Beware Annie Leonard’s presentation about all of our Stuff, unless you’re ready to implement big changes
Annie Leonard is the author of The Story of Stuff: How Our Obsession with Stuff Is Trashing the Planet, Our Communities, and Our Health-and a Vision for Change. I am only partially through her excellent book at this time. Tonight, however, I clicked over to her site to see what Annie had to say in her 20 minute video, “”The Story of Stuff.” It turns out that upbeat Annie, surrounded by cartoonish images, will fill your head with dozens of depressing statistics that will inexorably lead you to the conclusion that we’ve got to change our ways.
Annie starts out with a warning that we have a “system in crisis.” We have is a “linear” system on a “finite planet.” We also have a big problem getting our government to pay attention. More than 50% of our tax money goes to the military, and our corporations seem to own our government (51 of the largest economies in the world are corporations). Consider also Annie’s well honed argument that our official government policy is that we should purchase lots of unnecessary stuff and trash the planet.
Many other sites that can give you comparable statistics, but few of them have worked n my conscience as much as Annie Leonard’s site. The United States has 5% of the world’s population, but uses 30% of the worlds resources. If everyone lived like people in the United States, we would need 3 to 5 planets. Every minute, seven football fields worth of trees (about 2000 trees) are cut down in the Amazon. There are 100,000 chemicals commonly used in our products, and very few of them have ever been tested for human safety . Annie points out that almost none of of these chemicals ave been tested for “synergistic effects (to see how safe they are when used in combination with other chemicals). BFR’s (used for fire retardation) are commonly used in computers, couches and the pillows on which you rest your head on each night. The food with one of the highest concentrations of toxins is human breast milk.
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Use of public transit simply means that you walk more which increases fitness levels and leads to healthier citizens. More importantly, increasing use of public transit may be the most effective traffic safety counter measure a community can employ,” noted APTA president William Millar. Apparently communities with vast public transportation networks don’t just live longer because of the exercise — they’re also less likely to be the victim of a fatal auto accident. The traffic fatality rate in the Bronx, New York is four in 100,000 contrasted by the traffic fatality rate in auto ridden Miami, Kansas which is 40 in 100,000.
Using public transportation also saves you a lot of money: “Riding public transportation saves individuals, on average, $9,381 annually and $782 per month based on the August 10, 2010 average national gas price ($2.78 per gallon- reported by AAA) and the national unreserved monthly parking rate.”
It is also important to note that when you pay $35 to fill your tank with gasoline, you haven’t actually paid for most of the costs of using gasoline.
The Tower Grove Farmer’s Market in South St. Louis was busy this morning, as it usually is. A lot of people were purchasing organic produce because they believe that it is important to put only wholesome ingredients into their mouths.
Stephanie and Bryan Shaner run a small family business called Ravenscroft. They sell produce, but they also make and sell their own soaps. I had the opportunity to discuss soap-making with them this morning. I learned that the process is fairly straightforward, based upon a family recipe described by Stephanie. It involves melting oils (they tend to use coconut, canola, olive oil or palm oil), and mixing them with lye (Bryan mentions that lye, also known as “sodium hydroxide” or “caustic soda” was traditionally made by pouring water through wood ash).
As the mixture starts to thicken (“saponify”), they add the essential oils (the various natural ingredients that constitute the scents, such as lavender, mint or juniper). With homemade soap, one can be assured that the bar is free of petrochemicals. Here’s some more background on the ways that soaps are manufactured. Stephanie estimated that her soap has a shelf life of about one year. By using homemade soaps, one can avoid all of the potentially harmful additives that one finds in petroleum-based (glycerin) commercial soaps.
I was surprised to hear that the main ingredient in homemade soap is plant oil. After all, if I spilled some plant oil on my hands, wouldn’t it be logical that I would reach for a bar of soap, made largely of plant oil, to clean up the oil on my fingers? Stephanie indicates that it does seem counterintuitive, but that mixing and heating a bit of lye with the oil effects a dramatic transformation in the oil, allowing the oil to be transformed into soap. Again, here’s more on that process.
Stephanie urged that not only should we care about what we eat, but we should also care about what we put on our skin. Because homemade soap is free of the many additives of commercial soaps, some of her customers have found that rashes and other skin problems clear up simply by switching to homemade soap.
Stephanie indicates that she and Bryan are planning some workshops to teach others how to make soap. This is obviously more than just a money-making opportunity for her. She tells her customers, “There is nothing on this table we wouldn’t help you to make yourself.”
I bought a few bars, and my family and I will be trying them out. The going rate at this market was three bars of soap for $10. After I try them out, I’ll report back in the comments. I’m interested in these natural ingredient soaps for the same reason that I’ve switched over to homemade shampoo (BTW, that “no poo” experiment has been wildly successful for me. I am perfectly happy with baking soda shampoo and apple cider vinegar conditioner).
