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The Story of Stuff: How Our Obsession with Stuff Is Trashing the Planet, Our Communities, and Our Health-and a Vision for Change

The Story of Stuff: How Our Obsession with Stuff Is Trashing the Planet, Our Communities, and Our Health-and a Vision for Change

3.8 34
by Annie Leonard

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A classic exposé in company with An Inconvenient Truth and Silent Spring, The Story of Stuff expands on the celebrated documentary exploring the threat of overconsumption on the environment, economy, and our health. Leonard examines the “stuff” we use everyday, offering a galvanizing critique and steps for a changed planet.


A classic exposé in company with An Inconvenient Truth and Silent Spring, The Story of Stuff expands on the celebrated documentary exploring the threat of overconsumption on the environment, economy, and our health. Leonard examines the “stuff” we use everyday, offering a galvanizing critique and steps for a changed planet.

The Story of Stuff was received with widespread enthusiasm in hardcover, by everyone from Stephen Colbert to Tavis Smiley to George Stephanopolous on Good Morning America, as well as far-reaching print and blog coverage. Uncovering and communicating a critically important idea—that there is an intentional system behind our patterns of consumption and disposal—Annie Leonard transforms how we think about our lives and our relationship to the planet.

From sneaking into factories and dumps around the world to visiting textile workers in Haiti and children mining coltan for cell phones in the Congo, Leonard, named one of Time magazine’s 100 environmental heroes of 2009, highlights each step of the materials economy and its actual effect on the earth and the people who live near sites like these.

With curiosity, compassion, and humor, Leonard shares concrete steps for taking action at the individual and political level that will bring about sustainability, community health, and economic justice. Embraced by teachers, parents, churches, community centers, activists, and everyday readers, The Story of Stuff will be a long-lived classic.

Editorial Reviews

Publishers Weekly
Leonard expands on her eponymous Internet movie hit to further examine the costs of Americans’ addiction to purchasing and discarding consumer goods. The book records her evolution from a toxic waste–trafficking expert to a crusader for more durable and adaptable consumer goods and is divided into an exploration into the hidden and enormous costs of extraction of natural resources (it takes 98 tons of materials to produce a ton of paper), production (to grow and process cotton for one T-shirt requires over 256 gallons of water and generates five pounds of CO2), distribution (mammoth container ships transport cheaply produced goods from one end of the world to another, polluting the seas and generating toxic waste), overconsumption (Americans spend two-thirds of the $11 trillion economy on consumer goods), and disposal (most of these items end up at the dump). All this makes for depressing reading, and some humor and less priggishness would have helped. But Leonard conveys her message with clarity, urgency, and sincerity—and her suggestions for making stuff more durable, repairable, recyclable, and adaptable is undeniably important. (Mar.)
Library Journal
Leonard is an environmental activist who traveled the world investigating dumps and factories and the stages involved in producing the stuff we consume and then throw away when new goods enter the market. Troubled by countries that promote economic growth at any cost without understanding the long-term consequences of unregulated consumption, she launched in 2007 a 20-minute Internet film The Story of Stuff (www.storyofstuff.com), which has generated over 7.3 million views globally. In this book version, Leonard explains that our consumer goods undergo extraction, production, distribution, consumption, and disposal processes that are trashing the planet, diminishing our resources, exploiting workers, and contributing to high levels of disease and death. She advocates an international cooperative effort to develop domestic and international policies and laws that will reverse our planet's ecological decline and leave a sustainable world for future generations. VERDICT According to Leonard, we all have a stake in saving the planet. She urges readers to learn to value stuff they truly need and avoid the forces that urge us to consume excessively. An important work for consumers of all ages. [The publisher says the book will be produced with the smallest possible carbon footprint: electronic copyediting, recycled paper, soy-based ink, etc.—Ed.]—Irwin Weintraub, Brooklyn Coll. Lib., NY
Kirkus Reviews
Environmental activist Leonard debuts with a critical examination of the effects of human consumption on the global environment. Elaborating on the message of her widely viewed Internet video of the same title, the author argues that the consumer society's pursuit of growth for growth's sake is testing the limits of Earth's carrying capacity. To create often needless manufactured goods (stuff), we extract, use and dispose of natural resources in ways that harm people, workers and communities. Drawing on research and her own observations during travels in Asia and Africa for Greenpeace and other environmental groups, Leonard describes the startling scale of our stuff and the often little-recognized impacts of the "take-make-waste" economic model on the quality of people's lives. Mining the gold for an average gold wedding ring creates about 20 tons of hazardous waste, which is often dumped in rivers. U.S. book manufacturers use 300 million trees yearly. Some 400 million toxic electronic products are discarded each year in the United States; they often wind up in developing nations. Devoting a chapter to each stage of the life of stuff-extraction, production, distribution, consumption and disposal-Leonard blends facts, expert testimony and anecdotes from visits to factories, landfills and e-waste recycling facilities to create a vivid account of how waste is connected to disparate aspects of our lives. The author urges four major societal changes: redefining progress to value things that promote well-being; ending warfare, which drains money needed for change; adding the externalized costs (disease, environmental impacts, etc.) of stuff to the price of products; and reducing working hoursto provide more time with friends and family and cut overconsumption. Leonard offers a utopian vision of an ecologically compatible U.S. economy by 2030, with no personal cars or polluting industries, less obesity and depression, and citizens having more influence than corporations. An earnest, reasoned contribution to the national conversation on sustainability. Agent: Linda Lowenthal/David Black Literary Agency
From the Publisher
“The intrepid Ann Leonard has written an eye-opening, humorous, and highly readable account of how our seemingly innocuous lifestyles are part of a larger system of destruction and dysfunction. Leonard gets my vote for hero of the year. A must-read.”
—Juliet B. Schor, author of Plenitude: The New Economics of True Wealth and professor of sociology at Boston College

“Where others have documented countless challenges to the Earth and its inhabitants, Annie Leonard has accomplished the rare feat of defining the systemic nature of the problems we face and offering solutions that get to the heart of the matter. Whether you are redesigning industry and commerce or simply imagining a better world for your grandchildren’s grandchildren, Annie’s work will engage you. Read it and be inspired into action.”
—Ray C. Anderson, founder and chairman, Interface, Inc.

“At once engaging, accessible, and authoritative, The Story of Stuff is a brilliant masterwork. Leonard weaves together engaging personal stories and encyclopedic knowledge of her subject to communicate a powerful systemic frame and define a spot-on agenda for practical action. I gained new facts, ideas, and inspiration. It gets my highest and most enthusiastic recommendation for anyone interested in why we humans are on a path to self-destruction and what we can do about it.”
—David C. Korten, author of Agenda for a New Economy and The Great Turning and board chair of YES! magazine

“When Annie Leonard came to work at the Center for Study of Responsive Law, she brought a special character—a dynamic curiosity; a willingness to scour the countries of the Earth to understand and document solid and chemical wastes’ production, consumption, and disposal; the intellectual and emotional intelligence to mobilize everyone she could reach to respect the ecosphere; and health and safety concerns. Those dynamic energies permeate her galvanizing, exciting, and fascinating book. You will be bouncing up and down as you are drawn through its pages, graphics, and engrossing stories. Annie Leonard not only knows ‘the story of stuff’—she has the right stuff!”
—Ralph Nader

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Read an Excerpt


In order to make all the Stuff in our lives, we first need to get the ingredients. Now, some of these don’t occur naturally—the man-made synthetic compounds—and we’ll cover them too. However, many ingredients for our Stuff exist inside the earth or on its surface. They only need to be harvested or extracted... Only!

Once we start examining them, we soon find that each key ingredient requires a lot of other ingredients just to get it out of the earth, processed, and ready for use. In the case of paper, for example, we don’t just need trees. We need metals to make the chainsaws and logging machines; trucks, trains, and even ships to cart the logs to processing plants; and oil to run all those machines and the plants themselves. We need water (a lot of it) for making the paper pulp. We usually need a chemical like bleach (no!) or hydrogen peroxide (better) to get a desirably light shade of paper. All in all, making one ton of paper requires the use of 98 tons of various other resources.1 And believe me when I say that’s a pretty simple example. That’s why we have to look at the whole materials economy, and often a map of the world, to get a clear picture of the ingredients that go into any one product on store shelves these days.

There are lots of ways to think about the various resources that come from the earth. For simplicity’s sake I’ll use just three categories: trees, rocks, and water.


As I said in the introduction, having grown up in Seattle, a green city in an even greener state, I love trees. Half of the land area in Washington State is covered in forests,2 and I visited them every chance I had. Over the course of my childhood I watched in dismay as more and more forests gave way to roads and malls and houses.

As I grew older, I learned that there are more than sentimental reasons to worry about the fate of our trees. Trees create oxygen, which—may I remind us—we need to breathe. That alone would seem sufficient motivation for us to keep them intact. As the lungs of the planet, forests work around the clock to remove carbon dioxide from the air (a process called carbon sequestration) and give us oxygen in return. These days scientists concerned about climate change research all sorts of elaborate, expensive, man-made schemes to sequester carbon from the atmosphere in hopes of moderating climate change. Seems like a waste if you ask me. We already have a natural system that not only sequesters carbon but also provides the exact kind of air we need to breathe: our trees. And their services are free! It doesn’t get much better than that.

And there’s more—forests provide other vital services. They collect and filter our fresh water, maintaining the planet’s overall hydrologic cycle and moderating floods and droughts. They maintain soil health by keeping the nutrient-rich topsoil in place. What are we thinking, destroying these obvious allies?

To name just one more reason that it’s a terrible idea to cut down forests: one-quarter of all our prescription drugs are derived from forests—rainforests in particular.3 Curare, an anesthetic and muscle relaxant used in surgery4; ipecac, for treating dysentery5; and quinine, for malaria6 are just a few examples. Not long ago, western chemists were turned on to a plant native to the tropical forests of Madagascar, the rosy periwinkle, after learning that the island’s healers used it to treat diabetes. It turns out the pink-flowering plant has anticancer properties, and is now used to make the medicines vincristine and vinblastine. The former is used to treat Hodgkin’s disease, and the latter has proven to be a total wonder drug for those suffering from childhood leukemia, who now have a 95 percent chance of survival, up from their previous slim 10 percent chance before the plant was discovered.7

(Unfortunately, even though sales of the two drugs are in the hundreds of millions of dollars per year, almost none of this money winds up in the hands of the people in Madagascar, which is one of the poorest countries in the world.8 This will be a recurring theme.)

It’s nuts to be wiping out forests anywhere on the globe, but it’s especially crazy to be clearing the tropical rainforests because they contain such richness of biodiversity. Generally, the closer forests are to the equator, the greater the diversity of trees and other species they contain. A twenty-five-acre plot of rainforest in Borneo, for instance, can contain more than seven hundred species of trees, which is equal to the total number of tree species in all of North America.9

And the plants and other life we’ve discovered so far are just the beginning; most scientists estimate that only 1 percent of the species that exist in the rainforest (and only there) have been identified and examined for their beneficial properties.10

If the loss wasn’t so tragic, it would be ironic that these invaluable repositories of not-yet-discovered useful chemicals are being cleared in the name of “progress” and “development.” It seems to me a far wiser development strategy would be protecting these forests that will potentially heal our ills (as well as provide the air we breathe, clean our waters, and moderate our climate).

