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Our Obsession With Stuff Is Trashing the Planet, Our Communities and Our Health

A new book questioning our consumerism says we spend more on shoes and jewelry than higher education; more on ocean cruises than providing drinking water for all.

This following is an excerpt from The Story Of Stuff: How Our Obsession With Stuff Is Trashing The Planet, Our Communities, And Our Health – And A Vision For Change by Annie Leonard. Excerpted with permission by Free Press, a Division of Simon & Schuster, Inc. Copyright © 2010 by Annie Leonard. 


So here we are. All sorts of stuff is lining the real or virtual shelves of stores, ready to slip into our shopping carts or be assembled and shipped according to our desires. Enter the consumer. Stage left, stage right, storming stores and online shopping portals, armed with credit cards and freshly cashed paychecks. This stage of the game is What It's All For -- at least that's what we're told. For a moment, as the almighty consumer makes her selection from a long menu of choices, the entire world revolves around her. She experiences a surge of power as she trades her hard-earned money for a piece of stuff and becomes its owner, either meeting a need, indulging a whim, shifting a bad mood -- or maybe all three at once. "When things get tough, the tough go shopping," as the bumper stickers used to say.

Lots of our favorite characters and cultural icons surround themselves with signature cool Stuff. Where would 007 be without his latest gadget, his perfectly tailored suit, or his (insert your favorite model of future car here)? What would the Oscars be without the gowns? How could we love Carrie Bradshaw without her outrageous brimmed hats and designer shades and glossy shopping bags full of ruffled dresses and sky-high heels? Would we recognize Holly Golightly without her infatuation with Tiffany's? We're attached to these characters' possessions and obsessions as much as to their personalities; it's all part of our national mythology. It only makes sense that we'd get attached to our own Stuff.

Before I go any further, I want to say that I'm not against all consumption. One irate viewer of The Story of Stuff film e-mailed me and said, "If you're against consumption, where did you get that shirt you're wearing?" Duh. Of course everyone needs to consume to live. We need food to eat, a roof over our head, medicine when we're sick, and clothes to keep us warm and dry. And beyond those survival needs, there's a level of additional consumption that makes life sweeter. I enjoy listening to music, sharing a bottle of wine with friends, and occasionally donning a nice new dress as much as the next person.

What I question is not consumption in the abstract but consumerism and overconsumption. While consumption means acquiring and using goods and services to meet one's needs, consumerism is the particular relationship to consumption in which we seek to meet our emotional and social needs through shopping, and we define and demonstrate our self-worth through the Stuff we own. And overconsumption is when we take far more resources than we need and than the planet can sustain, as is the case in most of the United States as well as a growing number of other countries. Consumerism is about excess, about losing sight of what's important in the quest for Stuff.

Do you remember Jdimytai Damour? In November 2008, on Black Friday, the biggest shopping day of the year, the holiday shopping season kicked off. Across the country, people left their Thanksgiving dinners early to sleep in their cars in store parking lots hours before scheduled store openings, which in many places were moved up to 5:00 a.m. Shoppers began gathering in the parking lot of a Wal-Mart in Valley Stream, New York, at 9:00 p.m. on Thanksgiving evening. By 5:00 a.m., when the store was scheduled to open, a crowd of more than two thousand people had gathered.

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