The Story of Stuff

Right now, representatives of the governments of the world are meeting in Bali, Indonesia, to negotiate international agreements to forestall climate change.

Necessarily, these negotiations will revolve around technical, arcane matters. What targets should be set for reduced greenhouse gas emissions? Which countries should adhere to which targets? Should there be emissions rights trading, and if so, how should trading systems work? What financing mechanisms will be established to help developing countries transition to cleaner production methods and leapfrog over polluting technologies? Will there be special mechanisms established to protect forests? How should global trading rules be altered? And on and on.

The world desperately needs these negotiations to succeed, for science-based emission targets to be set, and for principles of social justice to shape the allocation of rights, duties and financial obligations needed to avert climate catastrophe. And whatever progress can be achieved in Bali, the better.

But we also need something else, which will almost surely precede global agreements and serious commitments to undertake the massive economic and social reorganization that the threat of global warming — and other pending ecological catastrophes — commands.
That something else is a broad public understanding of how the system all fits together. Not just how important it is to change from incandescent to compact fluorescent light bulbs or the value of recycling — though these things are vital — but how the present system of making, transporting, selling, buying, using and disposing of things is trashing the planet. If we’re going to save ourselves from global warming, we’re going to have to do things differently.

That’s where The Story of Stuff comes in.

“The Story of Stuff with Annie Leonard” is an engaging new short film that explains the “materials economy” in 20 fun-filled minutes.

Yes, fun-filled.

Produced by Free Range Studios, which developed “The Meatrix” — an animated short about factory farming that ranks among the cleverest uses of Internet technologies to deliver a politically progressive message — The Story of Stuff features the wonderful Annie Leonard, amusing graphics, lots of humor, and a complicated analysis presented in an easy-to-understand conversational tone.

You can watch the whole thing here. You’ll have to watch the film to enjoy the humor — there’s no easy way to convey the playful cartooning with serious purpose. But I guarantee chuckles even for the most austere.

The core themes of the Story of Stuff are:

1. The world is running up against resource limits.

“We’re running out of resources. We are using too much stuff. Now I know this can be hard to hear, but it’s the truth and we’ve got to deal with it. In the past three decades alone, one-third of the planet’s natural resources base have been consumed. Gone. We are cutting and mining and hauling and trashing the place so fast that we’re undermining the planet’s very ability for people to live here.”

2. Corporate globalization is premised on externalizing costs — making someone other than the companies that make things pay for the environmental and human costs of production.

“I was thinking about this the other day. I was walking to work and I wanted to listen to the news so I popped into this Radio Shack to buy a radio. I found this cute little green radio for 4 dollars and 99 cents. I was standing there in line to buy this radio and I was wondering how $4.99 could possibly capture the costs of making this radio and getting it to my hands. The metal was probably mined in South Africa, the petroleum was probably drilled in Iraq, the plastics were probably produced in China, and maybe the whole thing was assembled by some 15 year old in a maquiladora in Mexico. $4.99 wouldn’t even pay the rent for the shelf space it occupied until I came along, let alone part of the staff guy’s salary that helped me pick it out, or the multiple ocean cruises and truck rides pieces of this radio went on. That’s how I realized, I didn’t pay for the radio.”

Who did? The people who lost their natural resource base, factory workers, those who are made sick from factory pollution, and retail workers without health insurance.

3. The corporate economy rests on the artificial creation of need — “the golden arrow of consumption.”

“Have you ever wondered why women’s shoe heels go from fat one year to skinny the next to fat to skinny? It is not because there is some debate about which heel structure is the most healthy for women’s feet. It’s because wearing fat heels in a skinny heel year shows everyone that you haven’t contributed to that arrow recently so you’re not as valuable as that skinny heeled person next to you or, more likely, in some ad. It’s to keep buying new shoes.”

4. Things can be different. And they must be made to be different.

“What we really need to chuck is this old-school throw-away mindset. There’s a new school of thinking on this stuff and it’s based on sustainability and equity: Green Chemistry, Zero Waste, Closed Loop Production, Renewable Energy, Local Living Economies. Some people say it’s unrealistic, idealistic, that it can’t happen. But I say the ones who are unrealistic are those that want to continue on the old path. That’s dreaming. Remember that old way didn’t just happen by itself. It’s not like gravity that we just gotta live with. People created it. And we’re people too. So let’s create something new.”

If you worry these claims are too broad, go to the website. It has supporting evidence and links to a vast array of additional resources and materials.

Is The Story of Stuff just preaching to the converted? No. (Though note, as a friend says, that there’s a reason and rationale for the clergy to preach to the congregation every week — it reinforces, deepens and sustains commitment and understanding.)

The Story of Stuff is something you can show to anyone (or ask anyone to view online). It’s persuasive but not a sermon. It’s sophisticated but not esoteric. Its tone is light but its content is serious. It’s narrated by the irrepressible Annie Leonard with passion but no pretense.

Annie, who is a former colleague and good friend, casually mentions at the start of The Story of Stuff that she spent 10 years traveling the world to explore how stuff is made and discarded. This doesn’t begin to explain her first-hand experience. There aren’t many people who race from international airports to visit trash dumps. Annie does. In travels to three dozen countries, she has visited garbage dumps, infiltrated toxic factories, worked with ragpickers and received death threats for her investigative work. Her understanding of the externalized violence of the corporate consumer economy comes from direct observation and experience.

The Story of Stuff is a short film about the big picture. Give it a look, and encourage others to check it out.

If negotiations like those in Bali are ultimately going to succeed, we need lots more people to internalize the message of The Story of Stuff, and mobilize, as Annie says, to create something new.