My friend Mark sent me this video link – if you have 20 minutes, check it out….and Andy, I’m especially curious to know what you think about it….
Yikes. That’s like handing someone “War and Peace”, and then saying, “tell me what you think of it”.
Where would one begin?
The link points to “The Story of Stuff”, a video by Annie Leonard. This article contains my thoughts and a short review of “The Story of Stuff”. It’ll be most helpful if you’ve seen The Story of Stuff before reading this review.
Overall impressions: I strongly agreed with some points, strongly disagreed with others. It seemed to me that Annie Leonard and The Story of Stuff primarily is a warning against consumerism and global corporations.
This is bad and good at the same time. It’s good because there were some valid points. It’s bad because some parts sounded like extremism, and some were, I believe, simply incorrect.
Here are my impressions on each aspect in The Story of Stuff:
“We’re running out of resources.”
True. We do need to focus more on renewable energy, and the political will just isn’t there.
“The USA is 5% of global population, but uses 30% of resources.”
…The USA also produces 27% of the world’s GDP. 30% of resources, 27% of GDP: this seems to be a good measure of our efficiency, not waste. Any economists out there who can explain to me why this is bad?
“Toxics, toxics, toxics.” It’s more repetitious than a “HeadOn” commercial. I felt like I was being manipulated through this section because of the focus on telling you that any big company’s PRODUCTION produces TOXICS with zero benefit.
Now, for those who’ve noticed (particularly those with small children), there have been tons of recalls lately about lead-infused children’s toys. This is a justifiable concern – these things are way above acceptable toxicity levels.
Then Annie Leonard raised the freak-out level: We dip our pillows in BFR (brominated flame retardants), a horribly toxic man-made chemical, and we sleep on them!
Not knowing anything about BFRs, I did some research on this. I found two things:
One, BFRs are used primarily in electronics and electronics plastics. Things like computer circuit boards, the plastic casing around a TV set, around the rubber sheaths encasing wires in a computer, that kind of thing. And the BFRs are chemically bonded to those components. That means they’re not flying into the air, we’re not breathing them in.
Two, I was unable to find any evidence of companies dipping pillows or pillowcases in BFRs before selling them. I find this quote interesting:
“There is no federal standard requiring flame resistance of bed clothes, such as sheets, comforters, mattress pads and pillows. Additionally, the industry tends to avoid use of flame retardant chemicals on sheets, pillowcases and blankets because they have direct contact with skin, according to Gordon Damant.”
Here’s another article on BFRs. An important point it keeps making is that studies of the effects and exposure methods of BFRs are conflicting. We just don’t have enough information yet:
“These concentrations are low, but because HBCD has the potential to bioaccumulate and persist in the environment, there is cause for concern. Overall, the available literature on HBCD is incomplete and conflicting, emphasizing the need for more information on developmental effects, endocrine disruption, and longer term effects, including carcinogenesis.”
Now, The Story of Stuff said that women in the USA (and Canada, which the video didn’t mention) have the highest amounts of BFAs in their breast milk, compared to other countries. This, from what I can tell, is true. But remember: We also have lead in our bodies. And arsenic. And a whole bunch of other nasty things we pick up from our environment. This constant collection of toxic bits in our body even has a name: “Body burden“. We all have it. The question is, at what point does it become dangerous? Just because we have detectable amounts of arsenic in our body, for example, does not mean we’re in danger of dying from arsenic poisoning.
I’m not necessarily disagreeing with Annie Leonard here, but I do think more research and facts are needed before I can completely agree with what she’s saying.
A $4.99 radio – how is it so cheap? So many parts and processes to make the radio MUST cost much more than $4.99! What are the true costs of production?
Answer: Mass-production and out-of-country factories. I don’t discount everything she says about the hidden costs of the production itself, but come on now – if all production was in the USA, or if that radio’s components weren’t stamped out on a robotic assembly line with unskilled laborers snapping them together at dozens per minute, that $4.99 radio would be exponentially more expensive.
I think The Story of Stuff didn’t address this aspect because it would draw attention away from the point about hidden costs. I’m not saying I like how everything we buy is the stereotypical “Made in China”, but I certainly think it affects this portion of Annie Leonard’s statement.
A sidenote here, since at this point in the video, we were treated to the Big Fat Corporate Guy with a Dollar Sign on his Chest further abusing the world for his own selfish gains.
That’s true. That’s capitalism. But it’s kept in check, ideally, by market competition and consumer demand (like what this video recommends). One thing that always frustrates me is that some people hate corporations, while still using their benefits. They hate big, nationwide or global-sized businesses. They want everything to be localized down to the mom-and-pop store level. Then they get in their car, use their computer or cellphone and send an email.
