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.

politics, review

Review: Obama’s SC Victory Speech

In my younger years, I was given some advice that I’ve always taken quite seriously: Never have any heroes who remain above ground. And though that may sound like a claim that a person should only make heroes of sewer rats, subway conductors, and water sanitation engineers; it’s not. Depending on who you ask, it is either a realistic or pessimistic statement that all people still alive have the power to show themselves to have been untruthful. To fail. To disappoint.

And so I’m full of reservations about the positive feelings engendered by Mr. Obama’s soaring and hopeful speech. He’s shown himself to be vulnerable to the same cynical campaigning that his statements so often derides. He’s shown himself to be willing, sometimes, to take the easy potshots and low blows that he argues against so often.

I’m also worried about attempting to review one of his speeches. Whenever I write an unconventional review I feel like I’m (especially) out of my depth. My review of raking leaves, for example, feels novel but not particularly interesting. And then my review of Joshua James’s excellent album–album reviews aren’t unconventional, but I’ve made no habit of writing them–made it sound average at best.

And I also don’t want to support any politician explicitly. All politicians play a game that I find both fascinating and disgusting. They change things, but they often sacrifice principle to do so. And that’s got well defined positives and negatives.

Senator Obama’s oratory is truly breathtaking, and this speech is just one that I was able to watch and easily find a transcript. In my–admittedly short–political history no politician has spoken with such clarity. Such a hopeful vision. Whether or not he lives up to this vision in day-to-day life is an open question, but that his speeches can inspire those who agree with him is hard to doubt.

And Mr. Obama begins well. He skillfully weaves together his optimism and the political message he needs to make: that South Carolina was indicative of his power as a presidential candidate, not of his power as a black presidential candidate.

Well, tonight, the cynics who believed that what began in the snows of Iowa was just an illusion were told a different story by the good people of South Carolina.

After four great contests in every corner of this country, we have the most votes, the most delegates, and the most diverse coalition of Americans we’ve seen in a long, long time.

He goes on to list the elements of his coalition. And all of this is important for two reason. First, he’s making the point that not only does he have more delegates than Mrs. Clinton–he does, but they’re also “better”–whatever that is.

Secondly, this beginning is important because unlike Mrs. Clinton, he’s making the clear statement that this isn’t about him. Senator Clinton’s best known speech so far has been after her New Hampshire victory in which she said, “Over the last week, I listened to you, and in the process found my own voice. … Let’s give America the kind of comeback that New Hampshire has just given me.”

The jarring distinction, unveiled within the first few minutes is this: rhetorically Mr. Obama speaks of ideals, unity, and hope. Mrs. Clinton speaks of herself and her candidacy. And though both of the candidates clearly needed the victories at the time, you wouldn’t know it from a comparison. Senator Obama argues that his victory represents a comeback for his platform while Senator Clinton speaks as if it’s a comeback for herself.

This is not exactly a novel observation, but it’s an important one. People seem stunned by Mr. Obama’s skill, but the simple rhetorical device of saying “us” instead of “I” and “we” rather than “me” is a crucial part of his oratorical ability. By doing so he’s got a room of compatriots rather than supporters, a room of helpers rather than those that need to be helped.

Even in referring to himself, Mr. Obama doesn’t speak explicitly of himself or his campaign.

But here’s what I know. I know that when people say we can’t overcome all the big money and influence in Washington, I think of the elderly woman who sent me a contribution the other day – an envelope that had a money order for $3.01 along with a verse of scripture tucked inside. So don’t tell us change isn’t possible.

Certainly he knows things. He’s seen things. But what he’s seeing is the power of the people to whom he speaks.

But I also have to say that Mr. Obama–or his speech-writing team–has a way with words. And that’s what I’ll leave you with. The closing paragraphs of his speech last Saturday night were truly beautiful:

And as we leave this state with a new wind at our backs, and take this journey across the country we love with the message we’ve carried from the plains of Iowa to the hills of New Hampshire; from the Nevada desert to the South Carolina coast; the same message we had when we were up and when we were down – that out of many, we are one; that while we breathe, we hope; and where we are met with cynicism, and doubt, and those who tell us that we can’t, we will respond with that timeless creed that sums up the spirit of a people in three simple words:

Yes. We. Can.