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The Negative Side Effects to a Consumer-Driven Economy is Explored

Aired March 9, 2010 - 15:00:00   ET



CHRISTIANE AMANPOUR, CNN ANCHOR: Tonight, the world may be drowning in rubbish. The soaring cost of human consumption, and have we reached a tipping point?

Good evening, everyone. I'm Christiane Amanpour, and welcome to our program.

We turn our attention tonight to rubbish, trash. It might seem frivolous, but it can actually be about life and death. In today's world, there's an ever-increasing grab for scarce natural resources, and it has profound implications for everything from economics to global politics. Sometimes it can even explore into ethnic violence, as it did in Nigeria over the weekend, when killer mobs attacked farmers and herdsmen in what boiled down fundamentally to a dispute over land.

And so tonight, we turn our attention to what drives competition for natural resources, consumption and stuff. And we zero in on the subsequent accumulation of rubbish or waste.

Americans consume more stuff than anyone else on the planet, and they throw most of it away. Environmentalists say that it comes at a huge cost to our planet. Many of us are simply swimming in stuff we don't need. Take a listen to this provocative clip from the documentary, "The Story of Stuff."


ANNIE LEONARD, AUTHOR, "THE STORY OF STUFF": We have become a nation of consumers. Our primary identity has become that of being consumers, not mothers, teachers, farmers, but consumers. The primary way that our value is measured and demonstrated is by how much we contribute to this arrow, how much we consume, and do we.


AMANPOUR: That is Annie Leonard, the former Greenpeace activist who made "The Story of Stuff," and she joins me now here in the studio. And also, Russ Roberts, an economics professor at George Mason University, in Washington.

Thank you both for joining us. Let me start, obviously, with you, Annie. What made you do this film? It's had millions of hits, thousands every day. What is going on?

LEONARD: Well, it actually started with rubbish and my absolute fascination with rubbish. I went to college in New York City, and when I would walk the blocks between my dorm and the campus each day, there would be literally shoulder-high piles of garbage the entire way.

And I was just fascinated about, what's in these bags? Where is it going? So I started to look. I opened them up and looked. And I saw that it was almost all paper.

And even today, when recycling has been a household word for decades, about 40 percent of our garbage is actually paper, so we could reduce our garbage almost in half just by recycling.

AMANPOUR: But recycling is a big part of today's consciousness, not just in the -- in the West, but also in the rest of the world. But why -- it's not just about rubbish and paper. You're basically saying that there's too much consumption.

LEONARD: Absolutely. So my fascination with this garbage led me to visit the Fresh Kills landfill on Staten Island, which, along with the Great Wall of China, is one of two manmade structures you can see from space.

I stood there as a sophomore in college and looked out as far as I could see. In every direction was just massive waste, appliances, furniture, food, books. I was just struck with this intense driving curiosity to know, what kind of system have we created that creates so much waste? And why is it hidden?

So I spent the next 20 years traveling the world, visiting the factories where our stuff is made and the dumps where our stuff is dumped, to try to put it all together, and I summarized it in "The Story of Stuff."

AMANPOUR: Professor Roberts in Washington, that sounds reasonable. Stuff is an inconvenient, to say the least, byproduct of the things we buy. What's wrong with that?

RUSS ROBERTS, PROF. OF ECONOMICS AT GEORGE MASON: Well, it's a thrill to be an economist who's the optimist. I mean, usually we're the pessimists, the gloomy guys. But Annie's video, which is beautifully done and very charming and very nice piece of propaganda, has a very gloomy picture of what consumption creates and produces that I don't think is true.

What it leaves out are human creativity, it leaves out our production, the ways that we've transformed the world in wonderful life-enriching ways that give us a longer standard of living, that give us better health.

Sure, there's lots of waste and lots of stupid things we buy. I have some of those; we all do. It would be better if we didn't buy some of those frivolous things that don't really make us happy. But to confuse that with prosperity, I think, is a terrible mistake.

AMANPOUR: Are you confusing it with prosperity, Annie? Because, obviously, what Professor Roberts is saying is the basis of the human endeavor, the desire, the impetus to be productive, creative, and consequently, to pursue what we can and want to buy.


LEONARD: Oh, I'm not against stuff, and I'm definitely not against productivity and creativity, but we've gotten in some trouble with our stuff. We used to own our stuff, and increasingly our stuff owns us. I just think we've disrupted the balance of the relationship between our society and the stuff within it.

