“The secret life of stuff” part one

This is a post based upon the fantastic book by Julie Hill. Every single item we buy is the product of energy invested, resources consumed, and a belief system that discounts the environmental costs of our unsustainable way of life. The economist Kenneth Boulding calls that belief system “the linear economy,” and its credo is “make stuff, buy stuff, throw stuff away.”

Heavy, right? But we HAVE to talk about our consumption. When we’re eating, breathing, and birthing plastics (they’re in our fetuses), 1000 new chemicals are synthesized every hour, and our garbage dumps are bursting at the seams, despite recycling efforts, then it’s time for a little awareness, a little discomfort, and a LOT of re-thinking of manufacture and consumerism.

Hill’s book is as fascinating as it is frustrating. She starts out, “We humans… have surrounded ourselves with things that are ingenious and delightful… But I’m dismayed at how little we understand the complexity of the material world that sustains us… we rarely know where [our stuff] comes from and where it goes… We rarely appreciate the effort that turns materials into the stuff around us… we are oblivious to the secret life of stuff.”

me & Walmart CEO

Before I dove into activism, my life was work, take care of family, sleep, and SHOP. Buying stuff was entertainment, it was recreation, it was exploration, and socializing, habit, and, yes, therapy. It was just… what we DID. And the buying was ALWAYS, for me, about, “oh yea, this says such-and-such a thing about me (impressive), and that says such-and-such a thing about us (successful), and people will think this is tasteful, and that’s funny or cute, and… NO ONE EVER CAME OVER!! Partly because we were out shopping, and mostly because I was at work making money to blow on stuff!

Yes, I propped up the economy well. I took George Bush’s advice after 9/11 to heart, and kept western civilization humming by throwing my dollars straight from paycheck into the economy. Wow. When I look back, I recognize that I was trying to fill a lonely heart with goods. I’m grateful I came to a healthier emotional place. But I don’t think any westerner would deny that our culture strongly encourages us to buy things. In fact, corporations have become expert in manipulating us so they can take custody of our money. It makes me angry and disgusted to know how transactionally they look at us. It’s a dehumanization that’s been allowed to go too far, and for too long. But I digress! Rant over. But just know, you are not a THING to me… not ever!

So what to do with stuff after we’ve decided we’re done with it: “If the waste is not biodegradable, nature cannot deal with it at all. Humans have brought non-degradable wastes into the system in a variety of ways: we pull materials out of the earth’s crust, we transform them by applying heat, we combine them and we create wholly novel materials such as plastic polymers. What can be done with this kind of waste?”

One option is to try to pretend it never existed: dump it in a hole or valley, compact it, and cover it with dirt. But this method has drawbacks, such as “leachate,” a toxic liquid formed at the bottom of landfills from a combination of the garbage and precipitation filtering through it. And lots of stuff that could be recycled gets buried. One day, workers may have to dig it up. I recall my biology teacher mentioning this, 30 years ago, and I thought, “that won’t happen in my lifetime.” And yet… here we are. On the cusp of actually having to deal with buried trash. From no waste at all (most people, 100 years ago), to massive garbage production (50 years ago to now), to today, when the “zero waste,” no-landfill movement signals the dawning of new wisdom in waste management.

Another option is incinerating wastes. But ‘incomplete combustion’ produces dangerous chemicals. And “up to a third of what is consigned to the furnace comes out as ash. Some can be recycled into building materials, but [the rest]… has to be taken to landfill.” Some incinerators produce electricity and/or heat, but sometimes “the amount of energy recovered may not justify the destruction of potentially valuable materials.” Still, Hill says, burning “might be a good option for certain wastes.”

Hill next embarks on a fascinating discussion about the materials used to make stuff. It’s a surprisingly short list: minerals- including glass, metals, pottery, and concrete (energy-expensive); wood (includes paper); plastics; textiles; and “composites-” plastics with metals, ceramics with fibers, etc. Hill talks about the pro’s and con’s of each material, and explains that the use of multiple materials to make one product complicates recycling. Items that can’t be recycled because of this include wax paper, coffee cups (lined with plastic), chip bags (lined with foil), and hardcover books. As Bob Vila says, “the sturdy covers of hardcover books contain non-paper components and must therefore be removed” before recycling the pages.

We know the environment takes a hit when we “harvest” materials to make stuff. But we’re typically completely unaware of how much is taken from the earth IN ADDITION to those raw materials. Textiles, for example, need crazy amounts of water, and the soil is damaged by intensive agricultural practices. You’d think we recycle so much paper by now that we wouldn’t need to cut down trees for it. But our paper hunger is so vast, even irreplaceable old growth forests are logged. Then there’s pollution, including fertilizer run-off that wreaks havoc on river and wetland ecosystems. Ultimately, we encounter hard limits in the quest for ever more raw materials, including finite supplies of land, water, and healthy soil. The necessity to preserve invaluable species and ecosystems is another hard limit to endless economic expansion.


