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Consuming Our Way to Unhappiness

Our excessive consumption is trashing more than just the planet. An interview with Annie Leonard.
 
 
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Everywhere we turn lately, ads -- holiday, post-holiday, and year-end -- have been encouraging us to shop in a concerted and somewhat desperate effort to salvage the economy. But where does all the stuff we're buying actually come from?

Over the last few weeks I've received a number of emails encouraging me to watch The Story of Stuff , an online video that asks and answers that question. With amusing graphics and plenty of humor, host Annie Leonard delivers a complex analysis in an audience-friendly tone. It's produced by Free Range Studios, creators of The Meatrix , the wildly popular animated short about factory farming.

An expert in international sustainability and environmental health issues, Annie Leonard has spent many years investigating factories and dumps around the world. She has worked with Health Care Without Harm, Essential Information and Greenpeace International, and is currently coordinator of the Funders Workgroup for Sustainable Production and Consumption.

Terrence McNally: How did The Story of Stuff happen? This is not the kind of work you've done before. What led you to this action?

Annie Leonard: I'm fortunate enough to have been able to spend literally 20 years visiting factories all over the world where our stuff is made as well as where our stuff is dumped. Doing that has given me a kind of social neurosis where I cannot hold an item without imagining its upstream and downstream life: where it came from and where it's going. Going through life in this way is actually incredibly illuminating, so I wanted other people to join me in ...

TM: -- In your neurosis!

AL: Yes exactly, so I would be less lonely.

I wanted other people to join me in thinking about where all this stuff in our life comes from, where it goes, and how we -- as well as communities on the other side of the world -- are paying a price for our excessive consumerism.

TM: Tell people a bit about it. First of all, how long is it?

AL: It's a 20-minute film, but really fast, I don't even take a breath.

TM: So it's not a two- or three-minute clip people can watch on impulse. Twenty minutes calls for a bit more commitment. How did you decide on the length and on the internet as the primary or initial venue?

AL: Yes, it's longer than a TV commercial, so it requires some actual interest in hearing about these issues. The film is based on an hour-long live presentation that we condensed. We chose to distribute it over the internet to disseminate it far and wide, and to allow people to see it for free. We knew that it would be more challenging to engage people online than in person, so we thought 20 minutes was a good compromise.

TM: What's the message?

AL: The message is a number of things. One, there's a cost to this excessive consumption. There's an environmental cost, there's a social cost -- and there's a personal happiness cost. This is what's really interesting. A lot of people think buying all this stuff is making us happier, but recent data has come out showing that it's not so. So we're trashing the planet, we're trashing communities -- and we're not even having fun. If we were at least having fun, we might want to reconsider. But it's not even fun anymore, so we need to rethink how we make, use and relate to the stuff in our lives.

TM: In the book Deep Economy , Bill McKibben pointed out that the happiest Americans have ever shown up on surveys was in the mid '50s, and that we are much less happy now. He concludes that our loss of community cannot be made up for by any gain in material goods. That's the U.S. -- is this a global phenomenon?

AL: It's increasingly global. We export our waste, we export our dirty technologies, but I'd say the most dangerous thing that we export is our way of living.

TM: This appetite.

AL: As other countries get on board the throw away, disposable, consumption-above-all mentality, they're seeing the erosion of their communities, of their social fabric, and of their civic life. This then leads increasingly to social isolation and loneliness.

TM: If consumption-above-all is not making us happier, why do we buy into it, as it were?

AL: There are a number of different forces driving our excessive consumption. Perhaps the most significant one is the advertising industry, which spends billions of dollars each year in the U.S. alone, aimed at creating desire for new stuff. If you think about it, what is the point of an ad except to make us unhappy with what we have? So throughout the day, we are bombarded with messages that stimulate desire, that artificially create need. Then the same companies that create this artificial need turn around and justify their products as responding to "consumer demand."

TM: Did you do any research into how little people know about where stuff comes from?

AL: I didn't do any particular research on that, except for talking to everybody for 20 years -- to the point of ridicule by my friends for constantly drilling them. I find that most people don't think about the upstream or downstream life of their products. And they're certainly not going to get that information from the mainstream media.

