Sunday, October 24, 2010

A scary book, just in time for Halloween

I'm a few pages away from finishing the scariest book. I know what they mean now when they talk about not being able to look away, because as scary as it was, I just had to keep reading. The book was about a world where these large faceless corporations were in total control. Somehow, many of the people that lived there were unaware of this. The people at the bottom were forced to do dirty, backbreaking work with toxic chemicals for pennies. The people at the top were manipulated and controlled into working long hours to give most of their money to these corporations in exchange for the things made from these toxic chemicals.

What's the worst part of this story? It's a nonfiction book, and it's about you and me. The Story of Stuff, by Annie Leonard, tells the tale of all the mundane items we're surrounded with, how they're made from carcinogenic chemicals and resources extracted at great price by poor people. She shows how we're manipulated into buying more and more, through planned obsolescence and advertising, and how our so-called durable goods have been so complex that no one can fix them when they break. She shows how most of the Stuff we own is generally thrown out fairly quickly, how we've poisoned the earth and trampled on people in third-world countries to obtain all this crap that never really goes "away" once we kick it to the curb.

Leonard does a good job of portraying how we're all sort off caught in a web. She doesn't aim to make an individual feel bad, because there's no real way to be "good" in this sort of system. No way to avoid consuming the carcinogenic chemicals that are in virtually everything we buy. No way to truly reduce your environmental impact to zero.

And yet, throughout the book, she continually offers alternatives and shows signs of hope. A flooring giant has begun taking responsibility for its products through its entire life, offering a sort of "tile" model for its carpets, since anyone who's recarpeting is really just looking to address the worn portion where the traffic pattern was, and the parts that were under furniture usually still look decent. They also experiment with renting carpets to offices the way they rent copiers: the company will service it and replace it when it's worn. A professor has developed the GoodGuide to help people consume better.

Other people are simply realizing that buying all that crap is stupid and choosing to define themselves more as parents, brothers, sisters, sons, daughters, Kiwanis members, hikers, literacy volunteers, Catholics, etc. than as Gap shoppers, iPhone users, Balenciaga devotees, etc. It's a growing trend, coinciding neatly with the recession and people's reduced ability to buy crap. Also, the people in Third World countries that always get dumped on are beginning to fight back. Leonard calls Bhopal the "resistance capital of the world" as its residents continue to agitate to force Union Carbide to clean up its mess. Leonard writes of working with communities in Haiti to force the city of Philadelphia to take back its incinerated garbage ash from its beach (incinerated garbage ash is loaded with toxic heavy metals and carcinogens).

This is a very difficult book to read, not mentally, but emotionally. And heaven help you if you have to buy shampoo or anything in the middle of it. I had to, at the end of a very long workday, with no time to research how bad the product I planned to buy was. I wound up just getting what I always getting, washing my hair with it next to my toxic PVC shower curtain, drying it with a dryer probably made by Third World people forced off their land into factories, then laying my head down on my toxin-laden pillow, pulling the sheets dyed with carcinogenic chemicals over my head, and curling up next to my toxin-laden mate with my toxin-laden cat.

That's how you'll start to look at everything. When I went into work the next day, it was hard not to warn my co-workers against getting their cans of pop from the vending machines. (Aluminum cans, along with PVC, are the things Leonard tagged as "stupid stuff" that are so costly and dangerous and pointless, they should just be eliminated. I wanted to scream, "Don't you know how they made those!" but of course, they probably don't).

But it's definitely an important book. It's one everyone should read, because I don't see how you could read it and not want to help. Leonard gives lots and lots of advice as to how. It will scare you, but not nearly as scary as the alternatives.

No comments: