The Story Of Stuff: How Our Obsession With Stuff Is Trashing The Planet, Our Communities, And Our Health-and A Vision For Change
This reading group guide for The Story of Stuff includes an introduction, discussion questions, ideas for enhancing your book club, and a Q&A with author Annie Leonard. The suggested questions are intended to help your reading group find new and interesting angles and topics for your discussion. We hope that these ideas will enrich your conversation and increase your enjoyment of the book.
Where do our computers, soda cans, and T-shirts come from? Who and what was involved in their production? How far did they travel to reach us? And where will they go when we throw them away? Annie Leonard, creator of the internet film sensation "The Story of Stuff “takes readers on an epic journey around the world and back in time to understand our consumption-driven economy. Her conclusion is clear: we have too much Stuff, too much of it is toxic and we’re not sharing it well.
With staggering revelations about the economy, the environment, and cultures around the world, alongside stories from her own life and work, Leonard demonstrates that the drive for a "growth at all costs" economy fuels a rampant expansion of production, consumption, and disposal that is jeopardizing our health, our happiness and the very survival of the planet’s ecosystems.
Yet there is hope. Nearly every page offers alternatives and solutions that can stop the environmental damage, social injustice, and health hazards we face. Our system is in crisis, but this is not the way things have to be, and Annie Leonard shows us another way.
Questions for Discussion
1. In the Introduction, Annie describes how her professional path led her from specialized expertise in one specific field— garbage— to a much broader interdisciplinary focus. How has your career path developed? From general knowledge towards specialization, or the reverse (like Annie)? If you are currently a specialist with narrower expertise, what are the pros and cons of focusing on one area so closely? How might you expand your focus? Which fields seem connected to your own? How did expanding her knowledge to include other connected fields benefit Annie? How might it benefit you?
2. What do you think about Annie's claim in the Introduction that capitalism is the "Economic-System-That-Must-Not-Be-Named?" Can you recall discussing this economic system with your family, friends, colleagues or neighbors? If not, what holds you back? Is it a taboo, or a lack of information, or something else? Do you feel more able to talk about the pros and cons of the capitalist economic system after having read The Story of Stuff? And has reading The Story of Stuff made you re-think the qualities of a successful economic model?
3. Do you consider yourself a consumer? How so? After reading about the original meaning of the word "consume" in the Introduction, has your feeling about being a "consumer" changed at all? Clearly everyone needs to consume to live; what kinds of consumption are healthy and what kinds less healthy?
4. Many of Annie's stories involve travel to other countries where she witnesses people living with fewer resources (like fresh water) and less Stuff. Have you travelled to places where you've noticed differences in Stuff, such as the access to resources, or the amount of advertising, or the types of things available to purchase? If so, how did the people there seem to deal with these different circumstances? Did they seem unhappier, happier, or the same as folks back home? What lessons can you draw from your observations of life in the U.S. and elsewhere?
5. Annie describes "externalized costs" as a major reason why our current economic system is unsustainable. These hidden costs, which are almost never represented in the price of Stuff we buy, accumulate at every stage in a product's life, from Extraction to Disposal. Pick a product that you recently purchased. How much did you pay for it? Based on what you learned from Annie, what kinds of costs were likely hidden or externalized? What do you think the pricetag would be if those costs were internalized? Would you still have bought it if it cost that much? Would you be willing to pay more for goods if you knew they were manufactured in a safe and healthy way? And if they lasted longer?
6. One of the most poignant threads in the book concentrates on Haiti. (pp. 49-50; pp. 136 - 139; pp. 224-227 in hardcover) Has your opinion of the economic struggles that Haiti faces changed since reading The Story of Stuff? What kinds of assumptions do you see at work in media coverage of affairs in Haiti? Now that you know more, are there pieces of the Haiti story you notice missing from the mainstream news coverage?
7. Has reading about the production of gold and diamond jewelry, T-shirts, books, aluminum cans, computers/electronics, cosmetics, and vinyl/PVC changed your attitude about these products? How so? Has your experience of shopping changed since reading the book? How so? Have you told anyone about the risks or back-stories associated with these products? If so, how did it feel to share that information? How did the other person respond?
8. Have you ever lived near or visited someplace near a factory or a dump? What did you notice about the air quality, the tapwater, the people who lived there, and the kinds of housing and amenities nearby?