When I was kid savoring my time camping out in the forest, I hadn’t ever heard of carbon sequestration, hydrologic cycles, or plant-derived pharmaceuticals. Instead, one big reason I loved forests was the many animals that lived in them. Forests provide homes for about two-thirds of the species on earth11—from koala bears, monkeys, and leopards to butterflies, lizards, parrots, you name it. Cutting down these homes, especially in areas of rich biodiversity like tropical rainforests, leads to the extinction of as many as one hundred species a day.12 One hundred species per day? For some perspective, think of all the dogs you’ve ever seen; worldwide, they make up fewer than ten species (genus Canis).13 And there’s only one species of human! Losing one hundred species a day is a big deal. Those species could contain miracle medicines or could play some vital irreplaceable role in the food chain. Wiping them out is like throwing out our lottery ticket before we have even checked if we had the winning number.

Imagine for a minute that some other species (maybe Periplaneta fuliginosa, aka the smokybrown cockroach) had control over the planet and was eradicating one hundred species per day to satisfy their appetites. What would we say about them? We might think their actions were a little unfair. What would we do about them? Lead an insurrection? Of course, we might not have a chance—from one day to the next we could just be extinguished, along with ninety-nine other lesser species.

And trees don’t just house wildlife—around the world about 300 million people live in forests, while about 60 million indigenous people are almost wholly dependent on them.14 Forests are the main source of life for more than a billion people living in extreme poverty.15 Forests provide the “four F’s” essential for survival: food, fodder, fiber, and fuel. From healthy forests, indigenous, tribal, or other forest-dwelling communities gather or hunt for food, feed livestock, obtain materials to build homes, and collect firewood for cooking and heat.

As I was growing up in Seattle, my primary relationship with forests was based on a fifth F: fun. I relied on the forests for hiking, camping, birding, and cross-country skiing, not for building materials. If I needed a snack, I’d head for the fridge, not the forest. Even after studying the issue, my understanding of the connection between forests and immediate survival was academic, not experiential. It wasn’t until I went overseas that I realized how directly forests sustain life in other countries.

While traveling in the once lush Haitian countryside, I met families who had lost their homes after forests were cleared. After the destruction of the roots that held the soil in place and moderated water flows following a heavy rain, mudslides took the homes of those families. No forests, no flood control. In India, I saw women walking miles a day to collect branches to feed cows, patch roofs, or cook rice. No forests, no fodder, fiber, or fuel. Forests are essential to life. The values of all these kinds of services dwarf the price of timber from a felled forest.

In fact, economists are working to calculate the monetary benefits that forests produce. In October 2008, the European Union undertook a study to put a dollar value on the forest services that we’re losing through deforestation each year. This study, published in The Economics of Ecosystems and Biodiversity report, warns that the cost to the global economy from the loss of forests is far greater than the economic losses incurred up to that point in the banking crisis that garnered so much media attention and government action that year. Further, the report points out, the losses from deforestation aren’t a one-time fiasco, but continuous, year after year.16 By evaluating the many services that forests perform and figuring out how much it would cost for humans to adapt to their losses and provide these services themselves, the study calculated the cost of forest loss at between $2 trillion and $5 trillion, or about 7 percent of global GDP each year.17 Now, if that doesn’t merit a bailout on both economic and environmental grounds, I am not sure what does.

Despite the implications, even though they provide frames for our houses and our lifesaving medicines, even though they filter our water and create the air we breathe, we’re still cutting down forests at breakneck speed. Globally, we’ve been losing more than 7 million hectares a year, or 20,000 hectares—almost 50,000 acres—a day.18 This is equivalent to an area twice the size of Paris each day, or about thirty-three football fields’ worth every minute.19 According to Rainforest Action Network, fifty thousand species of trees go extinct every year.20

Rates of forest loss are especially high in Africa, Latin America, the Caribbean, and much of Asia. According to reports, the exceptions are China and India, where large investments in forest plantations skew the data to hide the ongoing rates of loss of natural forests.21 However, industrial timber plantations are very different from real forests. The goal of a plantation is to produce wood products, with little or no regard to the many other services, resources, and habitat that real forests provide. To this end, they are generally intensely managed, evenly spaced, monoculture fields of imported species with the highest wood yields. Such plantations simply don’t hold a candle to the real thing in terms of biological diversity, resistance to disease, or provision of the many other nontimber forest products that people and animals depend on for survival. Tree plantations can generally only sustain 10 percent of the species that lived in the forests that preceded them22 and are best described as “green deserts.” They also provide relatively few jobs, increase the use of pesticides, and negatively impact local water cycles.23

So scientists, climatologists, and economists—not to mention all the animals and other people—concur that we need real nonplantation forests. Yet we continue to cut those down—not only in the biodiversity hot spots in the tropics, but also right here at home, in the temperate forests of the Pacific Northwest.

I got to see this firsthand during the summer of 1980, when I spent more time in the forests than out of them. It was the summer after tenth grade, and I signed up to work for the Youth Conservation Corps, or YCC. The YCC was a federal program, established a decade earlier to get kids out of the city, in some cases off of the street, and into the woods for a summer of service and learning. We worked hard, learned about natural systems, and earned a modest salary as well as a sense of purpose. It was my first experience with what my colleague Van Jones would later call “green-collar jobs.”

My YCC site was in the North Cascades National Park in Washington State, a breathtakingly gorgeous region with terrain ranging from alpine peaks and glaciers dotted with crystal blue lakes that literally sparkled in the sun to lowland forests, from mossy dark green water-soaked temperate rainforests to dry ponderosa pine ecosystems. Even for a forest connoisseur like me, this was truly a special place.

Jack Kerouac, who spent a summer there about twenty years before I did, does justice to the area in The Dharma Bums: “It was a river wonderland, the emptiness of the golden eternity, odors of moss and bark and twigs and mud, all ululating mysterious visionstuff before my eyes, tranquil and everlasting nonetheless, the hillhairing trees, the dancing sunlight... The pine boughs looked satisfied washing in the waters. The top trees shrouded in gray fog looked content. The jiggling sunshine leaves of Northwest breeze seemed bred to rejoice. The upper snows on the horizon, the trackless, seemed cradled and warm. Everything was everlastingly loose and responsive, it was all everywhere beyond the truth, beyond emptyspace blue.”24

Amidst this incredible natural beauty, my new YCC friends and I spent our days clearing fallen tree limbs from hiking trails, burying campfire remnants from careless campers, tending to the local salmon hatchery, and learning about the forest ecosystem from college students whose expertise and worldliness awed me. The program worked—at least for me it did. I entered that summer loving forests because of the way I felt in them: secure, grounded, humbled in the presence of something that seemed divine. I ended the summer realizing that our rivers, the fish, and the planet as we know it depended on forests. I left with a solid commitment to protect them.

That summer, I saw my first clear-cuts up close. “Clear-cutting” is the term for aggressive logging that removes all the trees in an area. All the roots, all the wildflowers, all the life. The ground is shaved clean like the head of a prison inmate, so nothing but scattered stumps and drying brown brush remains. I’ve heard clear-cut sites compared to ravaged, pockmarked bomb sites like Baghdad. That’s an apt description. Previously, I’d see them from the windows of a plane or just driving past, getting away as fast as we could. But that summer, we hiked in them to see how different they felt from a forest. We sampled water in the creeks that ran below them, to see the changes in temperature, oxygen, and aquatic life. It was shocking to me to see how far the damage spread, far beyond the scorched boundaries of the cut.

In contrast to forests, which act like giant sponges that hold water in their leaves and trunks and among their roots, regulating its flow into streams and rivers, clear-cut areas don’t hold soil and don’t absorb water. During heavy rains, water just runs off clear-cut hills, causing mudslides, flooding, and erosion. Waterlogged earth comes down in landslides, clogging waterways and burying communities. Downstream, the water and mud destroys property and sometimes injures or kills people. In some cases, millions of dollars of government money is required to repair the damage. In other places, the people just bear the cost themselves, sometimes losing everything they have. And of course the damage impacts the entire delicate web of life dependent on forests: the fungi that grow in the roots of trees feed small mammals, which feed birds like owls and hawks, and so on.

For me, that summer in the North Cascades gave new meaning to something that early wilderness advocate John Muir once said: “When we try to pick out anything by itself, we find it hitched to everything else in the universe.”25 I had heard that quote previously but had thought it referred to metaphorical connections. In fact, he meant it literally—the whole planet is, in fact, connected. The forests to the rivers to the ocean to the cities to our food to us.

The clear-cuts brought to mind the traditional folk hero image of a lumberjack: a smiling bearded guy wearing blue jeans and a plaid flannel shirt and holding an axe. His picture adorned local diners and bottles of maple syrup. If logging ever was like that, it sure isn’t anymore. Nearly all the flannel-clad guys with axes have long since been replaced with huge belching machinery: massive bulldozers, cranes, gigantic pincher things that pick up the logs in their huge metal claws to pile them on huge trucks. And while machines have taken the place of many human workers, they haven’t removed the risks for those workers who remain. Falling trees, heavy machinery, rough terrain, and weather all contribute to the International Labour Organization identifying logging as one of the three most dangerous occupations in most countries.26

And for what? There must be some darn good reasons why we are we undermining our planet’s health, destroying potentially valuable medicines, driving plants and animals to extinction, eliminating a much needed carbon storage sink, and harming loggers. Right?

A whole lot of forests get cut down to make way for cattle ranches, soy fields, and other agricultural products. Ironically, a short-sighted quest for plant-based alternatives to fossil fuels, called biofuels, is now a major driver of deforestation around the world as forests are cleared to grow palm and other oil crops. “Biofuels are rapidly becoming the main cause of deforestation in countries like Indonesia, Malaysia, and Brazil,” says Simone Lovera, who works in Paraguay with the international environmental organization Global Forest Coalition. “We call it ‘deforestation diesel.’ ”27

Forests are also cleared to make way for sprawl and so-called development. Trees are taken for lumber that goes to build homes and furniture. In many places in the world, millions of people depend on wood for heating and cooking. But excluding the trees used for fuel, the number-one thing made from trees is paper. Seemingly simple paper, then, is the main nonfuel product of deforestation. That doesn’t just mean newspapers, magazines, posters, books, and Lands’ End catalogs. There are about five thousand other kinds of products made with paper,28 including money, board games, microwave packaging, and even the inserts of fancy running shoes.

In the United States, we’re consuming more than 80 million tons of paper per year.29 For our books alone, a 2008 report calculated the amount of paper consumed in the United States in 2006 as 1.6 million metric tons, or about 30 million trees.30 For every ton of virgin office or copier paper, 2 to 3 tons of trees were cut down in some forest somewhere.31 And there’s no end in sight. Globally, paper consumption has increased sixfold in the last fifty years32 and is projected to keep rising, with the United States leading the way. A typical office worker in the United States now uses more than ten thousand sheets of paper a year33; together we Americans use enough paper each year to build a ten-foot-high wall from New York City all the way to Tokyo.34

While there is a growing movement to make new paper from recycled or sustainably managed sources, most of the world’s paper supply, about 71 percent, still comes from forests, not tree farms or the recycling bin.35

The current trajectory of forest loss is bleak, but there are opportunities to turn things around. Over the past generation, paper recycling has increased at both ends: more discarded paper is being recovered for recycling, and more companies are using recycled paper. We’re closer to closing the loop and producing paper from paper, not from trees. The Environmental Paper Network (EPN) is a coalition of dozens of groups using market-based strategies to promote paper production from postconsumer recycled paper, agricultural waste, alternative fibers, or sustainably certified trees rather than virgin forests. Their members engage internationally in activities as varied as dialoguing with corporate CEOs and organizing large protests at stores and industry trade shows.36 One EPN member, ForestEthics, has been especially successful at getting highprofile companies—including Office Depot, Staples, and Home Depot—to source sustainable wood and recycled paper. They have also targeted high-volume catalog offenders, most notably Victoria’s Secret, to increase the use of recycled stock in their catalogs. Now they’re upping the ante by campaigning to establish a national Do Not Mail Registry, like the Do Not Call Registry, to stop the incessant flow of junk mail to our homes. According to ForestEthics, more than 100 billion pieces of junk mail are delivered to U.S. households annually—more than eight hundred pieces per household—almost half of which (44 percent) is thrown away before being opened.37 This consumes more than 100 million trees, equivalent to clear-cutting the entire Rocky Mountain National Park every four months.38

The thing is, we don’t just use a lot of paper; we also waste a lot of paper. Almost 40 percent of the Stuff in U.S. municipal garbage is paper,39 all of which is recyclable or compostable if it hasn’t been treated with too many toxic chemicals. By simply recycling, rather than trashing, all this paper, we would reduce the pressure to cut more forests for our next ream. (We’d also reduce our garbage by 40 percent.) Of course, preventing the use of paper in the first place, as in the case with junk mail and catalogs, is even better than recycling.

