While the problems of consumer culture have spread worldwide, America holds a unique place in the scheme that Annie dates back to decisions that we made at the outset of the Industrial Revolution. In some countries, people chose to take advantage of increasing productivity to reduce the work week, to take more vacations, and enjoy more time with family and friends. But in America, every gain was turned into a material gain, into more stuff. Rather than gathering in more happiness and freedom from advancing technology, we buried ourselves in an ever accelerating quest for the latest goodies. Generation by generation, year by year, we’ve accumulated more goods and consumed more of the world’s resources (and made ourselves more miserable).
It’s a problem that’s perpetuated today by everything from the way we’re entertained to the way we’re educated. Where once we practiced “keeping up with the Joneses” by comparing ourselves to our neighbors, television has provided a window on consumer paradise where part-time baristas own huge Manhattan apartments and office workers dress in the latest designer duds. We’re no longer happy to compare our possessions with the couple down the street, we have to compete with Brad and Angelina. We don’t want what our friends have, or what our parents had, we want what Oprah has. This “vertical expansion of the reference group” means we can never reach our goals and are always left feeling as if we’ve failed. The only solution to our inadequacy? Go shopping for more stuff!
Shopping has become the key to how we view ourselves to such an extent that not only did George W. Bush urge us to shop ourselves out of the peril of 9/11, even environmental activists often turn to the mall. What’s the most frequent advice dispensed to people trying to behave more responsibly? Buy green. It’s advice that not only encourages still more consumption as means to address the problem of over-consumption, but it all too often ignores the market forces that have delivered “green” products to the local mall — forces that rarely have any concern for the resources or people damaged along the way.
As we worry about the current economic downturn, even the way we attempt to measure our problems reflects this distorted shopaholic culture. Take a primal forest, kick out the people who have lived there for generations, cut down the trees, slice them into pieces, soak them in toxic chemicals, turn them into disposable products, and ship the discarded remains off to a landfill. On the business page of your local paper or the glitzy stock channel on your television, each of those steps has the same name: growth. What’s a recession? Lack of growth. How do we end a recession? Stimulate spending on more disposable items, so we can buy more disposable goods, so we can cut down more forests, so we can have more… growth.
But if the first part of Annie’s film is devoted to describing the problems of our current unsustainable culture of disposable goods, it’s the final part that deserves special attention. Rather than stopping with the bad news, Annie shoots straight on into the good — we can change. The most engaging part of her description of our society is that everyone can find their place in the flow, and the same dynamic means that everyone is positioned to help change how things work. Environmental issues, social justice, and economics all play into making the change toward a fair, sustainable society. There are as many ways to insert yourself into the process as there are products on the shelves of the local big box store.
Go see the Story of Stuff here.
Buy Green, Buy Fair, Buy Local, Buy Used, and most importantly, Buy Less. Shopping is not the solution to the environmental problems we currently face because the real changes we need just aren’t for sale in even the greenest shop. But, when we do shop, we should ensure our dollars support businesses that protect the environment and worker rights. Look beyond vague claims on packages like “all natural” to find hard facts. Is it organic? Is it free of super-toxic PVC plastic? When you can, buy local products from local stores, which keeps more of our hard earned money in the community. Buying used items keeps them out of the trash and avoids the upstream waste created during extraction and production. But, buying less may be the best option of all. Less pollution. Less Waste. Less time working to pay for the stuff. Sometimes, less really is more.