AMANPOUR: Can I read you something that, in fact, Boris Yeltsin, as we know, the former president of Russia, when it was still the Soviet Union, he came to the United States, he went to a grocery store in Houston, Texas, and this is what he said, Annie. "When I saw those shelves crammed with hundreds, thousands of cans, cartons and goods of every possible sort, for the first time, I felt, quite frankly, sick with despair for the Soviet people that such a potentially super-rich country as ours has been brought to a state of such poverty. It is terrible to think of that."

So are you swimming against a tide? Obviously, you're coming at it from the rich part of the world, from the rich world's perspective. But what about people who labor and languish in the third world, in the former Soviet bloc, who just want stuff?

LEONARD: Well, I'm not against stuff. I have stuff, and I like stuff, too. What I'm against is stuff that's poisoning the planet, poisoning the workers, and poisoning our people. Too much of our stuff right now, whether it's our skincare products, our furniture, our children's toys, our clothing, too much of them are loaded with toxic chemicals, with heavy metals, with persistent organic pollutants. We don't need to have this stuff.

So I say to the industry, great for innovation, great for production, but why not apply some of that creative genius to getting the toxics out of -- out of products? Our music, for example, has gone from huge things. Our telephones, our computers, to little tiny, tiny, sleek, well-designed little things. Why not apply that same ingenuity and know-how to making those things safe and durable so that our products are safe to make, safe to use, and that they last?

AMANPOUR: So, Professor Roberts, I mean, that seems like a no- brainer. In our world, we're becoming increasingly sensitized. I mean, you only have to look at some of these repetitive scandals of tainted products and this and that, and everybody's concerned about being poisoned by the toxic environment. Doesn't that make sense, what Annie's saying, about -- about how we need to control that?

ROBERTS: Well, nobody wants toxic stuff in their food or their toys, certainly not in their toys or their food especially, or in anything else that we use. And, of course, there's a huge effort, as Annie points out -- if you want to make money, the best way to do it is to make sleek, beautiful products that don't hurt people, rather -- it's much better to make sleek, beautiful products that help people.

So I don't see that as really the essence of the problem. I think the crucial question is, you know, where are we going to allow people to be creative and make their own choices? And where are we going to impose choices on them?

I'm in favor of letting people make their own choices. Sure, we make mistakes sometimes and we buy stupid things that don't make us happy, but I want to make those decisions for myself. I don't want those decisions being made by others.

So I respect Annie as a proselytizing prophet who wants to encourage people to spend more time, say, with their families or reading or doing things that aren't wasteful rather than just trying to accumulate stuff, but I think in her video -- and I assume in her book, as well -- there's a much stronger other message about our productivity in general and a doom- and-gloom prognosis for our future. And I strongly disagree with that.

If you look around the world, most of the world is growing, it's accumulating more stuff, their lives are getting better, they're living longer, and the places that aren't doing that -- for example, sub-Saharan Africa, which is a tragedy -- those are the parts of the world that don't have enough stuff. We need more stuff. We need healthier stuff. That's all good, too. But in a market system...

AMANPOUR: More stuff and healthier stuff, OK, OK. Annie, I assume you're going to think that's a bit provocative, but I want to play another clip from your film, again, from "The Story of Stuff." Let's listen to this.


LEONARD: We shop and shop and shop, keep the materials flowing, and flow they do. Guess what percentage of total materials flow through this system is still in product or use six months after their date of sale in North America? Fifty percent? Twenty? No, one percent, one. In other words, 99 percent of the stuff we harvest, mine, process, transport, 99 percent of the stuff we run through the system is trashed within six months.


AMANPOUR: OK, now, there are two things, Annie, about that. Number one, as you're very well aware, because you've addressed it, there is a lot of controversy over that percentage that you use, the 99 percent being trashed. Answer that now.

LEONARD: It's not 99 percent of what we buy. It's 99 percent of total materials flow through the system. And the reason that is, is because our industries are vastly inefficient.

So to make a laptop computer, to make a cell phone, to make a car, to make a gold ring, we end up with tons and tons of waste upstream that's often out of sight and too often out of minds, whether it's the mining waste, the industrial waste, the agricultural waste.


There's huge piles of waste upstream before that stuff even gets to us. So we have to think about the entire life cycle of a product when we think about the amount of waste it generates.

