The Story of Stuff

28 Dec

With the chaotic consumerist orgy of Christmas now behind us, I thought I’d take a minute to share with you one of my favorite web videos of all time, The Story of Stuff.

Now, before you get started, this video is firmly in the tradition of polemics and you might want to quibble with some of the facts in the video.  However, the primary principles in the video are what I’m interested in sharing with you.  Our cultural need to consume and the corporatist influence which powers that consumer culture.  It also touches on some topics you might have forgotten since your last economics class in college, things like planned obsolescence, perceived obsolescence and externalized costs.  These issues inform our current societal structures and the decisions we make as citizens and voters and ultimately, the decisions made by elected leaders.

Watch it, process it, and let me know what you think.  Knee jerk libertarian counterpoints will be summarily dismissed and ignored, you bore me.

18 Responses to “The Story of Stuff”

  1. Brian Castner December 28, 2009 at 4:35 pm #

    I first saw it a couple months ago, and you can’t help but agree with the sentiment. However, I am going to quibble with you on the details. In the first couple minutes, she quotes a couple specific facts regarding the size of the military budget, among other things. Her numbers are obviously inflated to prove a point. I may agree with the point, but when she starts taking liberty with numbers I know are wrong, what about the one’s I don’t know? The whole thing loses credibility. The story is bad enough with out resorting to hyperbole . . . or is it?

  2. Gabe December 28, 2009 at 6:53 pm #

    I remember first seeing this like a year ago. This short little video pretty much sums of everything that’s wrong with the global economy: our catastrophic resource consumption and the way pampered people in the industrialized world live and expect things to go on indefinitely, the way third world denizens suffer so bad because of this, and the complete trashing of the Earth ecosystem in the name of that economy anarchy known as the Monetarist system.

    Most of the industrialized world’s economy is based on this concept known as “Cyclical Consumption,” meaning the constant manufacturing of crap that’s designed only to last until the next artificial trend is unleashed by the high priests of marketing. The funny part is that If we made products that actually lasted as long as possible and lived lives not totally based on overconsumption, most people would be out of a job. That’s right, most employment is based off redundancy and waste. Experts calculated that by the 1920s, industrial machinery in the US had become so damn efficient that the system could produce an abundance of material wealth for every citizen. At the time, a piece of machinery fed by either electricity or fossil fuels could do the work of 70 manual laborers. As a result, the average person wouldn’t have to work more than 25 hours a week. But if we were to actually transition to a system of less work for everyone, the debt-centric monetary system would collapse due to a shortage of consumers to consume all the goods the factories churned out.

    An economy based on perpetual debt must constantly expand or face total collapse. Even with the population working long hours, our great leap in industrial efficiency was likely one of the main causes of the Great Depression. Too many goods, not enough buyers, and an investment bubble predicated on the idea that all these goods would get bought. Luckily WWII put everyone back to work building the immense war machine and after the war this industrial capacity was used to start the trend of producing planned-obsolescence consumer goods.

    Now, ironically we’ve outsourced and sold off most of our industrial productive capacity to the third world. Let’s see where that leaves us in an era where all we have to back up our big mouths is our bloated military machine.

  3. lefty December 28, 2009 at 7:06 pm #

    About 60 seconds of good points mixed in with 19 minutes of BS.

    I agree with the concept that excessive consumerism is bad. But if people really wanted to curb this, you would think a movement could be helped along with facts and not see the need to fabricate things.

    But in the end…what is worse than consumerism is the need for complex things to be boiled down to 20 minute cartoons and pass off as enough information to have a discussion.

  4. Chris Smith December 28, 2009 at 8:53 pm #

    @lefty Things always need to be boiled down for discussion, that’s almost the entire purpose of media. Synthesizing information into digestible chunks for further deliberation.

    Could I link to the economic works that l’ve studied? Should I link to long political science theses that I’ve read in order to meet your standard?

    Or should I assume that the overwhelming majority of my readers have read similar documents and maybe make a leap that many of you are already armed for a discussion on macroeconomics and social justice?

    I’ll go with the latter.

    Also, the number of facts she gets “wrong” is up for debate. She provides sources and links for her claims in the footnotes. You can argue her figures if you want, but the numbers are secondary to the larger point she is attempting to illustrate.

    I guess we could keep talking about these meta topics or focus on the substantive issues in the presentation.

