Account/Log In

Book Review

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

“My greatest skill in life has been to want but little.”—Henry David Thoreau.

When I was teaching American literature to high school sophomores, the writer I had the hardest time getting any empathy for— even patience for—was Thoreau. Many of my students thought he was nuts. How in the world could anyone intentionally pare his life down, getting rid of as much stuff as possible? My school had a student parking lot big enough to accommodate several hundred cars, so Thoreau was more than intolerable to most of my kids. He was blasphemous.

If I were still teaching, I would use excerpts from The Story of Stuff along with Walden. This book is filled with astonishing tidbits that could be useful in generating a class discussion about Thoreau. For example, Leonard writes that the single largest irrigated crop in the U.S. is not corn, not wheat—but grass. The U.S. spends over $20 billion per year on lawn care, about 200 gallons of water per person, per day.

In the U.S., we consume about 100 million aluminum cans per year, or 340 per person. It is estimated that over a trillion aluminum cans have been trashed in landfills since 1972; if those cans were dug up, they would be worth about $21 billion at today’s scrap prices.

In 2004–2005, Americans spent two-thirds of our $11 trillion economy on consumer goods, with more paid for shoes, jewelry, and watches ($100 billion combined) than for higher education ($99 billion).

About 400 million electronic products are thrown out in the U.S. each year; in 2005, it amounted to 4 billion pounds of e-waste, much of which was still fully functioning electronic devices.

Over 150 million cell phones are thrown away each year in the U.S. alone, and another 500 million are sitting unused in people’s homes.

But, Leonard not only points out many ways in which we use and abuse the earth’s resources; she also suggests things we can do to change things. She uses a backyard worm compost for food scraps, has solar panels on her roof, drives an electric car powered by those panels, filters her laundry water and uses it to water her garden, and lives in community with her neighbors, sharing many items that would normally have to be purchased by each individual home.

Some of her suggestions for changing things will raise people’s hackles. Among other things, she says we should: “Ban billboards and other intrusive advertising. Prohibit commercial advertising to children and in public places. Get commercial advertising out of textbooks, classrooms, and all educational facilities. . . . Adopt a progressive tax on resource consumption, allowing free use of basic needs while taxing higherquantity use. For example, water to drink is free; water to wash your SUV or water your desert lawn is really expensive.”

Leonard’s purpose here is to be a gadfly. That was Thoreau’s purpose, as well. Teachers could use Leonard in conjunction with Thoreau, not necessarily to get students to agree with her or him, but to get them to examine the way we live.