“The Story of Stuff”–let’s have a conversation.

Only when the last tree has died
and the last river has been poisoned
and the last fish has been caught
will we realize
we cannot eat money.
~Cree proverb

It’s funny how the littlest incidents can give you hope in the face of overwhelming worries.

This morning I listened to “The Last Call” on CBC Radio one, a special program hosted by renowned environmentalist David Suzuki. One of the people he interviewed was Annie Leonard, the woman featured in the short video above. I was struck by how concise yet articulate she was.

When the radio show ended, I decided to google Leonard’s short movie. About 7 minutes in,  my 13-year-old sister, Bebe, entered the room and peered over my shoulder. To my surprise, she asked me to start the movie again from the beginning. From the corner of my eye I noticed the look of concern on her face. For a girl who loves to shop, she laughed quite heartily at skinny heel vs. fat heel segment of the video. It seemed she took a moment to question her own love of malls and sparkly new things. When it was over, Bebe said that the video–which is being used in classrooms across the United States–should also be shown here in Canada.

You know, her warm reception of the short film gave me hope. In the past, I thought I was boring Bebe with all my talk of environmental activism. At the age of 23, I thought I may already be sounding like a lecturing grown-up to her. When I reminded her of simple things, like taking shorter showers or turning off her lights, she would occasionally grumble or make a long face. Now that I think about it, though, this may be because little sisters don’t always like being nagged by big sisters in general. The message of responsible citizenry, however, may actually be getting through to her.

When I pulled out David Suzuki’s book The Big Picture during a recent family trip, Bebe asked me to read it out loud several times. Sometimes I stopped to ask if I was boring her but she always asked me to go on. Yesterday, when our cousin Bianca was taking a long shower, Bebe knocked on the door and reminded her to “please keep your shower short.” I was dumbstruck. Lately I’ve even had to swallow my pride a few times when Bebe calls me on some of my own bad habits, like when I also forget to turn off my lights.

But I don’t know why I should be so surprised.

All this is to say that you should share this video with a youngster (or not-s0-youngster) in your life that you may not be giving enough credit. Though it is only a general overview, I think it does a good job of introducing the problem and asking us to think beyond “me” “right here” “right now”.



As you can gauge from the comments below, there is a bit of controversy surrounding this video. I’ll come right out and admit that I haven’t sat down to watch the full four part critique of the story of stuff, but thankfully another thoughtful and articulate blogger has. I really think it’s worth reading his critique of the critique.

At the very least, this exchange has reminded me that every argument–even the ones we agree with–need to be critically evaluated. Still, I absolutely and fundamentally remain convinced that Leonard is contributing to a discussion that we need to have. Although her individual examples vary in strength and border on simplicity, every single point should be considered.


14 thoughts on ““The Story of Stuff”–let’s have a conversation.

  1. What really got me here was the new “cycle of life”: Work, watch tv, shop, work, watch tv, shop…

    About three weeks ago we decided to tear our our carpet and replace it with tile and since we have one TV I put a hold on it until Mid-August. Somehow I have regained my life back. I can’t explain it but Alec feels it too. I started reading more, I’m happier and I’m eating better. All of this is bad for the networks and advertisers who want me to watch more so I see more ads that make me depressed and buy their junk. It’s amazing how consumerism has taken over our lives but whats even more amazing is how we have just let it, or didn’t even notice it happening.

    Thanks for sharing, I’m not sure if you have ever seen Zeitgeist movie but if not it’s worth watching.


    • Thanks for your comment, Danielle! I haven’t seen Zeitgeist but I remember hearing mixed things about it. I guess I’ll have to see for myself when I get a chance. To be honest, I don’t even know the gist of it.

    • I can’t say I’m shocked.
      In fact, I’d be shocked if you didn’t want to make one, Chris.

      Let’s go back to one of the only things we agree about: I disapprove of what you say, but I will defend to the death your right to say it. 😉

      Just a note, there are some rebuttals on youtube but, to be honest, I haven’t watched any. You can let me know if you think they’re any good.

  2. This video doesn’t even make sense, and yet you want to push it? Tell you what, watch Lee Corvan’s The Critique because obviously you are wrapped up in talking points rather than the facts. For example, having spent time in China, I can tell you that corporations setting up shop there has been a good thing. Many of my former students now work for these companies using the English I taught them to make far more money than both their parents combined. Matter of fact, one girl (not my student, a student though of another ESL teacher) was making 4500 Y a month, more than double what both her parents made IN A YEAR. Because of an American shipping company, her quality of life has risen.

