Review: The Story of Stuff

Let me be clear from the outset: I think that The Story of Stuff, a web video starring Annie Leonard and aimed at raising awareness about the dangers of mindless consumption, is an admirable project with an even more admirable goal. And were I a few years younger I may have even felt it was important or inspiring. Today, I find it to be incredibly annoying.

The Story of Stuff makes the same errors that I find so vexing about environmentalism in general. Though most activists don’t like to admit it, activism is a field marred by unrealistic idealists who imagine that but for some tragic flaw the world would be an entirely different place. For most environmentalists that bogeyman is named “big business,” “corporations,” or “the government.” These forces are the reason people act in ways they shouldn’t, for it is the bogeyman who rapes the land, makes loads of junk that people neither need nor want, and then shoves that stuff down their throats. Soon after, he makes them throw that stuff away in the least responsible way and buy more of the same stuff they didn’t want in the first place.

This is a convenient and understandable story, but that’s doesn’t make it right, and that certainly doesn’t make me any more willing to tolerate it. It’s a message laced with helpless victimhood and painful pessimism that sees the world in total crisis.

And though you wouldn’t know it from watching The Story of Stuff, we are not in the middle of a hopeless crisis from which there is no way out. We are not idiot machines who’ve subverted our will to that of the bogeymen.

Surely the world’s got its fair share of problems. Global warming has still not been adequately addressed. There are places in the world where it is still acceptable to put workers in harm’s way working with hideously dangerous chemicals or working in terribly dangerous mines. Places where clear-cutting is accepted and slash-and-burn tolerated.

But I don’t see The Story of Stuff as the proper response to any other these problems. The deeply cynically video is more likely to make me pull my hair out than to make me an activist or “no impact man.”

Because I can’t manage to fit my problems with the video into a cohesive paragraphs, a few of my biggest gripes:

  • The video’s presentation of the government/corporation relationship is comically insulting to both hardworking politicians and honest businessmen. This is not to say that all members of both groups fit that description, but I loathe when people go out of their way to deny the work of either. Showing the government polishing the shoes of a bloated “corporation” may be how you perceive reality, but it’s an immediate turn off to any and all that disagree.
  • Not all collection of natural resources is done by clear cutting, strip mining, or general raping of the land. Don’t get me wrong, I’m sure a lot of it still is, but denying that some companies are working hard to be sustainable and responsible is an insult to both reality and those responsible stakeholders.
  • Not everything about manufacturing is “toxic.” Make no mistake, I think there are plenty of dangerous chemicals in the things we produce, but you’re playing fast-and-loose with reality if you’re going to say that manufacturing is the simple practice of putting toxic chemicals onto stuff to produce toxic products.
  • Why oh why are you bringing up George Bush? What relevance do his boneheaded proclamations have to do with anything?
  • Americans in the past were not wiser and more earth-friendly by choice. We’ve not been made into mindless consumers by a shadowy cabal hell-bent on making people consume as much as they can. People like to have things. When they can have things cheaply, they’re likely to take that opportunity to have a lot of cheap things. I’m not saying it’s right, I’m just saying it’s human nature.

Mostly, I’m just disappointed by all of this. And it’s not just about The Story of Stuff either. Similarly egregious things are done everywhere in the “environmental movement.” Its default mode seems to be a deep pessimism coupled with a pervasive alarmism that stifles action.

There are big problems facing the world today. And that’s a great reason to offer a lot of practical things that people can do to cope with the broken system you see. But The Story of Stuff instead offers only one final minute packed with buzzwords that the average viewer can neither understand nor implement.

I dislike being so deeply critical of anything, but it’s the only way I know to express my deepest disappointment.

politics, USA, world

The Nuclear Dilemma

I’m rather certain that my favorite Republican presidential candidate during the 2000 election cycle was John McCain. I’m also rather certain that he’s my favorite this time too. It’s not that he’s perfect. Far from it. I’m well aware that he’s got flaws, and I’ve certainly taken issue with some of the things he’s said.

Lest we go too far into America’s political realities, let’s get back to nukes. But this is not about Iran, North Korea, or the kind of nuclear technologies that go boom. We’re talking about the significantly less frightening kind that just boil water.

Nuclear technology and environmentalists have never been friends. And so the idea that they’ll suddenly become so is unlikely. But John McCain is right about one thing: environmentalists need nuclear power.

To their credit some have come to this realization. Stewart Brand, who created The Whole Earth Catalogue, which The Economist described as “a path-breaking manual crammed with examples of small-scale technologies to enable individuals to reduce their environmental impact” that still has fans in environmental circles.

But Mr. Brand, like Mr. McCain, has embraced the importance of nuclear power to the greening of America. Also like Mr. McCain (and myself), he fails to see what’s so bad about nuclear power and the requisite waste storage. Again, The Economist:

For years, he held the orthodox environmental view that nukes were evil. He now confesses that this was merely “knee-jerk opposition”, and not a carefully considered opinion. His growing concern about global warming, which he calls “the single most important environmental threat facing mankind”, explains his U-turn in favour of this low-carbon but hugely controversial source of electricity.

