The Story of Stuff

By Annie Leonard

As every schoolboy and schoolgirl knows, Samuel Johnson had little love for pastoral poetry. In Rasselas (1759) he describes an intrepid band of adventurers who are investigating the “choice of life” coming to a place “where shepherds tended their flocks, and the lambs were playing upon the pasture.” Their guide Imlac tells them that this is a way of life that has long been “celebrated for its innocence and quiet,” and suggests the party stop to pass the heat of the day among the shepherds “and know whether all our searches are not to terminate in pastoral simplicity.”

The proposal pleased them, and they induced the shepherds, by small presents and familiar questions, to tell their opinion of their own state: they were so rude and ignorant, so little able to compare the good with the evil of the occupation, and so indistinct in their narratives and descriptions, that very little could be learned from them. But it was evident that their hearts were cankered with discontent; that they considered themselves as condemned to labour for the luxury of the rich, and looked with a stupid malevolence toward those that were placed above them.

The princess pronounced with vehemence, that she would never suffer these envious savages to be her companions, and that she should not soon be desirous of seeing any more specimens of rustick happiness; but could not believe that all the accounts of primeval pleasures were fabulous, and was yet in doubt whether life had any thing that could justly be preferred to the placid gratifications of fields and woods. She hoped that the time would come, when with a few virtuous and elegant companions, she should gather flowers planted by her own hand, fondle the lambs of her own ewe, and listen, without care, among brooks and breezes, to one of her handmaids reading in the shade.

Even when confronted with the real thing – the ignorant shepherds bitter at their hard lot in life – the princess can’t give up on a vision of primeval pleasures that foreshadows the sickly sentimentality of Marie Antoinette’s ersatz village.

The pastoral dream dies hard, especially among those who have never experienced “rustick happiness” firsthand. Today we lead lives so removed from authentic rural lifestyles – ensconced in suburban happy valleys filled with luxuries and conveniences beyond the imaginings of Princess Nekayah – that it is easy to fall into the trap of pastoral thinking. It is a habit that has become even more popular with the proliferation of books advocating a return to more sustainable lifestyles – either for one’s health (the locavore movement), out of necessity (peak oil), or having regard to environmental considerations. If not pastoral in a strict literary sense, “sustainable” essentially means something like life in a medieval village. It means a return to a time and a place where, according to Jeff Rubin in Why Your World Is About to Get a Whole Lot Smaller, we will live in small communities surrounded by farmland, and learn to darn our socks instead of just throwing the ones with holes out and buying new ones.

Though it’s unlikely he means all of us will be darning socks. I suspect Jeff Rubin figures he can get the kindly old spinster in the cottage at the end of the lane to do his.

Environmental activist Annie Leonard would like us to darn our socks. In The Story of Stuff she preaches a gospel whose golden rule is less consumption of new “stuff” (defined as “manufactured or mass-produced goods, including packaging,” or what is “also known as ‘crap'”). Her goal is to transform the economy from a “take-make-waste” model (which leads to a “work-watch-spend” lifestyle) to one that emphasizes environmental sustainability through a reduction in consumption and the reuse of goods. In laying out her program for reform she follows the processing of stuff through the stages of resource extraction, production, distribution, consumption, and disposal. In some detail she documents the enviropathologies of everyday life, digging up the dirt on items like pop cans, t-shirts, and make-up. As a sourcebook and guide to better living, it’s commendable.

And the end is one we should all embrace: Living within our environmental means won’t just save the planet, it will make us all healthier and, in the long run, perhaps even happier as well.

The problem with Leonard’s program (as with Rubin’s, and so many others) is that it denies an inconvenient truth: The world we live in is the world we’ve made, the world we (at least those of us in the affluent West) have chosen. We will not willingly move to another, whatever the benefits to ourselves, our children, and the planet. The thousand-and-one little superfluous comforts and conveniences that define our wasteful, “take-make-waste” lives (including, as the No Impact Man demonstrated, toilet paper) may seem like small things, but they are not. We don’t want to darn our socks. In fact, faced with a pair of old socks and a needle I think most North Americans would just as soon shove the latter in their eyes as put them to any better use. The battery-operated remote controls for our televisions and garage doors will have to be pried from our cold, dead hands. Nor is this only “stuff” I’m talking about. Air conditioning? Air travel? In a sustainable economy they’ll be gone too.