Some might think that making these sorts of changes are trivial. I would respond by saying that we can clean up our environment one thing at a time, and there are hundreds of things each of us can do to live healthier and more sustainable lives. (See the recently released report by the President’s Cancer Panel and see here. Figure, too, that even little changes can make a huge difference when tens of millions of people follow suit.
In the July 2010 edition of Nature (available online only to subscribers) Jane Goodall calls for urgent action to save chimpanzees “our closest living relatives,” from extinction in the wild.
It never ceases to amaze me that humans will go to great lengths to wonder about and investigate whether even the smallest life form exists on another planet, yet we allow a dwindling populations of amazing animals to perish on our own planet. We just can’t stop increasing the numbers of human animals on this planet, even as our water and soil are being depleted worldwide. We can’t even talk about this issue. We just can’t stop expanding into the last few patches of jungle in order to chop down the habitats of other animals in order to grow more food to feed more humans, all the while proclaiming that we “care” about preserving the environment and that the last thing we would do is to steal from our children. Nonetheless, we are stealing our children’s opportunity to live on a planet that includes natural populations of chimpanzees.
When I think about how we are killing off so many species of plants and animals, it distresses me; it even makes me feel sick. It’s hard for me to hide my frustration and to think positively, because the news is 95% bad. Everywhere, the news is the same: humans are expanding into new areas, forcing out and destroying native plants and animals. We are destroying a planet that we claim to treasure.
Jane Goodall is working harder than I am to keep an upbeat attitude, at least in public, even though she sees the decimation of chimpanzee communities up close and first-hand. She is also making real progress to encourage the world to change its ways in order to preserve chimpanzee habitats. Fifty years ago, she traveled to Gombe Stream National Park to observe its then-large populations of chimpanzees. In the 50 years since her arrival, she has ceaselessly engaged in research, education, advocacy and fundraising. What is so special about chimpanzees? Why should humans care more about chimpanzees?
As analytical methods have evolved, work with the chimpanzees of Gombe has provided a profound understanding of humans’ relationship with animals. From this and research elsewhere we now know, for example, of numerous similarities between human and chimpanzee brain structures and any insistence, and how alike the two species are genetically: there is about 1.5% difference between human and chimpanzee DNA. There are striking parallels between chimpanzee and human non-verbal communication: an embrace, holding hands and a pat on the back mean essentially the same thing in both species. We also understand much about the intellectual abilities of chimpanzees and the complexity of their motions, which seem remarkably like ours. . . . as our knowledge about chimpanzees has increased, their existence has come under increasing threat.
In 1900, there were more than 1 billion chimpanzees in Africa; today, despite all our achievements, fewer than 300,000 remain in the wild, many in fragmented and isolated populations. Some conservationists have suggested the species will be extinct in the wild in 30 years.
Goodall wrote this article in nature and to promote the work of TACARE, which has integrated traditional conservation approaches with a range of environmentally sustainable rural development strategies. Goodall notes that thanks to efforts of many organizations, including TACARE, “although population and the rate of deforestation nearly doubled between 1991 and 2003, more recent satellite images suggests that deforestation is finally beginning to slow.”
This is not good news, but it’s smaller amounts of bad news, which is a glimmer of hope.
The Onion reports:
“By killing off the No. 1 threat to the environment, new Marlboro Earths will have a long-term effect on the overall health of our planet,” Philip Morris spokesperson Janet Weiss said. “If everyone in America does their part and joins our new green-smoking movement, then together we can eradicate man’s destructive practices once and for all.”
AT Salon.com, Ryan Brown reviews a new book by Stan Cox, “Losing our Cool.” The topic is air conditioning. It inefficiently keeps us cool, but there are quite a few negatives that we need to consider:
We stay inside longer, exercise less, and get sick more often — and the electricity used to power all that A.C. is helping push the fast-forward button on global warming. The invention has also changed American politics: Love it or hate it, refrigerated cooling has been a major boon to the Republican Party. The advent of A.C. helped launch the massive Southern and Western population growth that’s transformed our electoral map in the last half century.
If you’d like to hear some upbeat ideas and inspiration for weaning ourselves off of oil, watch this video of Amy Goodman’s round table featuring Sierra Club Exec Director Michael Brune and Rocky Mountain Institute Scientist Amory Lovins.
Whereas many people have harshly criticized Obama’s recent speech regarding the Gulf tragedy, Lovins sees a significant policy shift. He notes that President Obama is now seeking to end our addition to all fossil fuels, not just oil. Second, he heard a new approach to consensus building:
[H]e pointed out that this has cost—our dependence on fossil fuel has cost not only to our economy but also to our national security and our environment. And I think that starts a new conversation of a new kind in energy policy, because we’ve always supposed people had to want the same things we wanted in energy for the same reasons. So if you had different priorities than somebody else, you couldn’t agree on the outcome. What the President started to do here is to say, let’s focus on outcomes, not motives, and then we can build a strong consensus. Whether you care most about national security or environment or economy, we ought to do the same things about energy. And if we do the things we agree about, then the things we don’t agree about become superfluous.
