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Stefano Picker

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The story of stuff… and how we can write a happy ending

April 12, 2011 Sustainable World

I’ve been reading The Story of Stuff by Annie Leonard, an eye-opening (and eye-watering) book that I would immediately make mandatory in every school program around the world: with an informal yet compelling style, it can dramatically change one’s misplaced assumptions and show how badly our global economic system is currently run.

A 20 minute video by the author will be a better introduction than any further word.

Among the many interesting stories reported by the book, I was especially impressed by one about Coltan, a mineral essential for the production of consumer electronics. Around 80% of its world supplies happen to be in the eastern part of the Democratic Republic of Congo.

In 2000 the price of Coltan started dramatically soaring, mostly because of the huge success of Sony’s PS2 game console, causing:

– thousands of Congolese to rush into the area to get at the metal, destroying national parks and killing gorillas and other wildlife in the process;

– both official and rebel armies to follow suit, kill or enslave those Congolese people and exploit children and women’s work with the most brutal methods of coercion (the UN reckons that about 45,000 local women were raped in 2005 only).

All of this ultimately happened to let other children play with their game consoles. But how could we blame them? They are simply at the opposite end of the perverse production-consumption-disposal chain that we’re letting screw the world. And although those kids’ quality of life is arguably better than their Congolese counterparts, they are victims as well to a certain extent: it is proved that our consumerist lifestyle is not making us happy at all. The United States is the richest country in the world, but ranked 150th out of the 178 countries considered in the last Happy Planet Index. Guess which country is constantly in the top positions year after year? Costa Rica in Central America, which:

– no longer has an army since 1949, when the government shifted the previous military budget to fund internal conservation projects;

– has combined its ministries of Energy and Environment and achieved an astonishing 99% of energy production from renewable sources;

– has assigned all the money gained from a carbon tax to fund the local communities effort to protect forests, triggering an impressive reversal in deforestation.

I read and write about information technology and I feel constantly amazed by the way it’s changing our lives for the better. As both a passionate product manager and an enthusiastic consumer, I’m proud to be part of the IT revolution. But as a citizen I’m increasingly worried about its impact over our planet and the people who live on it.

It doesn’t seem impossible to make the whole cycle more sustainable though.

Let’s consider for instance Apple, one of the world’s most admired companies. Thanks to a disruptive entrance in the handset market a few years ago, they are currently gaining around half of the industry profits with less than 5% of market share! I’m as impressed by these results and hooked to their amazing products as many other people, but I’ve got a question: given those remarkable margins, why do Apple need to produce its electronic gadgets through some of the Asian manufacturers least known for their respect of either human rights or the environment? The corporations’ relentless and blind race towards unlimited growth and (apparent) wealth is turning this world, slowly but irreversibly, into a miserable and unfair place.

Seth Godin has recently wrote about a huge opportunity called peace dividend, that we all wasted around 20 years ago when the Cold War was suddenly over: we could have re-purposed military spending and technology to improve our quality of life, just as Costa Rica had done long before. We didn’t. Seth’s provocation therefore is: are we going to do the same with the technological dividend coming from the digitalization of so many processes and the resulting increase in efficiency and opportunities?

There is good news here: as citizens and consumers, this time we have the means to influence such an outcome in an unprecedented way, thanks to a former piece of military technology escaped to the sad destiny mentioned above: the Internet.

That’s how we can write a happy ending to The Story of Stuff: by triggering a new generation of direct democratic participation, thanks to the amazing reach of the Internet. The big organisations responsible for most of the aberrations the book talks about can lobby and corrupt governments around the world… but how will they be able to do the same with each of us?

Annie Leonard is the perfect example. She didn’t need any big budget to start a web project called The Story of Stuff, to make clips like the one above and upload them on YouTube, to write and publish a great book with the same name. Yet she’s influencing many people like me, who are actively recommending her work and planning to play their part to change things for the better.

Do you believe that you don’t have enough time? You can still make a difference with your choices as a consumer, by preferring and encouraging the most responsible products and companies. A first step is to avoid any product made of toxic PVC or packaged in hard-to-recycle hybrid materials. A further one is to use handy applications such as GoodGuide, available on the Internet and as iOS/Android app, to check the impact of most consumer products on your health and the environment as you shop. These trends are already influencing the policies of many companies around the world.

Last but not least… spread the word!

One Comment on “The story of stuff… and how we can write a happy ending

Ben
September 28, 2011 at 10:31 AM

This campaign is trying to do something about Congo: http://www.unwatchable.cc

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