The Secret Life of Stuff

Review of Julie Hill’s new book the Secret Life of Stuff appeared in the Sunday Business Post on January 9

Economic growth is always a good thing, right?

Not according to the New Economics Foundation. In January 2010, this left-leaning British think-tank warned, in the aptly-titled Growth Isn’t Possible report, that the prevailing orthodoxy of perpetual increasing, consumption based prosperity has left the world teetering on an ecological cliff.

Instead of trying to grow further, developed economies should look to consume resources in a stable, sustainable way.

While such views are unlikely to curry favour with many captains of industry, particularly in the face of a protracted worldwide financial slump, their influence reverberates across Julie Hill’s insightful, if occasionally frustrating new book, The Secret Life of Stuff.

Dismayed at ‘‘how little we understand the complexity of the material world that surrounds us’’, Hill draws on her 25 years’ experience as an environmental campaigner to examine where the ‘‘stuff’’ that clutters our lives comes from – and why we need to change radically the way we use, and abuse, the earth’s natural resources.

The problem is dispiritingly simple: we currently consume resources around 30 per cent faster than they are replaced naturally – and the rate is increasing annually.

Hill lays the blame for this sorry state of affairs squarely on the linear economy’s disposable philosophy – ‘‘make stuff, use stuff, throw stuff away’’. Growth at any cost simply produces more stuff, more waste and, crucially, a marked reduction in our core capital asset, the natural environment.

Take newspapers. If you’re reading this in print – and you probably are – then you can try to console yourself that newspapers today are printed on recycled paper. But this system isn’t an indefinite closed loop: paper can only be recycled half a dozen times before its fibres irrevocably breakdown.

Meanwhile, trees are diminishing. Half the world’s forest has already been felled; another quarter will be gone by 2050. Almost every other material resource – metal, minerals, water – is similarly overexploited.

So what’s the solution?

Not the ‘green consumer’ trend that, Hill argues, has simply produced a niche market for putatively environmentally friendly products. In its stead the author proposes a comprehensive overhaul of how we produce and use goods and objects: zero waste.

Zero waste ‘‘represents an aspiration to let as little stuff out of the economic system as possible’’, a philosophy of renew and reuse, not chuck away and start again.

It is a simple phrase, but one with devastating implications for our accepted ways of living and, even more so, doing business.

Alongside changes in government procurement policies and tax incentives for recycling and renewable energy, Hill proposes the introduction of binding ‘producer responsibility’.

Put simply, companies should be legally responsible for the entire life cycle of the products they produce.

Before buying a stick of timber or a spool of copper, businesses would have to consider how these raw materials would be used again after their product’s lifecycle.

It is a compelling argument with obvious benefits: massive savings in energy bills, the increased preservation of natural resources and the alleviation of the effects of climate change. But there are also drawbacks to zero waste at present.

Recycling technology is, in the main, remarkably primitive, even in the developed world. Economic inducements would certainly help change this, but progress takes time as well as legislation.

Lowering the price of renewables could also invite a Jevons paradox, whereby technological advances increase demand and consumption, negating any efficiency savings.

The Secret Life of Stuff is no dry, academic treatise.

Hill takes the reader on a journey from community incinerators on the Shetland Islands, to toxic spoil pits that pollute parts of Montana via ground-breaking recycling plants on the Japanese island of Shikoku, all the while explaining where our material world comes from, and how we too often waste it.

A range of sources are drawn on to produce a well researched, cogently-argued whole.

Unfortunately, the breadth of Hill’s reading is not always reflected in her style, which tends towards the demotic and too quickly becomes predictable.

Almost every section is prefaced with an historical anecdote, some of questionable relevance, while attempts to breakup the text with invented letters and hypothetical discussions fall flat.

Nevertheless, there is much to recommend here. The Secret Life of Stuff is a mine of revealing stats and facts: our consumption of agricultural products from other countries means that each person on earth uses a staggering 4,645 litres of water a day; Americans throw away 25 billion Styrofoam cups each year; the largest aluminium smelter in Australia uses as much energy as a city of one million people.

Ignore the rather misleading subtitle, A Manual for a New Material World, The Secret Life of Stuff is a polemical , often persuasive, manifesto for reusing and remodelling the planet we already have, not designing a new one.

Hill’s is a radical challenge to our prevailing economic culture, not just a paean to eating organic and buying local.

There are limits to growth; if we haven’t bumped our heads off them already, we certainly will soon.

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