This film talks about the fact that the mainstream media encourages us to buy not only by bombarding us with advertisements, but also by hiding the true life cycle and impact of all this stuff we're buying.

TM: What do upstream and downstream mean?

AL: Upstream basically means the extraction and production -- the item's life before it got into your hands. And downstream means where it's going afterwards -- the dump or the incinerator or the third-world village, where it's going to end up when you chuck it out in the garbage or the recycling bin. The upstream and downstream life of a product together means its whole life.

TM: The worst effects on the environment, of course, happen before and after we use it. So pick a product, and tell us some of the grisly facts.

AL: Let's pick an iPod or a little radio or something.

These little electronic gadgets have materials from all over the world. They have toxic chemicals that are produced in some factory where the workers and the host community were likely contaminated.

They have metal, which means that there had to be mining, and there are all kinds of disastrous practices in mining. They have plastics, which means they're connected to oil drilling. Some of the social disruptions of these electronic components are really huge, especially coltan. Coltan is a metal that's mined in the Congo, and it's used for our cheap and disposable electronics. The mining and selling of coltan has been linked to funding civil war in the Congo. So from environmental health impacts, to the pollution of water, to actual civil war, there's a whole variety of negative environmental and social impacts associated with getting and making the stuff that goes into these electronics.

TM: Are you talking about Democratic Republic of Congo?

AL: Yes.

TM: The unending civil war there is one of the grisliest -- 3.3 million dead, the world's most devastating conflict since World War II, with rape of women used as a weapon of war. And you're saying part of that is being funded by materials that are used in an iPod.

Al: That's right. And iPods and other electronics are loaded with toxic chemicals. That means the production of them is toxic and the disposal of them is toxic. The European Union has recently passed legislation to get those toxic chemicals out of electronics. If you buy an iPod, a stick of lipstick, a sunscreen or a whole variety of other things in Europe, you're not going to have these toxic chemicals. But if you buy them in the U.S., you will. Why is it that European governments are protecting their citizens more than our government is protecting us?

TM: One factor is the precautionary principle. I don't believe it's universal in Europe, but there is a leaning toward the notion that a new product or a new chemical process or a new extraction process is guilty until proven innocent. In other words, "We've gotten along without it so far ... prove that it's safe before we start using it." Except perhaps at a local level, we've never been willing to go that route in the U.S. Here, any convenience, any so-called advance is innocent until proven guilty -- until you can prove people have been harmfully affected by it. Sometimes that harmful effect might be cumulative, might take five or ten years, and might only happen to infants in the womb. So the chances of the harm ever being sufficiently researched and proven are small.

AL: Absolutely.

TM: It's not just the stuff that's a problem, it's also the prices, isn't it? What does it mean to externalize costs, and what are the hidden costs of cheap stuff?

AL: The term "externalized costs" refers to those costs of doing business that are shifted to others, so the producer doesn't have to pay. There are loads of examples in our current system. For instance, a factory that belches pollution into a community, causing asthma and cancer, is externalizing those costs of production onto the community, which has to figure out how to cover their own healthcare expenses. Externalizing costs allows company owners to maximize profit while keeping prices low.

That is why an electronic gadget can be sold for five bucks, even if its production contaminates drinking water supplies, makes workers sick and creates piles of toxic waste along the way. The price tag doesn't include the true cost of making the item.

TM: Finally, can things be any different? Do you see signs of hope?

AL: Absolutely! Things can, and must, be different. Trashing the planet and contaminating communities is not inherent to doing business and running a society. The things that are not working in our system didn't just fall from the sky; they are the result of decisions made by people. And, as I say in the film, we're people too, and we can make different decisions.

In communities all over the world, people are opting out of seeking happiness and self-worth through accumulating ever larger piles of stuff. There is a revival happening that includes community organizations, clean production, green chemistry, green jobs, fair trade programs, etc. These are the building blocks of a new society, based on sustainability and equity, that can provide a more lasting happiness than the fleeting thrills of acquiring the latest consumer gadgets.

Interviewer Terrence McNally hosts Free Forum on KPFK 90.7FM, Los Angeles (streaming at kpfk.org).

 
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