The Story Of Stuff

Being a dinosaur, I learned of “The Story of Stuff” from an article that appeared on the front page of last Monday’s (May 11) New York Times. If I paid better attention to C&EN’s own blog, I would have learned of the existence of this 21-minute video last year from a reader’s comment on a blog posting by Assistant Editor Carmen Drahl.

The Times‘s largely positive story leads off: “The thick-lined drawings of the Earth, a factory and a house, meant to convey the cycle of human consumption, are straightforward and child-friendly. So are the pictures of dark puffs of factory smoke and an outlined skull and crossbones, representing polluting chemicals floating in the air.”

The story goes on, “The video is a cheerful but brutal assessment of how much Americans waste, and it has its detractors. But it has been embraced by teachers eager to supplement textbooks that lag behind scientific findings on climate change and pollution.”

The Times says that 6 million people have watched the video on the website storyofstuff.com, millions more have seen it on YouTube, and more than 7,000 schools, churches, and others have ordered the DVD version.

Having now watched “The Story of Stuff,” which was made in 2007, I find the Times‘s characterization of the video and the spread of its use in classrooms alarming. It is a well-made and effective piece of chemophobic and anticapitalistic propaganda, but to suggest that it is a useful supplement to science textbooks is ludicrous.

Before some readers who regularly take issue with me become upset, I acknowledge that earlier this year I wrote an editorial entitled “More on Limits” in which I led off by asking, “How much stuff do you need?” Some readers felt that editorial was an attack on capitalism. Although I questioned the sustainability of capitalism as it is currently constituted in that essay, I did not, and do not, endorse either socialism or communism. The question I asked was whether we could continue to organize society around endless growth in consumption, which is the question that Annie Leonard, the creator of “The Story of Stuff,” bases her video on. I think the question remains a valid one.

That said, here are a couple of samples of the mind-set of “The Story of Stuff.” Leonard divides human economic activity into extraction, production, distribution, consumption, and disposal. In the section on extraction, she says, “We’ll start with extraction, which is a fancy word for natural resource exploitation, which is a fancy word for trashing the planet.” Okay, that sets the tone.

“So next,” Leonard says, “the materials move into production. And what happens here is we use energy to mix toxic chemicals in with the natural resources to make toxic contaminated products.” The accompanying cartoon depicts cut-down trees moving into a factory building. Lightning bolts and skulls and crossbones represent the energy and toxic chemicals.

“As long as we keep putting toxics into our industrial production system, we’re going to keep getting toxics in the stuff we bring into our homes and workplaces and schools. And, duh, our bodies.

“Like BFRs, brominated flame retardants. They’re a chemical that makes things more fireproof. But they are super toxic. They’re a neurotoxin. That means they’re toxic to the brain. What are we even doing using a chemical like this? Yet we put them in our computers, appliances, couches, mattresses, even some pillows. In fact, we take our pillows, dip them in a neurotoxin, bring them home, and put our heads on them for eight hours a night to sleep. Now, I don’t know, but it seems to me that in this country, with so much potential, we could think of a better way to keep our heads from catching on fire every night.”

It was this bit about BFRs that “C&ENtral Science” reader Klug commented on in December. “As long as people use bizarre logic like this to bash the chemical industry and get their lies spread in the MSM, we as chemists are screwed,” Klug wrote, referring to the “mainstream media.”

Well, yeah, I’m afraid so. Not even sure what to suggest as an antidote, but I thought you should know.

Thanks for reading.

Author: Rudy Baum

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2 Comments

  1. I have viewed “The Story of Stuff”. We live in a world of generalizations. Most of the generalizations in the video were “true”. What I missed from the video was a more upbeat message for replacing the socially toxic relationships that the author illustrates with ones that are more agreeable. This she only attempts at the end of the end.

  2. The comment on this story that all of the generalizations in the video are true is certainly not true if Annie Leonard is from the United States. Since she was born here, I am assuming as such. Two minutes into the video the fact is thrown out that “her country” spends 50% of the budget on the military when in reality it was 21% in 2008, 19.6% in 2007, and 19% in 2006 in the United States. Since her bio on the Story of Stuff website states, “Annie has spent nearly two decades investigating and organizing on environmental health and justice issues,” and it took me five minutes on Wikipedia to find the U.S. budget data, why should I listen to anything else in the video if she can’t even get a simple fact like that right after two decades of research? I can hardly wait for her book to come out. I’m sure it will be filled with more “generalizations” that are equally as well researched (i.e. flat out false).