Also, there are ways to harvest trees from forests without decimating the ecosystem and the communities that depend upon them. These environmentally preferable timber practices limit the intensity of timber harvest, reduce chemical use, maintain soil health, and protect wildlife and biodiversity. The potentially lower short-term profitability of implementing these practices, as opposed to clear-cutting the whole landscape, is far outweighed by long-term environmental and social benefits.

One attempt to track and certify forests that adhere to these higher environmental standards is the Forest Stewardship Council (FSC), which is active in forty-five countries. Over the past thirteen years, more than 90 million hectares around the world have been certified according to FSC standards; several thousand products are made with FSC-certified wood and carry the FSC trademark.40 While forest activists generally agree that the FSC isn’t strong enough and should not be seen as a label of eco-purity, it is a good start. “The FSC is the best forest certification system out there,” says Todd Paglia, director of ForestEthics, “and it needs to continue to get stronger. Compared to other comparable systems, like the timber industry’s greenwashed program called the Sustainable Forestry Initiative, FSC is the clear choice.”41

Additionally, there’s a promising model of forest management known as community forestry, a new school of thought in which forests are managed by communities and maintained to protect the sum of their contributions, i.e., not solely for logging. Actually, this isn’t really a “new school of thought,” since many rural and indigenous communities around the world have a long tradition of managing forests through the collective efforts of community members. At last others are beginning to see the enormous benefits of this approach.


The summer I worked in the North Cascades National Park taught me about more than trees. I also spent a lot of time around rivers. We waded—if you can call being in water up to your neck “wading”—in icy waters that had recently been glaciers to retrieve trash left by campers and branches that blocked river channels. Plunging into glacier melt to pick up an empty Coke can is a great way to solidify a commitment never to drop a piece of trash in a body of water, ever.

It was there I first saw the profound difference between a river at the base of a clear-cut and one below a healthy, intact forest. The rivers below a clear-cut were cloudy, full of muck and debris, with fewer fish, bugs, and life of any kind. When we took samples of the water, we learned that the rivers below the clear-cuts had a higher biological oxygen demand, or BOD, which is a measure of how much organic matter is in the water. A low BOD indicates healthy water, and a too high BOD means polluted water.

Now, in farming or in the produce aisle, the label “organic” is a plus. This is not always the case in the worlds of biology and chemistry, where “organic” doesn’t mean the absence of toxic pesticides. In biology, an organic substance is one that comes from living organisms. In chemistry, it is something that contains carbon among its elemental building blocks.

Organic material is part of nature, rivers included, and its presence is not by definition good or bad. As in many things, the dose makes the poison. Organic matter (like leaves or dead bugs) doesn’t become a problem in water unless it builds up faster than it can be decomposed. The tiny bacteria whose job it is to decompose all that organic stuff need oxygen; when their workload increases, their demand for oxygen outpaces the supply, leading to oxygen-deprived rivers, on their way to becoming dead ones.

Healthy forest floors are covered with organic matter known as “humus,” which is held in place by tree roots and shrubby plants. Humus decomposes just fine in the presence of bugs and oxygen, constantly replenishing the soil with its nutrients. In a clear-cut, the forests are wiped clear of tree roots and shrubs, leaving an exposed surface, so that come a rainstorm, all that nice rich soil rushes downhill into rivers and turns into a pollutant.

The rivers in the North Cascades feed multiple watersheds from which Washington State’s population draws water for drinking, washing, and irrigation. The water eventually makes its way to Puget Sound, where I dug clams and splashed in the waves as a kid. The health of those rivers impacts the health of bodies of water—as well as bodies of fish, birds, and people—hundreds of miles away.

Talk about being hitched to everything else in the universe. Water is the natural resource where we can most clearly see the interconnectedness of systems—as children we learn that the rain comes down, fills our groundwater reserves, rivers, and gutters, evaporates from lakes and oceans, and gets stored in clouds, only to reappear in the form of rain and snow. Water’s also not something only found out there in “the environment,” external to us: our own bodies are 50 to 65 percent water, 70 percent for babies.42

But somehow, as we grow into adulthood, we learn to think about water in a very disconnected way. Pat Costner, a retired Greenpeace scientist, expert in waste issues, and author of a book called We All Live Downstream: A Guide to Waste Treatment that Stops Water Pollution, believes that our water-based sewage systems do us a deep psychological disservice. From the age at which we get potty-trained, we begin to think of water as a waste receptacle and associate water with waste. Costner and many other water activists frequently point out the absolute absurdity of using our most precious resource—water—to transport bodily eliminations to expensive high-tech plants where the water has to be “treated” to remove the sewage. Costner has gone so far as to suggest, only half jokingly, that new parents potty-train their kids in a sandbox to prevent the association of water and waste.43

There is a much better, cleaner, and saner solution: it’s called a composting toilet, and the simple, waterless technology is perfectly ready to be implemented everywhere on earth, preserving our water from contamination and turning a would-be pollutant and health hazard into a valuable soil additive (which we especially need in those clear-cut areas where the nutrient-rich topsoil has washed away). Composting toilets are a win-win-win scenario. Good for the water. Good for soil. Good for plants. All around good.

Living in the United States, where our toilets gobble up gallons of water (even the low-flow ones, although they’re an improvement), and where both warm and cold water are on tap day and night in more than 95 percent of households,44 it is easy to forget how valuable and limited a resource this is. Once you’ve spent a while in a place with limited water, as I have, it is impossible to ever turn on that tap without feeling a rush of gratitude.

In 1993, I moved to Bangladesh to work with a local environmental organization in the country’s capital, Dhaka, for six months. Bangladesh experiences tremendous regular water crises. There’s often too much and there’s often not enough. It’s a low-lying country, basically a giant floodplain where three major rivers—the Brahmaputra, Meghna, and Ganges—all enter into the Bay of Bengal. During the monsoon season each year, about a third of the country floods. Really floods. Millions of people lose their homes. Entire communities of char dwellers—people who live on the islands of silt and soil formed in the constant shifting geography of the rivers—disappear.

Bangladesh’s floods are getting worse for the same reasons that other environmental problems are getting worse. The clearing of forests upstream in the river basin—as far away as the Himalayas in India—causes greater runoff after rainstorms. Without the tree roots to hold the ground in place, the runoff carries more silt and soil, which settles in the rivers, making them shallower and more susceptible to flooding. Global climate change is raising sea levels, which, in a low-lying country like Bangladesh, means that the water levels in the ground itself are also rising, making the land less able to absorb water in times of heavy rains and floods. If sea levels rise 30 to 45 centimeters, as many scientists predict, about 35 million people will literally lose the ground beneath them and be forced to migrate inland from coastal areas.45 More than once during my time there, the roads between my house and office in Dhaka were flooded so deep that the bicycle wheels of my rickshaw were completely beneath water.

Paradoxically, in a country that is increasingly under water, it can be hard to get water to drink. Millions of people in Bangladesh rely on surface water, such as ponds and ditches, which are frequently contaminated with human waste as well as agricultural and industrial pollutants. More than one hundred thousand kids die each year from diarrhea, an easily preventable condition linked to dirty water. Meanwhile many of the wells have been discovered to be contaminated with arsenic, which occurs naturally in the region. In 2008, up to 70 million Bangladeshis were regularly drinking water that doesn’t meet World Health Organization standards.46

While I lived in Dhaka I shared a house with eight Bangladeshis. They drank the tap water, but since my body wasn’t used to it, the two women who did the cooking constantly boiled pots of water for twenty minutes just for me. I was acutely aware of the imposition of using so much of our household’s precious cooking fuel to prepare water for me to drink. You can be darn sure I didn’t throw even one half glass of water into the sink in six months there. After traveling through the country, seeing communities with no access to water, and experiencing real, all-encompassing thirst for the first time in my life, I savored every sip of water I had. I appreciated the fact that this water was in a glass and not flooding my home. It is a very different way to drink water: full of awareness and gratitude.

Bathing in Bangladesh was also different. Every other morning, I got one bucket of cold water. That was it. Sometimes it was so cold that I could only bear a sponge bath to wash those parts of me that most needed it. I did have one other emergency option: I could take a rickshaw down to the fancy part of town to one of two luxury hotels—the Sheraton or the Sonargaon. In the women’s restroom I’d spend a good twenty minutes scrubbing my hands and face with hot water before indulging in the only thing—besides hot baths—that I missed in Bangladesh: a really good cup of coffee.

Then I’d sit in the little cafÉ sipping my cafÉ au lait, listening in on the conversations of businessmen and aid workers at neighboring tables, aware of the sparkling water in the pool, aware that my cup of coffee required about 36 gallons of water to produce, and acutely aware that the only reason that such a grubby person as me was permitted to spend twenty minutes in their fancy bathroom was the color of my skin and the American Express card in my pocket. I wondered how different life would be for those hundred thousand kids who would die from lack of clean water during the next twelve months, if they each had one of those cards, or even a safe tap in their yards.

Having experienced the level of scarcity that is the norm for most of the world’s people, I am now more aware of the many ways that so-called advanced societies take for granted the one substance, after air, that we most need to survive. Remember we don’t just need it for drinking and bathing, but for growing our food too! Still, we let it pour down the drain when we brush our teeth, we dump everything from our poop to our hazardous waste in it, and we feed millions of gallons of it to our golf courses and lawns.

Did you know that in the United States we spend more than $20 billion a year on our lawns?47 On average, we spend twenty-five hours a year mowing them, often with power mowers so notoriously inefficient that they consume 800 million gallons of gasoline a year.48 And that’s before we even get to the water use. We’re pouring humongous amounts of this liquid treasure onto our lawns: about 200 gallons of water per person, per day during the growing season is used just to water lawns. In some communities, that amounts to more than half of the total residential water use!49 In the United States, the lawn, or “turfgrass,” is the single largest irrigated crop, three times larger than corn.50 Simply by replanting lawns with native plants that use less water and allow more rainwater to seep into the soil, rather than run off into drainage systems, U.S. homeowners could drastically reduce their water use at home.

As you may have guessed, we also use up a lot of this vital, precious resource to make our Stuff.

In fact, from my short list of key ingredients, water is the most fundamental one of all, because it’s a necessary input for virtually every industrial production process. Consider the fact that paper-making plants use 300 to 400 tons of water to make 1 ton of paper, if none of the water is reused or recirculated.51 Growing the cotton for one T-shirt requires 256 gallons of water.52 To get your morning cup of coffee, 36 gallons of water are used to grow, produce, package, and ship the beans.53 Producing a typical U.S. car requires more than fifty times its weight in water, or more than 39,000 gallons.54 Much of the water used in producing these goods is badly contaminated by the chemicals used in the production processes, like bleach (for paper or white T-shirts), lead, arsenic, and cyanide (for mining metals). There is always the danger that these toxins will leach into groundwater or overflow from holding containers into rivers and seas—if the water’s not dumped there directly, as is still too often the case.