    • Brian Castner December 28, 2009 at 11:42 pm #

      What substansive discussion do you want to have? Who is going to watch that video, and after agreeing with all the “facts” decide we don’t consume enough? The only discussion to have is whether her facts are actually opinions. And I don’t think the facts are secondary – if they were, she wouldn’t use them so specifically to prove her point. Her facts are central to the urgency of her argument. They’re just a little fungible – defense spending is a quarter of federal spending, not half. If that distinction doesn’t make a difference, why quote it, or get it wrong?

      We use too much stuff. We also recycle more, and are reducing our consumption per point gdp (there is a real name for that stat – it shows how much energy and material we use for economic growth – I just can’t think of the name) faster than ever before. So are we arguing about whether to use more? Or use less faster?

      Who are you trying to convince? The same people you assume have the economics background are the one’s who already agree with you!

  5. lefty December 28, 2009 at 10:13 pm #

    @Chris Smith

    In my opinion there is a *huge* difference between an abridged version and a “boiled down” version. This cartoon is the latter. Like I said before, I agree with the concept. I think to an extent, excessive consumerism is bad.

    What I do not agree with is this presentation. The “artistic license” used in this cartoon does more damage in dividing people over the REAL reason why this was made than unifying everyone with a shred of common sense into discussing the reality.

    Take Brian’s comment for example. The fact that Leonard, in my opinion, misrepresents several statistics. We both know, as does anyone who follows politics, you can find a stat to back up any.single.claim you want. We both _should_ know that Leonard was painting a picture that helps her views rather than present the truth.

    At the end of the day, Leonard is extreme activist liberal with an agenda. Just as the other end of the spectrum is the extreme Libertarians that you choose to ignore.

    Now I have a ton of respect for you and I am sure you do not know of give a shit about me. But if you would like to have a discussion about this subject based on what is NOT in this cartoon…sign me up for that talk. But a conversation based on BS is silly to me.

  6. Gabe December 28, 2009 at 10:41 pm #

    lefty, you still have yet to contest any actual points she makes. We all know it’s easier to throw around broad generalizations and empty ad-hominems.

    • lefty December 29, 2009 at 2:57 pm #

      Well Gabe…I did not break down the specific points of BS mainly because Chris wanted to have a conversation without the finer points being hashed out. Also, the points in this cartoon have been broken down by Libertarian voices that Chris said he would already ignore. Furthermore, I agree with the concept but using this cartoon as the basis of that conversation would be unproductive IMO. I am not saying that there is not a challenge….I am saying this cartoon throws a lot of BS at the challenge and points blame at too narrow a focus.

      This is the same BS that came from Gore on Global Warming. Not saying Global Warming is not an issue…because it is. But Gore and Co. did not need to make up or fabricate the things they did to help the cause.

      But since you asked…

      As Brian mentioned, the comment on the US spending more than 50% of Federal taxes on the military just 3 minutes in was a huge flag. This “stat” comes from the War Resisters League who do not count Medicare, Medicaid and Social Security. Talk about 1/2 truth. But that is not what really bugged me.

      The two main challenges I had with this comment are:

      1- Military spending was just a cheap shot by the activist. It is not needed for this discussion. All it does is alienate some people right out of the gate.
      2- The concept of a large military is obviously something that bothers this activist but a powerful government acting to control the global in regards to commerce doesn’t. That is a contradiction. The ONLY way the US Government would be able to move the globe forward on this issue is BECAUSE of the large Military. You do not see this video in French do you… There is a reason for that. It is just so frustrating when Liberals want to swing the stick of US power to help their causes but in the same motion show disgust with that existence of that power.

      Now if everyone can get back to the concept of consumption without a tainted view, Leonard goes on and insinuates that the Free Market was designed rather than evolving. She backs up the claim that Corporations or “these guys” had some super secret plan and to prove this she quotes Victor Lebow. So, who the hell is Victor Lebow and how did he become the spokesperson for corporations? Well to the best of my ability, I was able to discover that Victor Lebow was pretty much someone with no lasting significance outside of one quote. But Leonard bases a huge part of her argument, her theory on this quote simply because it paints the best picture to simple minds. She goes on to say his “solution” is the norm for the whole system…without ever showing this to be true. Right after this, Leonard insinuates that the ultimate goal of Americas economy is to produce consumer goods. This is done by quoting someone in the Eisenhower administration.

