What is the Story of Stuff?

From its extraction through sale, use and disposal, all the stuff in our lives affects communities at home and abroad, yet most of this is hidden from view. The Story of Stuff is a 20-minute, fast-paced, fact-filled look at the underside of our production and consumption patterns. The Story of Stuff exposes the connections between a huge number of environmental and social issues, and calls us together to create a more sustainable and just world. It’ll teach you something, it’ll make you laugh, and it just may change the way you look at all the stuff in your life forever.

by The Story of Stuff with Annie Leonard

It often feels a little bit like a well done geography film, but that may just be because it is not pitched to my demographic. In any case, it’s an effective way to speak ‘consumer to consumer’ about the production processes of U.S. capitalism. I particularly like the way the site and video is organized around the ‘material economy’: Extraction, Production, Distribution, Consumption, and Disposal.

The problem, as always, is that consumption cannot fix consumption. You can counter capitalist marketing with green marketing but the effect is necessarily limited. In the end, you have to reconsider property. If your cell phone ends up in the dump, pouring toxic chemicals into the soil and then eventually the water, that’s not your problem, it’s everyone’s problem. There’s nothing private in that sort of property.

The limits of the approach are clearest when it comes to the list of organizations included on both the resources page and the “Another Way” call to action. The resources list is remarkable mostly becuase it’s easy to forget how many advocate groups exist. It’s an interesting exercise, too, to group them according to the ‘material economy.’ model. Groups working to protect the Amazon are under extraction, for example; groups working on foods issues under consumption.

What’s missing, of course, is a direct critical challenge to assumptions about property. A different idea of property, for example, might demand cradle to grave responsibility for certain particularly hazardous products. A car, for example, is full of all sorts of materials that should never be allowed in the dump. There are also no unions on the list, and no challenge to the work day, which is, after all, the very heart of the consumer economy.

About Ray Watkins

I was born in Baton Rouge, Louisiana, at Our Lady of the Lake Hospital. I grew up in Houston, as a part of what we only half-jokingly call the Cajun Diaspora. At a certain point during the Regan administration, I had to leave, so I served in the Peace Corps, Philippines, from 1987-89. I didn’t want to return to the United States just yet, so I moved to Paris, France, where I lived for three years or so.

I then moved back to Austin, Texas, where I had received my Masters Degree, and (eventually) began a Ph.D., which I completed in 1999. I spent a year at Temple University and then accepted a position at Eastern Illinois University where I worked until May of 2006. I now work exclusively on line (although that may change) for Johns Hopkins, the Art Institute Online, and Smarthinking.com.

I can be reached most easily via email: raywatkins [that ‘at’ symbol] writinginthewild.com

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