Water is also necessary to power the machines that make our Stuff. I’m not just talking about hydropower (electricity derived from the force of moving water); all power generated from fossil fuels such as coal, fuel oil, and natural gas is converted in thermal power plants that need water to cool them down. Together these make up the great majority of the world’s energy sources, and they all use water.

So for all these purposes we need water, and we’re running out of it. Maybe you’re asking how can that be, on a blue planet that’s way more than half covered in water? Of all the water on earth, 97.5 percent is salt water; and most of the 2.5 percent that is fresh water is frozen in the icecaps or so deep underground in aquifers that we can’t reach it.55 Only about 1 percent of the world’s water is accessible for direct human use.56 This includes the water we see in lakes, rivers, and reservoirs as well as those underground sources that are shallow enough to be tapped affordably. Only this 1 percent is regularly renewed by rain and snowfall and is available to us on a sustainable basis. So we’re in trouble if we use too much.

It is that same 1 percent of water we use to meet all our needs for drinking, sanitation, irrigation, and industrial use. Increases in population, urbanization, industrialization, and consumption all mean that demand for water also increases. We’re using and wasting more water than ever before while the supply of clean available water is shrinking. During the last century, our use of water globally increased sixfold, which was twice the rate of population growth.57 There are more of us using more water. This is not a sustainable trajectory.

Already, about one-third of the world’s population lives in countries that are experiencing water stress.58 Despite all our technological know-how, at least one in six people doesn’t have access to safe drinking water. Every day, thousands of people—mostly children—die from preventable diseases contracted because they do not have access to clean water.59 In Asia, where water has always been regarded as an abundant resource, the amount of it available for each person declined by 40 to 60 percent between 1955 and 1990.60 Experts predict that by 2025, fully three-quarters of people on earth will experience water scarcity, a condition in which the demand for water outstrips the supply.61 Overuse of water, along with droughts, contamination, climate disruption, diversion for industrial or agricultural uses, and inequality in access to water all contribute to water scarcity.

As water becomes increasingly scarce, conflicts are emerging all over the world about its use, and perhaps more important, about the process by which its use is determined. Many people—myself included—fear that the growing phenomenon of private business interests managing water systems for profit is incompatible with ensuring everyone’s right to water and sustainable water management. Too often, the privatization of water systems has been followed by rate hikes, service interruptions, and an overall decline in access to water because there is often not money to be made in delivering water to the poorest communities.

Because water is absolutely essential to life, including the lives of future generations, it should be shared and allocated fairly. Programs to manage water must be developed in this context, prioritizing long-term sustainability, ecological integrity, community participation in decision making, and fair access rather than individual private gain. A global movement is calling for water to be managed publicly rather than by private firms, while a network of “water justice” activists are working for a binding United Nations convention that secures every person’s right to water. Already, General Comment No. 15, adopted in 2002 by the UN Committee on Economic, Social and Cultural Rights, recognized that the right to water is a prerequisite for realizing all other human rights and for living in dignity.62

Still, a number of giant multinational companies are working to privatize public water systems in the United States and around the world, making decisions based on market opportunities and potential profit rather than meeting basic human needs and ensuring ecological well-being and social justice. These corporations are working to expand the market for bottled water and to sell “bulk” water, which will be transported miles to its new market. As communities run out of their own water, they’ll be forced to pay for it from other regions if there is no other option. For this reason, The Economist magazine has predicted that “water is the oil of the 21st century.”63

The fact is, as with most of our dilemmas around diminishing natural resources, there is no one solution to the growing global water crisis; we need action on multiple fronts. Some experts recommend billion-dollar infrastructure and megadams, but I prefer what the Pacific Institute calls the “soft path” solutions to the global water crisis. In their words: “Soft path solutions aim to improve the productivity of water rather than seek endless new supply... [and] complement centrally-planned infrastructure with community scale projects; and soft path solutions involve stakeholders in key decisions so that water deals and projects protect the environment and the public interest.”64 Such solutions include improved technology, improved conservation, and truly democratic, just decision-making processes, all done in concert.

One major step in the right direction is just uncovering and identifying where water is being used and wasted, which often includes uses invisible to us on a day-to-day basis. Hardly anyone looks at a cotton T-shirt, a car, or a light switch and thinks about water. To bring this “invisible” water to light, a British professor named John Allan came up with the concept of “virtual water” to track the use of water in global industry and trade.65 Virtual water is the amount of water embedded in food or other products based on how much water was needed to extract and produce that item. Countries that grow and export water-intensive crops, like cotton and coffee, can be thought of as virtual water exporters.

Another helpful concept is a “water footprint,” which calculates the total volume of fresh water used for the goods and services produced by a business or used by an individual or a community. If you’re curious, you can go to waterfootprint.org and get a rough calculation of your own water footprint. Professor Arjen Hoekstra of the University of Twente in Holland explains his creation of the “water footprint” tool as “rooted in the recognition that human impacts on freshwater systems can ultimately be linked to human consumption, and that issues like water shortages and pollution can be better understood and addressed by considering production and supply chains as a whole.”66 In other words, the more Stuff that gets made, used, and replaced, the more water gets used.

When I calculated my personal footprint, I found that my total water footprint is about 500 cubic meters per year. I played around with the numbers and saw that I could reduce it by drinking less coffee, eating fewer animal products, and buying less Stuff.

I’d like to think that my grey-water system, which waters my garden with my washing machine drainage, after filtering it through a simple multitiered planter full of specifically chosen filtering plants, makes a difference. Variations of this system are used around the world to filter and reuse grey water in homes, universities, hotels, food processing plants, and other sites. My garden loves it, but I know that the water diverted is just a drop in the bucket compared to the water that was needed to make the Stuff I use every day. The use of water in agriculture, energy production, and as an ingredient in industrial production is where the greatest potential exists to reduce water use.

The true cost of water is another one of industry’s huge externalized costs, meaning the costs they don’t actually pay. The prices of Stuff don’t reflect water’s real value (which economists are only now beginning to calculate) or the costs of the degradation of water resources through pollution and contamination, or the ecosystem services that are impacted. To capture its true value, some people are beginning to use what’s known as a total economic value framework, which includes direct uses (like drinking water) and indirect uses (like the level and flow of a river) as well as the so-called bequest value (use by future generations) and “existence value” (the right simply to be present on earth).67 Along these lines, government representatives and NGOs from around the world created the Dublin Principles at the International Conference on Water and the Environment in 1992 to recognize the value of water and set standards for water management.68

This shift could motivate improved water productivity. If those hidden or “virtual” externalized costs of using and polluting water actually started showing up under “costs” on the balance sheets of businesses, companies would be highly motivated to reduce the amount of water they use or pollute. At the same time, we need to be sure that calculating the economic value of water doesn’t obscure our recognizing access to water as a basic human right. Assigning economic value to water is a strategy to better understand its overall value, not a step toward privatizing and selling it.

The hope is that if we make industries responsible for the full costs of water use, they will start employing the technological fixes to use and waste less. The tricky thing about economic, or market-based, strategies is that forcing companies to factor in externalized costs will invariably raise the price tags of goods, as industries pass the higher costs on to consumers. While in many instances that might not be all bad (after all, do we really need yet another 256-gallon-of-water T-shirt that we couldn’t resist because it cost $4.99 at Target?), increased prices for basic commodities can be devastating to the poorest people around the world.

There are people already at work on this very issue to ensure that everyone, even those too poor to pay, get enough water for their basic needs, while those who use (waste) water for luxury consumption or excessive industrial use are charged extra. An international coalition of human rights activists, progressive municipal leaders, trade unions, and environmental organizations—collectively known as water warriors—are collaborating to achieve the recognition of water as a human right, improved access to water for poor people, the decommodification of water, taxes for excessive water use, and the defense of elected municipal governments as the key institution in water delivery, rather than private businesses.

On the technological front, many companies are already improving their processes so they use and waste less water through innovations like closed-loop factories, which continuously recycle all the water they use. As companies shift away from toxic inputs into their production processes, the water leaving the plant won’t be contaminated and so can be safely used again: this is a huge improvement. One company undertaking these kinds of practices is the carpet manufacturer Interface. Since 1996, under the visionary leadership of CEO Ray Anderson, the company has reduced water intake by 75 percent per production unit in its facilities.69 And they say they aren’t done yet!

Meanwhile, professionals in regional planning, industrial ecology, urban design, and architecture are redesigning our built environment—from individual homes to factory complexes to entire cities—to mimic rather than disrupt natural water systems or “watersheds.” Replacing lawns with native plants that demand less water; replacing solid surfaces with permeable ones that allow more rainwater to seep into the soil; removing industrial tie-ins that allow factories to dispose of hazardous waste in the municipal sewers; and many other shifts can help protect water supplies. Not to mention (again) the composting toilet.

In addition to market-based and technological solutions—which are ready to be implemented as soon as we decide to do so—we also need changes in our cultural approach to water that would prioritize sustainable usage and access for all. Like the oxygen we breathe, water is absolutely essential to survival, and there’s no substitute waiting in the wings.


The most elusive ingredients needed to make our Stuff are underground. Metals, gems, and minerals—and their organic cousins petroleum and coal—are basically nonrenewable, unlike trees (renewable, as long as our rate of replanting is faster than our rate of use) or water (replenishable, which means a resource at risk of being depleted, but which can be restored in a healthy ecosystem over time). They’re also harder to reach. That’s where mining comes in.

You’re unlikely to hear someone wax sentimental about rocks. They’re not grand, awe-inspiring living creatures like trees or a serene, healing, cleansing substance like water. You don’t hear appeals from nonprofits to save the poor silver or uranium from being removed from its native habitat. You are likely to run in to people who are emotionally attached to their rock-based Stuff, though. Threaten someone’s wedding ring, cell phone, and car, and you’re likely to wind up underground yourself.

So what’s the big deal about removing these inanimate and uncharismatic resources from the earth in the name of our most cherished possessions? Well, for starters, there’s the issue of availability of these materials for future generations. What we use up today isn’t going to grow back. The fact that our primary economic model is based on using up nonrenewable resources, like minerals, is one of the main blind spots of the GDP as a viable measure of progress.

And then there’s the whole story of how we get at those materials— mining. No matter how you slice it, mining is a serious drag—for people and the planet. Open-pit, strip, shaft, above the surface, below it, it doesn’t matter: these are energy-and water-intensive, waste-spewing, often poisonous, and all-around dirty processes. Communities are evicted, workers’ rights are violated, and the toxic by-products endanger everyone’s health, all in the name of mining. And the trauma doesn’t stop when a mine gets shut down—it continues for years afterward.

Underground, or subsurface, mining involves tunnels dug deep down into the earth. Although this is probably the image—along with headlamps and canaries—that most people have in their heads when they think of mining, most mining today occurs in gigantic open-air pits. In the United States, open-pit mining provides the bulk of the minerals extracted; globally, two-thirds of all metals are from open pits.70 Diamonds, iron, copper, gold, and coal are all commonly extracted from open pits, which can be huge. The Bingham Canyon copper mine in Utah, for instance, covers about 3 square miles (7.7 square kilometers) and the Chuquicamata copper mine in northern Chile covers about 4.5 square miles (12 square kilometers).71 There’s also mountaintop removal, usually used to get at deposits of coal found deep inside mountains (see the box on coal on page 35). Particularly in developing countries there are also still small-scale “artisanal” operations that employ workers in mining accessible surface deposits using their hands and basic tools.

