can be good, she says. “I don’t want to be callous to the people who
really do need more stuff”.
But consumerism is always bad, adding little to our wellbeing as well as being
disastrous for the planet. “[It's] a particular strand of overconsumption, where
we purchase things, not to fulfil our basic needs, but to fill some voids about
our lives and make social statements about ourselves,” she explains.
“It turns out our stuff isn’t making us any happier,” she argues. Our obsessive
relationship with material things is actually jeopardising our relationships,
“Which are proven over and over to be the biggest determining factor in our
happiness [once our basic needs are met].”
Leonard calls upon wider research to argue the sociological and psychological
consequences of our all-consuming epidemic, including that of Tim Kasser and
Robert Putman. Kasser identified a connection between an excessively
materialistic outlook and increased levels of anxiety and depression, while
Putman argues we’re paying the ultimate price for our consumeristic tendencies
with the loss of friendships, neighbourly support and robust communities.
Together they suggest we are witnessing nothing short of the collapse of social
fabric across society.
Part of the problem, according to Leonard, is our confused sense of self. We’ve
allowed our citizen self to be dwarfed by a relatively new reflex action –
consume, consume, consume. “Our consumer self is so overdeveloped that we spend
most of our time there. You see it walking around – we usually interact with
others from our consumer self and are most spoken to as our consumer self. The
problem is that we are so comfortable there that when we’re faced with really
big problems [like climate change], we think about what to do as individuals and
consumers: ‘I should buy this instead of this.’
“If you’re going to vote with your dollar that’s fine,” Leonard says. “But you
need to remember that Exxon has a lot more dollars than you. We need to vote
with our votes; re-engage with the political process and change the balance of
power so that those who are looking out for the wellbeing of the planet
dominate, instead of those who are just looking our for the bottom line.”
Like George Monbiot, Leonard doesn’t think so-called ethical consumption, or
greensumption is going to get us out of the problem either. “The real solution
is not perfecting your ability to choose the best option, it’s getting that
product off the shelf,” she says. “It’s increasingly looking like buying green
delays people engaging with the political process.”
Leonard’s film has its critics. Fox News branded it “full of misleading
numbers”. And the free market and climate sceptic think tank The Competitive
Enterprise Institute, called the project “community college Marxism in a
ponytail.” But many have found it hard to argue Leonard doesn’t live up to her
values. At her home in California she and another five families have chosen
community over stuff, tearing down the fences between their homes. “Its not a
big deal”, she says. “We don’t have matching clothes and its not like a commune
of anything. We are all just regular families in these six houses [who] share
things. And we just have so much fun.”
The Story of Stuff is about America, but how is the UK faring? Leonard does note
some positive differences: the NHS, our liberal political discourse – allowing
us to utter the words capitalism and unsustainable in the same large breath, and
she likes the fact that washing lines are not a threatened species. One thing
that does bug Leonard about this country, though, is our pyromania.
Specifically, she’s worried about our leaders’ love affair with waste
incinerators. “It’s just so depressing. Incinerators are such a regressive way
of dealing with waste materials. We need to promote zero waste as an
Zero waste is a term that gets thrown around a lot, most recently this week by
environment secretary Caroline Spelman. For Leonard, a complete overhaul in our
approach involves a real cradle-to-cradle revolution; marrying intelligent
design upstream and consumer incentivised recycling and composting downstream.
This may well be one of the answers, and the book provides a few more. But
Leonard doesn’t pretend to have them all, and she’s reluctant to commit to a new
economic paradigm, either, because “we haven’t invented it yet.”
She is sure of one thing though: “Change is inevitable. You can’t keep using one
and a half planet’s worth of resources indefinitely.”
Many have argued against the minor details of the book, but few have questioned
the fundamental premise that our current use of resources is unsustainable. Even
fewer have doubted her optimism. “Environmentalists need to figure out a way of
talking about this stuff in a more engaging and inviting way, and that is what I
hope I’m doing with this book.”
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