The Secret Life of Stuff

| 20th January 2011
Clear and well written, Julie Hill's opus sheds light on the issues of waste and consumption but provides solutions that are too simplistic to be of real use, argues Ruth Styles

Every so often a book comes along that aims to explain one or more of the core themes of the green movement in a simplified, easily digestible way. In this case, it’s waste and the amount of ‘stuff’ we consume that’s getting the treatment. And waste and recycling policies are something that author, Julie Hill, knows an awful lot about. She’s a former director, and now an associate, of the Green Alliance. She’s a veteran of numerous government commissions, panels and committees. She’s also a non-executive director of the Eden Project and is an expert in biotechnology, waste and resources policy, and sustainable buildings. Clearly, she’s a woman who knows what she’s talking about.

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Yet for all Hill’s expertise, The Secret Life of Stuff is rather unsatisfying, and occasionally inaccurate. No doubt Rwanda’s Paul Kagame would be thrilled to discover that his country has suddenly acquired deposits of coltan, diamonds and gold, although he probably wouldn’t appreciate hearing it described as ‘war-torn’, 15 years after the event. Liberia’s Ellen Johnson-Sirleaf, president of a country that has been at peace since 2005, would probably concur. But that’s not all. Bizarre forays into the imaginary world of Ed and Evie are pointless extras and, for all Hill’s optimism, not especially realistic.

That said, Hill is bang on about waste – we do use too much and we don’t recycle it properly. She’s right that something needs to be done about industrial waste and she’s right to say that we need more recycling facilities – we do. The Secret Life of Stuff is also packed with interesting anecdotes which illustrate the scale of the problem nicely, not least, the tale of her visit to the Bedfordshire landfill site run by Shanks and McEwan. But waste isn’t only a British issue. Although discussing a global problem, most of Hill’s solutions seem to be confined to the UK. She suggests levying enormous taxes on products that are ‘damaging to health’ such as tobacco, alcohol, sugar and unsaturated fats, and imposing big levies on bankers, all proceeds to environmental programmes. Unfortunately tobacco and alcohol taxes have already been tried, with limited success, and although politicians in opposition like to rail against greedy bankers, getting them to do anything about it in government is a different story. Certainly the UK should do more to recycle and protect its environment – and this should be enshrined in law. But if it’s only the UK, and if China, India and the USA carry on polluting and consuming as they do now, then the UK’s efforts will be in vain. This needs to be made clear and solutions with global reach would have been helpful.

Perhaps the biggest problem for some people might be Hill’s dismissal of green consumerism. Her view appears to be along the lines of making sure you buy only what you need. Human nature, the nesting instinct and the effect of decades of capitalism all mean that this idea could run into trouble. Rather than regarding green consumerism as incidental, shouldn’t we being encouraging it to some extent? Since the big producers and retailers – Mars-Wrigley, Princes, McDonalds, Tesco - tend to be multi-nationals, and thus relatively unaffected by the laws of individual countries: could consumers be encouraged to hit them where it hurts - in the wallet. Demand for products with less packaging, green production practices and sourcing, and better ethical credentials will make itself felt quickly and will be responded to by retailers. State-enforced recycling, massive taxes and a minority who reduce the amount they use can only do so much. For all that Hill’s argument makes sense, she needs to recognise this.

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