Creating an open pit means chopping down trees (more trees!) and clearing off the land’s inhabitants, whether they walk on four or two legs. A report on the mining industry in India compared the mineral and forest maps, only to find that the highest concentrations of coal, bauxite (used for aluminum), and iron ore are all located in forest areas that are home to most of the country’s biodiversity and indigenous people as well.72

And the living things atop a mine only make up the first layer of what gets scraped off. All the stone and soil covering up the valuable ores—what the mining industry terms “overburden”—also have to be removed using heavy duty tools like bulldozers, drills, explosives, and trucks (all of which require their own long lists of ingredients to create and operate). This rubble gets piled up, sometimes skyscraper high. In fact, open-pit mines produce eight to ten times as much waste rubble as underground mines.73

Getting at the ore is only the beginning. Because even high-grade ore only contains a little bit of the pure metal or mineral being sought, it has to be processed, which involves more machinery as well as loads of water and chemicals. Most of the ore—and an ever-increasing amount, as high-grade sources disappear—ends up as waste. According to a report by Earthworks and Oxfam America called Dirty Metals, in the United States, “the copper ore mined at the beginning of the 20th century consisted of about 2.5 percent usable metal by weight; today that proportion has dropped to 0.51 percent. In gold mining, it is estimated that only 0.00001 percent [that’s one hundred thousandth of 1 percent] of the ore is actually refined into gold.”74 Chemicals used in processing contaminate at least 90 billion tons of waste ore per year globally, equivalent in weight to almost nine times as much trash produced annually by all U.S. cities combined.75

Of course mine workers suffer disproportionately from the toxins, as well as from injuries caused by using dangerous heavy equipment and from events like explosions, fires, mudslides, etc. The International Labour Organization reports that although mining accounts for only 0.4 percent of the global workforce, it is responsible for more than 3 percent of fatal accidents at work (about eleven thousand per year, about thirty each day).76

In Rajasthan, India, for example, miners—many of them women and children—toil long days to extract the marble and sandstone that furnishes fancy bathrooms and kitchens worldwide. GRAVIS, a nongovernmental organization inspired by Gandhi that works with Rajasthani miners, reports that about half of the mineworkers in the state have developed lung disease, such as silicosis. “The mineworkers work in deep open pits where the air is thick with dust from dry drilling, and safety equipment is nonexistent. There is no drinking water provided, no shade to rest in, no toilets, no first aid kits, and no worker’s compensation for accidents. Accidents occur frequently and often mineworkers have no extra money to pay for medical treatment.”77

You would think, given all the costs, from contamination of water, air, and soil to the health care of workers, that mining companies would be hard-pressed to turn a profit. But only a smidgen of the true costs is borne by those companies; their balance sheets rarely factor in things like water or air quality. In fact, get this: it is virtually free to mine on U.S. federal lands. Under the General Mining Act, passed in 1872, any U.S. citizen eighteen years or older has the right to prospect and mine for minerals, such as gold, silver, platinum, copper, lead, and zinc, on federal lands. For free. The argument of the day was that miners and prospectors were performing valuable services by promoting commerce and settling new territory, particularly out west.78

Since the passage of the act, it is estimated the federal government has given away minerals worth more than $245 billion.79 This not only deprives the government of revenue, it also encourages use of virgin materials instead of recycled. One study found that in the United States fifteen federal subsidies—averaging $2.6 billion each—annually benefit resource extractive industries,80 again guiding them toward virgin rather than recycled metals. When minerals are basically free, there is little incentive to conserve them or to go to the effort to recover the gold, silver, lead, and other metals in all the electronics and other Stuff we throw out.

Thankfully, efforts are underway to update the antiquated mining law. In early 2009, the Hardrock Mining and Reclamation Act was reintroduced, after the 2007 version failed to pass the U.S. Senate. The new law would impose a royalty of 4 percent of gross revenues on existing mining from unclaimed mines and place an 8 percent royalty on new mining operations. Seventy percent of the royalty money would go to a cleanup fund for past abandoned mining operations, and 30 percent would go to communities impacted by mining.81 While a step in the right direction, that law only pertains to mining on U.S. public lands. Meanwhile, the subsidies encouraging the use of virgin materials still exist; they need to go!

If I wanted to examine every kind of metal and mineral that gets extracted to make our Stuff, it would take several books’ worth of stories. So let’s look at a select handful of rocks that get dug up or blasted out of the ground. They’re pretty representative of the way all the metals and minerals needed for our Stuff are extracted.

Gold and Diamonds

Gold is used for a lot of things, from dentistry to glassblowing to stockpiling wealth. Gold is also used in electronics; virtually every modern electronic device—cell phones, laptops, televisions, GPS systems, MP3 players—has a bit of gold in it. But the biggest use, dwarfing all the rest, is jewelry. Jewelry accounts for more than 75 percent of the total amount of gold consumed today.82

Maybe you have a piece of gold jewelry that’s very dear to you. You’re not alone. I don’t have much of it, but I do have one little gold ring, given to me by a long-ago love.

When he wanted to buy me a ring, I insisted on an old one and a small one. I’d seen gold mines in South Africa. I knew that gold mining is horribly polluting, is routinely linked to human rights violations, and that more than three-quarters of the gold mined around the world ends up in jewelry. Since there is a lot of gold in jewelry rattling around in old ladies’ dresser drawers and increasingly in piles of e-waste, why fuel the market for mining more? So he got me an antique ring from the Tiny Jewel Box store in Washington, D.C. It’s inscribed “16 Mai 1896” and has a fleck of sapphire surrounded by tiny pearls not much larger than pencil dots.

I love that my ring has a past from long before me. Given the spelling of “May,” it was likely presented to someone in France or Germany. And given its tiny size, it seems unlikely to have been an engagement ring: perhaps a sweet-sixteen ring? I’ve often gazed at it and imagined its life on the finger of a young European woman and wondered who gave it to her. And of course the metal had a life before her, before being shaped into a ring.

Where was the gold for my sweet little ring mined? Maybe South Africa? For years, South Africa has supplied much of the world’s gold and still provides more than a quarter of today’s demand. When I visited South Africa in the mid-1990s, I looked out the window of the car in which I was riding and wondered aloud what geologic processes could have created so many randomly spaced small hills that covered the countryside. “Those aren’t hills,” my South African host explained. “Those are piles of mining waste.”

Mining enough gold for an average gold wedding ring creates about 20 tons of hazardous mining waste,83 which is sometimes dumped in rivers or the sea, sometimes just left right where it was created, as I saw in South Africa. The reason it’s toxic is that to get the gold from the ore, mining companies use a process called heap leaching, which means piling up the gold-containing ore and pouring cyanide over it to let it slowly drip through, extracting the gold on its way. At the same time, the cyanide also extracts toxic metals, including cadmium, lead, and mercury. The cyanide and toxic metal liquid runoff ends up in a big pool, from which the gold is extracted, leaving behind a heavy metal and cyanide contaminated pond next to a heavy metal and cyanide contaminated hill of leftover ore. Cyanide, I probably don’t need to remind you, is a deadly poison. An amount about the size of a grain of rice is enough to off a human being, and one-millionth of a gram of it in a liter of water kills fish,84 which is a big problem since much mine waste ends up in rivers and lakes.

But my ring was so tiny! I reassured myself that it must have only created half the average amount of waste. Then I realized that’s still 10 tons.

I hope my ring wasn’t made by pouring cyanide over heaps of earth. Cyanide wasn’t widely applied to gold ores until 1887.85 And maybe the gold in my ring is American, maybe even Californian, like me. Since early Californian gold miners didn’t use cyanide, this would free my ring from that toxic legacy but would unfortunately bring another equally problematic one.

Gold was discovered in Northern California forty-eight years before my ring was inscribed. In 1848, a man named James Marshall working on a sawmill in Northern California found the shiny metal in the American River in Coloma. Marshall’s discovery led to the Gold Rush of 1849: hundreds of thousands of people arrived in hopes of striking it rich.86 As a result the white population in California soared from 13,000 to 300,000 by 1854, while California’s native American populations were decimated, declining from a pre-gold rush population of 150,000 to about 30,000 by 1870. Sixty percent of those deaths were linked to diseases introduced by the invading gold miners, while others were hastened by forced relocation onto reservations or happened in outright massacres.87

In that era, the ore wrested from riverbanks and mountains was soaked with mercury to extract the gold. Mercury, which I’ll discuss more fully in the upcoming chapter on production, is a potent neurotoxin that can affect the brain, spinal cord, kidneys, and liver. (The term “mad hatter” comes from the neurological damage done to those who cleaned felt hats, which used to be done with—you guessed it—mercury.88) During the gold rush, an estimated 7,600 tons of mercury were deposited into the rivers of the central Sierra Nevada alone.89 That mercury remains in the California environment, in rivers and in sediments, much of it being continuously transported to the San Francisco Bay, where people swim and fish.

The unfortunate fact is, I can’t tell you where the gold in my little ring came from, or who was harmed by its creation. All I know is that when it came to me, it was already secondhand—and that’s a plus. Since the great majority of gold is used for jewelry and since two-thirds of gold in use is newly mined, old gold is a good choice for people who believe that gold is the best way to symbolize love or commitment.

Buying previously owned or recycled gold, or forgoing it altogether, is the best way to ensure we’re not contributing to the devastation caused by gold mining. However, for those who are stuck on buying new gold, there are still ways to lessen the impact. There are a number of jewelers who have committed to ensuring that the gold in their wares wasn’t produced at the expense of local communities, workers, or the environment. The No Dirty Gold campaign has developed a set of voluntary guidelines called the Golden Rules that jewelry retailers can sign on to in order to promote environmental, worker, and community rights. You can find out which jewelers are on board at nodirtygold.org.90

Conflict Minerals

Unfortunately the story of gold has a lot in common with the stories of almost all of the minerals or metals needed for our Stuff. Unfortunately, it gets even worse than gold.

“Conflict minerals” is the term for valuable rocks that fuel violent conflict when the profit from their control, sales, taxation, or protection funds criminal gangs, brutal regimes, and weapons. These minerals and metals are usually mined under oppressive conditions, with workers paid little to nothing. According to Global Witness, a London-and Washington, D.C.-based organization leading the campaign on conflict diamonds, these rocks “have funded brutal conflicts in Africa that have resulted in the death and displacement of millions of people. Diamonds have also been used by terrorist groups such as al-Qaeda to finance their activities and for money-laundering purposes.”91

The role of “conflict diamonds” or “blood diamonds” in Sierra Leone’s civil war has received global attention, in large part thanks to Global Witness’ Combating Conflict Diamonds campaign, launched in 1998. The situation was also brought to light through the 2006 film Blood Diamond. The film does a pretty good job of illustrating the brutality of both the rebel forces that run the mines (kidnapping villagers to make them into miners and young boys to serve as child soldiers) as well as the government forces, which indiscriminately kill civilians and villagers alongside the rebels.

