Our world of material abundance comes with a hidden price tag. We cannot see the extent to which the things we buy and use daily have other kinds of costs—their toll on the planet, on consumer health, and on the people whose labor provides us our comforts and necessities. We go through our daily life awash in a sea of things we buy, use, and throw away, waste, or save. Each of those things has its own history and its own future, backstories and endings largely hidden from our eyes, a web of impacts left along the way from the initial extraction or concoction of its ingredients, during its manufacture and transport, through the subtle consequences of its use in our homes and workplaces, to the day we dispose of it. And yet these unseen impacts of all that stuff may be their most important aspect.
We hear much about helping the planet by changing what we do—bike, don't drive; use the new, energy-saving fluorescent bulbs; recycle our bottles; and other ready fixes. All such changes in ecological habits are laudable; if more of us made these efforts they would have great benefits.
We have been besieged by messages about the dire threats of global warming and toxins in everyday objects and demands that we must somehow change before it's too late. One version of this litany is all too familiar: ever-warmer temperatures, fiercer hurricanes, fiery droughts, and rampant desertification in some places and relentless rains in others.
Almost all of us go shopping oblivious to the true impacts of our purchases and our habits. The main barrier comes down to a lack of crucial information, a gap that leaves us in the dark. The old saying has it that “What we don't know can't hurt us.” But the truth today is just the reverse: what we do not know about what goes on backstage, out of sight, harms us, others, and the planet. Look behind the light switch to glimpse the environmental cost of electric power; swoop down to the molecular level to assess the chemicals off-gassed by everyday products and absorbed by our bodies; burrow down through the supply chain to grasp the human cost of the goods we enjoy.