The turning point came, he says, when he visited Yucca Mountain, a remote site in the Nevada desert where American officials plan to bury the country’s nuclear waste. … Although greens and other anti-nuclear activists oppose the Yucca Mountain project, Mr Brand says he realised that “we are asking the wrong question” about nuclear power. Rather than asking how spent nuclear fuel can be kept safe for 10,000 to 100,000 years, he says, we should worry about keeping it safe for only 100 years. Because nuclear waste still contains an enormous amount of energy, future generations may be able to harness it as an energy source through tomorrow’s better technologies.

Though I’m not as sanguine as Mr. Brand about the ease with which technology will reharness our spent nuclear fuel, I fail to see how opposition to nuclear power is anything but a knee-jerk reaction. Given the choice between filling even a few hollowed-out mountains with spent nuclear fuel or flooding a number of small island nations and coastal cities into nonexistence I think the choices is obvious.

Surely green power-generation technologies exist, and surely they’re becoming more efficient by the year, but they’re hardly ready to be the sole fuel sources for the world. The most well-known options–wind and solar–are both inefficient and far from dependable. It doesn’t take much to realize that without wind or sun they’d produce no power.

Nuclear power certainly is not a perfect technology, but it’s the most carbon-neutral and dependable option available. Power generation companies in this country and around the world realize this and are working to build bigger, safer, and more productive nuclear power stations (usually near existing ones, to avoid the “not in my backyard” problem). And though the most obvious allies for the power companies push to lower carbon dioxide emission are greens, they’re still the people most likely to step out and oppose it.

The issue of safety with nuclear power stations is still the foremost for most opponents. It’s worth noting, as I have, that compared with coal, nuclear is incredibly safe. The number of deaths related to the Chernobyl disaster is easily dwarfed by the number killed mining coal in China in a single year.

Certainly that doesn’t compare with the estimated zero killed by wind, solar, tidal, and geothermal power plants, but this is again ignoring the issue of viability as dependable producers of electricity.

Nuclear is hardly the ideal choice. Were completely safe and renewable energy a viable option in the next few years, I would readily support it. But it’s not. What’s currently available is the unsavory choice between fossil fuels and nuclear, and between those two nuclear is certainly the safer and more environmentally-friendly option. Until renewable sources of energy are dependable and efficient enough, I think nuclear remains the only acceptable stop-gap for a carbon-concerned environmentalist. The sooner that’s realized, the better.

big ideas, politics, religion

The Problem of Heaven and Earth

This idea arose from something E. O. Wilson, the famous biologist, recently told Bill Moyers. He was essentially giving reasons that people, in this case Christians, use for not concerning themselves with the impact of human activity on the planet and other species. I hope I can lay out the argument with some clarity, separate from the rest of what Wilson was saying.

Few people would, a priori, think that there is any problem with Heaven. After all, if God rewards believers who live good lives with a trip there, it must be a good place. And though views vary about the nature of Heaven, a few facts about it can be fixed: it is eternal, it is better than life on earth, and it’s nature is not influenced by any factors on the planet.

This last point, that Heaven is not affected by life before death, needs some clarification. Certainly events that occur on Earth can have an impact on who is in Heaven, but they cannot change what the “eternal reward” of Heaven will be. That is: if I were to get in a fight, kill a man, or commit theft, that could certainly change my chances of being allowed into Heaven. But, beyond the few set actions that would bar me from entry, there is little in my life that will change the experience that is had after I entered, were I allowed to.

If you live in a giant house or a small house, drive a big car or a small car, cut down trees or plant them, none of this affects the nature of Heaven itself or your (eternal) time there. Whether you’re rich or poor, American or Polynesian, white or black, it doesn’t change you chances of getting into Heaven any more than it affects the likelihood of you sinning.

Because few of your earthly activities change your possibility of entry into Heaven, and because your time here is surely shorter than your time in Heaven, those who believe fervently in Heaven, and think they are going there, have little incentive to worry about Earth or its future.

The fact that there is little incentive for most Christians to worry about the future of the planet and the environment doesn’t stop them from doing so. More and more Christians are realizing the importance of protecting the planet. Richard Cizik, a vice-president at the National Association of Evangelicals has garnered a great deal of attention in the last few years for reorienting the groups mission to include “protecting God’s creation.”

Yet the problem of Heaven no doubt persists. There are still people, be them one or one million, who take little stock of what role their methods of living have here on Earth, worrying only about making it through their time here. Perhaps this is because they are thinking too much of their eternal reward to be much concerned about the present, or perhaps they simply don’t recognize their impact.

Obviously, the problem of conservation isn’t one fought merely against Christians who believe in Heaven, but they are an important factor. Surely atheists, Muslims, Jews, Hindus, Buddhists, and Sikhs can also have a negative impact on the planet. But, their problems of conservation will have to wait for another time.