    Learn the facts and get your head out of the clouds… Pathetic…

      • Hi there,

        Thanks for commenting. I had a quick look at your blog and it seems we’re coming from rather different perspectives. That’s ok, I appreciate discussing issues with people who don’t agree with me. Let’s try to have a constructive exchange without resorting to empty insults, shall we?

        Unfortunately, I don’t have time to watch the critique at this very moment but you have sparked my interest in it. I’ll comment on it just as soon as I get the chance to watch, digest, and respond.

        As for your comment: I can’t really assess your statement about the student who makes more money than her parents. Help me out here, since you have a background in economics: if I know nothing of the student’s purchasing power parity—thus factoring in the changing cost of living and inflation over the years—I can’t really assume she’s better off than a person from the generation before hers. Did the other ESL teacher give you more detail about the girl?

        What does she do at the shipping company? Is it a safe environment? Does she enjoy her work? Past the point of sustenance, I only see income as one variable and not necessarily the best indicator of quality of life.

        Anyway, I really do have to get an assignment done for tomorrow but, again, I appreciate your comment. I’m sure we’ll have more to discuss after I watch the critique. Since Leonard covers a lot of ground, can you pick out one “talking point” that “doesn’t make sense” so that we can anchor our discussion?


        • Seeing how I am schooling people on other blogs, I guess I can give you some of my time. I also have projects, but I don’t bother bringing that up as an excuse not to take the time to respond…

          Purchasing power parity is about how much one currency is to another, inflation and exchange rates. It has nothing to do with one person’s income vs another person’s income in the same country during the same time (trying to sound educated?). This student/former waitress/secretary is making far more than both her CURRENTLY WORKING parents. Her income, per month, is equal to both of their incomes per year combined. Now how is this possible? Simple economics. Unskilled labour is abundant and cheap, but skilled labour is rare and expensive. By simply learning English, she has jumped far above other Chinese workers. Because of this, she is able to get work with foreign companies which pay her far more than she would have gotten working for a Chinese one. Now, as I have stated on my own blog, foreign companies, primarily French, German, Japanese and American companies in China have created the basis for the new middle class, but you don’t care about that do you?

          No no, you would rather discuss her working environment, ignoring regulations put on American companies, even those operating abroad, with regards to worker treatment. As I previously stated, she is skilled labour, not cheap and unskilled. Being one of a handful of fluently English Chinese in Nantong, anyone thinking clearly would know she wouldn’t be in the factories working with her hands. She was a secretary for a shipping company at the Nantong docks, the famous “Gateway to the West”, far from the factories of Western China, nor is she an unskilled dock worker. She sits in an office, taking calls, translating Chinese to English, etc The closest thing to danger in that environment is a paper cut, but once again, you don’t care about this either do you?

          No no, once again we see you diverting to yet another “escape” from debate, your opinion on income. Income IS the determining factor in quality of life. Let me repeat, INCOME IS THE DETERMINING FACTOR IN QUALITY OF LIFE! Let that sink in. How much money one has determines how they can live. What your diet consists of, what kind of dwelling you can live in, what kind of medical services you have access to, etc In a country like China such a modest paycheck as Jane (yes that’s her English name) received, granted her access to a slightly less quality of life granted to Communist Party members. She can afford to eat well, she can afford to live in a nice house in a nice neighbourhood (being an “expert”, her employer might even pay for her apartment, especially if she has to move from city to city), she can even afford the best medical treatment available (once again, her employer might take care of this itself, ie protecting an investment), etc

          As for conversations with those who don’t agree with you, I don’t think your conversations with a libertarian like “Chris” is enough for me (you have your opinions, I have mine). I do believe in a safety-net for the weakest in society, but I don’t believe in a system of dependency. A safety-net shouldn’t be a crutch, it should be a helping hand. You don’t get money for not working, and our welfare system in Canada is draining far too much money. When welfare is a career in some Altlantic provinces, the system is broken. The public library is a good institution, but it shouldn’t be limited in what it has. Some public libraries filter out “unwanted” books, books which present a different view point than those spending taxpayer money. This is the same for CBC, a waste of public money. I am sick and tired of all this discussion on “Canadian content”, especially when there is no demand for such garbage. While some shows like Due South and Corner Gas achieved success without the help of the CRTC, you have shows like Little Mosque on the Prairie which survive because of public funds. Americans laugh at how politically correct our garbage is, especially that show (world’s most famous Muslims? MY ASS). Once again, if we can produce good shows, movies, music, etc there will be a demand for it. Another example, BTO, classic rock, achieved great success without publicly funded promotion. Radio stations in Detroit, stations not controlled by the CRTC, couldn’t stop playing their music. Same thing with Nickelback, a band that was still making money from album sales while the record industry was losing it.

