Annie Leonard has passionately researched and written a book she titles: The Story of Stuff: How Our Obsession with the Stuff Is Trashing the Planet, Our Communities, and Our Health-and a Vision for Change (2010).
I haven’t yet finished her book, although I’d like to post on one point she strongly makes early on, a point that is the elephant in the room regarding most discussions of the American way of life. It is a topic not far from the hearts of the many free market fundamentalists out there. The topic is whether it’s time to put capitalism under the microscope. Here’s what Leonard has to say:
[There is no doubt we will reach the planet’s carrying capacity; we’re heading in that direction now…. a big part of the problem we face today is that our dominant economic system values growth as a goal unto itself, above all else. That’s why we use the gross to metric product, or GDP as a standard measure of success….
All right. Are you ready? I’m going to say it: this critique of economic growth is a critique of many aspects of capitalism as it functions in the world today. There. I said the word: “capitalism.” It’s the Economic-System-That-Must-Not-Be-Named.
When writing the film script of The Story of Stuff, my intent was to describe what I saw in my years on the trail of trash, visiting factories and dumps and learning about how things are made, use, and thrown away around the world. I certainly didn’t sit down and figure out how to explain the flaws of capitalism. It was trash, not economics, that was originally on my mind. So at first it took me by surprise that some commentators called the film “an ecological critique of capitalism” or “anti-capitalist.”… it turns out that a hard look at how we make and use and throwaway Stuff reveals some pretty deep problems caused by core functions of a specific economic system called capitalism. There’s no way around it: capitalism, as it currently functions, is just not sustainable….
Yet, in the United States, were still hesitant to broach this unmentionable subject, fearful of being labeled unpatriotic, unrealistic, or insane. Elsewhere in the world, there’s a widespread recognition that some aspects of capitalism aren’t working well for the majority of the world’s people or for the planet; people talk about it openly….
Can we put capitalism on the table and talk about it with the same intellectual rigor that we welcome for other topics? Can we examine the failures of capitalism without falling into generations-old stereotypes and without being accused of being un-American? Refusing to talk about it doesn’t make the problems disappear. I believe the best way to honor our country is to point out when it’s going astray, instead of sitting here silently as many economic, environmental, and social indices worsen. Now would be a good time to start looking at what we could do differently, and what we could do better….
The belief that infinite economic growth is the best strategy for making a better world has become like a secular religion in which all our politicians, economists, and media participate; it is seldom debated, since everyone is supposed to just accept it as true.
Why are so few people willing to challenge, or even critically discuss, an economic model that so clearly isn’t serving the planet and the majority of its people. I think one reason is that the economic model is nearly invisible to us. … [W]e tend to forget that were viewing the world through the paradigm, like it’s a pair of contact lenses…. before we can change a paradigm, we need to identify it as a paradigm rather than assume it is truth.
[Starting at page xviii]
I caught this video on the Daily Dish. It is a compilation of excerpts from numerous infomercials. This excellent editing of a string of disasters that suggests the need for one more infomercial offering this bit of free advice: Slow down; quit being such materialists; simplify your life and quit acting so recklessly. Excellent humor and anthropology, “kickintheheadcomic“!
I suspect we’ll soon be hearing a new soundtrack on this clever video, unless the creator has his use rights to the Beatle’s “Help” nailed down . . .
“Whoever knows he is deep, strives for clarity; whoever would like to appear deep to the crowd, strives for obscurity. For the crowd considers anything deep if only it cannot see to the bottom: the crowd is so timid and afraid of going into the water.”
Friedrich Wilhelm Nietzsche, The Gay Science (1882).
“. . . using financial complexity allegedly to deceive and then using so-called independent experts to validate the deception (lawyers, accountants, credit rating agencies, “portfolio selection agents,” etc etc ) . . .”
Why are many human systems complex? If we’ve learned anything over the past few years, it’s that there are two reasons—there are two kinds of complexity.
Sometimes, complexity is required to get the job done. I think of this as “parsimonious complexity.” For instance, the Mars Rovers are extremely complex robots, but every part of these magnificent robots has a specific function that furthers a clearly and publicly defined mission.
There are also instances where complexity is purposely injected into a system. I think of these as instances of “gratuitous complexity.”
It’s important to keep in mind that all forms of complexity serve as entry barriers to activities, due to the limited attentional capabilities of humans. Very few of us have the stamina or intellect to thoroughly understand all of the artificial systems people create; many of us don’t have the stamina to thoroughly understand even simple systems. When an activity is more complex, it is more difficult to understand and more daunting to those wishing to participate. Activities that are more complex are thus accessible to fewer people. For instance, chess is more complex than checkers, in that the state space of possible moves is larger in chess than in checkers. Checkers is easy to learn and play. But many checkers players don’t graduate to chess due to the increased complexity. Some systems are so incredibly complex that only the chosen few are able to participate.
In this three-minute video, author Woody Tasch compellingly illustrates that “Economic growth is not synonymous with well being.” In fact, much of what we call “economic growth” is destructive.
Woody concludes: “We can’t just continue to grow our way out of our problem. In fact, ‘economic growth’ is often destructive.'”