AMANPOUR: And let me ask you a second part of that question, what Professor Roberts sort of alluded to, the proselytizing prophet of doom and gloom, but more to the point, schools, people who have your book, et cetera, and a lot of students have clicked onto the video on YouTube -- schools have said that you are preaching -- at least some schools -- an anti-capitalist message. Is that what you're doing?

LEONARD: You know, what I'm preaching is a message for a different kind of society, a society that does not allow neurotoxins and carcinogens and reproductive toxins in our clothing, in our toys. I'm advocating for a society that values rich and poor people equally, where your worth and your say in the democracy is not linked to how much money you have to give into the system.

I'm advocating a society like that, and I don't actually know what that economy would be called, because we haven't invented it yet.

AMANPOUR: Well, I'm going to ask Professor Roberts that when we come back from a break. Hold that though, Professor Roberts, and we'll hopefully get your answer. Is there anything we can do to stop being buried in our own rubbish? That is when we return.




LEONARD: We have more stuff, but we have less time for the things that really make us happy, friends, family, leisure time. We're working harder than ever. Some analysts say we have less leisure time than any time since feudal society. And do you know what the two main activities are that we do with the scant leisure time we have? Watch TV and shop.

In the U.S., we spend three to four times as many hours shopping as our counterparts in Europe do, so we're in this ridiculous situation where we go to work, maybe two jobs even, and we come home, and we're exhausted, so we plop down on our new couch and watch TV, and the commercials tell us, "You suck," so we've got to go to the mall to buy something to feel better, and then you've got to go to work more to pay for the stuff you just bought, so you come home and you're more tired, so you sit down and you watch more TV, and it tells you to go to the mall again, and we're on this crazy work-watch-spend treadmill, and we could just stop.


AMANPOUR: Phew, that was another clip from Annie Leonard's video, "The Story of Stuff." It's exhausting. And Annie Leonard joins me again. Her book of the same title comes out today. And also Professor Russ Roberts of George Mason University joins us from Washington.

Let me go to you for a second. What change do you hope specifically to try to effect with all of this?

LEONARD: I'd like to get people to think a little more critically and a little more broadly about all the stuff in our lives. We are bombarded by messages all day from the time we are young children through our entire life telling us to buy, buy, buy, that the things that will make us happier is new clothes, new television.

But the truth is, the things that really make us happy are things like the quality of our social relationships, like coming together with others towards a shared goal, a sense of purpose beyond yourself. And I'm worried that in this country we are actually undermining those very things that provide happiness and real social security on this never-ending quest for more and more stuff.

AMANPOUR: So, Professor Roberts, you just heard that, the happiness index, the debate over capitalism and how it is such a huge disparity between rich and poor and quality of life. Tell us, is there some kind of happy medium to be achieved in the economic rat race?


ROBERTS: Well, I like to say that economics is the study of how to get the most out of life. People think it's about the stock market or how to make money or interest rates. It's about those things. But what it's really about are trade-offs and the choices we have to make.

As we grow up, we learn that, although it's pleasurable to have toys and have goodies and have a big house, that they come at a price. You have to usually work harder to get those things. That means less time doing something else, whether it's playing the guitar, talking to your kids, reading to a blind person, all the things that make life meaningful.

So Annie Leonard and I are on the totally same page that money is not the goal of everything. At the same time, the guards in Miami face south. They keep people (ph) -- the guards in Cuba face south. People aren't trying to break into Cuba. They're trying to fly -- flee to Florida. The guards on the Mexican border face south. People in Mexico want to come to America.


ROBERTS: Americans don't want to go to Mexico.

AMANPOUR: I get it.

ROBERTS: People want -- want a better -- they want a better standard of living. So we shouldn't confuse getting out of poverty and getting a better standard of living with being a gross materialist.

AMANPOUR: That is clear.

ROBERTS: It's a matter of moderation and balance.

AMANPOUR: Right. But how do you do that? Isn't that the question? President Obama this time last year basically said, folks, the party's over. This was at the -- you know, the bottom of the economic crisis. The party's over. Where, though, are we leading?

ROBERTS: It isn't -- it isn't over for government. Government's spending more money than ever before. It would be great if people could learn to restrain themselves and live within their means.


AMANPOUR: But how do you do that in the capitalist system? How do you do that?

