on 11 January 2011
Julie Hill's new book, 'The Secret Life of Stuff', is a fascinating tour through the modern material world. She shows us what all those things we consume are made from, explains how and why they are harming the planet, and suggests ways to make things better, with not a single hair shirt or pair of sandals in sight.
She starts with a trivial, yet telling example. On a 2008 episode of Dragon's Den, one applicant was pitching the idea of disposable champagne flutes that light up when you fill them with bubbly. But what happens when you throw these glasses - including the battery that powers them - away at the end of the party? And why do we feel the need for such a pointless invention anyway?
One of the things I really like about this book is the way that, from the start, Julie contrasts existing problems with possible future solutions. This is not just another eco-disaster tome filled with doom and gloom. So in the second chapter, Julie sets out her vision of a more sustainable world in 2040. This is a world where everything is designed for long life, before being reused and finally recycled or composted. It's a world where renewable energy powers everything. Crucially, it's a world where we've changed our values as a society, turning away from increasingly empty consumerism and learning to value friends, family and free time once more. It may sound unrealistic, but Julie paints a compelling picture of how the future could be.
Julie Hill is well qualified to talk about both problems and solutions. Having worked on green issues for 25 years, she has seen plenty of the problems as they've emerged. However, through her work with many different organisations, including government, industry, the inspirational Eden Project and leading environmental think tank Green Alliance, she has also helped think up a lot of the potential solutions. I should probably declare an interest at this point, as I've known Julie for several years, and have worked with her on some of these issues.
The bulk of the book is taken up with a detailed investigation of the 'stuff' of the title. Julie deconstructs our homes and everything that's in them, explaining where the concrete, bricks, glass, metals, wood, paper, plastics and textiles all come from, and the environmental impacts that producing each of them has.
One of the book's central questions is whether the green pound can save the day. Julie thinks not. Her concern is that green consumers are too few and far between to push the sustainable option into the mainstream. Worse, in many cases green consumers are unable to make effective choices due to the complexity of the issues and the lack of clear information. She illustrates these problems with such everyday decisions as which detergent to use, which loo roll to buy and what sort of compost to get for your garden (assuming you don't produce your own, that is). It turns out that picking the greenest option is neither as easy nor as straightforward as you might have expected.
Having shown the limitations of our current consumerist approach, the second half of the book discusses an alternative. Julie suggests six design principles to underlie the new economy - for example, all energy supplies should come from renewable sources, and all products should be designed for maximal re-use and easy recycling. Armed with these design principles, Julie then proposes changes in government policy and regulation that should drive businesses to develop innovative green products as the mainstream answer to all our needs.
The book includes some fascinating statistics that will make you think again about the everyday world about you. For example, did you know that producing a single ordinary T-shirt uses 2,700 litres (600 gallons) of water to irrigate the cotton it's made from? Or that humanity has sped up the rate of species extinction by a factor of 1,000 to 10,000 times the normal rate, so that we are in danger of losing a species every twenty minutes?
As I said earlier, this book isn't just about problems though. The final chapter is a closely reasoned prescription for a better way of running a developed economy, so that we can still have the most important benefits of capitalism, whilst putting more value on the things that are currently left out of GDP calculations - such as clean air, leisure time and happiness, amongst others.
'The Secret Life of Stuff' is an important book, but it's also engrossing, well-written and a pleasure to read. It will make you look at the man-made world around you quite differently. I read it as nothing less than a manifesto for a new society - and after you've read it, you may even want to join Julie Hill on the barricades, calling for change. I'll see you there.
on 20 June 2011
If you're like me, a book called "The Secret Life of Stuff" (A Manual for a New Material World, Vintage 2011, ISBN-13: 978-0099546580) is not going to jump off the shelf of the airport bookshop, crying, "Buy me! Buy me!" But a copy came into my hands; I began to browse just after supper, and before the night was over, I had read more than half of it. I had not expected to be captivated by the subject matter, but I was; and I hardly expected to be entertained, amused, educated, and illuminated in the same measure as I was captivated. But I was. When I finally (and with some reluctance) turned out the light, I felt that I had spent the evening in the company of an intelligent, engaged and witty authority on pretty nearly everything that matters.
Dr Julie Hill, the author, has impressive credentials in the subject she writes about, and yet throughout the book she never underestimates your intelligence, or over-estimates your knowledge. As a result you never feel she is writing down to you, or leaving you befuddled.
In setting the ground for her book Dr Hill describes a desirable future, in which humans have found a way to live lightly on Earth. This is a world that seems attractive, achievable and fun. It's not a place of mediæval discomfort, but a world where humans are intelligently placed in a wider world. But this is not the world we live in today.
Our economy, she says, has become an efficient way to transform raw material to waste. On the way, the material is converted - often with the benefit of lots of cheap energy and rather too much water - into something intended to be useful to someone. Sometimes it is. The amount we waste is prodigious, and the amount that goes from the supermarket shelf (via the fridge) to the waste bin is startling. Things are frequently designed to make them impossible to fix. Many processes take relatively concentrated raw materials and convert them into waste in which the original material is so highly dilute that it cannot be recovered. Make do and mend is so 1940s, and in our modern world recycling may be PC but in practice is not as easy as it seems.
This is not, she says, an effective way to run a planet, especially one nearing many physical and biological limits. But rather than leaving us feeling overwhelmed and helpless, she tells us how we might change this linear economy into something more sensible. If the book is full of open-cast mines, hopelessly complex mineral mixes in mobile phones, creepy-crawlies in wheelie-bins, methane-exhaling landfills and nappy-filled sewers, it is also full of hope and vision.
She pitches her story accurately and writes directly, as though she were talking to you, making her points with humour, force and clarity, in her light and dextrous style. She uses two or three interesting literary devices to capture you and lead you through her book: she invents a future garden of Eden inhabited not by Adam and Eve but by Evie and Ed, whose world becomes a leitmotif for the book; she invites the authors of a range of important books to an imaginary dinner and reports their conversation; and she has you mentally tip out all the contents of your house onto a tennis court and look at it. It's not a pretty sight.
But she leaves you feeling that you can do something about it. The central theme of this book is that we can work towards a desirable future, and that this future is achievable if we do, indeed, want to work for it.