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If Climate Change matters to you, The Story of Stuff should be part of your mindset, your toolkit, your spiel and your life plan. Seriously.

Something dead serious is wrong and that matters. Each day batters us with more events, revelations and data. They rain down upon us. We read about them, watch videos, write diaries, comment, compare notes... We create narratives. And some of them change us and what we do.

The Story of Stuff is an online video that comes from a similar place as those stories that matter and impacts us like the ones that change us: a long study driven by an obsession that produces evidence, a narrative of what's wrong and a picture of what we need to do. And the subject, sustainability, is for many of us a shared obsession. As well it should be. Between that and the effectiveness of the video, I believe you will feel compelled to act in new ways. And you will know what to do.

Annie Leonard, the creator of the video and the founder of The Story of Stuff Project, had some strong feelings and questions about "stuff." Material "stuff." So she traveled the world for ten years to forty countries to learn about it: where stuff comes from, how it's made, what's in it, why it's so cheap, how it gets to us, why we buy it, how we use it and how we dispose of it. And now she knows exactly why we produce, use and throw away so damn much of it.

As Ms. Leonard explains, it's no accident. It is a planned, man-made system. And it is not so very old. But it is destructive. Brutally destructive. Increasingly destructive. Even fatally destructive. And ultimately? Like, really soon? Cataclysmically destructive.


Because this is a linear system with inputs at one end and outputs at the other, toxic outputs that just...keep...piling...up... in a finite space. A space we are now capable of physically changing. The space we and everything else on this planet live in. This system is in crisis. We are in crisis. But the system can be changed. Just as we have gone from a people without nearly so much stuff to a culture that consumes tons and tons and tons of stuff, we can change ourselves and it.

Our linear system of consumption was created by design and sold to us with intention as being desirable, empowering and inevitable, when it is the opposite. It could just as well be a closed, regenerative, sustainable loop. It could be truly desirable and empowering, even if it is not inevitable. Hell, the only thing that is inevitable is that this earth will contain our activities within its limits and rules. It will do so relatively compatibly with our activities or in gross, violent conflict. Our choice. It does not prevent us from living here intentionally in a sustainable model any more than it prevents us from intentionally continuing with our current system of unsustainable consumption until it collapses into tragic chaos. It will let us do either. But if we want to avoid lots of unnecessary pain and suffering, more than we are already signed up for, then we must conform our system to the earth's and stop expecting and pretending it can work the other way around.

"Remember, that old way didn't just happen. It's not like gravity that we've just got to live with. People created it. And we're people too. So let's create something new."
- Annie Leonard

The Story of Stuff is Ms. Leonard's very fine effort to share what she's learned in a presentation that is eminently accessible both visually and verbally. That's not trivial given that she's addressing the most significant issue of our time, just as so many others have tried and failed to do, and success is critical. Significantly, she approaches sustainability much more through the consumption of products (as embodied resources and energy) than the use of dirty fossil fuels. (In fact, this video is as much about resource depletion as it is about carbon emissions and climate change--somewhat indicative of the time in which it was made.) Most importantly, she's clear about what must be done.

The Story of Stuff (2007) is not brand new. It already has been viewed 15 million times. But it is still very relevant and lacks nothing in accuracy to my knowledge. And most people still have not seen it. If you are thinking about where we must be in the future to achieve sustainability in time to avoid the worst affects of climate change, if you are thinking about how we can best get there, this video will help. Both the pathway to sustainability and the video are first and foremost about the stuff. If you have seen this video before but not recently, you might watch it again with your present mind. It is also a good resource to share with others, perhaps best if you can watch it with them, even if only to ensure that it gets watched.

The approximately 21 minute YouTube video appears below (or you can go to the Story of Stuff Project to watch it there) and a transcript follows the orange pastry for those who prefer to read.


This is an unofficial, independent, voluntarily produced transcript. All emphases added.

{ } are used for transcriber comments

Do you have one of these {holds up iPod}? I get a little obsessed with mine. In fact, I get a little obsessed with all my stuff.

Have you ever wondered where all this 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 textbook said is that stuff moves through a system:

from extraction {earth},
to production {factory},
to distribution {big box store},
to consumption {home},
to disposal {incinerator}.

{Arrows point left to right from each step to the next.}

All together it's called the materials economy.

Well, I looked into it a little bit more. In fact, I spent ten years traveling the world, tracking where our stuff comes from and where it goes.

And you know what I found out? That {the above diagram} is not the whole story. There is a lot missing from this explanation. For one thing, this system looks like it's fine. No problems! But the truth is, it's a system in crisis. And the reason it's a system in crisis is it's a linear system and we live on a finite planet. And you cannot 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 let's go back through; let's fill in some of the blanks and see what's missing.

Well, one of the most important things that's missing is people. Yes, people. People live and work all along this system {people appear in front of each object in the diagram}. 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 {man sitting on the capitol building}. 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 the government should be of the people, by the people and for the people. It's the government's job to watch out for us, to take care of us. That's their job.

