Review: The Story of Stuff, by Annie Leonard

Stuff. It’s all around us. Some of it is essential. Some of it is less essential. Some of it isn’t essential at all and some of it is totally ridiculous.

I’m a child of the 80s and a product of the intense awareness-raising campaigns that were done in schools back then to encourage recycling. If my mother is to be trusted (which she usually can be, unfortunately), I was a little ‘Green Nazi’: I would getnupset if every single little thing that was possibly recyclable didn’t get recycled. I think I might have scarred my poor parents to life.

Anyhow!

I myself was marked by this intensive campaign to be green by videos such as the one posted below. In it, a young boy leaves the water running while brushing his teeth, using up Frank the Fish’s natural habitat. Becoming a little desperate, Frank calls the young boy up and asks him to turn the tap water off.


It has always hit me, ever since those days, that most of the solutions to these problems seemed so simple, and it made me happy to be able to contribute to keeping the planet healthier (and Frank the Fish alive!). And this is why I’m always on the look-out for interesting and thought-provoking material to raise awareness around me, too, so that more people can help the environment. And that’s how I discovered The Story of Stuff.

The Story of Stuff is a great 20 minutes documentary film in which Annie Leonard gives us a detailed yet easily understandable explanation of the story of stuff: where it comes from, where it goes and what are the reasons behind the current obsession with companies to make us buy, buy and buy some more.

On the site, it is explained that: “From its extraction through sale, use and disposal, all the stuff in our lives affects communities at home and abroad, yet most of this is hidden from view. The Story of Stuff is a 20 minute, fast-paced, fact-filled look at the underside of our production and consumption patterns. The Story of Stuff exposes the connections between a huge number of environmental and social issues, and calls us together to create a more sustainable and just world. It’ll teach you something, it’ll make you laugh, and it just may change the way you look at all the stuff in your life forever.”

With over 4 million viewers as of September 2008, The Story of Stuff isn’t just about informing the public but also a call to action. However, the site doesn’t include something in the way of “Ten Steps to helping the World”, which I found quite disconcerting. A call for action without any helpful guidelines to how to do anything? How… Different.

Apparently I’m not the only person who thought along the same lines. A group of High School students produced a video in which they underline the fact that Annie Leonard provides a bleak portrait of the world without any concrete solution about what to do.


To which Annie Leonard answered the following:

Why I am not offering “10 simple steps” to get involved.

(…) I intentionally didn’t include specific recommendations for action for a couple reasons: 1) the solutions don’t lend themselves to sound bites and 2) I don’t want to prescribe and limit the actions each viewer may choose to do.

(…) I didn’t want to lay out this massive critique of the interconnected environmental and social problems of our current global materials economy and then belittle both viewers and the diversity and breadth of the solutions by providing a pre-determined concise list of simple action steps. I did capitulate to those asking for lists of recommended actions by providing some suggestions but even this list includes just a sampling of the many ways to make a difference.

I don’t like simple lists of recommended actions because I believe what is needed can’t be captured in that format. As Michael Maniates, a professor at Allegheny College said in a recent Washington Post op-ed: “We need to be looking at fundamental change in our energy, transportation and agricultural systems rather than technological tweaking on the margins, and this means changes and costs that our current and would-be leaders seem afraid to discuss. Which is a pity, since Americans are at their best when they’re struggling together, and sometimes with one another, toward difficult goals.” (See the full op-ed at WashingtonPost.com)

My goal in making The Story of Stuff was to encourage people to have this difficult conversation, to begin thinking and talking about these complicated issues. Our current ways of making, using and throwing away stuff is largely based on unsustainable and unjust systems yet, as a society, we’ve got this big collective blind spot about talking about this. Let’s raise the issues, let’s ask the hard questions, let’s get it on the table and examine it and debate it and figure out together how to move forward towards solutions.

As I said in the film, one of the good things about such an all pervasive problem is that there are so many points of intervention. We each need to find that intervention that matches our skill set and our passions. The passion piece is key, because it is going to be a long haul and we need to rely on our passions, the fire in our bellies for change, to see us through. So, I advised the students to find something that they feel passionate about and dive in.

