The Story of Stuff (or, What’s It All About, Howie?)

July 27th, 2010

Inspired by Annie Leonard’s Story of Stuff, in the news again after the Glenn Beck-induced attack on the Tides Foundation (more about that later).

“Indoctrination? Actually, the progressives are starting much younger these days…there is a video being played in schools all across America — that lays out the ‘story of stuff’ a loving, anti-capitalist tale that unfortunately has virtually no facts correct. Visit THIS site to watch the video (if you can stomach the entire thing) — when you are done, check out this thorough debunking of the video, in which the commentator investigates the footnotes used in the ‘story of stuff’ video.” – 9/22/09

We use and throw away a lot of stuff.

We get more and more, but it’s never enough.

Does getting more stuff make us happy?

It should, but instead it often makes us feel crappy.

The more we get, the more we “need”–

How much “stuff” you have measures whether you succeed.

As she said on Colbert, Annie’s not against stuff per se:

She just doesn’t want us to buy things and then just throw them away.

She doesn’t like the idea of mindless material consumption

And the common more-is-always-better presumption.

I don’t agree with all of her points

(She does exaggerate a few data points).

I also don’t believe globalization and trade are bad per se,

Which is what Ms. Leonard at least seems to say.

(See my further comments below

In which I on that point into more detail go.)

But we have, as a culture, become too materialistic,

Not a very desirable characteristic.

And we do tend to obsessively throw things away

Instead of fixing and using them for one more day.

Part of that is pure economics too:

It often costs more to have something fixed than buy it new.

We import stuff from low wage countries (with the US compared),

And then have to pay higher US wages to have it repaired.

And most “stuff” isn’t made as well as before:

Things just aren’t built to last anymore.

Part of that may be planned obsolescence,

And part is our own low price, low quality acquiescence.

But part of it is that we always want the latest and best,

And when we don’t have it, we’re depressed.

A 50” TV isn’t enough: we have to have 60.

And that new 3D screen sure looks nifty…

There’s also a macroeconomic effect

When we more and more stuff collect:

Chinese exporters happily supply it,

And China lends us the money to buy it.

Borrowing money is OK, when it’s needed to invest,

Or to cover short-term needs in times of economic duress,

But we borrow to support increased consumption

(Less due to the recession, but with likely later resumption).

How do we solve this? Leonard’s book is a start.

Reducing waste is something in which we can all play a part.

But we also need new policies to get us on the right track.

Obama’s been trying, after an eight year policy lack.

And yes, we need government regulation too,

To encourage people, and companies, the right thing to do.


Here’s Annie Leonard 3/09/10 on Colbert.

The Colbert Report Mon – Thurs 11:30pm / 10:30c
Annie Leonard
Colbert Report Full Episodes 2010 Election Fox News

Here’s the video about her book (check out more video and other “stuff”  on her website).


Here’s your theme music, the classic Satisfaction by the Rolling Stones. I used to sing this to my daughters when they were little and wanted something that we couldn’t (or didn’t want to) get them.


Here’s the first part of the four-part critique of Leonard’s “Story of Stuff” video which calls a “thorough debunking” of everything she says (needless to say, I disagree), followed by my response to debunk author HowTheWorldWorks. (Do you mind if I call you Howie for short?)


Here are my comments for part 1 of Howie’s “debunk,” including the criticisms I think he actually got (sort of) right.