Then, along came THE CORPORATION {big fat man with top hat and dollar sign}. Now, the reason the corporation looks bigger than the government is that the corporation is bigger than the government! Of the 100 largest economies on earth now, 51 are corporations. And as the corporation has grown in size and power, we've seen a little change in the government where they're a little more concerned {the government shines the shoe of the corporation} in making sure everything's working out for those guys than for us.

Okay, so let's 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 so we've got to deal with it. In the past three decades alone, one-third of the planet's natural resource space has 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. 40% 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 using 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 {points...}, which some would say is another word for "our stuff that somehow got on somebody 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 2,000 trees a minute. That is seven football fields a minute.

And what about the people who live here {third world}?

Well, according to these guys {the government and the corporation}, they don't own these resources even if they have 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 industrial production systems, we're going to keep getting "toxics" in the stuff that we bring into our homes and workplaces and schools and, duh, our bodies.

Like B.F.R.s...brominated flame retardants? They're a chemical that makes 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 it in our computers, our appliances, couches, mattresses, even some pillows... In fact, we take our pillows, we dowse them in a neurotoxin, then we bring them home and put our heads on them for eight hours a night to sleep. Now, I don't know, but it seems to me 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 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've reached a point where the smallest members of our society, our BABIES, are getting the highest lifetime dose of toxic chemicals from breastfeeding from THEIR MOTHERS.

Is that not an incredible violation?

Breastfeeding must be the most fundamental act of human nurturing. It should be sacred and safe. Now, breastfeeding is still best...mothers should definitely keep breastfeeding. But we should protect it. THEY {the government and the corporation} should protect it. I thought they were looking out for us?

And of course the people who bear the biggest brunt of our toxic chemicals are the factory workers, many of whom are women of reproductive age. They're working with reproductive toxins, carcinogens and more. Now I ask you, what kind of woman of reproductive age would work in a job exposed to reproductive toxins, except for a woman with no other option?

And that's one of the "beauties" of this system: the erosion of local environments and economies here {third world} ensures a constant supply of people with no other options. 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's 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 a lot more, because that's 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 pollution is coming right back at us, carried by wind currents.

So what happens after all these natural resources are turned into products?

Well it moves here {points at Big Box Mart} for DISTRIBUTION. Now, distribution means selling all the 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 that 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 to work 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 $4.99. I was standing there in line to buy this thing, and I was thinking, how could $4.99 possibly capture the cost of making this radio and getting it into my hands? The metal is 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 maquiadora 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 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 {points at third world} paid with the loss of their natural resource space. These people {points at factory} paid with the loss of their clean air, with increasing asthma and cancer in the Congo paid with their future...30% of the kids in the Congo now have dropped out of school to mine coltan, a metal we need for our cheap and disposable electronics. These people {bix box mart} 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's what I mean by "the company owners externalize the true cost of production."

And that brings us to the golden arrow of CONSUMPTION {points from the store to the house}.

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 {points at government man and corporation man}. That's 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 {person with hands and arms full of bags and packages}. 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!

{shopping carts quickly roll from store to home}

Keep the materials flowing! And flow they do.

Guess what percentage of total materials flowing through this system is still in product or use six months after the date of sale in North America? Fifty percent? Twenty? No. One percent. ONE! In other words, 99% of the stuff we harvest, mine, process, transport...99% of the stuff we run through this system is trashed within six 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 a much as they did fifty 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 World War II, these guys {the government and the corporation} were figuring out how to ramp up the economy. Retail analyst Victor Lebow articulated the solution that's 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."

[YIKES! - transcriber's comment]

President Eisenhower's Council of Economic Adviser's Chairman said that "the American economy's ultimate purpose is to produce more consumer goods." More consumer goods? Our ultimate purpose?! Not provide healthcare 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'll 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. Barbecues 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 of 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 another one. It was so intentional.

But stuff can not break fast enough to keep this arrow {points at golden arrow of consumption} 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 of 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 had the same fat white computer monitor on my desk for five 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's driving in spaceship central and I, I look like I have a washing machine on my desk.

Fashion is another prime example of this. Have you wondered why women's shoe heels go from fat one year to skinny the next to fat to skinny? It's not because there's 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 as 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 us buying new shoes.

Advertisements and media in general plays a big role in this. Each of us in the U.S. is targeted with over 3,000 advertisements a day. We see more advertisements in one year than people fifty years ago saw in a lifetime. And if you think about it what's the point of an ad except to make us unhappy with what we have? So 3,000 times a day we're told our hair is wrong, our skin is wrong, our clothes are wrong, our furniture's wrong, our car's wrong, we are wrong, but it can all be made right if we just go shopping.

Media also helps by hiding all of this {points at one side of the materials economy} and all of this {points at the other side of the materials economy}, so the only part of the materials economy we see is the shopping. The extraction, production and disposal all happen outside of 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 that this consumption mania exploded. Hmm. 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 we have less leisure time than any time since 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 three to four times as many hours shopping as our counterparts in Europe do.

