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Review
The Story of Stuff: The Book
Annie Leonard delves deeper into the subject of her short Internet film.

The Story of Stuff: How Our Obsession With Stuff
Is Trashing the Planet, Our Communities, and
Our Health—A Vision for Change

By Annie Leonard
Free Press, 272 pages, $26

It’s pretty straightforward to Annie Leonard: The earth’s surface measures 197 million square miles. We have about 326 million cubic meters of water, total. That’s it. That’s all we’ve got. “The earth’s dimensions and capacity remain stable,” she writes in her new book, The Story of Stuff: How Our Obsession With Stuff Is Trashing the Planet, Our Communities, and Our Health—A Vision for Change based on her Internet movie by the same name. “That means there’s a limit to the amount of land, water, air, minerals, and other resources provided by the earth. That’s just a fact.”

Leonard, an international sustainability and environmental health expert, pummels readers with many such nuggets. They’re statistics it’s pretty darn difficult to ignore. Like the fact that the amount of paper Americans use annually could build a 10-foot-high wall from New York City to Tokyo. Or that the world population uses 1.4 planet’s worth of biocapacity each year. Almost 300 pages brimming with what reads like reprimand can leave a reader feeling helpless to prevent our planet’s destruction.

But a closer look at the finer points of Leonard’s argument reveals some suggestions for how individuals can help. As with her movie, the author breaks down the story of stuff into five stages: extraction, production, distribution, consumption, and disposal. For some stages, Leonard details which resources we’re overusing the most, like water and trees. In others, she follows three of her own items—a cotton T-shirt, a book, and a computer—through their production and distribution. Signs of hope line every chapter—literally. Leonard uses a cartoon person holding a “HOPE” sign to signify places she sees change as possible or happening.

The further I got into this book, the more anxiously I awaited that cartoon. After reading dismaying facts about how Americans discard 150 billion single-use beverage containers every day, for instance, the “HOPE” sign holder appeared next to a paragraph about bottle bills in eight states and a 2009 House bill (in committee as of February 2010) requiring deposits on containers up to gallon size. We may have moved beyond recycling and composting and other individual actions, but that doesn’t mean people should stop trying. Now we need widespread government- and corporate-level changes, such as a federal bottle bill or making companies reduce their packaging, Leonard says, and the onus is on individuals to push for those changes.

A tactic that alienates anyone who’s not a natural lobbyist seems risky. But that doesn’t deter Leonard. “There’s too much wrong with the system for even the most obsessive-compulsive among us to get every action and every choice just right. And because that scenario is so overwhelming, the individual-responsibility model of change risks causing people to freak out, throw their hands up in despair, and sink back into overconsumptive, wasteful lifestyles,” she writes. “We need meaningful opportunities to make big choices that make big differences.”  Without those, she concludes, there really would be no hope. And believe it or not, despite two decades of sifting through garbage and stuff, Leonard isn’t there yet.

For a Q&A with Annie Leonard, click here.

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