Stunning but sensationalist

Posted on December 14, 2007

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I’ve have had the same fat white computer monitor on my desk for 5 years. My co-worker just
got a new computer. She has a flat shiny sleek flat screen monitor. It matches her computer, it matches her phone, even her pen stand. [It looks cool.] She looks like she is driving in space ship central and I, I look like I have a washing machine on my desk.

You’ve probably seen the buzz in the last few days over “The Story of Stuff“.

I am entirely in two minds about the story of stuff:

1. I love it. I’ve never come across something so good at making something as complex and potentially boring as materials production accessible and even fun. I love the fact that the story runs the whole gamut of sustainability (my usual refrain of the need to consider impacts across scales temporally, spatially, socially, as well as the three sustainability pillars are all covered). The combination of a real person and animation in this way is stunning. There is a factsheet and even an annotated script.

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It wasn’t always like this. The average U.S. person now consumes twice as much as they did 50 years ago. Ask your grandma. In her day, stewardship and resourcefulness and thrift were valued. So, how did this happen?

2. I hate it. Much of the the language seems designed to annoy me. And I don’t need convincing.

We’ll start with extraction which is a fancy word for natural resource exploitation which is a fancy word for trashing the planet. What this looks like is 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.

So, next, the materials move to “production“ and what happens there is we use energy to mix toxic chemicals in with the natural resources to make toxic contaminated products.

This sensationalist approach is fire and brimstone and works for the converted. Robert Weissman on ZNet:

Is The Story of Stuff just preaching to the converted? No. (Though note, as a friend says, that there’s a reason and rationale for the clergy to preach to the congregation every week — it reinforces, deepens and sustains commitment and understanding.)

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What I am concerned about is the effect this video will have on the not-converted. The email that alerted me to the video enthuses:

21 minutes of simple to understand information that should motivate everyone to want to join in on a sustainability effort

Weissman continues:

The Story of Stuff is something you can show to anyone (or ask anyone to view online). It’s persuasive but not a sermon. It’s sophisticated but not esoteric. Its tone is light but its content is serious. It’s narrated by the irrepressible Annie Leonard with passion but no pretense.

Yes, passion. But also little in the way of recognition that many of the facts are under debate. I am very worried that wide distribution of the video will turn away from sustainability. In an educational setting where EfS is all about critical awareness, it is unfortunate that such emotional language spoils the message: it is not a good model of critical awareness.

Annie has graciously responded to such criticism:

Thanks also to those who have shared alternative view points. A friend of mine likes to say: “if you agree with everyone on everything in your coalition, then your coalition isn’t big enough.” I understand that to mean that we need to reach out beyond our comfort zones to connect with people, to share our ideas and hear their ideas. I am happy to report that The Story of Stuff appears to do facilitating just such conversations.

Don’t get me wrong. I agree with so much of the video. I think I have the conversation about externalised costs on a dailycomputer_plannedobselesence.gif basis. I’ve written before about how the whole system is based around the “golden arrow” of consumption (the radio this morning was full of financial commentators bemoaning the fact that the Christmas sales figures this year will only be up 5% on last year’s record sales). The section on planned and perceived obsolescence so clearly applies to computing.

So, love it and hate it. Should we encourage people to watch it? Yes. But in an educational setting, we had better be ready for criticism and be ready to turn this criticism into learning opportunities for the converted and not-converted alike.

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