The Story Of Stuff

This is something I saw the other day on The Colbert Report: Annie Leonard says our quest for more stuff is taking the place of things that provide deeper happiness.

The video raises a couple of interesting points regarding the consequences of the kind of consumerism practiced in the US and elsewhere in the West. While I talk a lot about the gadgets and other stuff I like on this blog, I do think that it is very important to consider what effect our consumption has on the planet. One important concept in the video is externalities, i.e. “spillover of an economic transaction [with] an impact on a party that is not directly involved in the transaction” (see also Externality on Wikipedia). Coincidentally, this is also one of the topics discussed in The Undercover Economist a book by Tim Hartford I’m currently reading. He talks about how from an economists point of view, one could structure a system where these external costs are internalized such that everyone faces the true cost of their actions. Here are a couple of other concepts I find very interesting and relevant and that while not specifically addressed in the video, certainly belong into this category: Ethical Consumerism, Carrying Capacity and Simple Living, to name just a few.

While I don’t have what it takes to fully commit myself to something like simple living, I try to be very conscious about my own footprint and look for ways to actively reduce it. For instance, I have replaced all regular light bulbs in my apartment with more energy efficient compact fluorescent lamps, I never leave the lights on when I’m not in the room, I only heat the one room I am in and only while I’m home, I get my electricity from Naturstrom AG, which sells energy only from renewable sources (wind and water mostly), I recycle as much of my trash as possible, I use a laptop computer that uses considerably less energy than a desktop PC and I turn all my devices off when I leave the house. All except my fridge of course, which reminds me that I should probably be looking for a new one. My current fridge is about 12 years old, way too big (in my defense: it was already in the apartment when I bought it) and I could probably save a lot of energy by getting a newer, smaller one.

Also, I try to accumulate as little physical stuff as possible. I think there is great potential in moving to a system where many of the possessions we value are digital: music, photos, videos, games et cetera. Sure, computers and data centers consume a lot of energy, doubling between 2000 and 2005, but I think that once we find a way to get energy from renewable sources on a large scale, this would be a great way to at least reduce our consumption of natural resources and other physical stuff.

There are a couple of inaccuracies in Annie Leonard’s presentation, however. Like saying that there is no need to buy a new computer every couple of years, because there is only a tiny piece, the processor or CPU, that’s and is the only thing that would need to be replaced if only manufacturers wouldn’t make that impossible by randomly changing the connectors. Of course there is more to a computer than just the CPU. With more powerful and thus demanding software, one needs more RAM and bigger hard drives; for instance to store an every growing number of family photos and video. And let’s not forget that with every generation of PCs things like the power pack get more efficient and modern LCD flat screen monitors need considerably less power than older CRT models. Also, it is said (around 07:50) that industry emits about 4 billion pounds of chemicals a year. Sure that sounds like a lot, but without frame of reference it’s impossible to judge how much pollution that really is.

Nonetheless, I agree with the video’s overall message. Thoughtless consumerism must not be our purpose in life and we must find a way to deal with it as more and more people in China and other places reach a certain level of prosperity where they want to enjoy the same kind of lifestyle we have for the past decades. Obviously it cannot be the same, consumption-driven and energy and resource intensive kind of lifestyle, but we must come up with a way to provide 6+ billion people on this planet with a comfortable living while allowing coming generations to do the same.

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