Posted by: Martin Fox | May 11, 2009

The “Story of Stuff” hits the NY Times

We posted the “Story of Stuff” video on our website last year. The video was just highlighted in an article on the front page in the New York Times – not bad…

Yes, it is a bit edgy and admittedly one-sided, but the video is a short, simple story of consumption and what that consumption is doing to our planet.

While the video does not offer alternative viewpoints, it is great data none-the-less. Perhaps our job is to explore the other alternatives – independent thinking is a good thing.

Peace out – Martin Fox with the Center for Global Leadership

A Cautionary Video About America’s ‘Stuff’
The thick-lined drawings of the Earth, a factory and a house, meant to convey the cycle of human consumption, are straightforward and child-friendly. So are the pictures of dark puffs of factory smoke and an outlined skull and crossbones, representing polluting chemicals floating in the air.

Which is one reason “The Story of Stuff,” a 20-minute video about the effects of human consumption, has become a sleeper hit in classrooms across the nation.

The video is a cheerful but brutal assessment of how much Americans waste, and it has its detractors. But it has been embraced by teachers eager to supplement textbooks that lag behind scientific findings on climate change and pollution. And many children who watch it take it to heart: riding in the car one day with his parents in Tacoma, Wash., Rafael de la Torre Batker, 9, was worried about whether it would be bad for the planet if he got a new set of Legos.

“When driving by a big-box store, you could see he was struggling with it,” his father, David Batker, said. But then Rafael said, “It’s O.K. if I have Legos because I’m going to keep them for a very long time,” Mr. Batker recalled.

The video was created by Annie Leonard, a former Greenpeace employee and an independent lecturer who paints a picture of how American habits result in forests being felled, mountaintops being destroyed, water being polluted and people and animals being poisoned. Ms. Leonard, who describes herself as an “unapologetic activist,” is also critical of corporations and the federal government, which she says spends too much on the military.

Ms. Leonard put the video on the Internet in December 2007. Word quickly spread among teachers, who recommended it to one another as a brief, provocative way of drawing students into a dialogue about how buying a cellphone or jeans could contribute to environmental devastation.

So far, six million people have viewed the film at its site,, and millions more have seen it on YouTube. More than 7,000 schools, churches and others have ordered a DVD version, and hundreds of teachers have written Ms. Leonard to say they have assigned students to view it on the Web.

It has also won support from independent groups that advise teachers on curriculum choices. Facing the Future, a curriculum developer for schools in all 50 states, is drafting lesson plans based on the video. And Ms. Leonard has a contract with Simon & Schuster to write a book based on the video.

The enthusiasm is not universal. In January, a school board in Missoula County, Mont., decided that screening the video treaded on academic freedom after a parent complained that its message was anticapitalist.

But many educators say the video is a boon to teachers as they struggle to address the gap in what textbooks say about the environment and what science has revealed in recent years.

“Frankly, a lot of the textbooks are awful on the subject of the environment,” said Bill Bigelow, the curriculum editor of Rethinking Schools, a quarterly magazine that has promoted “The Story of Stuff” to its subscribers and on its Web site, which reaches about 600,000 educators a month. “The one used out here in Oregon for global studies — it’s required — has only three paragraphs on climate change. So, yes, teachers are looking for alternative resources.”

Environmental education is still a young and variable field, according to Frank Niepold, the climate education coordinator at the National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration. There are few state or local school mandates on how to teach the subject.

The agency is seeking to change that, but in the interim many teachers are developing their own lesson plans on climate change, taking some elements from established sources like the National Wildlife Federation and others from less conventional ones like “The Story of Stuff.”

Ms. Leonard is self-educated on where waste goes and worked for Greenpeace to prevent richer nations from dumping their trash in poorer ones. She produced the video, with the Free Range Studios company, and with money from numerous nonprofit groups; the largest single giver was the Tides Foundation. She did so, she said, after tiring of traveling often to present her views at philanthropic and environmental conferences. She attributes the response to the video’s simplicity.

“A lot of what’s in the film was already out there,” Ms. Leonard said, “but the style of the animation makes it easy to watch. It is a nice counterbalance to the starkness of the facts.”

The video certainly makes the facts stark and at times very political: “We’ll start with extraction, which is a fancy word for natural resource exploitation, which is a fancy word for trashing the planet,” she says at one point. “What this looks like is we chop down the trees, we blow up mountains to get the metals inside, we use up all the water and we wipe out the animals.”

Mark Lukach, who teaches global studies at Woodside Priory, a Catholic college-preparatory school in Portola Valley, Calif., acknowledged that the film is edgy, but said the 20-minute length gives students time to challenge it in class after viewing it.

“Compared to ‘An Inconvenient Truth,’ ” he said, referring to Al Gore’s one-and-a-half-hour documentary on climate change, “it is much shorter and easier to compact into a class segment. You can watch it and then segue into a discussion.”

Mr. Lukach’s students made a response video and posted it on YouTube, asking Ms. Leonard to scare them less and give them ideas on how to make things better. That in turn inspired high school students in Mendocino, Calif., to post an answer to Woodside, with suggested activities.

