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.