The Massive Industry's Influence on Environment as Described by Leonard and McKibben

Currently our world is plagued by the effects of our massive industry, with overseas exploitation, fueled by overconsumption causing an unsustainable environmental disaster. According to “The Story of Stuff", by Annie Leonard, In the past three decades, one-third of the planets natural resources have been consumed, in the US alone we have less than 4% of our original forests left. The US has 5% of the world's population but consumes 30% of the world's resources, and creates 30% of the world's waste. The US industry even admits to releasing over 4 billion pounds of toxic chemicals each year and forty percent of waterways in the US have become undrinkable due to pollution. In the US we're living in bigger houses (Size has doubled since the 70s) and "We spend 3-4 times as many hours shopping as our counterparts in Europe do.” In “Deep Economy” by Bill McKibben, a British questionnaire was cited where “People were asked about the factors that make up “quality of life.” “71 percent of the answers were non materialistic (38)." Which means despite our huge collection of material goods, shoved in our face by our countless advertisements, we are not happier. Now, who is Bill McKibben and Annie Leonard? McKibben is an environmental activist and author, who hopes to battle the environmental crisis caused by US overconsumption and industrialization. Among his books is Deep Economy, where he analyzes the problems of overconsumption, industrialization and community, and offers solutions such as localized economies and reduction of consumption to battle such problems. Leonard is also activist and proponent of consumerism and sustainability, in 2007 she created a short twenty-minute film named “The Story of Stuff” which talked about the process in which our goods are producedand consumed. She talks about how the system goes from extraction, to production, to distribution, to consumption, to disposal. How our system is one way, unsustainable and extremely damaging to not only our environment but also the economies and communities of 3rd world countries. In "The Story of Stuff" Leonard also addresses how we are not happier despite our vastness of material goods. Leonard and McKibben agree mostly on the problems that the US faces and has created of overconsumption, unsustainability, loss of community and how we are not happier because of our material goods.

In "The Story of Stuff” Annie Leonard talks about the massive US industrial complex and how we are exploiting workers, communities and environments overseas to fuel our industrial beast. She explains how there is a limit to the natural resources we can pull from one area, so when we run out in the US we export our gathering of resources overseas to 3rd world countries. Leonard also explains that when we export our gathering of resources to 3rd world countries, we render the local environments of the people living there useless. The land that they have live off of for thousands of years is now trashed and polluted. Then these people who have nowhere else to go (Because they cannot use their land anymore) end up in cities. According to Leonard, globally “200,000 people a day are moving into cities and often slums to work because they have no other choice.” In an article named “The Human Cost of Stuff" written by Leonard, she talks about how she has a drawer full of shirts, most of which she never uses. She talks about how she once traveled to the slums of Port-au-Prince in Haiti where she visited a sweatshop who made shirts and other apparel for Walt Disney. Leonard talked about how in this sweatshop the "women worked six days a week, eight hours a day...

Those lucky enough to be paid minimum wage earned about $15 a week.” Leonard said the women described their unsafe workplace as having “grueling pressure... [and] routine sexual harassment." Leonard asked them why they chose to stay in the city with no running water or sanitation and little electricity and why they couldn't return to the countryside where they grew up. The Haitian women explained that the countryside could not sustain them, because US imported rice was being sold at half what they could sell at and they could not compete against such prices. The United States industry not only exploits the environments of 3rd world countries by stripping away their resources, but also making it so that the locals cannot sustain themselves and are forced to work in factories feeding our endless consumptive needs. In McKibben's “Deep Economy" he mentions when a protest happened in the village of Xingchang, 180 miles south of Shanghai. McKibben said that “As many as 15,000 people massed here Sunday night and waged a pitched battle with the authorities... They were protesting a chemical plant whose owners had seized local land and made farming all but impossible (195)." According to a woman who lives near the plant "We don't dare to eat food grown anywhere near here (195).” McKibben and Leonard both agree that to fuel our massive industry we ruthlessly exploit environments and people overseas. Leonard reports near slave labor in Haiti making T-shirts, while McKibben reports land stripped from farmers to make a chemical plant. Chemical plants produce toxic substances, therefore they must emit toxic substances into the Earth around it, it's inevitable. In both these 3rd world regions, the environment is stripped of resources, then sold to factories, and the people who lived there, who now have no means of making a living, must now work in such factories to borderline survive. The cost the environment and the people had to bear Is what kept our costs for goods down, externalizing cost. The $5 radios, $1 flashlights and $20 printers really are not worth, one, five or twenty dollars, but the cost was paid for by our environment and those factory workers who lost their land and their future to keep such an item cheap.