There are as many ways to get involved as there are people who care. Are you outraged that your cosmetics and body care products have toxics that aren’t even labeled? Get a bunch of friends together and call the Campaign for Safe Cosmetics to find out what can be done (www.safecosmetics.org). Are you concerned about what happens to your MP3 Player or computer when it dies? Call Silicon Valley Toxics Coalition (www.svtc.org) and Basel Action Network (www.ban.org). Do you want to make local, organic food accessible and affordable? Join a CSA (Community Supported Agriculture) program or set up a farmers market in your town.Work for Health Care Reform. Adopt a green procurement policy at your company or school to mandate that purchases prioritize local and sustainable products. Look into the Renewable Fuels Portfolio is in your State and join with those working to increase it. Start a used book, tooland clothing swap program on your campus or community. Pressure local businesses to stop selling super toxic PVC plastic (http://www.besafenet.com/pvc/). Track your ecological footprint (http://www.footprintnetwork.org/). Work for mining reform (www.earthworksaction.org). Green your hospital (www.noharm.org). Register people to vote. Run for local office yourself. Have a monthly screening and discussion with films on these issues at your church or school. Make your campus Zero Waste. Work for Campaign Finance Reform.Talk to your neighbors about these issues. Fill your free time with friends rather than stuff. The list goes on and on…

You get the point. Everyone needs to find their own path; find the projects that we each can each do well and which excites us. There are so many options that we don’t even have to do something boring! And there are loads of organizations that can help provide direction on specific issues once we get started. See the list of organizations on the Story of Stuff website to start and check out www.wiserearth.org for even more.

It is less important what we chose to do than how we do it. To make all these activities add up to more than a list of “teachnological tweakings at the margins,”as Maniates describes it, whatever we eachdo must be part of a larger effort. We’ve got to get toxics out of cosmetics and reform the health care system and build local community and stop incinerators not as ends in themselves but as part of strengthening an active democracy, as part of transforming the current system to be in the service of community health, ecological stability and social justice.”

What a great response. And what a great challenge for all of us to take on!

I have to admit that I did find the questions of the High School students a little amusing in that there is one solution that seems to obvious: stop buying all the unnecessary junk. Does anyone remember a certain little song: “Reduce, Reuse, Recycle, Refuse”? We seem to think that solutions to big problems are necessarily big, when at the end, the solutions are small but have to be implemented on a massive scale.

Think about one simple thing: single-use water bottles. Even if most of them are recyclable, 80% of the water bottles used in the US end up in a landfill. So the first step would be to start recycling those water bottles.

But before ‘recycle’ we have reduce: the best thing we can do is to stop using bottled water altogether, and stick to our reusable bottles. Since Americans buy 28 billions bottles of water a year, that would make a significant impact through a small action. But, again, the scope of this action has to be large: 28 billion purchases have to be stopped each year.

Simple, but huge.

So has The Story of Stuff inspired any form of activism?

I was pleasantly surprised to see that there has been an important response to Annie Leonard’s video, including Sarah’s (I know, how ironic) Consumption Challenge. I have posted the introductory video below and, for those of you interested in learning more about the challenge, finding out what possible snags and problems Sarah might have met during the challenge and even on taking the challenge, you should check out her other videos too. And if you do decide to take on the challenge, I encourage you to upload videos like Sarah’s and link them to hers and let me know so I can post them here, too.


Many people often ask me why the environment is so important to me. I tell them it’s because I started to realise a couple of years ago the scope of the implications of not doing anything that bolsters me. The importance of decreasing our carbon footprint doesn’t limit itself to saving the world from becoming warmer; it also means giving peace a chance.

Yes, you read me right, peace on earth is dependant on stopping global warming. Think about it. Global warming is causing a massive change in the weather patterns in the entire world. One such change is a pattern of droughts which have been plaguing such places as Eastern Africa and Southern America. It seems that these droughts, at first unusual, are becoming the norm. They render previously fertile lands arid, which destroys plantations they previously supported. This creates famines. Famines create tension as people fight more and more desperately to gain access to water and fertile lands. The fights escalade into full-fledged wars.

So next time you want to buy yourself a bottle of water or a thing that you don’t quite need, remember: you have more power to bring peace on the world than you thought possible.

Give peace a chance: reduce, reuse and recycle!