Monday, May 11, 2009

"Story of Stuff" Is Engaging and Informative but Incomplete

A 20-minute video about human consumption and how it degrades the environment has become "a sleeper hit in classrooms across the nation," according to a story in the New York Times.

The video, titled The Story of Stuff, uses animation and narration to explain how the American habit of buying stuff damages our ecology and exposes us to a superclass of toxins. Teachers love it because current textbooks are behind the times on topics like climate change, and the video's 20-minute length leaves plenty of time for classroom discussions.

The Story of Stuff was created by Annie Leonard, a former Greenpeace employee and self-described "unapologetic activist."

It's a highly informative video told in an entertaining way. But balanced it's not.

Ms. Leonard paints corporations as big, greedy and exploitative. Governments dance to their tunes. By using advertising to manipulate us into a work-buy-work-buy cycle, they continually feed the consumption pipeline, growing rich as we act out their scripts.

According to Ms. Leonard, a lot of evils can be traced to the culture of consumption. Felling forests, blowing up mountains, putting carcinogens in our products, dumping toxins in third-world countries, building towering heaps of trash ... all this happens because we buy, buy, buy.

The video presents one side of the story, which is what its mission is. Can't fault Ms. Leonard for that. After all, there's only so much you can pack into a 20-minute video.

Actually, I agree with 90% of The Story of Stuff. All the facts the video presents are undeniable. I just wish it presented a greater variety of facts.

For example, it could have spent more time talking about how much things are improving. And what corporations are doing to lead the way.

It could have pointed out that although Americans use up so much of Earth's energy, with just 4.5% of the world's population, we produce 20.7% of its GDP.

It could have mentioned that when we troop into Wal-Marts and Best Buys and Honda dealerships, we plunk down money that pulls people out of poverty in other parts of the globe.

It could have admitted that nefarious psycho-engineers in government and industry didn't construct our consumption culture after World War II. It's been with us a long time. Thorstein Veblen coined the term "conspicuous consumption" in his book The Theory of the Leisure Class in 1899.

It could have observed that as societies climb up the economic ladder, they consume more and waste more. That's just the way it's been. Ask India and China.

It could have reminded us that trash has been a problem forever, not just in the USA but elsewhere too.

You can probably think of other things that were left out of the video.

But despite all that, by getting kids (and grownups) to start thinking and talking and taking action to save the planet, The Story of Stuff performs a service to us all. Go see it.

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