April 2, 2010

Do we need it all?

For Christmas, my grandfather received an orange and for St Nicolas' day a new pair of shoes. When I was born, he repainted and oiled the pedals of a car his brother had originally built with scrap metal for my Mom. I loved my car! When my husband's first nephew was born, I took a woodworking class and built him a rocking horse that was used later by his two younger brothers.

Much more recently, on Christmas day, the pile of gifts was so large that the grandkids decided to take a break from opening them to go outside play touch football. Why do we have to buy so much "stuff"?

I spent two hours Saturday night listening to Annie Leonard, the author of "The Story of Stuff" , a 2-year-old book and movie about where stuff comes from and where it goes and why we should pay attention to this. Annie travelled the world to see production lines and the environmental and social costs to produce plastic toys, TVs and potato chips. She then travelled from dump to dump around the world taking in the declining air and water qualities, the toxic waste leaking in ground water, the emissions that affect our atmosphere and our lungs. Her message is important.

Changing a light bulb or riding a bicycle to work will not help our world - or at least not enough. She urges us to get organized, by neighborhood, by city, by affinity group, by country. We need laws.More importantly, we need international safeguards so that people in Bhopal don't get killed by chemicals used to produce what most Americans and Europeans use in the so-short "prime" of its time. We need international regulations so that Chinese aquifers don't get contaminated by toxics used to make the "stuff" sold at Walmart.

Consumers are outraged to find a tainted product for sale on our markets. We know little and often forget to consider who was paid minimal wage (or worse) to make that product and how they fared while in contact with the toxic chemicals in the production chain. We all need to start thinking about the location of the dumps where what we put in the trash cans ends up? Trash does not go to heaven. It stays on this planet and eventually ends up in the air we breathe or the water we drink.

Awareness will get us half way to reducing our consumption and our waste. Over 40% of our trash is paper. We must demand that the "stuff" we buy uses less packaging. The European Union has banned toxic chemicals like mercury and cadmium in all electronics sold in the EU. There is no such ban in the USA. We can do better. We need to pressure our public officials to pay attention to our health and that of our children. Half a BILLION of water bottles are used in the USA per week. That is the equivalent of having a million gas guzzling cars on our roads every year. To add insult to injury, 80% of these water bottles end up in a landfill where it will take thousands of years to decompose. How many people know that this bottled water is less regulated than their 2000 times cheaper tap water? What happened to drinking fountains? From Rachel Carson to Annie Leonard, the message is clear: we are poisoning our world. Cancers, asthmas cases can now be directly linked to what we do to our air and water. Every time you buy something think about where it comes from, how it was made and what you will do with it and for how long. Then ask yourself if you really "need" it. Every action we take today has consequences for the world we leave for generations to come.

About the author:
Dominique Bachelet, Ph.D.
Senior Climate Change Scientist, Team Lead- Global Change
Dominique is a Senior Climate Change Scientist at CBI. She works extensively with a variety of climate scenarios to explore climate change impacts.
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