David Kupfer Interviews Annie Leonard, Environmentalist, Activist, Author of The Story of Stuff book and mini movie
DK: How is national happiness correlated to our material consumption?
Does materialism actually make us unhappy?
AL: There’s a complicated relationship between material consumption and happiness. Up to a point, there’s a direct connection. A roof over our head, enough food to eat, basic goods add to a person’s well being. But after a point, the relationship is less clear. Numerous studies in diverse cultures around the world have shown that the marginal happiness increase from more stuff decreases as our stuff increases: in other words, our seventeenth pair of shoes doesn’t make us as happy as a first or second pair. If overall happiness is the goal, we would focus on everyone getting what they need rather than a few amassing ever greater stuff.
Once our basic needs are met, our sense of material sufficiency tends to be relative: we define our level of satisfaction with our stuff in relation to what others around us have. So, if we’re surrounded by over-consumers, we may feel unhappy with our stuff, but surrounded by people who consume less, we feel perfectly satisfied. That’s why I like to encourage people to develop an internal metric of satisfaction —so we can decide for ourselves if we have enough and be less vulnerable to social comparisons and the constant onslaught of advertisements telling us we need more.
Professor Tim Kasser, who authored The High Price of Materialism, writes about the link between increased anxiety and low self-esteem and a more materialistic outlook. It seems that a highly materialist and consumption-focused mentality both stems from and leads to lower levels of happiness.
I am not saying that getting new stuff doesn’t ever make us happy. Sometimes it does. But, often that happiness is fleeting and then we’re left with just another thing to maintain and the want continues for some new object. And even when new stuff does add to our happiness, that benefit is often undermined by the increased time we spend working, commuting, shopping and maintaining the stuff we have rather than spending time on those things proven to contribute to real happiness: leisure, civic activity, time with friends and family.
Trying to get everything we want is not a good path to happiness; once we're past a certain point of stuff, it actually is easier to achieve happiness by developing a sense of satisfaction with what we have. Not only is that easier on the planet and our household finances, but it actually is a more successful strategy to achieve happiness.
DK: How is our economy shifting in terms of progress as if survival mattered?
AL: We need to de-link progress from continued material consumption. For too long, we have measured progress by the rate at which money changes hands and resources get consumed, or economic growth. But, often things that add to economic growth actually undermine human and environmental wellbeing. The British Petroleum oil spill adds to growth. Clear-cutting a forest to make junk mail adds to economic growth. Every new car crash, case of cancer, jail constructed and incinerator built adds to growth even though they undermine our wellbeing. We need a new measure of progress that isn’t about resources consumed. Yes, we want growth—but not growth of pollution and debt. We want growth of healthy children, safe transportation, clean energy, nourishing food. Individually and societally, we would do well to redefine progress beyond materials consumption to include those things that really make us safe, healthy and happy.
DK: Clearly, our neverending growth economy is not sustainable and, as you have said, capitalism is not sustainable. How do we discuss this in our nation when those that challenge capitalism are called extreme or radical or wanting to turn back the clock?
AL: We’ve simply got to move beyond decades-old stereotypes to have a current honest assessment of what aspects of our economy are working and what could be improved. One way to do this is to move beyond the “isms.” There are a number of economic models labeled with “ism” and I don’t think these terms actually help conversation. As a nation, our economic literacy is low enough that many of us don’t even know what the actual defining features of different economic models are.
Many people carry baggage associated with the “ism” that may or may not actually be related to the actual features of that model of organizing an economy. At a public talk recently, a student asked me, “if we don’t have capitalism, how are we going to get new inventions?” I’ve had people tell me that capitalism is synonymous with entrepreneurial spirit, democracy and freedom and I've had people tell me it is the very opposite of those things. With such a low understanding of what capitalism actually means, the term is too loaded to be helpful in a lot of conversations.
One thing we can do is progress our conversation beyond the “isms” and instead talk more about what kind of economic model would work. Rather than find a label for it right now, let’s get some agreement on the criteria for a healthy economic model. What would it look like? Would it allow chemicals that cause cancer and birth defects in everyday products? Would it allow some people to be paid 2,000 times more than other people for the same hours of work each day? Would it allow destruction of the biological systems on which life depends? Let’s focus on where we want to go and how to get there. That’s not about turning back the clock but about taking the best of today’s world and making it even better in the years ahead.
DK: Do you think, as some have said, that The Story of Stuff is anti-capitalist?
AL: It’s funny. When I set out to make the film, critiquing capitalism wasn’t even on my mind. I am obsessed with stuff—with materials and how we use them. I am obsessed with how we can do things better, make products less toxic, longer lasting, more recyclable and less wasteful. I just don’t get what is so threatening about that vision. I don’t get why we have to fall into decades of stereotyping to have this discussion.
Capitalism is like a sacred belief system and anyone who even comes near criticizing its core functions is attacked and marginalized as in the days of the witch hunts. Why can’t we just have a civilized conversation about it? Clearly there are some parts of the economy that are working and some parts that aren’t. I don’t think it is un-American to admit that. One could argue that it’s more harmful to this country to ignore that and keep chugging along towards climate change, resource depletion, growing social inequity, obesity and other problems, and refusing to discuss them.