ROBERTS: Well, in real capitalism, it's called profit and loss, and you can have losses, and when you live beyond your means, you pay a price. If you can always turn to the government to get bailed out, you have crony capitalism, which I'm very much against, which is what we've had for the last two years or so under the last two administrations. I think that's been a terrible blow to capitalism.

But it's -- capitalism doesn't tell you how to lead a meaningful life. It just gives you the tools to do it. It helps you live longer, because it gives you better nutrition. It helps you live longer, because it gives you better medical devices. But you can still mess up, and I don't look to President Obama or capitalism for where I get my meaning. That's going to be a personal quest all of us have to deal with and listen to.

AMANPOUR: All right. Let me turn back to -- to Annie. Even on your own blog, there have been people who've commented and sort of taken some issue -- even those who are, you know, supportive of the general idea. Here's one from Ann Marie Chapman in which she says, "Although I heartily agree with the sentiments expressed in the film, I think it's misleading to categorize all of consumerism as evil. The laptop I work on is another example of consumerism, but it allows me to work from home, avoid a four- hour daily commute. Many of the advances we enjoy come from the demands of consumers. Let's not overlook the products that actually do make our lives a lot easier."

LEONARD: Absolutely. I agree 100 percent. I love my laptop. I have plenty of stuff, and I love it. I am not against stuff. In fact, I'm actually pro-stuff. I want us to have more appreciation and more reverence for the stuff we have, the sunglasses, the toaster, whatever it is, the laptop. It came from somewhere. Some mountain was mined for that metal. Some forest was felled for that fiber. Some worker worked to put it together.

I just want us to be aware of that and appreciate it so we will be a little more conscious about all the material that flows through our life.

AMANPOUR: And, briefly, what about -- you know, if we sort of moderate stuff and consumerism and consumption, et cetera, how do you get to the nub of what created this country, the incredible innovations, the amazing inventions, the whole sort of cutting edge of just about every field of human endeavor?

LEONARD: Well, I think there's still amazing innovations and cutting edge right now. There's great opportunities in the field of green chemistry, for example. Chemists are replacing toxic chemicals with brand- new molecules that are actually designed from the very molecular level to be compatible with ecological systems so that we can have glues and dyes and pigments and all kinds of things that don't poison the workers of the communities.

Green chemistry, zero waste, local living economies, biomimicry, there's incredible technological advances on the forefront.

AMANPOUR: And, lastly, Professor Roberts, to you, isn't this all about taking care of the planet eventually? Isn't this about the environment, about, as you say, moderating the current, you know, economic system? Do you see that actually happening any time soon?

ROBERTS: It's happening all the time, and it's been happening for the last 100 years. It's always in the incentive of business -- if there's competition and if government doesn't protect them, and that's something else Annie and I agree on. We don't want a government that protects business. I want a less powerful government, because I think the government right now oversteps its bounds and often protects business at the expense of consumers, just as she worries about, though my solution to that is to get a smaller government.

But a business that's left in a competitive world, without government's help, the way it thrives is by making better, safer and healthier products that use less waste, because that keeps the price down.

AMANPOUR: All right. OK. Thank you so much, Professor Roberts, Annie Leonard. Thank you very much for being with us. Fascinating discussion. We've learned a lot.


And to watch the complete digital feature, "The Story of Stuff," go to our Web site,

And next, our "Post-Script." And we continue our conversation on the environment. This boat is on a mission: to bring a sea of change in our thinking. We'll tell you all about it when we return.




DAVID DE ROTHSCHILD, ADVENTURE ECOLOGIST AND PLASTIKI EXPEDITION LEADER: Right now, you're standing in Pier 29, which is the home of the (inaudible) this whole side will be bottles, but when you think that the frame material is made of PET, as well, what you are looking at is the world's largest and first, probably, bottle boat.


AMANPOUR: And that was David de Rothschild talking about his boat, the Plastiki. He's about to launch his mission to find the so-called Great Pacific Garbage Patch, a huge sea of rubbish between California and Japan. David de Rothschild joins me now from San Francisco for our "P.S." segment.

David, thank you for being here.


AMANPOUR: First of all, tell us. I mean, that boat looks like quite a nice catamaran. Is it really bottles and plastic?

DE ROTHSCHILD: It is. And I think that's what people, when they hear about we're making a boat made entirely of bottles, they expect some sort of scrapped together bag of bottles that we're going to be sitting on and hopefully making our way across the Pacific.