  • You start out by saying that Leonard is a “former Greenpeace employee,” as if that itself makes anything she says a lie. If you are going to at least pretend to be objective, then you shouldn’t start out with an ad hominem attack like that.
  • “When people think of the word finite, they think of a petri dish where bacteria have a limited amount of space to grow.” That’s what people think of when they hear the word finite? Are you kidding me? And are you saying that unlike bacteria in a petri dish which have a limited “world” in which to reproduce, human beings have an unlimited world with unlimited resources?
  • Oh wait, I guess you are, since we now can “compact garbage better than we every did in the past” and because we’ve only mined as deep as 15 miles down, while it’s 4000 miles to the center of the earth. On the garbage compacting side, even if we compact our new garbage to take up half the space or less, it is still constantly increasing, and the old garbage is still there (unfortunately, much of it is plastic, with a life-cycle of thousands of years).
  • On the resource side, maybe someday we’ll figure out how to mine the center of the earth, but the bigger problem is that our excessive and inefficient resource use will by then have made the surface uninhabitable, unless we develop ways to keep that from happening. (Then, we’ll have to learn to live deep underground like mole people after we’ve destroyed the surface.)
  • Yes, it’s true that rising prices will eventually ration resources (note, for example, the 10-fold increase of oil prices under George W. Bush) “without centralized planning.” Even if we decide that it’s a good idea to wait until oil gets to $500/barrel until we develop clean energy alternatives, what good will that do us then if we’ve already destroyed the environment in the process? And why does Howie bring up the canard of centralized planning as if Leonard had proposed it, when she doesn’t?  (Ironically, he criticizes her later for using strawmen, which he does himself.) We don’t need centralized planning (which I’m against) to ration resources, but we do need government regulation (preferably market-based) which incorporates externalities (like pollution and other costs that society as a whole bears) into the costs of the products we buy. To do otherwise is just to subsidize the producers and consumers responsible for that pollution.
  • If you want to calculate what the military share of the budget is including Social Security and Medicare, fine, but in fact those are trust funds separate from the regular government budget. That they have in practice been lumped into the regular budget (as Howie says they should be) to cover operating shortfalls is actually a big part of our fiscal problems.
  • Howie gets all riled up about Leonard’s statement that the government’s job is to “take care of us” and launches into a long diatribe about what “James Madison the Father of the Constitution” said. First, it is the government’s job to take care of us and “promote the general welfare.” Just what that means is subject to interpretation: isn’t providing for the common defense taking care of us? Second, James Madison was only one of several Founding Fathers, and many of their views were as diametrically opposed then as people’s views are today. But the “take care of us” comment is not a central part of Leonard’s argument, so I won’t dwell on the issue as long as Howie did.
  • Corporate sales compared to GDP is a meaningless statistic? All she’s doing is showing how large and influential corporations are, which isn’t meaningless. Is she anti-corporate? Maybe; there is a part of the environmentalist movement that is. I’m not one of that anti-corporatist, anti-globalist view (I’m in favor of free trade, globalization, and free markets), but I do agree that it’s harmful when corporations have too much political influence (read Corporate Citizens United and my lobbyist series for more about that).
  • Howie doesn’t seem to mind corporate influence, but he appears to be really angered by influence from unions, environmental groups, and trial lawyers. Do those groups have influence? Yes. More than corporations? On some issues, maybe, but in general: no, not by a long shot, and certainly not in the good old days when Republicans were in power. And how about the mother of all lobbying groups: the NRA, which dominates the gun control issue. Why didn’t you mention them, Howie?
  • “We chop down trees, we blow up mountains to get the metals inside, we use up all the water, and we wipe out the animals.” Howie doesn’t like this, but it’s the truth. He says that “we cut down trees and replant them,” but that’s not the way it used to be (and still is in some places) when large swathes of land were stripped of forest in both America and elsewhere. The improvement is in large part due to Howie’s bugaboo, government regulation. And yes, mining has been done since Roman times, but when it’s done at the size and scope of modern mining (which the Romans didn’t come close to) without regulation and remediation, it’s incredibly environmentally harmful, particularly mountaintop removal.
  • Howie’s statement that water quality has improved in the last few decades is true, although GB2 tried (in part successfully) to reverse that trend. Anyway, what Leonard talked about is using up all the water, which is a problem that we have in fact not addressed in places where water is scarce and getting scarcer (like the American west). She does say later that 40% of American river water is undrinkable. Howie says that’s wrong and that water quality has improved (which it has over the last few decades, but it went down again under Bush). He says her 40% river undrinkability figure isn’t true, but offers no statistics to back that up (I looked but couldn’t find an updated figure). I don’t know about Howie, but I for one prefer not to drink untreated river water…
  • Animals: I eat meat too, but I still don’t think we should kill all the animals, and that’s close to what happens in severely impacted ecosystems. (OK, that is a little hyperbolic, but it is true that ecosystem destruction is the greatest threat to wildlife…)
  • Again with the resources and prices: you’re again in part right, Howie, but resource costs should include externalities, and they don’t. And though I’m not sure where her 1/3 of resources used comes from, the standard (and more logical) practice is to speak in terms of known and recoverable resources, not resources from the center of the earth that we don’t know about and that aren’t recoverable by any technology that we now have or can even conceive of.
  • Life expectancies: Yes, they’ve risen, but that does not mean we are not “undermining the planet’s ability for people to live here.” Climate change is a prime example: just because life expectancies have increased since the early 1900s doesn’t mean that raising the average planetary temperature by 4-8 degrees C is a good thing.
  • Technically, Leonard is right on deforestation because she refers to “original” forests. You are however correct, Howie, that this statement is misleading and incorrect in a broader sense, since actual forest cover has not decreased as much as she suggests. However, that mischaracterization (which I agree she should correct) in and of itself no more invalidates her overall point than your incorrect observations invalidate what you get right.
  • I agree that the US economy uses resources more efficiently than many other countries, but not necessarily more efficiently than “anyplace on the planet” (manufacturing in Japan and Western Europe is also very efficient, and in some cases, moreso than ours). And yes, American agriculture produces a lot of food for the rest of the world (though whether it’s efficient depends on how you define that). But Leonard’s “meaningless” 30% statistic doesn’t touch on either of those points, making Howie’s refutation a non-sequiter. What Leonard is talking about is not how efficiently America produces, but how much we consume. And that is a lot more than most of the rest of the world. “We should be using these resources because the rest of the world would be dead if we didn’t.” Wild exaggeration much? (Plus, it’s not true.)
  • I personally do not subscribe to the anti-globalization notion that trade is bad and that it’s inherently exploitative of the third world. It is however true that developed countries did exploit less developed ones in the past (now, it’s mostly their own corrupt rulers that exploit them), and that developed countries do export polluting industries to them. The main solution to that, however, is for developing countries to reduce corruption and upgrade their environmental protection laws.
  • I agree that Leonard’s statement that people in developing countries that don’t own or buy things have lower valued lives is a bit hyperbolic, and I agree with Howie that people in developed countries generally see their lives improved by trade, though not always (viz. my earlier comment about corrupt local leaders). And Howie is right that proper vestation of property rights generally provides better incentives to preserve natural resources than un-managed or poorly defined public ownership, but it is important who you give those rights to, and how. For example, if a private corporation is given the right for a limited number of years to extract mineral or timber resources, it will generally do so in an exploitative and harmful way, with little or no thought to the resource’s long term value (a phenomenon known as the “tragedy of the commons”). If, by contrast, the resource is owned by local communities who have the political power to enforce their ownership rights, those communities will generally make more efficient long-term decisions.