Those last things would either not be possible or affordable without big business. Without a corporation paying zillions for research and development, without mass-production, without a large production and distribution infrastructure, we arguably wouldn’t have the Internet. Or affordable cars with easily-repairable parts. Or computers and email. Or forget those “consumer” products, and focus just on healthcare: Who do you think developed that flu shot and other disease inoculations? Or the heart stent procedure that probably saved the lives of multiple people in my family? AIDS and cancer research, the almost-worldwide eradication of polio, or (to use a specific example from someone I know) advances in knee implants, providing knee pain relief, faster recovery and less physical therapy, a wonderful alternative to total knee replacement?
You can’t have it both ways, denouncing a company while using its products to improve your life. I’m not saying corporate evils aren’t there – they are – but I think people miss that big business does a lot of good, too.
The video mentioned planned obsolescence and percieved obsolescence.
Fine. I understand the concepts, and can name ways I see this myself.
But then she started talking about computers. Careful now, that’s my turf.
You know when you’re watching a movie, and when you see the movie, some plot point deals with something you’re experienced at? Computers, science, psychology, medical issues, whatever – and the movie screws it up, either getting the point completely wrong, or dumbing it down into a non-sequitor mess? Well, that’s what happened here.
Computer technology does change fast. And in some cases, yes, this is planned obsolescence. But not in the way Annie Leonard described it:
The “piece that changes” in a computer (the piece the video said triggers the obsolescence) is presumably the CPU. And it’s just a “small corner piece”. Well… no. If you want detail, let me know, and I’m happy to go into it. [As it happens, a reader did ask for detail. Here's my response.] But for now, I’ll just say, wrong:
1) A CPU replacement is not the way to effectively upgrade your computer performance.
2) There are valid reasons why one CPU can’t simply be exchanged for a faster one.
Then the video brings up the flat screen monitor versus the big, “ugly” CRT monitor issue. Again, she missed some major advantages of the flat screen:
A flat screen monitor is smaller (takes a lot less space on the desk)
It’s lighter (makes my job easier when installing or moving)
And, wait for it – A flat screen monitor USES LESS ENERGY than a CRT. I’m surprised how someone would still think the big CRT is just part of a planned obsolescence program, when the flat screen has so many advantages.
Neither of these issues – the CPU or the monitor – is planned obsolescence. At worst, call this unplanned obsolescence due to technological advances. Perhaps a more understandable comparison would be a car: Annie Leonard is saying that because my car from ten years ago doesn’t have the same performance as a modern car, it must be the fault of planned obsolescence on the part of the car company! I disagree.
She did talk about fashion, about how media ads make us unhappy with what we have, and try to get us to buy, buy, buy. I do have some nitpicks about some of the details (contextual advertising is helpful, in my opinion), but for the most part I agree with what she said.
A couple of other points she made that forced me to raise my eyebrow:
“National happiness is declining”
…Need more info, please. I looked for stats on this after the video ended. Didn’t find them. I have a hard time believing this statement, since we have less disease, people are living longer, et cetera.
“The average house size has doubled since 1970″
I live in a house that was built in 1960. It’s a good size (1250 square feet). But I really doubt the average house size these days is 2500 square feet. It depends on what market and income levels you look at, of course. I’m guessing you can pretty much make the “average” house size be anything you want.
Incineration is really bad. I agree.
Recycling helps by reducing disposal costs… Really? Over the cost of a landfill? From a straight money-savings equation, I would think that landfills would be the way to go. I agree that some recycling (aluminum and some metals) is good. But not all.
We have, according to The Story of Stuff, a “system in crisis”. Our planet, and what we’re doing to it, sucks. We’re in big trouble.
I know I was rough on my review of The Story of Stuff. But I agree on some points – people are abused in our current system. Waste (of time, resources and money) is encouraged. But the system we have in place – with its horrible problems – also brings with it a lot of good stuff, too.
In my opinion, The Story of Stuff seemed to be to be too biased – ignoring some issues or misrepresenting others. While I think it would be great to have “a system that doesn’t waste resources or people… sustainability, equity, renewable, local living economy…” I think we’d have to give up a lot of things to make that happen. Things that make our life better.
Instead of ditching our current system, here’s an idea: why can’t we try instead to modify our system and improve it, make it more closer to the ideals which most people agree upon?
Annie Leonard said some naysayers would call her ideas “unrealistic, idealistic, they can’t happen”. I wonder if those same people – or Annie Leonard herself – would say the same about mine?