Stuff: The Secret Lives of Everyday Things

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Stuff: The Secret Lives of Everyday Things

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by: John C. Ryan, Alan Thein Durning

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Editorial Reviews
Mother Jones, September/October 1997
"Documenting a day in the life of the average North American consumer, Stuff: The Secret Lives of Everyday Things deconstructs the American Dream by unraveling the hidden costs behind the objects around us. From our morning cup of Columbian coffee to our South Korean-made sneakers, the book traces the environmental impact of the consumer decisions most of us make without thinking. Authors John C. Ryan and Alan Thein Durning of Seattle's Northwest Environment Watch tell us greenhouse gases produced in making one burger are equivalent to those emitted in a six-mile drive to the burger joint. Only occasionally verging on preachiness, this readable 88-page book is definitely worth the paper it's printed on."

Susan McGrath, The Household Environmentalist, Seattle Times,, 5/11/97
"...A lively and mind-boggling investigation of what goes into the 120 pounds of resources we each consume every day. You can read it and be horrified by the impact of our consumption or read it and marvel at the complexity of modern commerce, depending on your outlook."

Asta Bowen, Seattle Post-Intelligencer, 3/17/97
"Stuff: The Secret Lives of Everyday Things is a book I always wanted to write. It is a call to explore the possibility that 'less stuff can mean more happiness.'"

Bill McKibben, author of Hope, Human and Wild
"Wow! Great Stuff!"

From the Publisher
Number 4 in Northwest Environment Watch's series of short, hard-hitting books on creating a sustainable society

From the Author
Parts of Stuff are available paper free, and free of charge, on the World Wide Web (at Reading it on a desktop computer for an hour takes one-fourth to one-tenth as much energy (depending on your computer and its source of electricity) as went into producing each paper book, which is good. But reading it on your computer produces no revenue whatsoever for Northwest Environment Watch, which is bad.

From the Back Cover
If you don't know your stuff, you don't know your world. Stuff: The Secret Lives of Everyday Things takes you to the places and people you touch every day-when you sip your coffee, tie your shoes, click your mouse, or step on the gas. Once you follow a day in the life of an average North American and see the secret lives of your food, your clothes, and your toys, your world will never look the same.

About the Author John C. Ryan was research director at Northwest Environment Watch from 1993 to 2000 and is the author of Seven Wonders: Everyday Things for a Healthier Planet, Hazardous Handouts: Taxpayer Subsidies to Environmental Degradation, Over Our Heads: A Local Look at Global Climate, and the co-author of Stuff: The Secret Lives of Everyday Things. He has worked for local non-profit groups in Indonesia and for Worldwatch Institute in Washington, D.C. John's home is in Seattle's Fremont neighborhood, but he practically lives on his bicycle.

Alan Thein Durning is founder and executive director of Northwest Environment Watch and author of award-winning books such as This Place on Earth, and How Much Is Enough? Formerly senior researcher at Worldwatch Institute, he lectures widely and lives with his wife and children in Seattle.

Northwest Environment Watch is an independent, not-for-profit research and communication center based in Seattle, Washington. Its mission is to foster a sustainable economy and way of life in the Pacific Northwest.

Excerpted from Stuff : The Secret Lives of Everyday Things (New Report, No 4) by John C. Ryan, Alan Thein Durning, Don Baker.


I ordered french fries with my burger. Not the healthiest lunch, I admit lots of grease and salt. But it's what I was raised on, and like I said, I was in a rush. The fries arrived, 90 of them, in a paper box. The box was made of bleached pine pulp from an Arkansas mill. My fries weighed five ounces. They were made from a single 10-ounce potato, sliced into remarkably uniform four-inch-long strips. Potato

