The Secret Life of Stuff

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We start with Julie Hill hosing out maggots from her mother’s wheelie bin. They are the unintended consequence of the local council’s switch to fortnightly waste collection, done in the name of encouraging people to throw away less stuff and recycle more. As a lifelong professional green – a serial adviser to numerous governments and corporations – Julie Hill is in sympathy with the message. But clod-hopping bureaucrats keep coming up with solutions to fit Whitehall targets rather than the needs of green living. Going green should be about a simpler and better life, not a bin full of maggots.

Part of the charm of this calm but devastating “manual for a new material world” is that Hill is genuinely interested in where her stuff comes from. While wanting less of it, she recognises that from cave man to silicon man, our stuff is, well, the stuff of life. “We all love stuff – I am no exception”, she begins. So we can read about the secret lives of wine glasses and the weird metals in mobile phones, of Styrofoam cups and night soil, and analyse the ecological footprints of electronic book readers and packets of crisps, without being bludgeoned by guilt.

Our guide is sometimes off-message herself, after all. Hosing out the bin, Julie? Think of the wasted water. What’s wrong with a bucket?

Her stories of stuff are rooted in real life. She diagnoses “affluenza”; notes the end of repairing things; and caurterises a culture of almost pathological hoarding, exemplified by the fascinating TV series Life Laundry, in which those incapable of throwing anything away were ritually forced to spread their stuff out in the street, like a bargain-basement version of the final scene in Citizen Kane.

Hill is worldly but erudite. She is at home both up to her elbows in the contents of landfills, and in discussing the curse of environmentalism known as the Jevons paradox. Victorian economist William Jevons pointed out that if we use resources such as energy more efficiently, we almost invariably undermine the environmental benefit by using more. He had in mind industry’s use of coal, but the paradox applies equally to proliferating TVs or ever larger cars. Cars are so efficient these days you get as many miles per gallon out of an SUV as from an old Mini. Rather than taking the fuel gain, of course, we trade up to the SUV.

The paradoxes proliferate. She notes how entropy will ultimately defeat our greenest intentions, because energy use escalates as we try ever harder to recycle our rubbish. And how one of the great feats of environmental engineering – flushing our sewage down pipes to rivers – has ended up using huge amounts of one precious resource to deprive us of one of our best sources of another, the free natural fertiliser in poo.

Hill is at her best amid such troubling green conundrums. Which is the best material for construction? Concrete uses abundant raw materials but is energy-intensive, while wood is a renewable resource, but only if we take the trouble to renew it. And how about paper versus electronic communication? Sending an email emits one sixtieth of the carbon dioxide used to post a letter, but we send far more: Jevons again.

She enjoys a good stat, too. Did you know that the average Brit gets through 110 loo rolls a year? Or that if you cycle for a mile and replenish your energy with a cheeseburger, that burger will be responsible for carbon emissions of about 260 grams – roughly the same as if you had driven a car instead?

Amazing, too, to discover that there is a greater weight of ants on planet Earth than humans. But while ants pass unnoticed “because their activities are part of natural cycles”, we are crashing around destroying those natural cycles to make our stuff.

This book reveals Hill’s material passions, such as wool, but also her blind spots. This secret life of stuff has little space for the secret lives of the people who grow and make it. She is sceptical but sanguine about GM crops, and almost nostalgically anti-nuclear. But she lays into “the curse of the giant pink pencil” – our love of stupid consumer products – and “the myth of the green consumer”.

I think she is too tough on the green consumer, preferring the power of laws and regulations to green our stuff. But governments are too timid, and corporations too lazy, to act without consumer pressure. And Greenpeace is far more likely to intimidate the makers of our stuff than the latest ministerial incarnations at DEFRA or DECC. But this is not a blueprint for greener living or a manifesto for sustainability, but an enlightening New Year rummage through the cellars of our lives. If there is a resolution, it is that the house of humanity badly needs a spring clear out.

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