Here’s part 2, followed by my comments.

  • Howie is correct that toxicity depends on exposure, and that something that is toxic in one use may not be in another. But Leonard is absolutely correct that many chemicals in daily use have unknown impacts, and there is strong evidence that many have highly harmful long-term dangerous effects (read Gender Blender for one example of that). He equivocates by saying that there are many natural products that haven’t been tested. True, but human beings evolved alongside natural substances, and though some of them are indeed toxic, we’ve learned to avoid those. And it’s actually true that many of the products we get from China are toxic, because China doesn’t have the consumer protections and quality control we have (again, government regulation saves the day).
  • No, we can’t be a completely risk-free society, but our success in reducing those risks (again, through government regulation) is part of the increase in life expectancies that Howie trumpets earlier. And people should not be required to accept risks imposed by use of dangerous, un- (or under) regulated chemicals. What Howie says about balancing risks is true, but often companies are instead balancing risks and profits.
  • I am in favor of the free market and economic development. Howie is right that industrialization in countries like China and India has lifted millions of people out of poverty, and that’s a good thing. But I’ve visited Chinese and Indian factories, and some of them have horrifying worker safety and environmental standards. Part of that is the trade-off: workers (and countries) are willing to accept less worker safety and environmental protection in return for economic development and higher living standards. But part of it is because of the low level of government regulation and regulatory enforcement in those countries, with health and welfare costs greatly exceeding the economic benefits. That’s not a trade-off, it’s a transfer of wealth, almost always from the poor and powerless to the rich and powerful. (And speaking of strawmen, Leonard never says she wants to reverse economic development in poor countries, as Howie suggests.)
  • “We don’t go to other countries to pollute their land.” No, we go there due to lower wages and less regulation of worker safety and environmental protection. The end result is the same.
  • “Why should a business pay for a high school kid’s health insurance.” This is the a favorite right-wing canard, saying that it’s not a big deal that many big employers don’t provide health insurance, since many of their employees are part time high school students. There are about 15 million high school students in the US. Many of those are covered by their parents’ policies, and a lot don’t seek part-time employment. So how many uninsured high school students would that leave? I couldn’t find a statistic, but I’m guessing it’s 5 million or less, compared to the 40 million uninsured. Misrepresent much?
  • You,  Howie, are the one that don’t understand what externalizing costs means. It does have something to do with wages (companies that don’t provide health insurance externalize those costs when their workers receive uncompensated care at emergency rooms), but that’s not even her main point. Leonard is referring to all the external costs that go into making that $4.99 radio (environmental, social, etc.). And those external costs do exist, especially for highly subsidized industries like the energy industry. And Leonard isn’t suggesting taking the $4.99 radio off the shelf and firing everyone. She’s merely suggesting (which every economist would agree with) that it’s better for external costs to be reflected in a product’s price.
  • The “pay for their own health insurance” argument is not diametrically opposed with the rest of her point, since most of the people who don’t have company-provided health insurance end up not having any health insurance, given that individual insurance rates are even higher than corporate group rates. So, as I stated before, the costs are externalized.
  • One of the great advantages of the free market is that competition promotes efficiency which promotes lower prices, allowing people (like the newspaper boy Howie refers to) to have a higher standard of living. Nothing Leonard is saying contradicts that. In fact, the opposite is true: external costs reduce efficiency and economic growth by subsidizing harmful activities. Those (like polluters) who receive that subsidy benefit, but everyone else suffers.

