|The Crisis of Consumerist Society (The story of Stuff)
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Most societies in the world are today consumerist or moving towards consumerism. But this model is already in crisis. Consumerism is destroying our world and also our society, we just can't afford to continue this way, something has to change, and fast, before it's too late. This brilliant video will explain why.
Do you have one of these? I got a little obsessed with mine. In fact I got a little obsessed with all my stuff. Have you ever wondered where all the 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 text book said is that stuff moves through a system from extraction to production to distribution to consumption to disposal. All together it is called the materials economy.
Well, I looked into it a little bit more. In fact, I spent 10 years travelling the world tracking where our stuff comes from and where it goes. And you know what I found out? That is not the whole story. There is a lot missing from this explanation.
For one thing, this system looks like it's fine. No problem. But the truth is it’s a system in crisis, and the reason it is in crisis is that it is 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 it’s missing is people, yes people. People live and work all along this system 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. 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 governments should be of the people, by the people, for the people. It's the governments job to watch out for us, to take care of us. That’s their job.
Then along came the corporation . 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 corporations have grown in size and power we’ve seen a little change in the government where they’re a little more concerned in making sure everything is working out for those guys than for us.
OK, so lets 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 resources base have 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. Forty percent 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, which – some would say – is another word for our stuff that somehow got on someone 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 2000 trees a minute. That is seven football fields a minute
And what about the people who live here? Well. According to these guys they don’t own these resources even if they’ve 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 are going to keep getting toxics in the stuff that we bring into our homes, and workplaces, and schools and, duh!, our bodies, like BFRs brominated flame retardants.
They are a chemical that make 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 them in our computers, our appliances, couches, mattresses, even some pillows. In fact, we take our pillows, we douse them in a neurotoxin and then we bring them home and put our heads on them for 8 hours a night to sleep.
Now, I don’t know, but it seems to me that 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 societies - our babies are getting their highest lifetime dose of toxic chemicals from breastfeeding from their mothers. Is that not an incredible violation?
Breastfeeding must be the most fundamental human act of nurturing. It should be sacred and safe. Now breastfeeding is still best, and mothers should definitely keep breastfeeding but we should protect it. They should protect it. I thought they were looking out for us, and of course the people who bear the biggest amount of these toxic chemicals are the factory workers, many of whom are women of reproductive age. They’re working with reproductive toxics 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 is one of the “beauties” of this system: the erosion of local environments and economies here ensures a constant supply of people with no other option.
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 way more, since that is 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 resources are turned into products? Well, it moves here, 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 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 dollars and 99 cents. I was standing there in line to buy this thing and I was thinking, how could $4.99 possibly capture the costs of making this radio and getting it into my hands?
The metal was 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 maquiladora 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 me 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 paid with the loss of their natural resource base. These people paid with the loss of their clean air, with increasing asthma and cancer rates – Kids in the Congo paid with their future. 30% of the kids in parts of the Congo now have had to drop out ,of school to mine coltan, a metal we need for our cheap and disposable electronics.
These people 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 is what I mean by the company owners externalize the true costs of production. And that brings us to the golden arrow of consumption.
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. That is 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. 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. Keep the materials flowing. And flow they do!
Guess what percentage of total materials flow through this system is still in product or use 6 month after the date of sale in North America. Fifty percent? Twenty? NO. One percent. One! In other words, 99 percent of the stuff – we harvest, mine, process, transport, 99 percent of the stuff we run through this system is trashed within 6 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 as much as they did 50 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 the World War 2, these guys were figuring out how to ramp up the economy. Retailing analyst Victor Lebow articulated the solution that has 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".
President Eisenhower's Council of Economic Advisors Chairman said that "The American economy's ultimate purpose is to produce more consumer goods." MORE CONSUMER GOODS our ultimate purpose? Not provide health care or education, or safe transportation or sustainability or justice? Consumer goods!. How did they get us to jump on board this programme 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, barbeques 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 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 anther one? It was so intentional. But stuff cannot break fast enough to keep this arrow 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 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 have had the same fat white computer monitor on my desk for 5 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 is driving in space ship central and I, I look like I have a washing machine on my desk.
Fashion is another prime example of this. Have you ever 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 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 each see more advertisements in one year than people 50 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 that our hair is wrong, our skin is wrong, our clothes are wrong, our furniture is wrong, our cars are wrong, we are wrong, but that it can all be made right if we just go shopping.
Media also helps by hiding all of this and all of this so the only part of the materials economy we see is the shopping. The extraction, production and disposal, all happen outside 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 as this consumption mania exploded. Hmmm. 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 that we have less leisure time now than in 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 3 to 4 times as many hours shopping as our counterparts in Europe do.
So we are 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 we 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 watch more T.V 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 the 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 United States makes 4.5 pounds of garbage a day. That is 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 a 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? 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 that we could stop the number one source of the most toxic man-made substance 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 and it reduces the pressure to mine and harvest new stuff at this end. Yes, Yes, Yes, we should all recycle. But recycling is not enough. Recycling will never be enough. For a couple of 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 70 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 percent of the waste coming out of our households, it doesn’t get to the core of the problems.
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 with layers of metal and paper and plastic 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 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 on saving forests and here on clean production. People working on labour rights and fair trade and conscious consuming and blocking landfills and incinerators and, very importantly on taking back our government so it is really is by the people and for the people. All this work is critically important but things are really gonna 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, a system that doesn’t waste resources or people. Cause what we really need to chuck is this 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 on the old path. That’s dreaming. Remember that old way didn’t just happen. It’s not like gravity that we’ve just gotta live with. People created it. And we’re people too. So let’s create something new.