Overconsumption is Costing Us the Earth and Human Happiness

Published on
by
The Guardian/UK

Overconsumption is Costing Us the Earth and Human Happiness

Story of Stuff creator Annie Leonard's new book examines the high price of the western world's obession with all things material

by
Celia Cole

If you really want to understand a country, a society, or even a
civilization, don't turn to its national museums or government
archives. Head to the tip.

According to Annie Leonard – former Greenpeace activist, unwavering optimist and waste
obsessive – the tip is akin to society's secret journal. "Stuff" became
a fascination for Leonard in her teens, choosing field trips to
landfills while at university when she began to question how we came to
build an economy based purely on resources.

That was 20 years ago, and a lot has changed. Waste and recycling
are now burning policy issues. Forty countries, hundreds of factories
and still more landfills later , Leonard worries we have not grasped
the fundamental problem with our materials economy. "It is a linear
system and we live on a finite planet. You cannot run a linear system
on a finite planet indefinitely. Too often the environment is seen as
one small piece of the economy. But it's not just one little thing,
it's what every single thing in our life depends upon."

In 2007, Leonard tried a novel medium – a YouTube video – to convey the message. The Story of Stuff
was a frank and cleverly animated short film telling the story of the
American love affair with stuff and how it is quite literally trashing
the planet. Three years on and it's a viral online phenomenon; seen by
10 million people in homes and classrooms all over the world. Now she
has followed up the video with a book of the same name.

Leonard
has surprised many, though, by not actually being against stuff. She
isn't even anti-consumption. In fact, she feels lots of people should
be consuming more. Just not most of us in the western world who often
over-consume.

Consumption can be good, she says. "I don't want to be callous to the people who really do need more stuff".

But
consumerism is always bad, adding little to our wellbeing as well as
being disastrous for the planet. "[It's] a particular strand of
overconsumption, where we purchase things, not to fulfil our basic
needs, but to fill some voids about our lives and make social
statements about ourselves," she explains.

"It turns out our
stuff isn't making us any happier," she argues. Our obsessive
relationship with material things is actually jeopardising our
relationships, "Which are proven over and over to be the biggest
determining factor in our happiness [once our basic needs are met]."

Leonard
calls upon wider research to argue the sociological and psychological
consequences of our all-consuming epidemic, including that of Tim Kasser and Robert Putman.
Kasser identified a connection between an excessively materialistic
outlook and increased levels of anxiety and depression, while Putman
argues we're paying the ultimate price for our consumeristic tendencies
with the loss of friendships, neighbourly support and robust
communities. Together they suggest we are witnessing nothing short of
the collapse of social fabric across society.

Part of the
problem, according to Leonard, is our confused sense of self. We've
allowed our citizen self to be dwarfed by a relatively new reflex
action – consume, consume, consume. "Our consumer self is so
overdeveloped that we spend most of our time there. You see it walking
around – we usually interact with others from our consumer self and are
most spoken to as our consumer self. The problem is that we are so
comfortable there that when we're faced with really big problems [like
climate change], we think about what to do as individuals and
consumers: 'I should buy this instead of this.'

"If you're going
to vote with your dollar that's fine," Leonard says. "But you need to
remember that Exxon has a lot more dollars than you. We need to vote
with our votes; re-engage with the political process and change the
balance of power so that those who are looking out for the wellbeing of
the planet dominate, instead of those who are just looking our for the
bottom line."

Like George Monbiot, Leonard doesn't think so-called ethical consumption, or greensumption
is going to get us out of the problem either. "The real solution is not
perfecting your ability to choose the best option, it's getting that
product off the shelf," she says. "It's increasingly looking like
buying green delays people engaging with the political process."

Leonard's film has its critics. Fox News branded it "full of misleading numbers". And the free market and climate sceptic think tank The Competitive Enterprise Institute, called the project
"community college Marxism in a ponytail." But many have found it hard
to argue Leonard doesn't live up to her values. At her home in
California she and another five families have chosen community over
stuff, tearing down the fences between their homes. "Its not a big
deal", she says. "We don't have matching clothes and its not like a
commune of anything. We are all just regular families in these six
houses [who] share things. And we just have so much fun."

The
Story of Stuff is about America, but how is the UK faring? Leonard does
note some positive differences: the NHS, our liberal political
discourse – allowing us to utter the words capitalism and unsustainable
in the same large breath, and she likes the fact that washing lines are
not a threatened species. One thing that does bug Leonard about this
country, though, is our pyromania. Specifically, she's worried about
our leaders' love affair with waste incinerators. "It's just so
depressing. Incinerators are such a regressive way of dealing with
waste materials. We need to promote zero waste as an alternative."

Zero waste is a term that gets thrown around a lot, most recently this week by environment secretary Caroline Spelman.
For Leonard, a complete overhaul in our approach involves a real
cradle-to-cradle revolution; marrying intelligent design upstream and
consumer incentivised recycling and composting downstream.

This
may well be one of the answers, and the book provides a few more. But
Leonard doesn't pretend to have them all, and she's reluctant to commit
to a new economic paradigm, either, because "we haven't invented it
yet."

She is sure of one thing though: "Change is inevitable. You
can't keep using one and a half planet's worth of resources
indefinitely."

Many have argued against the minor details of the
book, but few have questioned the fundamental premise that our current
use of resources is unsustainable. Even fewer have doubted her
optimism. "Environmentalists need to figure out a way of talking about
this stuff in a more engaging and inviting way, and that is what I hope
I'm doing with this book."

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