Review: The Story of Stuff

Let me be clear from the outset: I think that The Story of Stuff, a web video starring Annie Leonard and aimed at raising awareness about the dangers of mindless consumption, is an admirable project with an even more admirable goal. And were I a few years younger I may have even felt it was important or inspiring. Today, I find it to be incredibly annoying.

The Story of Stuff makes the same errors that I find so vexing about environmentalism in general. Though most activists don’t like to admit it, activism is a field marred by unrealistic idealists who imagine that but for some tragic flaw the world would be an entirely different place. For most environmentalists that bogeyman is named “big business,” “corporations,” or “the government.” These forces are the reason people act in ways they shouldn’t, for it is the bogeyman who rapes the land, makes loads of junk that people neither need nor want, and then shoves that stuff down their throats. Soon after, he makes them throw that stuff away in the least responsible way and buy more of the same stuff they didn’t want in the first place.

This is a convenient and understandable story, but that’s doesn’t make it right, and that certainly doesn’t make me any more willing to tolerate it. It’s a message laced with helpless victimhood and painful pessimism that sees the world in total crisis.

And though you wouldn’t know it from watching The Story of Stuff, we are not in the middle of a hopeless crisis from which there is no way out. We are not idiot machines who’ve subverted our will to that of the bogeymen.

Surely the world’s got its fair share of problems. Global warming has still not been adequately addressed. There are places in the world where it is still acceptable to put workers in harm’s way working with hideously dangerous chemicals or working in terribly dangerous mines. Places where clear-cutting is accepted and slash-and-burn tolerated.

But I don’t see The Story of Stuff as the proper response to any other these problems. The deeply cynically video is more likely to make me pull my hair out than to make me an activist or “no impact man.”

Because I can’t manage to fit my problems with the video into a cohesive paragraphs, a few of my biggest gripes:

  • The video’s presentation of the government/corporation relationship is comically insulting to both hardworking politicians and honest businessmen. This is not to say that all members of both groups fit that description, but I loathe when people go out of their way to deny the work of either. Showing the government polishing the shoes of a bloated “corporation” may be how you perceive reality, but it’s an immediate turn off to any and all that disagree.
  • Not all collection of natural resources is done by clear cutting, strip mining, or general raping of the land. Don’t get me wrong, I’m sure a lot of it still is, but denying that some companies are working hard to be sustainable and responsible is an insult to both reality and those responsible stakeholders.
  • Not everything about manufacturing is “toxic.” Make no mistake, I think there are plenty of dangerous chemicals in the things we produce, but you’re playing fast-and-loose with reality if you’re going to say that manufacturing is the simple practice of putting toxic chemicals onto stuff to produce toxic products.
  • Why oh why are you bringing up George Bush? What relevance do his boneheaded proclamations have to do with anything?
  • Americans in the past were not wiser and more earth-friendly by choice. We’ve not been made into mindless consumers by a shadowy cabal hell-bent on making people consume as much as they can. People like to have things. When they can have things cheaply, they’re likely to take that opportunity to have a lot of cheap things. I’m not saying it’s right, I’m just saying it’s human nature.

Mostly, I’m just disappointed by all of this. And it’s not just about The Story of Stuff either. Similarly egregious things are done everywhere in the “environmental movement.” Its default mode seems to be a deep pessimism coupled with a pervasive alarmism that stifles action.

There are big problems facing the world today. And that’s a great reason to offer a lot of practical things that people can do to cope with the broken system you see. But The Story of Stuff instead offers only one final minute packed with buzzwords that the average viewer can neither understand nor implement.

I dislike being so deeply critical of anything, but it’s the only way I know to express my deepest disappointment.

9 responses to “Review: The Story of Stuff”

  1. WOW, nice review. A friend emailed me the link to her website and I did have a problem with some of the broad and general statments. Many of them, I’d have to watch it over to make a list.

    Some good points are learning to be content with what you have, and being a wise shopper. The more you are aware of marketing the easier it is to identify being sucked in. (like skinny shoes vs wide shoes)

    Annie talks about computers just needing a new chip to be better, if you’re a geek you CAN upgrade your PC (oops, are you guys all mac…lol) however when chipsets and memory change, it’s usually becuase there is a function on the new chip or something where the bus can talk to something else faster. (although they probably do change some things to make you upgrade)

    She talks about her co-worker getting a new LCD, and then she feels silly for having a not as new tube monitor… WELL, if you want to get “earth friendly” then it would make sense to GET an LCD, as it uses much less energy, lasts longer, and heats up your house / office less.

    Anyway, good review, are there other links talking about the other side?

    Adam Nollmeyer / AcmePhoto

  2. I don’t see how any of your comments lead to the idea that “story of stuff” is wrong. Sure, you may not like it. That is not the point. Do you think it is mostly truthful?

    If it is false, then don’t worry about it.
    If it is true, then the responsibility to respond lies on your shoulders.

    I do agree that the environmental movement ought to refrain from “guilt-tripping” instead, it ought to accept reality and work from there. Show people the benefits of considering the environmental impact of the things humanity chooses to do.

  3. @Adam N.
    I’m not sure what you mean by “the other side.”

    @Adam Lehman
    I don’t think The Story of Stuff is untruthful; I think it’s tone is inappropriate to the goal that I perceive it as having. I may not have expressed it as clearly as I could have, but it’s not factual errors that are turning me off. It’s the “the world is in peril and you’re a helpless automaton” way it which it is conveyed.

    That said, I just did a quick search and found at least one person who decided to give the video a fact-checking.

  4. David nice link to the other review. by “the other side” I mean thing like…

    Did you know that in the US, there are farmers who grow trees for pulp to make paper with… I think they harvest the trees every 6-7 years. IN simple terms they have seven fields, I believe they grow cottonwood trees, which grow like weeds. Each year they would harvest a field and plant a new one.

    In my book this makes TREES FOR PAPER a renewable resource. When you buy paper that is RECYCLED you think you’re doing a good thing, however I’ve heard that it takes a bunch more energy and water to recycle paper than it does to make new paper from renewable resources (trees). If we buy recycled paper in the US, we think we’re being “green” but aren’t we really taking away jobs and money from the US? If these farmer’s can’t sell their trees, they will not plant more and there will be less trees which convert CO2 into oxygen thereby cleaning our air.

    So, facts can be presented selectively which happens in politics, and in environmental concerns. It’s always good to be a detective and look for opposing opinions on anything in forming your own opinion. (in my opinion.. lol)

    Adam N / Phoenix AZ

  5. It just worries me that videos like this are making their way into classrooms, aimed at kids who, may be, the most vulnerable to this video. I know we shouldn’t buy so much, but this anti-consumerism video is just another checkmark on the liberalist’s agenda. I have just started getting into politics and I never realized how biased the media is. I’d like to hear Glenn Beck’s response to this.

  6. I’m confused. It’s clear you don’t like the video, but what about it is untrue?

    You agree that some business and corporations are as described. The point of the video isn’t to describe every behavior in the system, it’s to point out the worst behavior in the system. i.e., many of the cheap foreign goods you find at a Walmart (insert your chain store of choice).

  7. Refuting (or defending) broad generalizations is a fool’s task. And indeed what I disliked about the video was pretty much exactly that: the entire thing consists of broad generalizations that are basically unsubstantiated, inaccurate, and insulting.

    If indeed the video sold itself as describing the worst of all possibilities, as you say it does, I could take some of the ugly generalizations. But it sells the worst as the norm and says nothing of any players trying to do it better.

  8. I really want to thank you for what I feel was a fair review. It’s so hard to find someone that doesn’t scream out their views for one side or the other.