Here’s part 3, followed by my comments thereto.

  • The Bush Administration didn’t follow 9-11 by asking for sacrifice from the American people to address some of the attack’s causes or pay for our response. We should have followed 9-11 with an energy or carbon tax to reduce our dependence on foreign oil (and fossil fuels as a whole) and reflect the externalized national security costs that come with our dependence on foreign oil (that also would have significantly reduced our trade deficit). And the Bush Administration should have asked the American public (particularly the wealthiest among us) to pay for the Afghan and Iraq wars, instead of using supplemental funding bills to hide the costs off-budget and financing them with loans from China and Saudi Arabia. Instead, the Bush Administration coupled those wars with multi-trillion tax cuts for the wealthy, also deficit-funded.
  • Yes, it is good that the American standard of living has increased. But debt-funded over-consumption (and the waste that naturally accompanies it) is not sustainable. Are you proposing that we continue to try to prop up an unsustainable temporary standard of living, Howie? The result of that will be an even bigger economic calamity than the Bush Recession of 2008.
  • If you read the Paul Hawken Natural Capitalism reference more carefully (and honestly), Howie, he’s not just talking about energy efficiency, he’s talking about all material flow. And “we’re not running out of landfills?” Tell that to the many municipalities that have to transport their trash across the country (or even overseas) to find a place to get rid of it. We are indeed running out of landfill space, and since few people want one in their back yard, new ones are not being built…
  • Yes, our standard of living is higher now than 50 years ago, and that’s a good thing. And I’m glad you finally admit, Howie, that it would be better for us to produce more and consumer less. I agree with that, but I don’t think Ms. Leonard is saying we should produce less stuff, just that we should produce better stuff in a better way, which will naturally result in less waste. What we produce does have to eventually consumed, though not necessarily by us (it can be exported, which is something we need to do anyway, given our giant trade deficit).
  • I agree that it’s a little too conspiracy theory to say that any one person (or a group of people) conceived of an implemented our consumer society, but it is true that there are specific policies and choices that lead us to be the way we are. What you say about people wanting new products when technology is quickly evolving is true, Howie, but once again, we need to ensure that product prices reflect external costs (including disposal costs), which they now don’t. Planned obsolescence is a real issue, and needs to be addressed through programs like EPA’s “Design for the Environment” and other policies and programs (e.g., take back requirements and recycling) that reduce waste. Like Leonard says, products can be designed to make them easier to repair instead of junk, and easier to recycle when they are finally disposed of.
  • Choice is good, but you don’t need to get rid of choice to reduce waste.
  • “The point of an advertisement is to make the citizenry aware of the goods and services in society.” Partially true, but the real purpose for ads is to convince us that we need something and get us to buy company A’s product instead of company B’s. I’m not saying advertising is evil, but it does promote over-consumption by making people think they want or “need” more things in order to be happy. And like you say, Howie, if you don’t want to shop, “don’t shop.” And that in a nutshell is Leonard’s message. She’s not trying to take away anyone’s choices, she’s just trying to convince people that their happiness does not depend on buying (and throwing away) more stuff.