My strategy is to disparage the ubiquitous media reports that applaud when the GDP is “up,” or when the “economy” is humming along. Those numbers assume that strip mining is better for the economy than conservation measures. They assume that rampant crime is better for the economy than fixing many of the root causes of crime– e.g., the “war on drugs,” injects violence into drug use and “allows” us to hire a lot more police officers, whereas decriminalizing drugs might cause the loss of law enforcement jobs. The many commentators who fetishize the GDP embrace a principle that prefers a violence-ridden police state. We need to dramatically shift our focus from measuring numbers of dollars flowing through the system to (admittedly more difficult task of) measuring the real quality of life.
I know that my past few posts have been bleak (see here and here), but now I must temper that sense of despair with some hope. Things are bad, and will probably get worse, but that’s not to say that they will not get better.
But here’s the trick: we all have to stop relying upon someone else for solutions. Forgive me if I sound like a politician for just a moment: we must “be the change” we want to see in the world. I cannot tell you how to solve the peak oil problem, or the unfolding economic collapse, or climate change, or the corruption which has become endemic in our political system– you have to figure it out for yourself. I’m not selling a prepackaged kit which contains all of the answers, and I would probably distrust anyone who was.
But that’s precisely why I still have hope. If we are going to make it through the challenges facing us, we must learn to pull together again as a community and actually attempt to create our own solutions. There can be no more delegation to those in Washington. We cannot afford to wait for decades as they attempt to muster the political will to combat the flood of money which has so damaged our electoral and political processes. We simply don’t have time to fix the system that’s been damaged beyond repair.
I was mulling around the Lincoln Park Zoo today with a friend when a man stepped on me. He was filming a Siberian tiger with a high-end digital video camera, which he held on an expensive mounting. He was fidgeting with all of the camera’s features, backing up to get the perfect shot, and he stepped all over my feet. The foot-stomping didn’t bother me so much as the man’s intent focus on something other than his present surroundings. A beautiful creature stood before him, but his attention was directed at the camera and the filming of the tiger more than it was the tiger itself.
Not much later, something similar occurred in the Tropical Birds House. As I was watching the bleeding-heart pigeons, a man, family in tow, came around the corner with a massive video camera. He also had it placed on an expensive mount. Obliviously, he nudged forward until his lens nearly leaned on the display’s glass. He fiddled and fidgeted. He zoomed on the critters for a moment, and left.
“Do you think he’ll ever watch that footage?” my friend asked.
“No,” I guessed. Without much thought I noted, “It isn’t about the footage. He probably just bought that camera, and is filming because he wants to play with it.”
“So the actual footage is useless,” he observed in return.
I intuited that the man’s camera was a new purchase because I’ve done the exact same thing with a fresh ‘toy’.
Back in 1974, when I bought my first car (a green 1969 Ford Fairlane 500 – see inset), my limited income as a teenager required me to do most of my own maintenance. That included such things as oil changes, as well as brake jobs, replacing a carburetor, and many other parts. I purchased a big manual for my car and spent some long nights in the garage making lots of mistakes and learning from many of them. I also remember the feeling of being self-sufficient and frugal.
After I got my first full-time job, I drifted away from working on my own car. Until now. Seeing a $27 oil change sign from a distance, I pulled into Jiffy Lube. Only after I pulled in did I notice that this was a special price that didn’t apply to me because it wasn’t 7-10 am. Then, after the Jiffy Lube guy treated me rudely and then told me that my oil change, using basic 5W30 oil, would cost almost $40, I blurted out, “Forty dollars for an oil change?” The Jiffy Lube guy protested, “That includes topping off your windshield washer solution and cleaning your windshield.”
I said, “No thanks.” I decided to remind myself what it’s like to slide under the car and get oil on my hands, and to do physical work, a welcome change from my desk job. I drove to the local O’Reilly Auto Parts store, where I bought enough oil and oil filters for three oil changes for $40. O’Reilly told me that they would happily dispose of my used oil at no charge. I also bought a gallon of windshield wiper fluid, an air filter and some new wiper blades for a fraction of what Jiffy Lube charges. Jiffy Lube specializes in telling you that you need these sorts of things and then gouging you for them. If you don’t believe me, check the Jiffy Lube web site — what does it tell you when a big company doesn’t have the balls to tell you how much they will charge you for standard services until they have your car hostage?
Back at home with a case of oil in my trunk, all I had to do was find my old jacks (a hydraulic jack for lifting and a stand jack for safety), plastic oil pan, funnel, oil filter wrench and a few other tools. None of this is expensive stuff, in case you’re interested in joining me in the Jiffy rebellion. BTW, my Jiffy Lube story is not unique.
One hurdle: it took me about 10 minutes to locate the oil filter on my ’98 Saturn SL-2 (It’s deeply buried under the back of the engine, requiring me to crawl way under). Because it got dark while I was working, I pulled out my trouble light and that made it official: I was now reliving my teenage years and enjoying it immensely. Take that, Jiffy Lube! Added bonus: I now know exactly what kind of oil is really going into my car and that the right amount is going in. Another bonus: Next time I give one of the cars an oil change, I’ll give my daughters a little lesson about car maintenance–a passing of the baton. Yet another bonus: In less than the time it takes to drive to Jiffy Lube and back, I will have changed my own oil without burning any gas.
Changing one’s own oil is not a big deal. But saying no to old expensive habits and getting back to a simpler, cheaper and self-reliant way of life, one step at a time, can be a big deal.