In real life, during Sierra Leone’s eleven-year civil war from 1991 to 2002, a vicious rebel army called the Revolutionary United Front (RUF) utilized violence and terror, including rape, the systematic amputation of victims’ limbs, and mass murder. Tens of thousands of Sierra Leoneans were killed.92 In early 2009, three senior commanders of the RUF were convicted of war crimes and crimes against humanity. They had participated in seizing diamond mines, forcing kidnapped citizens to mine diamonds, and then trading the diamonds for money and military support.93 “Trade in diamonds and other natural resources has underwritten some of the worst war crimes of the past two decades,” said Mike Davis, who campaigns for Global Witness, an international nongovernment organization (NGO). “Yet despite cases such as Sierra Leone, there is still no comprehensive international approach to this problem. Natural resources continue to fuel conflict to this day, notably in eastern Democratic Republic of the Congo, where armed groups are financing themselves through the trade in minerals and committing atrocities against the civilian population.”94

In 2000, the South African government hosted a meeting of major diamond trading and producing countries, diamond industry representatives, and NGOs in Kimberley, South Africa, to launch an international diamond tracking and certification program, which became known as the Kimberley Process. Formally launched in January 2003, it aims to guarantee a “clean” source of diamonds, free of conflict and violence. In order for a country to be a participant, it must ensure that none of its diamonds have financed a rebel group or other entity seeking to overthrow a UN-recognized government, that every diamond has official certification, and that no diamond is imported from or exported to a nonmember country.95 As Sierra Leonean Martin Chungong Ayafor testified to the UN, “ ‘Diamonds are forever,’ it is often said. But lives are not. We must spare people the ordeal of war, mutilations, and death for the sake of conflict diamonds.”96

Unfortunately, the Kimberley Process has not lived up to its potential, and the diamond industry continues to be rife with human rights abuses and links to conflict. Global Witness reported that after the agreement’s first five years, “the trafficking of conflict and illicit stones is looking more like a dangerous rule than an exception.”97

The best way to avoid fueling conflict and civil war is to not buy diamonds. Period. The diamond industry does a fabulous job marketing these rocks as a symbol of love, commitment, wealth, and status. But we don’t have to buy into it. There are plenty of better ways to demonstrate one’s love. If you are really compelled to go spend a month’s salary on a rock, then consult the diamond buying guide produced by Global Witness and Amnesty International, which includes a number of important questions to ask a jeweler.


There’s another conflict mineral that’s in all of our cell phones, MP3 players, remote controls, and PlayStations: tantalum, derived from an ore known as “coltan” in miner slang. It’s known for its resistance to heat and to corrosion by acids—even when actually submerged in acid.98

Although coltan has mostly been sourced from other countries like Australia, Brazil, and Canada, 80 percent of the world’s supplies are in the politically unstable and violence-plagued eastern part of the Democratic Republic of the Congo.99 Congolese coltan mining has funded brutal guerilla forces and their backers in neighboring countries like Rwanda, Burundi, and Uganda. Coltan can be mined with very basic methods: simply dug up and sifted through pans, just as the forty-niners in the California Gold Rush worked. So when the global price of the metal shot up in 2000 to three hundred dollars per pound of the refined mineral (in part due to the huge launch of Sony’s PS2 game console), thousands of Congolese scrambled into the country’s lush green forests to get at it, destroying national parks and other pristine land, killing gorillas for food, and ruining the animals’ habitat.100 Various armies (official and rebel) rushed in to take over the trade, often employing children and prisoners of war, brutally raping local women (the UN estimated 45,000 raped in 2005 alone101), and bringing prostitution and illegal arms trade with them. Oona King, a member of the British Parliament at the time, said about the situation: “Kids in Congo were being sent down mines to die so that kids in Europe and America could kill imaginary aliens in their living rooms.”102

Coltan mining has been an enormously lucrative business for both the rebels and the armies of the Congo and its neighbors. By some estimates the Rwandan army, which has occupied parts of the Congo off and on for the last decade, made $500 million just between April 2007 and October 2008 on Congolese coltan.103 And, of course, the corporations selling all these coltan-containing products are making massive profit too, with most investing far more in advertising the latest gadget than in ending the trail of violence that too often follows this metal.

Congolese human rights activist Bertrand Bisimwa summarized the way far too many people perceive his country: “Since the 19th century, when the world looks at Congo it sees a pile of riches with some black people inconveniently sitting on top of them. They eradicate the Congolese people so they can possess the mines and resources. They destroy us because we are an inconvenience.”104

Some electronics manufacturers have publicly declared their ban on African-mined tantalum altogether, although, as depicted in the film Blood Diamond, tracing the source through so many dealers and handlers means this is far easier said than done. A solution with more promise is a database of “coltan fingerprints” that scientists are creating, which is feasible because each mining site has a distinct geological history and produces metal with a specific composition.105 This database would allow an international certification system like the Kimberley Process to be established for coltan, so that electronics manufacturers could source their coltan from legitimate mines with decent working conditions and environmental standards.

But the best solution of all—not just for coltan but also for gold and other metals contained in today’s array of electronic products—is to increase the durability and expand the life span of today’s electronics so we don’t have to keep chucking and replacing them so quickly. We also need to require manufacturers to take back electronics when we are done with them. Take-back programs, like those now mandated throughout the European Union, allow manufacturers to recover the tantalum (and other ingredients) for reuse, thus keeping electronic waste out of landfills and decreasing the pressure to mine more.

Earthworks, a Washington, D.C., based environmental advocacy group specializing in mining issues, estimates that if 130 million phones were recycled, they would yield about 202,000 ounces of gold alongside other precious metals. Every year 150 million cell phones are thrown out in the United States, along with over 300 million other electronic devices. It’s estimated that there are another 500 million unused cell phones sitting around in people’s drawers.106 That’s a lot of perfectly good rocks for the (re)taking.


No discussion of wars fueled by natural resources is complete without mention of oil. In our current system petroleum is used to power many of the processes by which our Stuff is made. Powering machines and vehicles and heating our buildings takes 84 percent of the petroleum used every year.107 Petroleum itself is also an ingredient in a lot of Stuff: the remaining 16 percent of it goes into making plastics, pharmaceuticals, and fertilizers, as well as Stuff like crayons, bubble gum, ink, dishwashing liquid, deodorant, tires, and ammonia.108

Drilling, processing, and burning oil is dirty and damaging to the health of people everywhere, not to mention the health of the planet. The other big problem with oil is that we’re running out. “Peak oil” is the term used to describe the point at which we’ve used more oil than what’s left available to us because of technological and geological limitations. Once peak oil is reached, oil production declines. The International Energy Agency (IEA), which tracks energy supplies around the world, believes we may reach peak oil by 2020 but are likely to experience an “oil crunch” even earlier as demand outpaces supply and oil becomes increasing expensive to extract.109

In August 2009, Dr. Fatih Birol, chief economist at the IEA, said that “global production is likely to peak in about ten years—at least a decade earlier than most governments had estimated.”110 After assessing eight hundred major oil fields around the world (three-quarters of global reserves), the IEA reported that oil is being depleted more quickly than the agency had estimated even a couple of years ago and concluded that current energy use patterns are “patently unsustainable.” According to Dr. Birol, if oil demand remains steady, the world would have to find the equivalent of four Saudi Arabias to maintain production and six Saudi Arabias if it is to keep up with the expected increase in demand between now and 2030.111

“We have to leave oil before oil leaves us, and we have to prepare ourselves for that day,” Dr. Birol said. “The earlier we start, the better, because all of our economic and social system is based on oil, so to change from that will take a lot of time and a lot of money.”112 Yet despite the facts, many governments have been slow to invest in alternatives, and some—like our own—have instead invested in costly wars to protect access to it.

We’ve all heard about the connection between oil reserves and American military engagement in the Middle East. Meanwhile the extraction of oil from places like Ecuador and Nigeria has gotten less attention, but has been just as devastating.

In Ecuador, Texaco (now Chevron) spent nearly three decades between 1964 and 1992 extracting oil from a chunk of the Amazonian forest three times the size of Manhattan, destroying much of the area’s life. Violating environmental standards, Texaco dumped toxic water and sludge by-products from the drilling, saturated with carcinogens like benzene, cadmium, and mercury, in local waters. They left more than six hundred unlined and uncovered waste pits that leak chemicals like hexavalent chromium (remember Erin Brockovich?) into rivers and streams used by more than thirty thousand people for drinking water, cooking, bathing, and fishing. The local population is suffering from skyrocketing rates of cancer, severe reproductive problems, and birth defects.113 In a David versus Goliath protracted legal battle that is still underway, local people are demanding Chevron clean up the mess and pay for the tremendous devastation it caused.

The future looks slightly more hopeful; in 2007, Ecuadorean president Rafael Correa’s government announced that it intended to protect the oilfields located in the extraordinarily rich YasunÍ rainforest. The YasunÍ houses a million hectares of pristine rainforest, indigenous tribes, and glorious species of wildlife and plants, many of which are endangered. It’s also home to one of the world’s largest undeveloped oil reserves—close to 1 billion barrels’ worth. Not extracting that oil would prevent the release of an estimated 400 million tons of carbon into the atmosphere.114

Taking a stand for the YasunÍ oilfield’s protection is a bold move, considering that about 70 percent of Ecuador’s income is from oil.115 So how do they plan to accomplish it? They asked the international community to pay them half of the income that would result from the extraction over the likely lifetime of the oil fields, or $350 million a year for a decade.116 This is a big deal: a really innovative idea that other developing countries could employ to protect their own resources and help combat climate change. Unfortunately, although the governments of Spain, Norway, and Italy voiced support for Correa’s plan, no one offered cash until Germany did in June 2009, with a promise to pay $50 million in grants annually.117 It remains to be seen how the YasunÍ will fare.

In Nigeria, the villain has a different name (Shell), but the story is similar. Starting in 1958, Shell went into Ogoniland, one of the most fertile regions of the country. The five hundred thousand Ogoni who live there are an ethnic minority group; they are basically unrecognized by the Nigerian constitution and have few protections under it. They don’t have mineral rights to their land either, since all mineral rights are owned by the state.118 As in Ecuador, their land has been trashed by spills, sludge, and other by-products from the drilling.

After decades plagued with poverty, public health crises, and environmental devastation, while Shell extracted millions of dollars’ worth of oil from under their homes, the Ogoni began to organize themselves to fight for their rights and their land. In 1990, they formed MOSOP, the Movement for the Survival of the Ogoni People, a peaceful resistance group under the leadership of a charismatic writer, businessman, TV producer, and environmental activist named Ken Saro-Wiwa.119 A brilliant public speaker, Ken traveled the world raising awareness about the little-known environmental and public health catastrophe that oil drilling had wreaked upon his homeland. His work created a strong international network of people inspired and committed to pressuring Shell to improve its operations, clean up past environmental damage, respect human rights, and share oil profits more fairly with host communities. Around the world, students began protesting at Shell stations. Filmmakers interviewed Ken and visited Ogoniland, ensuring that even more people would see the atrocities Ken described. Faith-based and corporate-accountability activists raised questions and eventually introduced resolutions at Shell’s annual meetings. Greenpeace, Project Underground, Essential Action, and other groups developed campaigns in support of the Ogoni.120

At that time, Nigeria was controlled by a military dictatorship led by the infamous Sani Abacha. Shell was by far the largest oil company in a heavily oil-dependent economy and had a close, even symbiotic relationship with the government. Neither was pleased with Ken’s work at home and around the world. Shell had pulled out of Ogoniland in 1993, at least partly because of MOSOP, but they—and the Nigerian government, which gets more than 85 percent of its revenue from oil—still wanted the troublesome group silenced: correspondence between Shell and the Nigerian government revealed Shell’s desire to stop MOSOP.121 Even in the face of growing threats and government harassment, Ken didn’t give up his struggle for environmental justice and human rights, right up to his very premature end.

“Appalled by the denigrating poverty of my people who live on a richly endowed land, distressed by their political marginalization and economic strangulation, angered by the devastation of their land, their ultimate heritage, anxious to preserve their right to life and to a decent living, and determined to usher to this country as a whole a fair and just democratic system which protects everyone and every ethnic group and gives us all a valid claim to human civilization, I have devoted my intellectual and material resources, my very life, to a cause in which I have total belief.”122 That’s from Ken’s closing statement to the military-appointed special tribunal that heard his case after he and fifteen other Ogonis were arrested on bogus charges. He was convicted of a murder that happened in an area that had been blocked off by the military—with Ken irrefutably outside the barricades, nowhere near it. As it turned out, Ken did devote his “very life” to the cause: he was hanged on November 10, 1995.