Capitalism is an old economic model; it was developed hundreds of years ago in a different era, around the same time that the height of medical knowledge included bloodletting and leeches. Thankfully, in medicine we encouraged a culture of critical reflection, of improving upon what is not working so well. I would like to see the same for the economy. Let’s talk about what’s working and what’s not and how to make things better for people and the planet. Why is that so darn controversial?
DK: How has your own lifestyle changed materially in terms of stuff? Is there anything you’ve tried to rid yourself of that you haven’t been able to shed?
AL: The biggest way that I reduce my use of stuff is by sharing. I live in a tight-knit community in which we share everything from cars to sports equipment to baking pans. Sharing enables me to conserve resources, dollars and time, as I need to work and shop less to get access to the things I need. Sharing is also great since it requires talking, so it builds community. Increasing the sharing in our lives is one of the most important things we can do to lower our impact and rebuild strong communities which we’ll need to achieve a more sustainable lifestyle overall.
DK: Are we seeing a rebirth of the voluntary simplicity movement of the 1970s?
AL: We’re seeing a rebirth of a more sophisticated version. With the growing scale and complexity of today’s environmental problems, it’s increasingly clear that reducing our consumption on an individual level is just not enough to make serious change. A growing number of people are questioning the debt-fueled consumer frenzy of the last 50 years, realizing that the constant stress, massive credit card debt, ecological crisis, social isolation and mounting health problems simply aren’t worth the cool stuff we’re able to buy now.
People are now incorporating a greater political and social analysis into their decisions. It’s not just about carrying our own bag to the store or buying local and riding bikes, it is about fundamentally questioning our current economic model and figuring out a way that we can live together on this planet more sustainably, more fairly and with more fun.
Don’t forget that many people are shifting towards reduced consumption or are already under-consuming involuntarily, forced into consuming less because of economic need. For some, there may be a silver lining to this, as they realize that maintaining a high-consumption lifestyle wasn’t healthy for them or for the planet. At the same time, we over consumers need to make space for the many people who are drastically under-consuming and who need to consume more to reach a place of basic human health and dignity. Half the world’s population lives on less than three dollars a day. We’ve just reached a milestone where, for the first time in history, one billion people—one-sixthth of humanity—are chronically hungry. So it is not just that some of us need to consume less, we also need to share what we all consume more equitably.
DK: Since voluntary codes of conduct for corporations have not proven to be successful, what is the solution?
AL: We need to improve industrial practices with all tools available—consumer campaigns, calling on companies to make voluntary improvements, and most importantly, stronger government support and regulation to lead the way to a healthy, clean and fair industrial base. Most examples of the best industry advances towards reducing toxic chemicals, increasing energy efficiency or other environmental improvements have been driven by regulation or impending regulation. Yes, some companies are serious about improving their environmental performance, but the truly sincere ones such as Patagonia and Interface Carpets are too few to make enough difference on a global scale.
We need government leadership in making stronger regulations which protect public health and the environment, and then offering technical and other support for industries ready to make the transformation to the economy of the future. Support must include support for workers whose industries are undergoing transition; we need to ensure that it is a just transition for them, rather than leaving them out in the cold.
DK: Can you share a growing sign of hope where people are doing things differently and where change is possible in terms of lighter material use and efficiency?
AL: I am particularly excited about zero waste approaches which seek systems-wide solutions to waste starting at the design stage of a product all the way through the safe reuse or recycling. I am also thrilled about biomimicry, in which scientists, urban planners and architects are learning from nature’s solutions to make products and structures that are safe for people and the planet. For example, black dye is often quite toxic so scientists have learned to mimic black the way the peacock does where the appearance of black is created structurally, rather than with pigment. Others are studying how barnacles create glue that is nontoxic and water resistant. Or how spiders create incredibly strong webs at body temperature—imagine how we could revolutionize the building industry if we could figure out how to make equally strong material without the input of massive fossil fuels. There are so many solutions waiting to be discovered and implemented.
DK: When it comes to our material consumption, do you feel that we are going to change by design, or by default?
AL: The jury is still out on that one, but we don’t have that much time to decide. We’re perilously close to causing the collapse of many biological systems on which we depend. Dead zones in the ocean are increasing. We’re running out of fish. Communities all over the world are in danger of losing their water supplies. Newborn babies are coming into this world pre-polluted with industrial and agricultural chemicals. It’s not a good trajectory.
Many scientists say we have less than 10 years to take serious action on the climate if we want life to continue on this planet as we know it. We’re at a really serious juncture. I can’t overstate this. Many scientists whom I respect say it is too late to stop these drastic ecological changes and we need to focus on adaptation to life on a very different planet. I am not ready to go there yet: I still have hope but each day of inaction takes a little chip at that hope.
DK: How has your own personal spiritual heart work impacted your work?
AL: I have had a lot of teachers that have come in a variety of forms —from conventional teachers to mentors to periods of hardship in life —and all of them have increased my insights, strengthened my courage and helped me lead with love.
DK: How did your childhood spent partially in the forest influence you?
AL: Camping and hiking in the Pacific Northwest had a huge impact on me, one that I didn’t even realize until years later. I just loved being in the forest. I loved the sounds and smells and especially the feeling of humility and groundedness standing aside those towering trees. I developed an appreciation for what the natural world offers us . Knowing nature firsthand instilled in me a desire to protect it that went beyond the intellectual and scientific understanding of how we need nature to physically live on this planet. Of course, that is a big reason to protect it, but my commitment goes far beyond that scientific understanding. I just love the forest.
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