      These two back to back comments are an attempt to tell a story of how BIG BAD corporations are to blame and to illustrate how the US government has given pass to this horrible conspiracy.

      The problem I have with these two comments being said back to back is how they tell truths to paint a lie. First off, the Eisenhower administration was dealing with a post war economy that had hardly produced consumer goods during the war. It needed to create jobs and build an economy. Producing consumer goods was the best way to do so. The stance of this administration does not carry to present day. Mix this comment, one of thousands from an administration that 48 years removed from power, with a quote from someone who is famous only for this quote and you have a nice backdrop for a conspiracy.

      Leonard goes on to say “Our Ultimate Purpose”, as in PRESENT TENSE, as in the United States, as in ABOVE ALL ELSE, is to produce more consumer good rather than Health Care, Education, Safe Transportation, Sustainability or Justice based on the comments of two men from the 1950s. That is just complete BULL SHIT.

      I could go on…but I have work to do today. But I will leave you with this. The idea that we as a race, a global race, need to focus on sustainability is 100% valid. We need to create things that last, produce things with low impact to the environment and use things that solve NEEDS not WANTS. However, when people put someone with an obvious agenda, a lack of integrity and a cartoon with more half truths than facts on center stage to promote the dialog to solve this challenge, people like myself call BS. Chris did not want to listen to the extreme libertarian counterpoints to this extreme argument full of holes and lies. What good does that do? This conversation should be framed by simple facts and stated opinions and observations. Whereas this cartoon takes opinions and observations and presents them as facts.

  7. KevinP December 29, 2009 at 1:31 am #

    So, what do we do? If everyone stopped buying stuff, then companies would stop making stuff. And we would all be employed as what? Website owners? Farmers? Sports bloggers?

    The entire video sounds like a 20-yr-old college student’s line of bullshit he lays on some hippie chick to get laid.

  8. Mustapha Mond December 29, 2009 at 4:46 am #

    KevinP, dig a little deeper my friend. Then again, it might hurt your finely-conditioned little brain.

  9. Kevin December 29, 2009 at 12:49 pm #

    Wow, did THAT put me in my place!

    • Christopher Smith December 29, 2009 at 3:55 pm #

      Yeah, you got schooled. I’m sure you won’t dare mess with us hippies again!

  10. rastamick December 29, 2009 at 2:41 pm #

    George Carlin has done the definitive work on the topic of stuff. Kudos to Kevin P. for the following analysis which I agree with 100%.

    The entire video sounds like a 20-yr-old college student’s line of bullshit he lays on some hippie chick to get laid.

    Unsuccessfully, I might add.

  11. Christopher Smith December 29, 2009 at 4:09 pm #

    Let me address most of the questions indirectly…

    Over the course of the past year or so, I’ve seen this video linked off dozens of other sites or had it passed to me through email/del.icio.us several times and I never got around to writing about it. With it being a slow week, I was looking for a topic/video that would provoke some sort of discussion about our general economic strategy in this country, which is based on consumption rather than production. So, this seemed like a way to introduce the video and perhaps parlay it into a larger discussion. Maybe it was a bad idea, I don’t know.

    From a higher level, I guess I see our political climate not so much as a right v. left paradigm anymore as much as corporations v. people. This has very clearly been on display since August of 2008 when the government raced to the rescue of banks, lenders, investment firms and international investors at the expense of taxpayers. It was also on display during the healthcare “reform” debate of this year in which the ultimate result is an increase in a guaranteed customer base for PhRMA and AHIP with very few cost controls put in place to benefit the taxpayer/consumer. Ironically, those on the right protested these efforts at reform as “socialism” by Pinko Obama, when it’s actually one of the largest doses of corporate welfare since Bush’s Medicare Prescription Plan “reform”. I was amused by the right wing protests against this creeping “socialist state” throughout the summer and fall primarily because it seemed people were missing the actual point.

    Also, I think most of us can agree that creating ever expanding debt to satisfy the need to purchase consumer goods is not the most sustainable economic path for America. So, what’s next? What can we do differently in both planning and execution to craft a different future for ourselves? Can we slowly turn the ship around to once again become an exporter of goods rather than an importer? Is it even possible? Are corporate interests really in charge of the government at this point or do people still have a voice powerful enough to effect legislation?