That the American way of life is non-negotiable may be the epitaph for our planet I don’t dispute, but you aren’t going to put suburbanites back on the farm after they’ve seen Forest Glen Luxury Estates.

With all due respect to Annie Leonard, and I am deeply sympathetic to her concerns, her sharing, caring community in downtown Berkeley is not a viable model for a new economic order. It is an enclave, existing within and supported by industrial civilization. As Leonard correctly points out, it was the Industrial Revolution that changed the world and turned our economy into one based on mass production and mass consumption. To change things – either “back” or forward, if there is a difference – means to some extent undoing the Industrial Revolution. Unfortunately, that revolution has turned into what Ronald Wright, in A Short History of Progress, describes as a “progress trap.” There simply is no way out of it because of the sacrifice involved in tearing ourselves free.

It’s rare, and usually not a very good idea, for a reviewer to inject personal, biographical information into a review, but in this case I feel it’s warranted. I grew up, and spent a great deal of my life living on a farm. Briefly the house had no plumbing. We used an outhouse. We churned our own butter for years. We baled hay in the summer using small bales that had to be loaded and unloaded by hand. We cleaned out cattle stalls all winter – every day, seven days a week – by pitchfork. Today, I know of very few farmers – aside from the local Mennonites – who live like this. Hay is baled in massive round bales, stalls are cleaned out by automated systems or small tractors. Butter is so cheap there’s no point making your own. Or even, for that matter, growing your own vegetables (as we always did).

Most of the people I know would, I think, rather die than live the idyllic life I did growing up. And yet this is what a truly post-industrial, environmentally sustainable civilization would look like. Except it would be worse. We would not live in urban communes like Berkeley, but have to work as peasants. To pretend otherwise, to say (as many do) that we can live environmentally and still enjoy something approximating our current standard of living is the noble lie at the heart of a lot of environmental talk. Our world would be changed utterly. Even those of us lucky enough to reside in towns would find work far more labour-intensive and uncomfortable, with far less leisure time. Would we be healthier? Almost certainly. Would it be better for the planet? Absolutely. But it would not be anything like what we see described in this passage from Alan Durning that Leonard endorses:

Accepting and living by sufficiency rather than excess offers a return to what is, culturally speaking, the human home: to the ancient order of family, community, good work, and good life; to a reverence for skill, creativity, and creation; to a daily cadence slow enough to let us watch the sunset and stroll by the water’s edge; to communities worth spending a lifetime in; and to local places pregnant with the memories of generations.

In other words, a return to a News from Nowhere sort of medievalism. It sounds like the vision of Princess Nekayah, and is just as likely to be realized. When Pol Pot wanted to send Cambodians back to the land he had to do it at the point of a bayonet, and even so he ended up killing millions.

As I said at the end of my review of Rubin’s book, three things will be needed to respond to the challenge of finding an environmental balance for modern civilization, each of which is a total non-starter politically: real sacrifice, meaning accepting at least some diminishment, and probably quite a lot, in our quality of life; a spirit of radical egalitarianism, meaning we all sacrifice equally; and a global consensus on action, since the problems we face have global ramifications. To say that Leonard is right in pointing out the dangers of not doing anything, of just continuing to live the way we live now, is almost beside the point. We know smoking is bad for you – a major cause of cancer and heart disease – but people still smoke. We know fast food will kill you, but that hasn’t stopped billions of people from eating it.

And these are examples where the ill effects of our behaviour are personally and (relatively speaking) immediately felt! The fact of the matter is that we are not a rational species, and we’re even worse when it comes to planning for the future. Whether we like it or not, Stuff rules.

Review first published online May 17, 2010.

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