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Overconsumption is costing us the earth and human happiness

June 23, 2010

From The Guardian

If you really want to understand a country, a society, or even a civilization, don’t turn to its national museums or government archives. Head to the tip.

According to Annie Leonard – former Greenpeace activist, unwavering optimist and waste obsessive – the tip is akin to society’s secret journal. “Stuff” became a fascination for Leonard in her teens, choosing field trips to landfills while at university when she began to question how we came to build an economy based purely on resources.

That was 20 years ago, and a lot has changed. Waste and recycling are now burning policy issues. Forty countries, hundreds of factories and still more landfills later , Leonard worries we have not grasped the fundamental problem with our materials economy. “It is a linear system and we live on a finite planet. You cannot run a linear system on a finite planet indefinitely. Too often the environment is seen as one small piece of the economy. But it’s not just one little thing, it’s what every single thing in our life depends upon.”

In 2007, Leonard tried a novel medium – a YouTube video – to convey the message. The Story of Stuff was a frank and cleverly animated short film telling the story of the American love affair with stuff and how it is quite literally trashing the planet. Three years on and it’s a viral online phenomenon; seen by 10 million people in homes and classrooms all over the world. Now she has followed up the video with a book of the same name.

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Consumption can be good, she says. “I don’t want to be callous to the people who really do need more stuff”.

But consumerism is always bad, adding little to our wellbeing as well as being disastrous for the planet. “[It’s] a particular strand of overconsumption, where we purchase things, not to fulfil our basic needs, but to fill some voids about our lives and make social statements about ourselves,” she explains.

“It turns out our stuff isn’t making us any happier,” she argues. Our obsessive relationship with material things is actually jeopardising our relationships, “Which are proven over and over to be the biggest determining factor in our happiness [once our basic needs are met].”

Leonard calls upon wider research to argue the sociological and psychological consequences of our all-consuming epidemic, including that of Tim Kasser and Robert Putman. Kasser identified a connection between an excessively materialistic outlook and increased levels of anxiety and depression, while Putman argues we’re paying the ultimate price for our consumeristic tendencies with the loss of friendships, neighbourly support and robust communities. Together they suggest we are witnessing nothing short of the collapse of social fabric across society.

From The Guardian

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