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Public Radio's Environmental News Magazine (follow us on Google News)

A Life of Stuff

Air Date: Week of

The Strong Museum in Rochester, New York is taking a look at our consumerist culture and finding that American attitudes about nature are changing, but our habits aren't. Brenda Tremblay reports.


NUNLEY: It's Living on Earth. I'm Jan Nunley. When we think of environmental issues we often think of huge public problems: disposal of hazardous waste, acid rain, or the presence of endocrine-disrupting chemicals throughout our food supply. But a new exhibit at the Strong Museum in Rochester, New York, makes an environmental issue out of how and why we use everyday objects. The exhibit is called "Unearthing the Secret Life of Stuff." And in an age where consumerism is at an all-time high, it questions some assumptions about just how much stuff is enough. Brenda Tremblay of member station WXXI in Rochester has this report.

(Children playing. "Wait, somebody gets to play the drums!" Drumming on household objects. Woman: "Okay, now, Tye it's your turn. Okay, you guys sit down." Child: "Cool.")

TREMBLAY: A dozen third graders in matching pink T-shirts are getting excited about garbage, or at least by the prospect of banging on a 14-foot-high monstrosity of egg cartons, toilet plungers and plastic and metal cans called a "garbaphone."

(Woman: "Now, all of you together, get up and play the garbaphone!" Children laugh and make lots of noise)

TREMBLAY: The garbaphone greets visitors who enter an innovative museum exhibit that explores the relationship between Americans and their environment through everyday objects. About 2 years ago, Christopher Clarke-Hazlett, a senior curator at Rochester's Strong Museum, started making connections between environmental history and modern consumerism.

CLARKE-HAZLETT: We are without a doubt at this point in time a consumer culture, and we tend to make things, use them up and throw them away. And that's one of the most dramatic changes that's occurred in the United States over the last hundred years. And it's one of the changes that we try and document most carefully in our exhibition.

TREMBLAY: To make that point, Hazlett and his colleagues divided the exhibit into 2 parts. The first examines how American attitudes towards the environment have changed over the past 150 years. In the 19th century, for example, people wanted to control and harvest nature. Their efforts are symbolized by a painting on a child's plate from the 1880s showing hunters matter-of-factly clubbing seals. A generation later, people still wanted to control nature, but they had also grown to revere it. This conflicting impulse is represented by a 1931 inkwell made out of a rhinoceros hoof. Today we eat Rainforest Crunch cereal and toss away the package. Things haven't changed much since the 1930s according to Mary Corbin-Sies. She teaches American Studies at the University of Maryland and acted as a consultant on the exhibit.

CORBIN-SIES: Many of us have very contradictory attitudes toward nature. On the one hand, we love it, we embrace it as something that we like to include in our lives in terms of recreation. But at the same time we hold a real commitment to a very high consumption lifestyle. We like our automobiles. We like our various gadgets. We like our home entertainment centers. We like our computers.

(Echoing, metallic sliding sounds)

TREMBLAY: The second half of the exhibit uses the computer to examine the consequences of the consumer lifestyle. Visitors sit down at computer terminals and click their way through the life cycle of a washing machine, noting how its manufacture, use, and disposal affect the environment. A few feet away, 20-foot-tall towers of trash loom over a cave of plastic containers strung together with stiff wire. Inside the cave, a group of third graders is learning how to recycle.

(Many children's voices. Woman: "Now, we have a little game here. I need everybody just to back up a little bit. Where would you recycle this?" Child: "Um, right here." Woman: "Okay, why don't you do that?" Child: "It's actually tin." Child: "Yeah, but tin is a kind of metal." Woman: "Now...")

TREMBLAY: Curators say the purpose here is to prod people to think about their habits as individual consumers, then imagine the scale and scope of our collective consumption. The lesson is not lost on 8-year-old Tom Guyler. He concluded that despite his efforts, not everything he uses is actually recycled.

GUYLER: Usually, if it's like wood, I would think that it would go to a lumber factory where they could cut it down to use it to build houses and floors.

TREMBLAY: So you'd like to think that a lot of things are reused.

GUYLER: Yeah. But it's sad to say that a lot of it is just thrown out into the middle of nowhere.

TREMBLAY: The key idea running through the exhibit is that everyday objects have a past, a present, and a future. For example, the exhibit documents the life cycle of a standard Number 2 pencil, from the mine where the graphite is extracted for the pencil's lead to the landfill where the pencil stub might end up stuffed in a plastic trash bag. Curator Christopher Clarke-Hazlett says that we seldom think about anything but an object's present when we pick it off the shelf.

CLARKE-HAZLETT: Most of us don't live in a place that seems much like nature any more. Most of us don't do work that gives us any indication that the things that we consume come from the environment. And most of the meanings that we attach to the objects that we consume every day have more to do with advertising and more to do with what we think a certain product says about us than they do about where the object came from or how it's made. And so, by looking at object life cycles, we think people can begin to re-establish those connections between themselves, the things they consume, and where those objects came from.

TREMBLAY: Hazlitt is not sure where those connections might lead. To preserve a livable environment, he says, individuals may have to settle for a less comfortable standard of living. But the exhibit does not explain how that might happen. Hazlitt says it's difficult to address the subject with a public audience. He'd rather present the facts and let visitors make up their own minds.

CLARKE-HAZLETT: We don't want to send people away thinking oh my Lord, there's nothing I can do about this great environmental problem. You know, I'm a sinner and I'll never be redeemed. On the other hand, we don't want to send people away thinking that if they only, you know, buy the biodegradable product at the store, that that's going to solve the problem, too.

TREMBLAY: Christopher Clarke-Hazlett is the curator of "Unearthing the Secret Life of Stuff," about the relationship between Americans and the environment. The exhibit continues through 1997 at the Strong Museum in Rochester, New York. For Living on Earth, I'm Brenda Tremblay.



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