“Negative externalities” are the costs of environmental damage, including the price on human health, that companies cause but don’t have to pay. These costs are, instead, paid by you and I, through our taxes, or in the cost of stuff, or in lost work due to illness. We may believe that, “one should be responsible for one’s own mess,” but corporations don’t live up to the same standard. Being able to pass on the costs of production is a massive part of what makes corporations’ goods affordable. But the environment can no longer afford to pay the price. Nor can we.

And here is where I have to say, “well lookee here, just one more way our governments have screwed things up, and in failing to bite the bullet a long time ago, have made life much harder for the people they were supposed to be protecting and empowering.”

Chapter 8 marks the place where Hill begins to tie consumption to global environmental damage. Because the linear economy involves global supply chains, massive use of resources, and out-sourcing of waste manage- ment, including recycling, a lot of ecological degradation isn’t visible to the world’s consumers. We hear about the damage, but goods keep getting made, and our leaders say and do nothing, so we keep buying. Because the items are cute, or impressive, or… seem like a necessity. Consequently, the “free” market never gets signaled that many goods would not be bought if we knew the truth about their negative externalities. This is an example of “market failure,” but corporations are loathe for consumers to learn that there is a lot of information we aren’t getting about the products we buy.

And of course, some goods are necessities. But the linear economy presides over our basic needs just as militantly as over items that’re arguably luxuries. Our food comes from far away, because somehow food grown halfway across the world and transported on trucks is cheaper. Chinese workers make clothing and toys for peanuts, so corporations take advantage. But what all of it means is that slowly but surely, we’re eating away at the “natural capital” that comprises the raw materials for stuff. And as the most accessible and/or fastest renewing raw materials get used up, more energy, labor, and other capital is required to obtain more. Corporations pass those costs on to us, but demand even more help from governments as their profit margins decrease.

The time of reckoning is here. Governments are choosing to help big, profitable companies pass their costs on to the people. Companies that ensure the politicians’ reelection. Our governments have presided over the transformation of large corporations into gargantuan unethical beasts that can never be satisfied. And now they tell us that unless we keep feeding those beasts, no one will have a job. Well, SMALL businesses employ far more people than large, multi-national companies. Climate change action is arrested because of the corrupt government-big corporation alliance that has captured our governments. That’s why I realized recently that without confronting corruption, I was not really educating about climate change. But that’s a discussion for another post.

An economist called Herman Daly came up with three criteria to help people avoid eating away at the natural capital all humanity depends on for survival. They are: “1) We should not use renewable resources (things that grow) any faster than they can grow back; 2) We should not use non-renewable resources (fossil fuels, minerals) any faster than we can develop alternative ways of doing the same job; and 3) We shouldn’t put pollution into the environment any faster than the environment can deal with it.”

Global Footprint Network

Lester Brown, an American environmentalist, compares today’s economy to a Ponzi scheme, “meeting current demands out of the earth’s basic assets, rather than investing wisely and living from the interest. He writes, ‘As recently as 1950 or so, the world economy was living more or less within its means, consuming only the sustainable yield… But then as the economy doubled, and doubled again, and yet again, multiplying eighthold, it began to outrun sustainable yields… humanity’s collective demands first surpassed the earth’s regenerative capacity around 1980…’ we are eroding our vital capital assets, the natural capital that underpins everything we do.” This erosion is reflected in the term “overshoot.” “Earth Overshoot Day marks the date we… have used more from nature than our planet can renew in the entire year.”

The effects of massive consumption are not only environmental, they’re also relational and spiritual. Vance Packard wrote about this in 1960! To preserve the economic beast created for World War 2, manufacturers had to “sell people things they didn’t need. The effects of this, he argues, were to impoverish important aspects of people’s lives, including their relationships and their spirituality. For this degradation of the lives of [western] citizens, he blames the government and the advertising industry.”

In the book’s next section, Hill describes her fantasy educational dinner with seven of the leading minds on why we consume what we do. This is an amazing immersive lesson in human history and psychology. Hill confronts the questions underlying every lament about consumerism and capitalism: why are we no happier than people in less materialistic ages and cultures? Why don’t we change our consumption level even as experts warn us about environmental degradation? How can we learn from cultures who literally committed suicide by destroying their natural capital? And how do we decide what is excessive consumption, and regulate companies bent on profit despite their negative externalities?

Hill has insights into these fascinating questions in the second half of her book, which inspires part two of this post. Find it here.