No nagging or preaching here

  • Cover of the book "Stuff"

 

Stuff: The Secret Lives of Everyday Things
John C. Ryan and Alan Thein Durning,
Northwest Environment Watch, 1997.
86 pages, illus. $9.95 paperback.

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.

'Asta Bowen writes in Somers, Montana.

High Country News Classifieds
  • LAND AND WATER CONSERVATION DIRECTOR
    The Land and Water Conservation Director is a full-time salaried position with the Mountain Area Land Trust in Evergreen, CO. The successful candidate will have...
  • ARIZONA PROGRAM MANAGER
    National Parks Conservation Association (NPCA), the nation's oldest and largest national parks nonprofit advocacy organization seeks an Arizona Program Manager. The Arizona Program Manager works...
  • CROWN OF THE CONTINENT COMMUNITY CONSERVATION SPECIALIST
    THE WILDERNESS SOCIETY is seeking a Community Conservation Specialist, for the Crown of the Continent DEPARTMENT: Conservation CLASSIFICATION: Grade 6 Specialist/Representative (Low of $54K) REPORTS...
  • ASSISTANT FARM DIRECTOR
    About The Organization Building community through fresh vegetables is at the heart of the Sisters-based non-profit, Seed to Table Oregon. Based on a four-acre diversified...
  • CARPENTER WANTED
    CARPENTER WANTED. Come to Ketchikan and check out the Rainforest on the coast, Hike the shorelines, hug the big trees, watch deer in the muskeg...
  • DYNAMIC EXECUTIVE DIRECTOR
    VARD is seeking an Executive Director to lead a small legal & planning staff dedicated to the health and sustainability of Teton Valley Idaho and...
  • WATER PROJECT MANAGER, UPPER SAN PEDRO (ARIZONA)
    Based in Tucson or Sierra Vista, AZ., the Upper San Pedro Project Manager develops, manages, and advances freshwater conservation programs, plans, and methods focusing on...
  • CAMPAIGNS DIRECTOR
    Southeast Alaska Conservation is hiring. Visit https://www.seacc.org/about/hiring for info. 907-586-6942 [email protected]
  • FINANCE & GRANTS MANAGER
    The Blackfoot Challenge, located in Ovando, MT, seeks a self-motivated, detail-oriented individual to conduct bookkeeping, financial analysis and reporting, and grant oversight and management. Competitive...
  • WADE LAKE CABINS, CAMERON MT
    A once in a lifetime opportunity to live and run a business on the shore of one of the most beautiful lakes in SW Montana....
  • CONTRIBUTING EDITOR, BOOKS, CULTURE AND COMMENTARY (PART-TIME, CONTRACT)
    High Country News is seeking a Contributing Editor for Books, Culture and Commentary to assign and edit inquisitive, inspiring, and thought-provoking content for HCN in...
  • STATEWIDE COMMUNITY ORGANIZER
    ABOUT US Better Wyoming is a nonprofit, nonpartisan advocacy organization that educates, organizes, and mobilizes Wyoming residents on behalf of statewide change. Learn more at...
  • EXECUTIVE DIRECTOR
    TwispWorks is a 501(c)3 that promotes economic and cultural vitality in the mountainous Methow Valley, the eastern gateway to North Cascades National Park in Washington...
  • CLEAN ENERGY ADVOCATE OR DIRECTOR
    Location: Helena, Montana Type: Permanent, full time after 1-year probationary period. Reports to: Director of Policy and Legislative Affairs. Travel: Some overnight travel, both in-state...
  • PROFESSIONAL GIS SERVICES
    Custom Geospatial Solutions is available for all of your GIS needs. Affordable, flexible and accurate data visualization and analysis for any sized project.
  • DEVELOPMENT DIRECTOR
    Restore Hetch Hetchy, a 501 (c)(3) nonprofit organization, seeks experienced development professional to identify and engage individuals and institutions who are inspired to help underwrite...
  • PUBLIC LANDS COUNSEL
    The successful candidate will be the organization's lead counsel on public lands issues, including reviewing federal administrative actions and proposed policy and helping to shape...
  • GUIDE TO WESTERN NATIONAL MONUMENTS
    NEW BOOK showcases 70 national monuments across the western United States. Use "Guide10" for 10% off at cmcpress.org
  • RARE CHIRICAHUA RIPARIAN LAND FOR SALE
    40 acres: 110 miles from Tucson: native trees, grasses: birder's heaven::dark sky/ borders state lease & National forest/5100 ft/13-16 per annum rain
  • ENVIRONMENTAL GEOPHYSICS
    "More Data, Less Digging" Find groundwater and reduce excavation costs!