The potato, a russet Burbank, was grown on one-half square foot of sandy soil in the upper Snake River valley of Idaho. Ninety percent of Idaho potatoes are russet Burbanks. They were selected in the early sixties by McDonald's and other fast-food chains because they make good fries. They stay stiff after cooking. The growing season was 150 days; my potato was watered repeatedly. Seven and a half gallons of water were applied to the potato's half-foot plot. If all of it had been applied at once, it would have submerged the soil to a depth of two feet. The water came from the Snake River, which drains a basin the size of Colorado. The Snake River valley and its downstream neighbor, the Columbia Basin, produce 80 percent of U.S. frozen french fries. Along the Snake's upper reaches, irrigators of potatoes and other crops take all the river's water. Directly below Milner Dam, west of Pocatello, the riverbed is bone-dry much of the year. Eighty percent of the Snake's original streamside, or riparian, habitat is gone, most of it replaced by reservoirs and irrigation canals. Dams have stopped 99 percent of salmon from running up the Snake River, and sturgeon are gone from all but three stretches. Like salmon, sturgeon migrate between fresh water and the sea, but sturgeon live up to 100 years. They do not stop growing until they die and can weigh more than 1,000 pounds. There are undoubtedly sturgeon in the Snake River that remember the smell of the Pacific Ocean even though they have not been there for half a century. My potato was treated with fertilizers and pesticides to ensure that its shape and quality were just like those of other potatoes. (My fries were so uniform that it was hard to believe they'd ever been potatoes.) These chemicals accounted for 38 percent of the farmer's expenses. Much of the fertilizer's nitrogen leached into groundwater; that, plus concentrated salts, made the water unfit even for irrigation. Some of the fertilizers and pesticides washed into streams when rain fell. Among these were pesticides like Telone II (acutely toxic to mammals, and probably birds, through the skin or lungs) and Sevin XLR Plus (nontoxic to birds but highly toxic to fish). The Environmental Protection Agency's tests of waters in the Columbia Basin found agricultural contaminants in every tributary, including the Snake. Processing

A diesel-powered harvester dug up my potato, which was trucked to a processing plant nearby. Half the potato's weight, mostly water, was lost in processing. The remainder was potato parts, which the processing plant sold as cattle feed. Processing my potato created two-thirds of a gallon of waste-water. This water contained dissolved organic matter and one-third gram of nitrogen. The waste-water was sprayed on a field outside the plant. The field was unplanted at the time, and the water sank underground. Freezing

Freezing the potato slices required electrical energy, which came from a hydroelectric dam on the Snake River. Frozen foods often require 10 times more energy to produce than their fresh counterparts. In 1960, 92 percent of the potatoes Americans ate were fresh; by 1990, Americans ate more frozen potatoes, mostly french fries, than fresh ones. My fries were frozen using hydrofluorocarbon coolants, which have replaced the chlorofluorocarbons (CFCs) that harm the ozone layer. Some coolants escaped from the plant. They rose 10 miles up, into the stratosphere, where they depleted no ozone, but they did trap heat, contributing to the greenhouse effect. A refrigerated 18-wheeler brought my fries to Seattle. They were fried in corn oil from Nebraska, sprinkled with salt mined in Louisiana, and served with ketchup made in Pittsburgh of Florida tomatoes. My ketchup came in four annoyingly small aluminum and plastic pouches from Ohio. What to do?! Push your elected officials to support sustainable agriculture and to stop subsidizing irrigation. The subsidies hurt the environment, taxpayers, and those who don't receive the subsidies such as growers of rain-fed potatoes. Instead of buying fried, overpackaged fast food, cook some organic produce for yourself. Eat it on a real plate. Buy local foods or, best of all, grow your own. Garden produce is fresher, uses almost no energy except the sun, and puts to use un(der)used land your lawn.


Outstanding illustration of how consumerism harms the earth,
I've never found another book like this one. It makes it extremely easy to understand, breathtakingly clear, how our choices to consume various products cause a chain of events which harm the environment. Do you know what was done to a river in Canada to produce the six-pack of aluminum cans you just bought? What part of the earth did your coffee come from, and what scary things were done to produce it? The authors never hector or nag, they just describe the origin of things you probably use every day, and let you contemplate them for yourself. The book is a quick and easy read, suitable for adults and teens alike. If I were a high school teacher or college instructor, this book would be mandatory reading for my classes.

Our Collective Eco-Wake

Let me start by going backwards. In the appendix, the authors testify that this book is about the "greenest" on the market. With soy-based inks and nearly 100 percent of the paper content comprised of post- and pre-consumer waste, the book is a monument to sustainable production. Although they bemoan the "well traveled pulp" cover, no dioxins were co-produced alongside the book. To prove the book really is this cool, they painstaking tracked the web of connections involved in its production as far back as possible.

After discussing every facet of the book, from guts and cover to printing, the only thing they were unable to determine was where half the cover's paper was produced. In all, this post-production analysis was stunning. The delicate web of causes and effects that entered into the books production should serve as a model to all those who would conceive the production of any product. Ideally, we should strive for this kind holistic understanding of production, consumption, and disposal before products every leave the design table.

The actual content of the book is just as salient. What happens when millions of ordinary people like you and me go about our ordinary business, using lots of stuff? What ecological "wakes" do they leave behind, rippling outward across the world? This is the premise of the book, which is rather unassuming and commonsensical. The answers, however, are anything but mundane and commonsensical. The true stories of how things are made might leave you feeling overwhelmed or depressed. You might think twice about throwing that lump of sugar into your coffee -- and not only because it could add a few extra pounds and put you at greater risk of heart disease. You do so also in efforts to help restore the habitat of the Florida Everglades.

