Stuff: The Secret Lives of Everyday Things

John C. Ryan and Alan Thein Durning,

Northwest Environment Watch, 1997.

86 pages, illus. $9.95 paperback.

Review by "Asta Bowen

When was the last time you heard an environmentalist complain that we're recycling too much? No street-corner shouter or mealymouthed apologist, John Ryan is the sober, credentialed research director of Seattle-based Northwest Environment Watch. After a couple hours with his group's latest book, you might think twice about recycling, too.

Stuff: The Secret Lives of Everyday Things is a book I always wanted to write. Born curious, I wonder about everything, like where the plastic in my computer came from and who picked the beans for my coffee and exactly how many salmon died to power my electric stove. In Stuff, Ryan and co-author Alan Durning tackle these questions, and others I never thought to ask.

My coffee picker, for example, earned less than a dollar a day. My computer case was hatched from Saudi Arabian oil, with help from Wyoming coal and Texas gas. (The innards owe their parentage to Washington silicon, Texas fiberglass, Chilean copper, Malaysian labor, and Japanese glass, among other things.)

Policy wonks will love this book, and even the unwonked may find some new statistics sticking in their memory bank. Consider the figure of 120 pounds: This is the amount of "stuff" we each consume every day, directly and indirectly, through the burger and fries, car and computer, T-shirt and shoes, newspaper and coffee whose "secret lives' the book details.

You drove to work on roads (your share each day is 27 pounds of stone and cement) in a car (8 pounds of metals) and flipped switches powered by electricity (19 pounds of coal, or 16 pounds of oil and 1 pound of natural gas). Your food was processed from farm products (12 pounds total) and your wood consumption, amortized over the life of the house and the desk and the papers stacking up on it, was 11 pounds for today. Add range grass and miscellaneous minerals, and there it is: a body weight in resources, not even counting 375 gallons of water.

According to a Canadian research team, at this rate it would take four Earths to satisfy the "American dream" for everyone in the world, plus nine atmospheres to absorb the pollution.

How is it, then, that we're recycling too much? Simple, says Ryan. We're consuming too much in the first place.

We recycle 60 percent of our aluminum cans, but if we drank beverages from refillable bottles (remember the old days?), we wouldn't have 100 billion cans a year to dispose of. Auto steel is 40 percent scrap, but if a car lasted 20 instead of 10 years, we could leave another 3,500 pounds of iron ore in the ground.

The kindest aspect of Stuff is that the book doesn't add emotional baggage to the load. It doesn't preach, threaten, or nag; written in the first person, the story simply chronicles a day in the life of a middle-class North American. The narrator seems as much amused as amazed by the hidden jungle of production and consumption he discovered behind the simple, sanitized "stuff" we've come to take for granted.

Back in the Vietnam era, we used to worry about the domino effect of communist takeovers. Different dominoes are falling now, set in motion not by hostile armies, but by our own cars and houses, and by countless transactions at the convenience store, grocery store, appliance store, and discount store. It is no accident that in grammar class, groping for an example, the sentence that always pops up first is "I went to the store."

Yet this book is not a call to stop recycling, or even to stop consuming. It is a call to begin noticing the domino effect of consumption, and to move more carefully among the hidden networks of chips that topple every time we pull an item from the store shelf. It is a call to explore the possibility that "less stuff can mean more happiness."

Until we find a store with a dozen or so good planets for sale, it's a possibility worth pursuing. n

'Asta Bowen writes in Somers, Montana.