9. Did the section on U.S. government regulation (pp 94-100) surprise you? What kinds of laws and agencies do you believe would best protect you and your family? What role do you think government has, and/or should have, in ensuring our products are safe and our air and water is clean?
10. Before reading The Story of Stuff, had you heard much about international financial institutions such as the World Bank and IMF or regulatory agreements such as GATT or the WTO? Where were they mentioned and how were they depicted? Did you have a sense of how they impacted individual human lives? Do you have a sense now, after reading Annie's take on them? How do you think they impact your own life? Do these organizations and agreements concern you? How?
11. Are you aware of a local economy functioning in your community? For example, is there food produced nearby that is available at farmers' markets or in restaurants? Do you know where the electricity that powers your home comes from? Are there artisans making products locally? Where do they get their materials? How has this changed over time?
12. Since reading the book, do you have a different awareness of advertising? Do you notice ads that seem manipulative? That try to make you feel bad about yourself? How? Are there ads you'd rather your family not be exposed to? Which ones? Are there some places – perhaps public areas? school buses? – that should be off limits to commercial advertisements?
13. In the chapter on Consumption, Annie posits that, for most of us, our consumer muscle is stronger and more developed than our citizen muscle. Of these two, which muscle is better developed in you? When you think of yourself and the broader society, do you see yourself more as a consumer or a citizen? In each role, what do you think the role of government really is? What should the top priorities of government and the economy be, in your opinion?
14. The Epilogue includes a number of significant changes we could make to fix our unsustainable system, such as separating full benefits from full-time employment. Can you see yourself working less than full-time? How many hours per week would you work, in an ideal world? What are some of the pros and cons of reducing your work hours, if this were an option?
15. Having read about all the parts of the Materials Economy, which places do you fit into the system? (For example, perhaps you are involved in Distribution because you work at a retail store, or produce advertising. You are almost certainly involved in Consumption and Disposal.) Which part of the system are you most concerned about? Is it toxics in toys or cosmetics? Or the rights and living conditions of factory workers? Or? Where do you see opportunities to get involved and make changes?
16. Do you feel more or less empowered to change things for the better after reading The Story of Stuff?
Additional Activities: Enhance Your Book Club
1. Visit waterfootprint.org and calculate your personal water footprint. Is yours higher or lower than Annie's (500 cubic meters per year)(on pp 17-18 in hardcover)? Based on her description of her lifestyle, what would you guess accounts for the difference between yours and hers? Can you think of ways you could decrease your footprint?
2. Calculate how many hours per week you spend shopping, how many you spend per week watching TV, and how many hours you spend per week in other leisure activities like playing sports or games, hanging out with friends or family, going to museums or performances, playing games with your kids, etc. Does the ratio between these three categories (shopping, TV, leisure other than TV) seem right to you? If not, set some goals that will shift this ratio to one that seems healthier and more fulfilling.
3. Spr ead out a tarp or plastic trashbag and empty the contents of a random wastebasket from your home onto it. You might want to wear gloves for this. Divide the contents by types of material. What do you think could be reclaimed to be used again? Recycled? Composted? Repurposed? Avoided in the first place? What changes in the design stage could have made the products easier to handle safely at the end of their useful life?
4. Organize a visit to your local dump or Materials Recovery Facility (MRF). Almost all of them offer tours to the community if you call ahead. What are your impressions after your visit? How did it make you feel?
5. Re-read Annie's "New World Vision" (pp. 247-250 in hardcover). Then close your eyes and picture your ideal neighborhood or community. Write it down and/or share it with your group. What commonalities are there between your visions?
A Conversation with Annie Leonard
Did the timing of this book have anything to do with the economic crash in 2008?
The exact timing of the crash was hard to predict but that we were on a collision course was clear to many observers. We're dealing with the inevitable fallout of out-of-control consumer spending and an economic model that privileges corporate profit over community wellbeing, environmental health and secure meaningful jobs.
So, the timing of the book release wasn't intentionally linked to the crash, but grew out of an urgent need to address this system that's clearly in crisis. However, the timing definitely helped the book’s message land with a receptive audience. With increasing news about environmental and health problems, mounting rates increasing and families struggling to hold on to their houses, we found a ripe audience to question the system as it is.
The current economic...
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