An absolutely massive industry such as the United States, requires a demand, a need. Which is the problem of overconsumption, In the US "we have 5% of the world's population, however we consume 30% of the worlds resources and create 30% of the world's waste (Leonard, The Story of Stuff).” In Leonard's video “The Story of Stuff” she talks about how after WW2, the US economy needed a boom, and an economist by the name of Victor Lebow said that "Our enormously productive economy demands that we make consumption our way of life" which later on became the US economic model. Eisenhower even said that "our ultimate purpose is to produce more consumer goods.” In our world it is blatantly clear that we are consuming endlessly. According to Leonard “we spend 3-4 times as many hours shopping as our counterparts in Europe do.” The way in which we consume is unsustainable, it strips resources away from the environment faster than it can recycle or replace. But for corporations they only care about maximizing profits and we cannot consume fast enough for them, therefore according to Leonard, they purposefully make things obsolete and in need of replacement through “Planned Obsolescence” or “Perceived obsolescence". Planned Obsolescence is designing something to become useless after a short amount of time. Companies study the optimal lifetime of an item to maximize profits, but also not have the consumer lose faith in their product when it breaks. Perceived obsolescence is mainly aesthetics, making us throw things away that are perfectly useful. Fashion being the perfect example of Perceived obsolescence, changing the trend or style every year to keep consumers buying their products. If someone doesn't buy the new products, they will stand out in society. According to Leonard we are hammered by 3000 advertisements a day, pushing us and urging us to go to the mall or go online to shop for more things. Leonard says that “1% of the things we buy, we are still using after 6 months, 99% is trash within 6 months.” Our over consumptive lifestyles are mainly fueled by greed of corporations trying to maximize their profits, making us buy new stuff regularly. In “Deep Economy", McKibben addresses growth, how we've been striving to grow our economies ever since the start of the industrial revolution. McKibben says "Suddenly, one-hundred-percent growth in the standard of living could be accomplished in a few decades, not a few millennia (6).” After we were freed from the limits of manual labor, we looked to grow, and with growth came the consumption that was required to feed such growth. McKibben agrees that we are overconsuming and taking too much from the environment and not giving enough back to sustain our massive industry, how the US is consuming much more than its intended share. McKibben says that “Given current rates of growth in the Chinese economy, the 1.3 billion residents of that nation alone, will by 2031 be as rich as we are. If they then eat meat, milk, and eggs in the same quantities as we do... they'll consume 1,352 million tons of grain, or two-thirds of the worlds entire 2004 grain harvest. They'd use 99 million barrels of oil in a day, 20 million more barrels than the entire world consumes at present. If China's coal burning were to reach the current US level of nearly two tons per person... the country would use 2.8 billion tons annually - more than the current world production of 2.5 billion tons (19).” McKibben and Leonard both agree that the US is overconsuming and the environment cannot bear our weight nor can our environment sustain another country that consumes like we do in the United States.