There was an international outcry over his wrongful execution. I remember exactly where I was when I heard: in New York City, in Riverside Church, at a gathering of international environmental and human rights activists discussing economic globalization. Many of the people there had followed the Ogoni case because it was so dramatically emblematic of the intersection of environmental, human rights, and economic abuses too often linked to extractive industries. I knew that Ken had been charged with murder in a secret, widely discredited trial. Yet I honestly didn’t believe he would be hung. He had too many international friends. Amnesty International had spearheaded a campaign on his behalf. Governments, human rights organizations, and prominent writers around the world had called on the Nigerian government to spare Ken and his colleagues. He had written one of the most-watched soap operas in all of Africa. He was charming and educated and internationally recognized. Many of the people in the church that day had met him, seen him speak in person, and considered him a friend. He wasn’t the kind of activist whose death could just be swept under the rug, unnoticed except by friends and family.

Yet it happened. When we heard the news, literally hundreds of people rushed out of the church into the streets to march to Shell’s office in Midtown Manhattan. Some were crying. Some were so angry that they lay down in the entranceway, blocking the door and disrupting Shell’s business until the police came and dragged them away. I was just in shock. I had overestimated the Nigerian government’s vulnerability to international pressure and underestimated the strength of their desire to silence Ken. They didn’t really silence him though; his memory continues to inspire people to take action against destructive oil projects. Ken’s last words are reported to have been “Lord, take my soul, but the struggle continues.”123

And that it does. It continues in the courtroom as well as in the streets. The lawsuit Wiwa v. Shell charged Shell with providing arms and transportation, collaboration and direction to the Nigerian military to suppress the Ogoni opposition. The plaintiffs included surviving relatives of Ken and his executed colleagues—now known as the Ogoni 9—as well as other Ogoni who were tortured, and in some cases killed, for their resistance to Shell and their support for MOSOP.124

Just days before the federal court trial date in June 2009 in New York City, Shell agreed to an out-of-court settlement of $15.5 million for the relatives of Ken and the other victims. However, Shell denied any wrongdoing or responsibility for the deaths, calling the settlement money a “humanitarian gesture” toward the families for their losses and their legal expenses. Some of the money will also go into a trust to benefit the Ogoni people.125 While the settlement was meager compared to the extent of Shell’s wrongdoing, it’s still a step forward in holding all corporations accountable for crimes they commit in other countries.

Although Shell hasn’t been back to Ogoniland, it still pumps more than 250,000 barrels a day from Nigeria.126 And in June 2008, the Nigerian government announced plans to give rights to drill in Ogoniland to the Nigerian Petroleum Development Company, so operations there will begin anew.127

Even should Shell be forced to reform its ways, such disregard for both people and the environment in drilling areas continues to be an industry norm. In May 1998, less than three years after Ken’s execution, members of another Nigerian community—the Ilaje—were shot and two were killed while engaging in a nonviolent protest on a Chevron oil platform off the Nigerian coast.128 According to EarthRights International, which serves as counsel for Wiwa v. Shell and another case related to the killing of the platform protestors, Chevron called in the Nigerian military and police, flew them to the platform on Chevron-contracted helicopters, and supervised their attack against the protesters.129

The crazy thing is, we have perfectly good alternatives to petroleum for both energy and materials. There’s no need to continue such widespread environmental destruction and violence to meet our energy needs. As many scientists and business leaders now agree, solar and wind power can pick up much of our energy needs. Combining renewable energy with a much needed reduction in demand through greater energy efficiency and improvements in everything from land use planning to transportation systems to consumption patterns, we could have enough energy to just leave that oil in the soil.

And the oil used for plastics and other products is also replaceable with other materials, including bio-based ones. David Morris at the Institute for Local Self-Reliance has documented the technical potential and environmental benefits of shifting from a petro-based to a carbohydrate-material economy for more than a decade.130 A number of green chemists, sustainable agriculture activists, and environmental health advocates have formed a Sustainable Biomaterials Collaborative. This body has established criteria to ensure that the transition from petro-based to plant-based materials is done in a way that supports ecological health, healthy farms, good farm jobs, and other criteria for a safe, healthy, and just planet.131

Rethinking Extraction

Perhaps, as some people claim, it is possible to take metals or oil out of the ground without widespread environmental and human rights abuses, but I sure haven’t seen it. The scale of investment and hard work it will take to turn those industries around is huge. And, in the case of the toxic heavy metals—like lead and mercury—or oil, getting it out of the ground is only the first problem. Use of these resources adds to a whole second generation of problems. Many heavy metals are neurotoxins, carcinogens, and reproductive toxins (which diminish your ability to have healthy children and your children’s ability to have healthy children).

While some extractive industries can be improved—the Golden Rules and Kimberley Process are examples of potential steps in that direction—attempting to fix others just won’t work. It is impossible to safely and sustainably extract resources that are, by definition, environmental and health problems themselves.

In the case of the toxic metals, like lead and mercury, we should leave them in the ground and redesign our industrial processes and products to eliminate their use. Both lead and mercury have been eliminated from the many common uses of just a generation ago. Remember leaded paint and gasoline? Mercury thermometers?

I am not saying it is going to be easy. It’s a big job to redesign everything from consumer products, to sustainable energy systems, to cultural norms around diamond rings set in gold as the ultimate expression of love. But with the stakes so high—our very planet plus all our fellow planet-mates depending on us—we can do it.

Imbalanced Benefits

Maybe you noticed a common thread in the stories of Madagascar’s periwinkle, Sierra Leone’s diamonds, the Congo’s coltan, Nigeria’s oil, and Appalachia’s coal. In all of these places there’s an abundance of valuable natural resources, but somehow the local people get the short end of the deal, environmentally and economically. In fact, many places with valuable, nonrenewable resources like forests, metals, and minerals wind up as impoverished noncontenders in the global economy, with their citizens often left hungry and sick. This paradox is known as the resource curse.



Coal doesn’t make my list of rocks because it’s used less often as a direct ingredient in consumer goods. Like water and oil, however, it powers the machines that make our Stuff, so it deserves mention.

Coal is used to generate a lot of electricity (40 percent of the world’s and approximately 49 percent of the United States’132), even though it’s hard to imagine a dirtier source. Back in the early days when coal was abundant and easier to reach, people didn’t necessarily know how bad it was. You’d think they’d have realized the mining of it wasn’t a great idea based on the fact that they had to send those poor little canaries in to make sure the air wasn’t poisonous! Or when mine roofs kept collapsing, fires and explosions occurred relentlessly, and black lung disease shrank the life expectancies of miners. But no.

And now we know so much more. Creating and running a coal mine destroys vegetation, soil, and groundwater; displaces and destroys wildlife and habitat; degrades air quality with ash and dust; and permanently scars the landscape, especially in the case of mountaintop removal mining. Mines produce tons of waste like ash and sludge that contains mercury, uranium, arsenic, and other heavy metals. The December 2008 tragedy in which a billion gallons of toxic sludge burst out of a holding pond into the rivers, towns, and land of Roane County, Tennessee, is just the latest in a litany of disasters associated with coal mines.133

Meanwhile, burning coal constitutes the largest human-generated contribution to atmospheric carbon dioxide and is a major source of methane; both gases are proven causes of climate change and global warming. In his book Big Coal, Jeff Goodell notes that “between 1975 and 2001, the annual releases of toxic metals from coal plants nearly doubled, from about 350 tons to 700 tons... Toxic emissions from coal-fired power plants account for over 40 percent of all air toxins reported to the EPA.”134 And there are many more ecological impacts of burning coal that I don’t have room to cover in a short section devoted to its extraction.

Of all the impacts from coal mining, blowing the tops off mountains, the method prevalent in Appalachia, takes the prize for most vile. Coal mining companies started this practice when there were no more veins of coal near the surface and using tunnels and shafts became prohibitively expensive. The crazy thing is that even deep in those mountains there’s not that much coal—there’s just enough profit in it for the mining companies to do it, and only because they don’t have to pay anything for the ecological damage and havoc they’re wreaking.

Plus, there’s actually much more accessible coal in states like Montana and Wyoming.135 So why are we even mining for it in Appalachia? The mining companies there—and the local residents who’ve bought into the story—claim that the region will collapse without those mining jobs. But the truth is otherwise. For example, despite 13 billion tons of coal being pulled out of West Virginia in the past 150 years, West Virginians have the lowest median household income in the country, with the literacy rate in the southern coalfield region about that of Kabul, Afghanistan.136

I wanted to investigate any links between my own lightbulbs and blowing the tops off of mountains in Appalachia, so I went to the ilovemountains.org website, which allows anyone in the United States to type in a zip code and see which mountains were destroyed for your power. My search showed two power plants serving my area that purchase coal from companies blowing up mountains in Appalachia. Also on that site, I visited the powerful National Memorial for the Mountains, which identifies more than 470 destroyed mountains.137 The combined horror of mountaintop removal and massive climate disruption inspired me to put solar panels on my own house, so I can rest assured that no more mountains are destroyed to power my home.

Unfortunately, we don’t have time for every household to install solar panels and, even if we did, that doesn’t address the massive coal used to fuel industrial uses. The extraction and burning of coal is so devastating that there’s really only one solution: keep the coal in the hole. Leave it there. There’s a growing global consensus that the climate simply can’t sustain coal-fired power plants.

Some economists and social scientists say the resource curse is caused when a country or region blessed with valuable resources relies too much on them, with its best people drawn to extraction-related work, so that other economic sectors just can’t compete. Meanwhile the prices for those native resources can fluctuate wildly based on the whims of the global economy, creating grave instability. Other observers point to the role of conflict minerals in sustaining political, and thus economic, chaos. American University professor Deborah BrÄutigam suggests that governments in natural-resource-based economies don’t rely on taxes from citizens, which means that the contract between government and its citizens is weak; citizens can’t hold their leaders accountable. If ordinary folks complain about government in those situations, leaders can always use the money from the resources to fund a military presence that silences the grumbles.138 The practice of externalizing costs—which allows multinational companies to trash the environments in which they drill, mine, and extract, without financial consequences—compounds the local devastation.

The unfortunate fact is that a resource curse experienced by a single country is just one facet of a complex global situation riddled with unfairness and lack of equality. The benefits and costs of international extraction are not equitably distributed and, as we’ll see in the coming chapters, involve a messy web of often greedy and corrupt players, including multinational industries, national governments, and international development banks. As for the many millions of people who live and work on the land from which those resources are taken—they’re pretty much left out of the equation.

In particular, indigenous communities bear disproportionate impacts from extractive industries. Around the world, many indigenous communities are located in resource-rich areas that are targeted for logging, mining, oil and gas drilling, and other kinds of extraction. Indigenous peoples’ livelihoods and cultures often depend on access to land and natural resources, which they’ve respected and protected in sustainable relationships for hundreds if not thousands of years. Yet indigenous communities are often discriminated against and shut out of decision making about projects that affect their resources and their communities.

I’m happy to report that indigenous communities are gaining ground in securing their rights to participate in environmental planning processes, even though it still irks me that this is something for which they need to fight. On September 13, 2007, after more than twenty years of advocacy and negotiations, the United Nations adopted a Declaration on the Rights of Indigenous Peoples, which is a huge step toward protecting the environmental, economic, and other rights of these individuals and communities. The declaration was adopted by an overwhelming majority of 143 votes in favor, with only 4 votes—from Canada, Australia, New Zealand, and the United States—against it.139

While the official international political recognition helps, there’s still a long way to go. As the International Working Group for Indigenous Affairs explains, “Translating this political recognition into concrete advances locally, nationally, regionally and internationally remains a big challenge for indigenous peoples.”140 Indigenous communities continue to be targeted for destructive extractive projects around the world, often with little or no opportunity to engage meaningfully in the decision-making processes.

