Tuesday, January 29, 2008

Story of Stuff - now showing on a computer near you!

My friend Cal recently sent around a link to the online video The Story Stuff. After a bit of inter-e-mail discussion by those receiving the email Cal asked if I'd post something about the Story so the discussion could go online. The following is my own experience with the video. We'd be interested in hearing yours - so we hope you'll share your thoughts in the comment section (you don't even have to read through my babble - you can skip right to the comments!) -Emily

Who doesn't use stuff?

Over the past couple of weeks I’ve been bombarded by well meaning friends and colleagues with emails about the new 20-minute online video, The Story of Stuff. At the time I was in the middle of teaching a six-week high school workshop on “The Environmental Impact of Your Clothing.” Bingo, I thought, there's one class I wouldn’t have to prepare. Just download, turn off the lights and click.

The Story provides an overview of consumption from raw materials to disposal using clear and engaging cartoon graphics, narrated by Annie Leonard, whom I found equally clear and engaging.

“So what’d you think?” I asked my high school seniors.

“Oversimplified,” said one.

“Yeah, and biased,” said another.

I was surprised - though in some ways impressed. I’d worked with these kids for a couple of weeks and we’re a pretty small class. I knew they cared about environmental issues and that they were aware of the consequences of consumerism. They weren’t very impressed with this clip. Were they too old?

I didn’t think so – while the clip uses simple graphics, it covers a range of ideas that are complex and that really are aimed at adults, not just children. Had they ironically seen to much of this kind of stuff? Or too little?

Well, I thought, so much for that. Guess it’s not so useful after all. I had planned on showing it next semester to my college students but was having second thoughts.

Then one student asked, “What’s up with all that dioxin coming out of the stacks? Does that really happen? And is it really, like, the most toxic chemical?"

Aha. While I had honed my skill as a graduate student when dioxin was “hot stuff,” so to speak – these kids have barely heard of it. And what they have heard, sometimes came from clips like this – or as the prime example of a toxic disaster.

As with many environmental contaminants that have now become just buzz-words, they had no clue as to what dioxin was, how it can be formed, how it enters the environment and what happens when it does. We spent the remainder of the class talking about disposal of toxics, and the current problems caused when dioxins are released by villagers “cooking” e-waste. This issue of e-waste is one that they can all relate to. In fact - in some ways - I'd wished the Story of Stuff had focused a little on e-waste (though I understand the universal approach -we use and toss lots of stuff.)

"Who hasn't," I asked, "bought or tossed or hopefully recycled - something electronic in the past couple of months?"

Reluctant shrugs and sheepish grins all around.

Over-simplified as The Story may be, we're all participants.

It's definitely on the agenda for my Mount Holyoke class this spring - at the very least to spark lively discussion.


Anonymous said...

As a toxicologist I found myself quibbling with some of the points made in this video but overall I really liked it. The most powerful message – the take-home message – is that of the impact of consumption. Now, this is nothing new to me, but from time to time it helps to be reminded of the impact of the mindless cycle of consumption and disposal. Is it nice to own “stuff”? Yes, but isn’t there level where enough is enough? (The definition of “enough” is probably a lot like the definition of pornography…) And isn’t there something wrong with making stuff so cheap that we can buy lots and lots of it? Isn’t there a “cost” to that cheapening – in addition to the externalities discussed in the video – a cost that affects our psyche? A cost that even better recycling cannot mitigate. Or am I being overly dramatic?

Adria said...

Although I am also a toxicologist, the Story of Stuff video engaged my 'consumer' side. I try to be a careful consumer, but I still own far more things than I need. This video reinforced my wish that, as a society, we could go back to a time when people had far fewer, but often much sturdier, possessions (clothes, utensils, etc etc). A time when products were 'built to last' (there's a phrase you dont' hear much anymore!). It also heightened my ever rising sense of dread and anxiety over the near future - the idea that we are having effects on our planet that are irreversible, and that no one, no one, is prepared for what is coming very soon: depletion of world oil reserves (those easily 'mined') in 7 years (Latest stats from major oil companies). The chaos, desperation that is coming ....

Emily Monosson said...

I agree with Adria and Cal that the video is a good reminder that we just consume too much. When purchasing new things I’ve tried to look for well made long lasting items – but sometimes as the video points out – many products just aren’t made that way anymore. The point she makes with her computer, while oversimplified, is relevant. It’d be interesting – particularly those of us in the sciences - if we all counted up how many computers we’ve purchased over the past five years?

I’ve also got two kids. With one, it’s like swimming against the tide – he wants everything the other kids have – we try to restrain him – right now he’s pining for his own phone. The other wants hardly anything material. For the past year she’s had a gift certificate to a local bookstore sitting on her desk. When I asked why she hasn’t used it she said, “I can get any book from the library.” Go figure.

There’s a good article on the “Fast Fashion” cheap clothes styled to last a “fashion” season industry - published in Environmental Health Perspectives (Waste Couture: Environmental Impact of the Clothing Industry). Sometimes, even though we might wear them way past their “season,” they begin to stretch, droop, pill and fade as if the obsolescence was planned right into the fabric. And, as the article points out once the Fast Fashionista’s ditch these clothing articles for the next best thing, the materials will live on – much of it ending up in landfills, incinerators and in the worst case (particularly for clothing made from manmade polymers) used in some homes for fuel. At best, some of these materials are recycled.

As the video points out, recycling is just one solution, and, depending on the material not always the best solution. Best would be to rethink these products from their beginning rather than their end.

I have to admit, I was so struck by the fashion thing – and the full implication of fashion’s impacts on the environment that for a crazy few weeks I considered not purchasing any clothing item for myself for one year. But then – the sale catalog for Garnet Hill arrived….what can be so bad about two Green Cotton t-shirts?

Emily Monosson said...

Also for those interested in a readable account of Life Cycle Analysis or Cradle to Cradle manufacturing, check out Cradle to Cradle, Remaking the Way We Make Things by William McDonough and Michael Braungart.

If you do pick up a copy - you'll notice it's not your ordinary book. As explained in the introduction, "This Book is Not a Tree," the book itself "..does not use any wood pulp or cotton fiber but is made from plastic resins and inorganic fillers.....it is a prototype for the book as a "technical nutrient," that is, as a product that can be broken down and circulated infinitely in industrial cycles."