Book Reviews

BkRev 1792. The Story of Stuff: The Impact of Overconsumption on our Planet, Our Communities, and Our Health. (2010). Annie Leonard. New York, NY: Free Press. $17.00. ISBN: 978-781-451-61029-1.

Giovanna E. Walters
Assistant Director, Honors Program & University Fellowship Coordinator
Minnesota State University, Mankato
Mankato, MN
giovanna.walters@mnsu.edu

In recent years, society has seen an increase in the interest of minimalism and living more simply. The concept of minimalism has many roots – mental health, a decrease of anxiety and stress, financial savings, and so on. Leonard explores the concept of minimalism from an environmentalist perspective. If people live with less stuff, society will create less pollution and waste on many levels.

Leonard starts her book by telling readers the origin of her interest in environmentalism and sustainability, specifically focusing on the role of waste management in both of those movements. She then goes on to explain some key words and concepts that are important for readers to understand in order to grasp her message. These two sections are extremely helpful for readers who aren’t familiar with the concept of overconsumption or other aspects of environmentalism. Leonard then delves into what she considers the five main elements of overconsumption: extraction, production, distribution, consumption, and disposal.

Leonard views overconsumption through a global lens, recognizing that it’s not just an American issue. Although America does consume an overwhelming amount of the world’s resources, the solutions she proposes are on a global scale. She also proposes solutions that aren’t based simply within environmental movements, as she advocates for paradigm shifts on economic, political, and societal levels. Leonard also does an outstanding job of explaining complex concepts about resources, economic production, and environmentalism for people who aren’t familiar with the concepts of those industries or movements. Her explanations are logical and easy to follow. There are also some excellent visual representations of large scale concepts, such as the share of consumption between the upper, middle, and lower class that might be difficult for readers to understand with only a verbal explanation. 

There is a downside to Leonard’s global solutions, though. Some may view her solutions as unrealistic. The focus of the book is, for the most part, on large scale consumption. She provides some advice for what can be done on an individual level, but most of her suggestions involve large paradigm shifts that would require many individuals coming together. Many of her solutions are also very long-term goals; while those are certainly excellent ideals to work toward, it would also be nice to have something that people can do today to impact the trend of overconsumption.

Leonard had a revelation about the world, similar to what higher education professionals hope for college students: She discovered something she didn’t know before, and this discovery ignited a passion that developed into a career. This book reiterates the importance of working diligently to create those kinds of discovery opportunities for our students and to encourage our students to take advantage of those opportunities when they present themselves. By advocating for and encouraging our students to experience and embrace global perspectives, we can help them gain a deeper understanding of issues such as environmentalism and overconsumption.

For campuses or advisors that have a common read program, this text can stimulate conversations about global issues beyond just overconsumption. One can analyze this book in terms of global power dynamics, the intersection of class and race on production, the role of money in contemporary society, the effect of extraction and production on smaller communities, global health crises resulting from pollution, and many more complex issues. Students involved with environmental groups, nature conservation groups, or campus recycling initiatives would also find this book stimulating and thought-provoking.

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