So we're 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 you 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 you watch more TV, 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 this 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 U.S. makes 4.5 pounds of garbage a day. That's 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 the landfill. Either way, they 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 {factory}? 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 we could stop the number one source of the most toxic man-made 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. Recycling reduces the garbage at this end {points to incinerator} and it reduces the pressure to mine and harvest new stuff at this end {points at planet}. Yes, yes, yes, we should all recycle. But recycling is not enough. Recycling will never be enough. For a couple 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, seventy 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% of the waste coming out of our households, it doesn't get to the core of the problem. Also, much of the garbage can't be recycled, either because it contains too many "toxics" or it's designed not to be recyclable in the first place. Like those juice packs? Where they have layers of metal and paper and plastics 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 against 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 {earth} on saving forests and here {factory} 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 that it really is by the people and for the people.

All of this work is critically important, but things are really going to 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...

{steps in the linear materials economy float into a circular arrangement, disposal drops out and extraction, production, distribution and consumption now participate in a sustainable continuum}

...a system that doesn't waste resources or people.

Because what we really need to chuck is that 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 with the old path. That's dreaming.

Remember, that old way didn't just happen. It's not like gravity that we've just got to live with. People created it. And we're people too. So let's create something new.

This is an unofficial, independently produced transcript. All emphases added.



Yes, that's right folks. Recycling is great, but it is not enough. Not nearly enough. We have to maintain and even expand this effort, but much more importantly we MUST REDUCE what we acquire in the first place. Massively.

We must:

- Reduce what we have if it is toxic or energy-inefficient,
- Reuse what we have to make full use of its embodied energy,
- Reconsider what we are buying and why we are buying it in the first place, so that we -
- Reduce what we consume.


One by one--or all at once, either way :~)--we must each take responsibility for figuring out how to stop our own work-watch-spend treadmill. And while we do that, we must figure out how to enroll others as well.

We do not all have to participate in the same way. There are lots of different roles. But we do have to dramatically reduce our carbon footprints--especially those of us who have significant footprints to reduce--and we have to engage in one or more methods of getting others involved. We have to do it. Well. Really, really well.

I'll be talking more about all this--including the takeaways from The Story of Stuff--in my next diary on Stuff That Really Matters™☮ ♥ ☺.


Stuff That Really Matters™☮ ♥ ☺

Stuff That Really Matters™☮ ♥ ☺ is a DKos Group. At the same time, specific Stuff That Really Matters™☮ ♥ ☺ are also Trade Secrets (heh...) to be revealed to, expanded upon and owned by people who pay attention and participate. :) It's going to take somewhere between 5-10 diaries to lay out the territory. IMO it's very interesting stuff and, of course, it's Stuff That Really Matters™☮ ♥ ☺. So it's got that going for it.

Two other groups, Affordable Sustainable Housing, and Intentional Communities Research and Development also address Stuff That Matters Most™☮ ♥ ☺, as will become evident directly. If I could I would probably put the diaries of those groups in folders for this group. Maybe DKos 6 or something. In lieu of that I will just include links to those groups in diaries of Stuff That Really Matters™☮ ♥ ☺.

When the territory becomes clearer to those paying attention :) I will be inviting contributors and encouraging people to inquire directly with me on that because it is more than one middle-aged, well-meaning curmudgeon can cover, though if there are no takers, I will still try, because, guess what? It Really Matters™☮ ♥ ☺.


Previous diary on The Story of Stuff Project:

Story of Stuff Project & Netroots Sustainability Dream Job in Berkeley?

Yes. Don't forget that Netroots Sustainability Dream Job in Berkeley

We're talking an advocacy, direct action and Right Livelihood one-stop for a Community Engagement Manager. Clearly we have some people with those chops around here...


Selected Current Diaries That Matter In Other Ways ☮ ♥ ☺

House set to vote Wednesday on whether to snatch Keystone XL approval from president's hands (Meteor Blades)    RECENTLY ADDED

Journalist Surveillance Goes Far Beyond AP (Jessyln Raddack) RECENTLY ADDED

Enabling Greed Makes U.S. Sick (Bill Moyers)  RECENTLY ADDED

What's Happenin'? 5.20.13 (joanneleon)

Keystone XL Pipeline. Lamar Smith Avoids Telling Lies By Avoiding The Truth Entirely (LaFeminista)

Why the Cons are Fixated on Impeachment. (hannah)

Supersize this strike! (ActivistGuy)

Strength Lies in Organization: Building a Nationwide Network of Activists (Ray Pensador)

Abbreviated pundit round-up: A few real scandals to mix with the fake ones (Meteor Blades)

Originally posted to Stuff That Really Matters on Mon May 20, 2013 at 06:31 AM PDT.

Also republished by Climate Change SOS and Community Spotlight.

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