After our massive industry exploits 3rd world countries for their people and resources, fueled by overconsumption, our environment sustains the remaining burden and damage. In the United States, according to Leonard we have less than 4% of our original forests left, caused mainly by our massive deforestation to gather timber for housing and other consumer goods. She says that our industry released 4 billion pounds of toxic chemicals a year, which is only as much as they admit to... In our production we use 100,000 synthetic chemicals, NONE of which have been tested for synergistic health impacts according to Leonard. In “The Story of Stuff” Leonard mentions how we douse our pillows and many other daily items in “Brominated Fire Retardants" which are a neurotoxin. If chemicals go in, Chemicals are bound to come out the other end. She also says that “Forty percent of waterways in the US have become undrinkable". Just like in China with the protest that McKibben reported, where the chemical plant made the land infertile and unable to grow wheat. All of the chemicals we use in our production and industry still end up back in our environment. In the last stage of our consumption cycle we have trash disposal. Trash is sometimes recycled, put in a landfill or incinerated. In “The Story of Stuff”. Leonard talks about how incarnation of garbage combines all those toxic chemicals in our consumer goods to form the most toxic and poisonous man made substance, Dioxin. McKibben again agrees with Leonard about our rampant environmental damage and unsustainability. In “Deep Economy” McKibben talks about meeting the demand of our industrial system and consumption he says; “Trying to meet that kind of demand would stress the earth past its breaking point in an almost endless number of ways. Instead of examining every crisis, however - nitrogen runoff, mercury contamination, rainforest destruction, species extinction, water shortage- let me take the overarching one: climate change (19).” McKibben clearly agrees that we are polluting our environment with toxic chemicals and destruction of life. McKibben even goes more in depth and talks about climate change, another byproduct of our industry and consumption. McKibben also agrees on the point that not only are we trashing our environment with chemicals, we're also depleting our natural resources at an alarming rate. In “Deep Economy", McKibben quotes an ecosystem assessment report assembled by 1,300 scientists by the United Nations. “They found that “human actions are depleting earth’s natural capital, putting much strain on the environment that the ability of the planets ecosystems to sustain future generations can no longer be taken for granted (18).” Both McKibben and Leonard agree that our environment is being destroyed and our resources are being depleted at an alarming rate.

In the US we are bombarded constantly by advertisements, we are constantly urged to buy cheap stuff to fuel our want. But do material goods really make us happier? According to Leonard “In the US our national happiness peaked sometime in the 1950s”. Which was right around the time when the post wartime boom happened and we gradually eased into being a more consumer based society. The British questionnaire cited in “Deep Economy" by McKibben told us that material goods was not what made people happy, it was experiences, family and friends who gave us happiness. The environment sacrifices so much, people around the world sacrifice so much, however in the end the only thing it is fueling is the greed of large corporations, we in the end, the consumers are not happier, but we are trappedin an endless cycle. In Leonard's “The Story of Stuff” She talks about how we are trapped in a cycle, where we go to work, come home tired and sit down on the couch to watch TV, on TV we see advertisements that tell us we're not good enough, our stuff isn't good enough. Therefore, we go to the store and buy stuff to make us feel happier, then we go to work to pay it off, come home to watch TV and the cycle repeats. An endless cycle that's designed to suck money from our wallets and fuel our consumer society.

Leonard and McKibben both have extremely similar viewpoints and agree on almost everything. They both agree that we need to tackle the root issues that cause our environmental destruction and fuel overseas exploitation and overconsumption. They both agree that our industrial beast is out of control, consuming too much resources and exploiting overseas workers. McKibben and Leonard both agree that our industrialization and is fueled by overconsumption and our consumer based society, which in turn leads to massive environmental damage. They both have the same end goal and vision in mind, of a more durable future, with reduced usage of resources, cleaner more efficient energy and localized economies where people can form more localized bonds and become happier. In Leonard's article "The Human Cost of Stuff” she talks about being citizens in our society instead of being consumers. She defines being a citizen as "working to change what's on the menu, and stuff that trashes the planet more harms people just doesn't belong. Citizenship means stepping beyond the comfort zones of everyday life and working with other committed citizens to make big, lasting change.”The only real difference between Leonard and McKibben is that McKibben is more focused on localized economies, he feels that the localized economies, locally producing food, energy and clothing is the major end goal and stresses the importance of it greatly. Leonard on the other hand agrees that this must be done, but her main focus is on the environment, and fixing the root causes of our environmental destruction and damage. She focuses mainly on our overseas exploitation and our ruthless exploitation of the Earth’s natural resources, as well as our polluting of the planet through emissions and dumping of hazardous chemicals. In the end, both McKibben and Leonard want the best for the world, to save our environment and make life better and happier for people, but they just have different main focuses.

Works Cited

  1. Leonard, Annie. "The Human Cost of Stuff." YES Magazine Fall 2013: 19-22. Web.
  2. Leonard, Annie. "The Story of Stuff." Project. Free Range Studios, 01 Dec. 2007. Web. 07 June 2016.
  3. McKibben, Bill. Deep Economy: The Wealth of Communities and the Durable Future. New York: Times, 2007. Print.