    Are we really just creating a present and future in which the buying and selling of goods made elsewhere is our primary economic engine? What are some of the external forces which we need to address if we want to change this pattern?

    I guess I wanted to get to a larger framework for discussion, I just executed poorly. Probably because I haven’t been writing much lately. Maybe this redirects it in a different way.

  12. Brian Castner December 29, 2009 at 4:50 pm #

    Well, then, to get to your intended point, I don’t see the fight as corp vs people. I understand your rationale, but if you are looking for the 900 pound gorilla no one talks about, I think its efficiency vs environment. I think the Green Movement is finally here to stay, and so the conflict will be between efficiently produced goods and sustainably produced goods. The Economist vs. Mother Jones. If efficiency wins, then China will still make widgets and we’ll still design them. If environment wins, everyone will make their own widgets out of thatch grown outside of their dense walkable urban core. BTW – my unspoken assumption in this rationale is that government doesn’t matter as much as we think it does. We argue about it far more than it actually affects this process. Irrationalize subsidies distort these international processes, but the process is still bigger.

    On a side note, I noticed about a decade ago, while starting to travel the country with the military, that I would enter lots of towns and discover three things: a Walmart, a gas station, and a McDonalds. The Walmart worker ate McDonalds and bought gas. The gas station worker bought TVs at Walmart and ate McDonalds. You get the idea. No one produced anything – everyone just sold stuff to eachother. This confused me, coming from a place that still makes things (if less than we used to). I remember wondering at the time whether this would work. Its largely provided the jobs for the growth of the Sunbelt. Phoenix is growing because its growing. Self fullfilling prophesy. Is that finally starting to crumble?

    • Gabe December 29, 2009 at 5:46 pm #

      Brian, your attitude is rather defeatist. You’re saying the only options are:
      1. Continue to trash the planet in the name of “efficiency” and free-market capitalism
      2. Go “green” by having humanity revert back to the neolithic technological level and subsequently live in squalor

      Kinda funny that the “cyclical consumption” we are to addicted to (which I discussed in the above comment) is anything but efficient. Sure, Wal-Mart stores very “efficiently” dole out mounds of cheap crap to people but the aggregate sum of all those shitty products adds up to form a completely wasteful, inefficient economic model in terms of natural resource exploitation and consumption. We can certainly cut down drastically on the volume of limited-lifespan schlock we produce and become a more sustainable society that can still stay high-tech and offer a decent standard of living.

      On a side note, I noticed about a decade ago, while starting to travel the country with the military, that I would enter lots of towns and discover three things: a Walmart, a gas station, and a McDonalds. The Walmart worker ate McDonalds and bought gas. The gas station worker bought TVs at Walmart and ate McDonalds. You get the idea. No one produced anything – everyone just sold stuff to eachother. This confused me, coming from a place that still makes things (if less than we used to). I remember wondering at the time whether this would work. Its largely provided the jobs for the growth of the Sunbelt. Phoenix is growing because its growing. Self fullfilling prophesy. Is that finally starting to crumble?

      I think you’re on to something here. Realizing the much of the US economy is predicated on the moronic idea we can get along just fine by everyone doing eachother’s laundry is the first step toward realizing the the economic emperor wears no clothes.

      • Brian Castner December 29, 2009 at 6:09 pm #

        Defeatist? No, I’d say Pessimistic. I agree with George Will, who said he was a pessimist because he wa usually right that bad things happen, and when they don’t he’s pleasantly surprised.

        Actually, you attached a lot of adjectives to my model that I didn’t use – like neolithic. When I say things will mae locally, I mean a la Jeff Rubin’s “Why Your World is About To Get A Whole Lot Smaller” – i.e. it costs too much to ship widgets across the Pacific, so we make them at home. That doesn’t have to lower our standard of living, but it will be more expensive.

Trackbacks/Pingbacks

  1. Perpetual Consumption: Story of Stuff Addendum | WNYmedia.net - December 28, 2009

    […] Chris posted a link to a very important video, The Story of Stuff. I remember first seeing this like a year ago. This brief video pretty much sums of everything that’s wrong with the global economy: our catastrophic resource consumption and the way pampered people in the industrialized world live and expect things to go on indefinitely, the way third world denizens suffer so bad because of this, and the complete trashing of the Earth ecosystem in the name of that economy anarchy known as the Monetarist system. […]

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