And I think to go back to the debate you just had, I mean, I would add to what was going on there and say that waste is basically inefficient design. And what we want to do with this project was create something that was designed to show efficiency and to be aesthetically pleasing and to say, "These can be used again as a resource, rather than being thrown out as waste."

So I think it surprises people to see a conventional, to some degree, looking vessel, rather than just a bag of bottles.

AMANPOUR: Right, and that's fascinating, to use all that material to design something out of it. And we want to show you, because I know you can see the wall that we have showing the vortex.

DE ROTHSCHILD: That's right.

AMANPOUR: Explain to us the currents and all those yellow dots. What is that? And is that where you're heading?

DE ROTHSCHILD: So what we've been seeing is, we have this sort of voracious appetite for throwaway, single-use plastics, what I call Dumb Planet 1.0 plastics, the plastic bag, the Styrofoam cup. You know, those types of items are ending up in our ocean. And what you're looking at is the current streams of our ocean that drive our climate, that drive the oceans to move the currents around our planet.

And what's happening is we're seeing a huge aggregation of small molecular sized pieces of plastic. 1909 was the first year of plastic. So every bit of fully synthetic plastic that's ever been produced over the last 100 years is somewhere in our atmosphere, in our oceans, or on our planet.

And we are seeing these human fingerprints. And where we're seeing them aggregating in our oceans, we're also seeing them get into the food system, into the food chain, which is then transferring toxins back into us through the food we eat.

AMANPOUR: And you're going in that direction to do what? And just one observation I had. If you look at all of this, you can see the currents actually pulling the plastic away from the coast and -- and kind of aggregating it in the sea.

DE ROTHSCHILD: Aggregating.

AMANPOUR: In a way, it's better, isn't it, than it sullying the places where people are living?

DE ROTHSCHILD: Yeah, I mean, you know -- I would -- I would -- it would be great if I wasn't doing this expedition and we didn't have plastic in our ocean and we really understood the material and said, you know, is it the material to blame or our inability to understand how we dispose of it?


And what we are seeing, as you said, is a sort of aggregation, these huge areas, one of which has been ominously named the Great Eastern Garbage Patch. But what I think people need to realize is that there's just five. There's not just one. There's actually five of these patches.

So wherever we're seeing a convergence zone in our oceans, the North Pacific, South Pacific, North Atlantic, South Atlantic, and the West Coast of Australia...


DE ROTHSCHILD: ... where these currents converge, we're seeing high accumulations to the ratio of six bits of plastic to every bit of plankton.

AMANPOUR: So what...

DE ROTHSCHILD: If you think about it, it's huge.

AMANPOUR: What is your trip going to do? What's the point of heading out into these garbage islands?

DE ROTHSCHILD: So -- so the idea is twofold. One is to, obviously, raise the consciousness. Coming back to the -- you know, "The Story of Stuff" that we were just talking about, you know, stuff doesn't equal happiness. Our veracious appetite for these throwaway items needs to stop. We know that 90 percent of plastic in our ocean is coming from land, so we can stop it.

So the first is to actually get this onto people's radars. The ocean is very much out of sight, out of mind. Even though it covers 72 percent of our planet, we tend to ignore it and look at it as this sort of endless horizon.

So if we can get the consciousness raised on one level and get people to reduce, reuse, recycle and rethink those everyday items, and on the other side of it, we've really been actually constructing real-world solutions through the materials we use, the glues we use, as Annie pointed out, about, you know, the development in green chemistry. We've innovated new materials, new glues that can come into the real world, come online, and revalue plastic so it doesn't just be seen as a throwaway single-use item...


DE ROTHSCHILD: ... but as a valuable resource.

AMANPOUR: David, thanks. And we just want to put up that animation again. It's the Greenpeace animation of this sort of vortex, and that, first of all, is your route there heading down towards the finish in Sydney, Australia. And that Greenpeace animation, again, is really, really instructive, and we appreciate you being here to talk about it, wish you good luck, and hope that it does achieve some kind of consciousness awareness raising. Thank you so much.

DE ROTHSCHILD: Thank you very much.

AMANPOUR: And to meet the crew of the Plastiki, explore its plastic technologies, and look back at other famous maritime expeditions, log onto

That is it for now. We'll be back tomorrow with a look at the impact of this week's explosion of sectarian violence which also boils down to a struggle over resources. And that would be in Nigeria.

And in the meantime, catch a podcast of this program on For all of us here, goodbye from New York.