In our increasingly globalized economy, more and more extraction projects are run by multinational companies and financed by international financial institutions like the World Bank or the International Monetary Fund (for more on these institutions see chapter 3 on distribution), whose decision-making centers are far from the impacted communities. Having distant and often unresponsive decision makers running these projects makes it even harder for local communities to have a substantial voice in project planning. Too often, the most heavily impacted communities have the least say in the projects and gain the least from the downstream benefits of the resource use.

Many organizations around the world are working to influence these financial backers—both public and private—to get them to adhere to higher environmental, social, and human rights standards. To a limited extent, advocacy and activist groups have been able to force some public and private lenders to adopt policies that protect or promote environmental and social issues.

For example, the World Bank Group, one of the biggest financial backers of extractive, infrastructure, and policy projects around the world, loaning an average of $20 to $25 billion to developing country governments annually—including more than $1 billion specifically for extractive industries141—did not even have mandatory environmental review procedures until 1987.142 It adopted the inadequate review process it now uses after lengthy, heated campaigns by coalitions of environmental, human rights, and other nonprofit organizations in countries that both lend to and borrow from the World Bank. In June 2003, the World Bank endorsed the Extractive Industries Transparency Initiative (EITI), a voluntary program promoting greater transparency and civil society participation in extractive industries in resource-rich countries.143 Even with these policies in place, the World Bank continues both to fund devastating extractive industry projects and to fail to utilize its significant leverage in developing countries to promote transparency by industries or community involvement.

Appealing to these huge financial institutions to change their ways is a slow process and has so far proved inadequate in both pace and scale. Many groups have abandoned efforts to reform them, believing that the structures and programs of the World Bank, along with its sibling organization the International Monetary Fund (IMF), are too deeply flawed. Instead, these groups focus their efforts on restricting the reach and influence of these institutions. “The record of the IMF and the World Bank is one of unmitigated failure. Their... failed megaprojects have disqualified them from any future role in development. It is time to shrink these institutions,” explains Njoki Njoroge Njehu, a Kenyan activist who has focused on the World Bank and IMF for more than a decade.144

After witnessing many devastating World Bank projects in Asia and Africa with my own eyes, and getting inadequate responses from World Bank officials each time I marched up to their Washington, D.C., offices with my latest data and concerns, I have to agree that the best approach is restricting these institutions’ reach. Through an international campaign called the World Bank Bonds Boycott (WBBB), many individuals are ensuring that their pension funds, labor unions, churches, municipalities, and universities do not buy World Bank bonds. By withdrawing financing for its bonds, the WBBB exerts pressure on the Bank to, among other goals, stop environmentally destructive projects in oil, gas, mining, and dams.145

It’s clear that the risks and negative impacts of extractive projects are not shared equitably. The same holds true for the benefits—the profits and the actual resources. Some people are using way more than their share while others are using far too little. Jared Diamond, author of Collapse, notes that “the average rates at which people consume resources like oil and metals, and produce wastes like plastics and greenhouse gases, are about 32 times higher in North America, Western Europe, Japan and Australia than they are in the developing world.”146 The United States consumes the highest percent; with only 5 percent of the world’s population, it accounts for about 30 percent of all resources consumed. Overall, the 25 percent of the world’s population in industrialized countries consume about 75 percent of global resources.147

In fact, all of us on the planet collectively are consuming more resources than the planet produces each year; we’re consuming about 1.4 planets’ worth of bio-capacity resources annually.148 It seems impossible: we’re consuming an amount equivalent to more than the total resources produced by the planet each year. In fact, it’s only possible because the planet’s been around a little longer than we have and has had time to accumulate extra. Now the extra is running out. It’s as though a household saved income for years before ramping up its spending. It could spend more than it earned for some time, eating away at the savings, but eventually there’s nothing left. That’s what is happening with the planet.

And if all countries used resources at the rate that the United States does, we would need about 5 planets to sustain us.149 That’s clearly a problem, since we only have one. Two European-based organizations, BioRegional and World Wildlife Fund, have launched the One Planet Living program to reduce overall resource use, sustain ecological and community health, and ensure that the resources used are shared equitably. In order to achieve these goals, One Planet Living promotes a vastly reduced materials economy alongside new cultural norms that are proportionate to the resources we have.150

The equity piece means it’s not as simple as saying that everyone should cut their resource use—because that would be grossly unfair. Some parts of the world, like the United States and Europe, need to consume fewer resources, while other countries need to increase their consumption in order to meet even their basic needs. We’ve got to meet somewhere in the middle. And the total amount of extraction needs to stay within the planet’s ecological limits.

Transforming Extraction

In order to turn things around, we need to extract less and ensure that the extraction processes we do use support environmental, community, and worker well-being. We need to utilize what we extract more efficiently, more wisely, and more reverently. And we need a much more equal distribution of both the harms and the benefits generated by resource extraction.

While advancing sustainability standards (like the Forest Stewardship Council) and integrating worker and community voices into the planning process for extractive projects (as in community forestry initiatives) can help lessen the impact of specific projects, if we’re going to seriously address the crisis of global resource depletion as well as the public health and environmental consequences of extraction, we need deeper changes.

We need to radically reduce the overall demand for the materials being extracted. We need to increase the efficiency or productivity of resources used and ramp up reuse and recycling programs. Finally, we need to seek out alternative ways to meet our needs, which, for many, means less focus on a constant flow of new Stuff.

There is another way. There are three places we can change the system so it uses fewer natural resources: at the front end, the back end, and in our hearts and minds.

1. At the Front End

At the design stage we must redesign our production systems to use fewer resources in the first place, thereby decreasing the need for more extraction.

From a materials and energy viewpoint, our current economy and industrial models are vastly inefficient. We could use less and waste less, starting right now. In the United States the materials used by industry amounts to more than twenty times each person’s weight per day—more than 1 million pounds per American per year.151

A growing number of scientists, activists, economists, government officials, and businesspeople are calling for a massive increase in our resource productivity—in other words, to get way more out of each pound of material or unit of energy consumed.

A German think tank called the Wuppertal Institute for Climate, Environment and Energy convened a group of designers, economists, development experts, and materials geeks and launched the Factor 10 Club. In 1994 they issued a declaration calling for an increase in resource productivity by a factor of ten within fifty years, which they believe “is technically feasible if we mobilise our know-how to generate new products, services, as well as new methods of manufacturing.”152

There are loads of examples of making intense resource efficiency a design goal, such as reduced packaging or redesigning products to contain fewer materials, which is known as “light-weighting.” Other design strategies include making Stuff more:

  • Durable: So products last longer and don’t need to be discarded and replaced so quickly.

  • Repairable: This has the added benefit of producing jobs.

  • Recyclable: Materials should be chosen for their ability to maintain their integrity when recycled. Some materials degrade quickly, while others can be recycled many times.

  • Adaptable: Instead of chucking our cell phones, laptops, etc. when new features become available, these items can have removable, update-able components, like lenses on a camera. The initial extra material or financial investment to make this change systemwide will be far outweighed by the costs saved on reduced extraction of new materials.

Our most brilliant minds can and should be let loose on cutting-edge industrial design that focuses not on improving just speed and style, but on dematerializing—using fewer resources. For example, digital music has replaced tons of vinyl records, plastic cassettes, and CD jewel cases. Sleek flat-screen TVs and monitors are replacing old washing machine-sized ones. Packaging has been made thinner, lighter. In lots of arenas, resource use per product is decreasing. (Unfortunately this progress can be canceled out if overall consumption rates don’t likewise slow down.)

2. At the Back End

Vast amounts of metals, paper, wood, and water wasted each year can be recycled or reused. Once materials have been extracted and processed, it is far better to keep them in use than to chuck them and go blow up more mountaintops or clear-cut more forests. (This is not true for toxic compounds, like PVC plastic, or heavy metals like lead and mercury, which should not be recycled but should be pulled out of use and replaced with nontoxic, ecologically compatible materials.)

3. In Our Hearts and Minds

We can and should always be asking the question, are there nonmaterial ways to meet our needs? For example, a diamond set in a gold ring doesn’t equal love—love equals love! Listening well, being respectful, offering to help out, tenderness and intimacy: that’s what equals love in my book. How can we show our affection, engage our kids, and amuse ourselves without using more and more resources? Rather than our status being signaled by the clothes we wear, the cars we drive, and the size of our homes, can’t status be based upon kindness, experience, and wisdom? Let’s get creative, people!

And we can get back to that essential social activity known as sharing. Car-sharing programs such as Zipcar, tool-lending libraries like the one offered by the City of Berkeley, and good old-fashioned borrowing between neighbors are great strategies for less resource intensive ways to meet our needs. This approach has the added benefit of building community and strengthening interpersonal relationships, which psychologists and social scientists have proven to be an important factor in mental health and happiness.

© 2010 Annie Leonard


Meet the Author

Annie Leonard is an expert in international sustainability and environmental health issues and has written for a range of publications. She has worked for the Funders Workgroup for Sustainable Production & Consumption, Health Care Without Harm, and Essential Action and Greenpeace International. In 2008, Annie was named one of Time magazine’s Heroes of the Environment. Annie currently resides in California with her daughter.

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The Story of Stuff: The Impact of Overconsumption on the Planet, Our Communities, and Our Health-And How We Can Make It Better 3.8 out of 5 based on 0 ratings. 34 reviews.
MotherLodeBeth More than 1 year ago
There are so many reasons I love this book. Its fair, its enlightening, its wise, its well written, its full of documented facts that make me a wiser person, caring person, happier person. In the introduction she notes, '1. I'm not against Stuff. In fact I'm pro-Stuff! I want us to value our Stuff more, to care for it, to give it the respect it deserves. I want us to recognize that each thing we buy involved all sorts of resources and labor. Someone minded the earth for the metals in your cell phone; someone unloaded the bales from the cotton gin for your T-shirt. Someone in a factory assembled that pair of sunglasses, and they might have been exposed to carcinogens or forced to work over-time.'
terrielynns More than 1 year ago
Although sometimes it seems hard to read it is an eye opening book.
KtDearest More than 1 year ago
Annie Leonard's video has been seen by millions of people. Now Annie Leonard has written a book on the topic. It is informative and entertaining and thought prevoking! I encourage you to watch the video and then read the book. The concept of take-make-waste is so important as we amass more and more stuff. It will make you think about your decisions in product selection. Packaging, disposablity, obsolescence, shipping distance, manutacturing, materials.not just the actual item should all be considered as we look at what our stuff means. The Story of Stuff explores how things that seem unrelated are related. The interlinking of systems shows us that there is a cost vs a price! Great read!
bbveg More than 1 year ago
Comprehensive, informative, and thought-provoking. This book is a must for anyone interested in the impact overconsumption has on our planet.
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Anonymous More than 1 year ago
What we don't know... or dont want to know can be scary about all of our stuff. This is a good read.
Anonymous More than 1 year ago
Veryinformative and not too wonky or naggy!
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WhompingWillow More than 1 year ago
This is the best book I have picked up in a while. Ms. Leonard's ability to tie together so many complex and interrelated topics is incredible. Her big picture view with all the facts and details to back it up has changed my consumer ways already. What I find inspiring is that she can make the complex seem simple, the impossible seem feasible, and moves an otherwise depressing topic into a way to empower all people. She should get the Nobel Peace Prize for her work. Read it, get empowered, and change this world!
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ChimeDolkerBanaktsang More than 1 year ago
This book is such an eye-opening, and so inspiring. Every single person on Earth should read it. This book helps you treat our ONLY Earth a little more carefully, and not take it for granted. Thank you Annie Leonard. I wish there were more people like you in every country and its govt.
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