Here’s part 4, and my comments thereon.

  • “This video makes people unhappy.” Now, Howie, I think you’re really reaching. If the basic points that Ms. Leonard raises are true (as I and many others believe they are), then it’s not the video that is making people unhappy, but the truth that it’s pointing out. Understanding that truth allows people to change and then be happy again.
  • “Some analysts are wrong.” Yes, that’s true, but maybe it’s the ones you’re citing instead of the one’s she’s citing. But even if you are right (and I do understand and agree with your point that people under-report their own free time), what’s true for some people isn’t necessarily true for others, and it also depends on how you define “free” time (working in the garden is also work, but is different in character from people’s day jobs). It is generally agreed that people nowadays spend more time at work (and getting to and from work) than they did 50 years ago, especially since dual income families are now the rule, rather than the single-income families of earlier days.
  • Are you saying, Howie, that Americans don’t watch too much TV?
  • It’s not a bad thing per se that we have bigger houses than we used to, but it does have environmental impacts that shouldn’t be ignored (and that
  • “Our compacting technology is increasing every day?” How can the extent to which you compact garbage keep increasing? Isn’t that physically impossible?
  • You are wrong about dioxin, Howie. It is extremely toxic, even in minute quantities. What’s more, it’s a long-lived chemical (it doesn’t break down) that accumulates in tissue (see our Persistent Organic Pollutants series for more on that), and so you can be affected by it, even if you don’t live near an incinerator.
  • Recycling is voluntary, but once again, we recycle at lower rates because we don’t bear the external costs of the waste we produce. Most urban waste garbage disposal and treatment is highly subsidized, or hidden by being lumped in to general taxes. It would be more efficient (and more fair) to reduce general taxes and charge people disposal fees based on the amount of trash they produce. Where people are charged disposal fees for their household garbage or limited in the amount they can dispose of for free, they recycle more.
  • “True recycling” is indeed preferable to downcycling, but that doesn’t mean we shouldn’t do both. And of course, we need to balance costs. She’s not saying we shouldn’t take costs into considerations, but you, Howie, seem to be saying that we shouldn’t take external costs into consideration.
  • What’s with the Soviet flag, music, and gulag references? Are you admitting that your “reasoned” argument has failed and that you’re now forced to resort to cheap stunts to suggest that Ms. Leonard is anyone else who proposes reducing waste and over-consumption is a communist. I find that especially ironic, given that you already acknowledged the crux of her proposal?
  • “Get this video out of our schools… There should be no debate in any classroom when the facts are wrong.” I agree that Ms. Leonard the misleading points I identified above, but as I said before, these in no way compromise her overall position. And whatever happened to the conservative “teach the controversy” position that you guys like to trot out so much when it comes to teaching Creationism in schools. Like Jack said, I’m afraid “you can’t handle the truth.”
  • Bottom line–Howie, you’re obviously a smart guy and some of your points are well-taken, but I’m afraid you’re guilty of the same thing you accuse Ms. Leonard of: misrepresentation in order to make your point. Good job on the videos though, otherwise.

Here’s some more applicable music (and the inspiration for our subtitle, both because “Howie” sounds like Alfie, and because Howie presumes to tell out how things work), Alfie, written and performed by Burt Bacharach from the movie Alfie. Appropriately, Alfie is about a very hypocritical guy (Alfie) whose many mistakes in life result in a series of reversals which finally force him to rethink his goals and approach. Hopefully, Howie, you will someday come to the same realization.

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3 Responses to “The Story of Stuff (or, What’s It All About, Howie?)”

  1. Newsericks » Blog Archive » Rising Tides of Blood Says:

    […] Glenn seemed to particularly hate the Tides-funded Story of Stuff: […]

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    […] to provide a minimum percentage of renewable energy) also allow indirectly help internalize external costs and promote clean energy […]

  3. Newsericks » Blog Archive » Private Eyes Says:

    […] subsidized by the government and society as a whole. In addition, energy prices do not reflect the externalities (e.g., pollution, national security costs) of energy use. So if you waste energy, it’s not […]

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