Dawn Zweig, who teaches environmental studies at the Putney School, a private academy in Vermont, said that the very reason the video appealed to teachers — it shows students how their own behavior is linked to what is happening across the globe — could also raise sensitive issues. She said students, particularly affluent ones, might take the critique personally. “If you offend a student, they turn off the learning button and then you won’t get anywhere,” Ms. Zweig said.

Sometimes teachers observe the opposite: children who become environmental advocates at home after seeing the video. After Jasmine Madavi, 18, saw it last year in Mr. Lukach’s class at Woodside Priory, she began nagging her parents to stop buying bottled water. Her mother resisted, saying that filtered tap water, Jasmine’s suggested alternative, would not taste as good. But Jasmine bought the filter on her own, and the household is now converted.

“You just have to be persistent,” said Ms. Madavi, who is now a community college student. “When you use a water bottle, it just doesn’t disappear. That’s Annie’s message.”

Most parents take such needling with humor. But Mark Zuber, a parent of a child at Big Sky High School in Missoula, had a stronger reaction when a teacher showed the video to his daughter last year. “There was not one positive thing about capitalism in the whole thing,” Mr. Zuber said.

Corporations, for example, are portrayed as a bloated person sporting a top hat and with a dollar sign etched on its front.

He described the video as one-sided. “It was very well done, very effective advocacy, but it was just that,” he said.

Mr. Zuber argued before the Missoula County School Board that the way in which “The Story of Stuff” was presented, without an alternative point of view, violated its standards on bias, and the board agreed in a 4-to-3 vote.

Still, Ms. Leonard is hoping the video will circle the globe. “I’ve heard from teachers in Palestine and Papua New Guinea,” she said. “It is just spreading and spreading.”



  1. The definitive critique to the Story of Stuff:

    • We would like to thank Brian for offering his alternative point of view to the Story of Stuff video. One of the many things that makes that makes the United States of America so special is the freedom to express opposing viewpoints.

  2. Thank you for the presentation of both sides of this issue. I think I can speak for the average reader in saying that each video gives a lot to weigh and consider. So much in fact, that it’s a bit overwhelming to try and digest it all at once. That said, what will I take from viewing the videos? That though there may be two (and probably more) differences of opinion as to the severity of and solution to this dilemma, whatever it takes to make people aware that there IS a situation and start assessing each of their own roles and responsibilities as a member of this planet is never a bad thing. We might all have different opinions, but we all live on this planet together and I think we’re all on the same side regarding a desire to see it thrive.

  3. Leon: Regarding, “I think we’re all on the same side regarding a desire to see it thrive.”

    That is not a primary, though. My primary is my life, my values, my goals. Obviously, part of the successful achievement of my goals involves free trade with others (as opposed to coerced/forced trade) but that’s as far as it goes.

    • I think of myself a free-thinking, data-driven, informed moderate and not easily swayed by extremism on either end of the spectrum. It’s not lost on me that the reason “The Story of Stuff” has been able to spread around the globe so quickly is because of the vibrant, free market capitalism infrastructure she bemoans.

      Managing our hypocracy… I work in the nonprofit world today because I made enough money in the past, working for exceptionally ethical companies who consistently did the right thing. Many of us rail on free market corporations and the wealth built by that free market. Yet, for some reason, we ignore the simple fact that the wealth built in our capitalist system is the same money that funds advances in medicine, technology, education, infrastructure, and more – not to mention funding nonprofits, including schools, museums, homeless shelters, and more. Key piece of data in my opinion.

      The reality is the world needs free market based economies – we have seen the failed results of the former Soviet Union and Eastern Bloc nations, not to mention the negative impact of protectionist trade policies.

      The only message I take out of Anne’s video is that we need to be conscious of gluttony, while improving efficiencies, reducing waste, and taking care of the people at all stages of the value stream (global village versus global pillage.) The very things we did in my former companies to produce great products, create happy consumers, employ engaged employees, and create synergies with the communities we operated in – all of which helped to maximize our returns.

      Peace – Martin

  4. Brian: As I said, I was speaking from the “average reader’s” point of view, and like Martin, was focusing more on one’s individual consciousness towards the cumulative effects of each of our actions. Though you state your primary as “MY MY MY”, the fact remains that we DO all inhabit this planet together and we are each responsible for what we leave behind. In that sense, a desire to contribute positively to the future of this planet, in whatever way one is destined to achieve that, does put us on the same side and I stand by that.

  5. Leon: You are confounding “blame” and “responsibility”.

    I am not responsible for my garbage once another company takes possession of it.

    Of course, if I am secretly dumping toxic levels of certain chemicals on my property, and it is secretly spreading to others’ property, this is a violation of their property rights, and 100 years from now, when people find out about my dirty deed, they could say, “Brian was to blame!” That is not equivalent to a personal responsibility for the future.

    You cannot possibly translate the potential for future blame into an *actual* present responsibility, which is nothing more than a curbing of individual rights.

  6. Brian, I won’t even say we’ve reached an impasse, because I think we are arguing about two completely different points, so I will leave mine at this: what a gift to live in a country where we are free to argue the fact that you can make/not make and feel responsible for/not feel responsible for as much trash as you require or desire in this life. I’m not into blaming anybody else for anything. I’m just trying to feel good about what’s under my own roof.

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