For now, I think anyone unconcerned about the future of the planet needs to take careful stock of why they don’t care, and ask if they really cannot. Further, I think those that are concerned about the future of the planet should think about what impact, positive and negative, they are having in their day-to-day life.

Surely Heaven is not the only reason people are willing to neglect the planet. Some strive to downplay their personal impact for political, economic, or social reasons. But I think religious reasons are an awfully poor reason to not be concerned about the impact of humans’ industrial and geographic expansion. Whether or not you believe in Heaven, it is a poor reason to willingly and carelessly sully the planet for future generations.

american society, lists, world

Ten Reasons to Avoid Bottled Water

Bottled water has been getting a lot of bad press recently. And though I tend to pity those is unfortunate situations, in this case I say “pile on.” So here they are, ten good reasons to avoid (not purchase, not imbibe) bottled water.

All quotes on this list come from the July 2007 issue of Fast Company, in Charles Fishman’s “Message in a Bottle.” It’s a really great piece, and I would suggest reading the whole thing.

Also, this list is not meant to deny the usefulness of bottled water. When the safety of your water supply is an honest concern, I say you’ve got good reason to drink from sealed bottles. And when you can’t take another swig of the foul water you sometimes find in rural Nebraska, that’s okay too. But if can reasonably avoid the stuff, please do.

  1. Think of the kittens. Every time you break the seal on a bottle of water, God kills a kitten. Please, think of the kittens.
  2. But seriously… It’s not safer or healthier. I sometimes find it difficult to believe that anyone would believe this. Municipal water in the “developed” world is always free of anything we count on nutrition labels. It’s free of vitamins, it’s free of essential minerals, and its free of calories. There is nothing different whether it comes from Fiji, Maine, Los Angeles’s municipal water supply, or your own faucet.
  3. You’re paying too much. Look at it in these simple terms, “If you bought and drank a bottle of Evian, you could refill that bottle once a day for 10 years, 5 months, and 21 days with San Francisco tap water before that water would cost $1.35. Put another way, if the water we use at home cost what even cheap bottled water costs, our monthly water bills would run $9,000.”
  4. You’re creating more waste. Even though water bottles are made with easy to recycle PET, they are often sent to landfills. “Our recycling rate for PET is only 23%, which means we pitch into landfills 38 billion water bottles a year–more than $1 billion worth of plastic.”
  5. Even if you do recycle, you’re still wasting energy to dispose of the bottle. Recycling isn’t free. Citizens pay for it, and they pay because it is not industrially efficient. Cleaning, processing, and reselling the recovered materials is not a cheap process, and it requires energy both from people and from machines. Much more energy than it takes for you to wash your own water bottle.
  6. Transport is waste. Where you have no safe or readily available drinking water, this may be untrue. But for most people who would read this, you’re wasting excess energy to get water of roughly equivalent quality. You can’t ignore the fact that shipping water from Fiji, or anywhere else, uses more energy than using the water that (probably) naturally arrives and is used by your local water utility.
  7. You may well be getting tap water anyway. Both Pepsi and Coca-Cola (or Aquafina and Dasani), sell municipal water back to consumers. Those two alone account for 24% of the bottled water sold in the United States. Municipal water being sold back to you should be good reason to use that water yourself.
  8. It doesn’t even taste better. Though I wouldn’t deny that some people can truly distinguish a difference, “in blind taste tests, with waters at equal temperatures, presented in identical glasses, ordinary people can rarely distinguish between tap water, springwater, and luxury waters.”
  9. You can filter your own. Though you don’t have access to some of the more advanced (and more wasteful) filtering technologies used by the industry, there are many options for filtering your water at home. These will not put it in sealed bottles for you, but they can improve the taste of the water for less cost than a bottle, and with less waste.
  10. You can do better. Says Princeton’s Peter Singer, “we’re completely thoughtless about handing out $1 for this bottle of water, when there are virtually identical alternatives for free. It’s a level of affluence that we just take for granted. What could you do? Put that dollar in a jar on the counter instead, carry a water bottle, and at the end of the month, send all the money to Oxfam or CARE and help someone who has real needs. And you’re no worse off.”

I think Mr. Fishman deserves the last words on this topic:

Packing bottled water in lunch boxes, grabbing a half-liter from the fridge as we dash out the door, piling up half-finished bottles in the car cup holders–that happens because of a fundamental thoughtlessness. It’s only marginally more trouble to have reusable water bottles, cleaned and filled and tucked in the lunch box or the fridge. We just can’t be bothered. And in a world in which 1 billion people have no reliable source of drinking water, and 3,000 children a day die from diseases caught from tainted water, that conspicuous consumption of bottled water that we don’t need seems wasteful, and perhaps cavalier.

That is the sense in which Mackey, the CEO of Whole Foods, and Singer, the Princeton philosopher, are both right. Mackey is right that buying bottled water is a choice, and Singer is right that given the impact it has, the easy substitutes, and the thoughtless spending involved, it’s fair to ask whether it’s always a good choice.