Lovins mentioned several effective techniques for reducing our use of fossil fuels. For example, we can use “freebates,” whereby those who insist on purchasing less efficient products are hit with surcharges that directly flow to reducing the prices of more efficient products. France used this approach regarding automobiles two years ago and cut the sales of inefficient cars by 40%. Doing things like this will “align the incentives, which will change behavior.”
Lovins also stresses that more states need to use the energy utility model employed by California and Oregon, whereby the utilities are rewarded by cutting our use of fuel rather than by selling us more fuel. He further indicates that most of the electricity we use is completely wasted. He is a big fan of “net metering,” whereby those who produce more electricity than they use (e.g., by use of solar panels) can make money by running their meters backwards and selling that energy to their electric utility. A dramatic illustration of what we could look forward to comes at the 38 minute mark, where Lovins describes his own 4,000 square foot incredibly energy efficient home near Aspen.
Of course, many Americans will hate these ideas. They will see nothing by deprivation, and they’ll fail to see the immense benefits for making big changes in how we make and use energy. Bob Cesca senses this too, and suggests that this is why President Obama ended his speech by asking Americans to pray, rather than telling us to get ready to make changes in our lives.
The president wrapped up his address Tuesday night by asking Americans to pray for the victims — both human and environmental — of the BP oil spill. I thought it was a strange way to end his first Oval Office address during a national emergency insofar as praying makes the situation appear too big for conventional solutions. As though all that remains between us and a sea of oil is the Hail Mary. This morning it occurred to me that this was the only thing he could really ask Americans to do.Why? Simply stated, it doesn’t require any effort to silently invoke spirituality while stopped at a traffic signal . . .
What should Obama have done rather than invoking supernatural beings?
Instead of prayer, the president could have asked us all to make sacrifices towards the goal of weaning ourselves off of fossil fuels. Maybe he should have asked for sacrifice. It probably wouldn’t have hurt. But it would have been mostly ignored. Americans simply don’t do “national sacrifice” anymore.
I’m concerned that Cesca is correct, but I still hold out hope. I suspect that the reason that so many American resist doing anything is because they don’t want to be doing something while others are doing nothing. They don’t want to be seen as suckers. Therefore, our aim should be to make it clear that we’re all going to do this together. We’re need to let everyone know that we’re all going to hold hands and jump in.
A few days ago, Colin Beavan (“No Impact Man”) came to St. Louis to discuss his book (at one of the branches of the St. Louis Public Library). I have previously posted on his fine book. I did so because I was impressed that Beavan was actually doing something to dramatically decrease his impact on the planet rather than simply talking about doing something.
Beavan offered much good advice at his recent talk. In his book, he offered lots of nuts and bolts about lessening one’s impact on the planet. At last week’s talk, he focused quite a bit on motivating us to change ourselves. Here are some of his points:
– “I’m the only person I can change.”
– There are 14,000 dead lakes in the United States and Canada, lakes that used to have water.
– In the UK, the political parties strive to show who can do more to save the environment, which is dramatically different than it is in the United States.
– “Just look around this room . . . How cool are libraries! What a great model, sharing things–passing them from person to person.”
-“What I did was always intended to have an element of stunt.”
– The best thing about my year-long experiment was getting rid of television.
– The average American throws away 40 items of clothing per year.
– The hardest part about getting anything done to lessen the impact of people on our environment is “changing habits.”
– Americans are overworked so much that they don’t have the time to spend with their loved ones. “We are out of balance.”
– “Where do I find the time to make bread?”
– Progress “might not mean more technology.”
– The average American watches 4.5 hours of television per day.
– “We’ve got to stop thinking that environmentalism is about deprivation.”
– Car-based urban planning leads to obesity and loneliness.
– The interests of the people must be aligned with the interests of the planet. We need to make personal and business decisions that are in line with our values. When we do this, our institutions will become more functional.
– If someone who resists says that he is concerned about national security, ask him why he would want to rely upon unstable regimes for energy.
– The wastebasket was not invented until 1900.
– The problem about our environment is not about good and evil. It’s about systems that are not working.
– We all have the capacity to do good. Use your talents to make a difference.
– when someone comes up to me and says “you should talk about X,” I tell them “no, YOU should talk about X.”
-To are the straws that broke the camel’s back. Anyone can be a hero.
– We have a choice. You can be the victim of your culture or you can be the master of your culture.
– There is no profit in local farming. Please support them, and you’ll be proud.
– “No-impact is not a religion.”
– Beware of talk about carbon offsets. It doesn’t undo the damage. I call it “carbon penitence.” It’s not a bad thing, but we should instead find renewable energy and invest in it.
– How can we change other people? “Listen and love instead of telling and anger.”
I’m in the process of reading an extraordinary issue of National Geographic. It’s a special issue titled “Water: Our Thirsty World.” This is not a happy topic, given the increasing desperation of increasingly thirsty human populations. Many of them haul their water long distances on their backs. But most of the victims of dwindling supplies of fresh water are not human beings.
National Geographic has offered a series of video overviews of this special issue. This is a critically important issue that is well worth your attention.