Did the profound disconnect sink in yet? Not to worry, another 9 generic commodities with their own unique global "ripples" await you after picking up this book. They include you morning coffee, the newspaper, your T-shirts, shoes, that computer, the bike (and the car), those French fries, the hamburger that preceded them, and also the cola which will wash it all down. Although the imaginary North American whose daily consumptive routine this book tracks might not be you, do not then assume that these issues do not therefore concern you. The fact is, the consolidated effects of this consumption are harming much more than the Florida Everglades. They could potentially end all human reproduction. Perhaps you should read that last sentence again.

We need to educate ourselves about this net ecological "wake" before the rooster tail of acid rain, rainforest destruction, ozone depletion, water depletion, air pollution, forest annihilation, energy exhaustion, pesticide inundation, sweatshop labor promotion, species extinction, waste production, monoculturalization, spiritual declination, heavy metal pollution creation, VOC smog accretion, and desertification leave us all wet and shivering in the cold.

"Well, what am I supposed to do bury my car?" you wonder. The book also offers hope. Consumption, whether we like it or not, is in end inescapable. Thus by understanding our impacts, seeking alternative solutions, educating the friends and the general public, and at the same time altering some our most unhealthy consumer habits, we can help move things in the right direction. If you are looking for more in-depth suggestions along these lines, check out "The Better World Handbook" (2001). It is my personal eco-bible. You can also get further eco-tips from the Northwest Environmental Watch website.

~A Top 10 glObal Eye-Opener~

Ryan and Durnings book contains excellent information about products we use everyday, and how our choices matter. After reading the first section tracing the history of coffee, I was prompted to go to my health food store and purchase "shade coffee" (organic or cooperatively produced). I especially liked the sections at the end of each chapter on "What to Do?" with their helpful recommendations. I'm a social psychologist and author of "Quotes, Questions and Actions for Global Understanding". I highly recommend Ryan and Durning's book to all who want to easily make better choices in their day-to-day activities.

Serious but fun read
This is one fun and informative book and one I am buying for young as well as older friends. I sit here typing on a computer keyboard and because of the book I see things I never really stopped to see before. And with this comes questions and answers about how many people and natural resources does it take to make all the elements of this modern marvel. Not just the keyboard, monitor and speakers, but the people behind who are consuming coffee, flushing toilets, using lights and machines to process my order.

This is what the book is all about. Becoming quiet and looking around at everything we touch and consume and looking at the bigger picture and 'seeing' all the hands, and natural resources it has taken to produce the coffee we drink, water we drink, car we drive, magazines we read, lights we use, clothes we wear, and the list goes on.

At the end of each chapter, rather than leave the reader feeling like a glutton and bad, the authors have suggested better choices or alternative. Like writing about the average T-shirt and what it takes to make one to what it takes to care for one the authors suggest that one wash only full loads and don't wash after every use but when the item is actually dirty. T-shirts in summer cool the body better which means less AC use, and in winter extra layers of clothing means less heating costs.

Anyway, the book is one that even when I re-read it I discover something new that I hadn't read before. Will check out their other books as well.

Limited as an Environmental Guidebook, but Informative.
In "Stuff", Ryan provides a comprehensive description of the materials and processes used to produce, use, and dispose of a variety of everyday consumer products (automobile, hamburger, coffee, newspaper, etc.). He presents precise statistics on the quantity of raw and recycled materials, energy, and pollution caused by this production and consumption of each product. "Stuff" is concise and thoroughly researched.

While it's truly astonishing to learn the massive amount of resources used in production of these goods, the usefullness of "Stuff" is somewhat questionable. Ryan focuses almost entirely on the production process itself, only offering small "bubbles" (squares actually) at the conclusion of each chapter which present moderately helpful, but meager advice for reducing environmental impact.

"Stuff" is certainly interesting and informative; understanding all the minute details associated with the production of automobiles is interesting trivia. However there are other similar books which are more useful. After this book, Ryan subsequently wrote, "Seven Wonders" (among others), in which he presents seven common products that could profoundly improve the environment if used en mass. "Seven Wonders", is the mirror image of "Stuff" because he focuses on how to improve the situation, rather than the situation itself. I would also recommend (as another reviewer did) "The Consumer's Guide to Effective Environmental Choices", by The Union of Concerned Scientists; a comprehensive guidebook that is both informative and practical. That said, while "Stuff", could be more advisory, it's still a highly informative resource.

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