          You can defend ANYTHING you want in Leonard’s video, but you won’t have a leg to stand on. As Lee Doren indicates in his video, much of her facts she herself misrepresents. Her video is clearly false, yet you claim it is a perfect eco-primer. Tell you what, check your head than check the video. If you believe even a fraction of what is being said, you clearly aren’t educating yourself enough.

        • Hello again my tactful visitor “Clancop”,

          I’ll concede that I should make time to respond to comments on my blog posts even when I am quite busy. You clearly put some time into your last response so I’ll respond in kind.

          Before I go any further, however, I have to insist that you stop clouding this discussion with:

          1) Ad hominem attacks, like calling me pathetic.
          2) Crude instructions to do things like “check my head”
          3) Assumption-based “questions,” like “you don’t care about that, do you?”
          4) Arrogant statements like “I’m schooling people on other blogs.”

          Seriously, the antagonism generates heat and no light. If you can’t speak to me like you would if you were serious about dialogue then I can’t engage this. It would be a waste of my time and I really do have more important things to do than try to push against intransigence. So, I stress: if you maintain your current tone, don’t expect me to respond past this point.

          That said: Listen, I’m willing to consider your points.

          First of all, I misunderstood your first short comment. When you were comparing Jane’s income to that of her parents, I genuinely thought you were referring to what they made when they were her age.

          Now that I have much more information about her, I can say it’s great for her that she’s been able to get ahead. Indeed, the working conditions of middle-class skilled workers are generally very different from those of unskilled labour and can be very inspiring.

          I do care about the growing middle class but I’d hate to be myopic and pretend that there isn’t a shameful amount of exploitation within our international economy. Also, I continue to believe that income is not the only factor when we speak of quality of life.

          Here’s an example of other factors: the people of Oporoza in the Niger Delta, Nigeria, see nothing of the $700 billion made in oil revenues since companies like Chevron started extracting sweet crude there about 50 years ago. Their ancestral lands are being desecrated while the roofs over their heads literally corrode. Life expectancy has fallen from 60 to 40 years-old in this time frame. Parents have to describe animals their children that have long since disappeared. As resistance movements rise and fall, the Joint Task Force (JTF) of the Nigerian Military has been accused of murdering some 50,000 civilians in attempts to squash dissidence.

          Understanding their quality of life, strictly economically, does not account for most of the things I am concerned about. In fact, extracting oil has raised Nigeria’s GDP and one might just tell all these people to leave the homes they grew up in and make room for economic growth. If this is your view, surely you can concede that these people are exploited, deprived of autonomy, and dealing with issues that higher incomes alone would not fix.

          I’m not exclusively blaming big oil for this mess. I do wonder what would happen if Chevron and Shell left the Niger Delta and were replaced by other companies with an even worse human rights record. Sadly, I don’t think the region will be left alone as long as there is sweet crude to be had.

          I realize this is very different from the situation of skilled young English-speaking Jane in China, but my point is that the landscape is far too nuanced to definitively say that corporations setting up shop is a straight “good” thing.

          Communist China looks very different from Nigeria (saying nothing of the latter’s dictatorial history and its more recent veneer of democracy) but they are all part of this global economy that some have no problem with.

          Now, you made some statements that I find interesting and would like to discuss like:
          “I do believe in a safety-net for the weakest in society, but I don’t believe in a system of dependency.” It’s heartening that you do believe in some societal protection of the most vulnerable and it hints at the possibility of having a real conversation.

          Thing is, If you think I’m “clearly not educated” and I “won’t have a leg to stand on” then there is absolutely no point in continuing this. I’m sure you can find many other people in the blogosphere to lock horns with.


        • As a gesture of good faith, I have modified the name of the post. You’re right to say that perfect is an overstatement.

        • Thanks for your response, Mark. I found your critique very useful. Due to comments like yours (and unlike yours, haha) I have modified the name of my blog post. “Perfect” was, in retrospect, a very strong word to use. Isn’t it great that we can revisit and revise things online?

          I think it’s great that you took the time to think through the critique though. I can’t say I have and I realize this limits my ability to engage.


  3. Pingback: Story of Stuff Critique – a Critique « Breathe

  4. Pingback: Heat, but no light: What to do with incendiary news articles? « The Fab Files

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