Stuff – Excerpt

Book cover: Stuff

The following excerpt is taken from the prologue of Stuff.

“This book follows a day in the life of a fictional, typical North American a middle-class resident of Seattle. It is a day in which nothing terribly unusual or dramatic happens. Or so it seems.

Consumption on the North American scale our own body weight each day is possible only because of chains of production that reach all over the planet. Most of the production, and most of its impacts, are hidden from view in rural hinterlands, fenced-off industrial sites, and far-off nations.

What happens around the world to support a day in the life of a North American is surprising, dramatic, even disturbing. Multiplied by the billion members of the world’s consumer societies, it adds up to stresses greater than the world can withstand.

It does not have to be this way. A quiet revolution in our way of life different technologies, more balanced lifestyles, greener infrastructure, and better laws could give us a future where ordinary life in prosperous societies has only innocuous impacts. Ushering in these changes can seem impossible. It is not. Just like a jigsaw puzzle, all the needed pieces are already there. But it takes some effort to get them into place.”

The following excerpts are taken from the French Fries, Newspaper and Coffee Chapters.

French Fries
I ordered french fries with my burger. Not the healthiest lunch, I admit lots of grease and salt. But it’s what I was raised on, and like I said, I was in a rush.

The fries arrived, 90 of them, in a paper box. The box was made of bleached pine pulp from an Arkansas mill. My fries weighed five ounces. They were made from a single 10-ounce potato, sliced into remarkably uniform four-inch-long strips.

Potato
The potato, a russet Burbank, was grown on one-half square foot of sandy soil in the upper Snake River valley of Idaho. Ninety percent of Idaho potatoes are russet Burbanks. They were selected in the early sixties by McDonald’s and other fast-food chains because they make good fries. They stay stiff after cooking.

The growing season was 150 days; my potato was watered repeatedly. Seven and a half gallons of water were applied to the potato’s half-foot plot. If all of it had been applied at once, it would have submerged the soil to a depth of two feet. The water came from the Snake River, which drains a basin the size of Colorado. The Snake River valley and its downstream neighbor, the Columbia Basin, produce 80 percent of U.S. frozen french fries. Along the Snake’s upper reaches, irrigators of potatoes and other crops take all the river’s water. Directly below Milner Dam, west of Pocatello, the riverbed is bone-dry much of the year.

Eighty percent of the Snake’s original streamside, or riparian, habitat is gone, most of it replaced by reservoirs and irrigation canals. Dams have stopped 99 percent of salmon from running up the Snake River, and sturgeon are gone from all but three stretches. Like salmon, sturgeon migrate between fresh water and the sea, but sturgeon live up to 100 years. They do not stop growing until they die and can weigh more than 1,000 pounds. There are undoubtedly sturgeon in the Snake River that remember the smell of the Pacific Ocean even though they have not been there for half a century.

My potato was treated with fertilizers and pesticides to ensure that its shape and quality were just like those of other potatoes. (My fries were so uniform that it was hard to believe they’d ever been potatoes.) These chemicals accounted for 38 percent of the farmer’s expenses. Much of the fertilizer’s nitrogen leached into groundwater; that, plus concentrated salts, made the water unfit even for irrigation.

Some of the fertilizers and pesticides washed into streams when rain fell. Among these were pesticides like Telone II (acutely toxic to mammals, and probably birds, through the skin or lungs) and Sevin XLR Plus (nontoxic to birds but highly toxic to fish). The Environmental Protection Agency’s tests of waters in the Columbia Basin found agricultural contaminants in every tributary, including the Snake.

Processing
A diesel-powered harvester dug up my potato, which was trucked to a processing plant nearby. Half the potato’s weight, mostly water, was lost in processing. The remainder was potato parts, which the processing plant sold as cattle feed.

Processing my potato created two-thirds of a gallon of waste-water. This water contained dissolved organic matter and one-third gram of nitrogen. The waste-water was sprayed on a field outside the plant. The field was unplanted at the time, and the water sank underground.

Freezing
Freezing the potato slices required electrical energy, which came from a hydroelectric dam on the Snake River. Frozen foods often require 10 times more energy to produce than their fresh counterparts. In 1960, 92 percent of the potatoes Americans ate were fresh; by 1990, Americans ate more frozen potatoes, mostly french fries, than fresh ones.

My fries were frozen using hydrofluorocarbon coolants, which have replaced the chlorofluorocarbons (CFCs) that harm the ozone layer. Some coolants escaped from the plant. They rose 10 miles up, into the stratosphere, where they depleted no ozone, but they did trap heat, contributing to the greenhouse effect. A refrigerated 18-wheeler brought my fries to Seattle. They were fried in corn oil from Nebraska, sprinkled with salt mined in Louisiana, and served with ketchup made in Pittsburgh of Florida tomatoes. My ketchup came in four annoyingly small aluminum and plastic pouches from Ohio.

What to do?!

Push your elected officials to support sustainable agriculture and to stop subsidizing irrigation. The subsidies hurt the environment, taxpayers, and those who don’t receive the subsidies such as growers of rain-fed potatoes.

Instead of buying fried, overpackaged fast food, cook some organic produce for yourself. Eat it on a real plate.

Buy local foods or, best of all, grow your own. Garden produce is fresher, uses almost no energy except the sun, and puts to use un(der)used land your lawn.

Newspaper: Your choices matter

European consumers’ demands for totally chlorine-free (TCF) paper, along with increasingly strict regulations in Canada on mill emissions, have led many mills to switch partially to making TCF pulp. Canada’s export-oriented paper industry is extremely sensitive to shifting tastes in foreign markets. Some mills simultaneously produce chlorine-free paper for the European market and chlorine-bleached paper for the U.S. market.

Similarly, California’s legislation requiring newsprint to have at least 35 percent recycled content by 1996 and 50 percent by the year 2000 has sent paper mills in the U.S. and Canada scurrying to boost their recycling capacity.

Coffee

I drink two cups a day. At that rate, I’ll down 34 gallons of java this year, made from 18 pounds of beans. Colombian farms have 12 coffee trees growing to support my personal addiction. Farmers will apply 11 pounds of fertilizers and a few ounces of pesticides to the trees this year. And Colombia’s rivers will swell with 43 pounds of coffee pulp stripped from my beans.

Coffee is the world’s second largest legal export commodity (after oil) and is the second largest source of foreign exchange for developing nations. The United States drinks about one-fifth of the world’s coffee.

Published: March 7, 1997