Brain Pickings

The Story of Stuff

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How much a $4.99 radio actually costs and what 7 football fields are doing in the Amazon jungle.

If you think you “get” the concept of sustainability, are you willing to bet your favorite gadget on it? Let’s start with an easier question: Do you know where that gadget came from and how?

storyofstuff_logo Instigator Annie Leonard spent 10 years traveling the world, tracking where our stuff comes from and where it ends up — essentially dissecting our “materials economy” to reveal the very real crisis it’s in. She then partnered with a couple of sustainability advocacy groups to produce The Story of Stuff – a part-educational, part-revelational, part-mobilizing 20-minute film that sucks you in, preconceived notions of sustainability and all, and hurls you into the nitty-gritty of it, all through delightful animation and a refreshingly fast pace.

The film reveals the fundamental brokenness of our consumption model — we’re using a linear production-consumption-disposal system, but running a linear system on a finite planet is, well, ludicrous.

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Without stealing too much of the film’s thunder, we’ll just say that it busts a number of sustainability myths that even the most eco-conscious of us hold, pushing us to delve far deeper into the issue than the superficial nature of the “green” fad. (Hint: Recycling doesn’t help nearly as much as you’d like to think, so stop buying those I Heart Recycling shirts.)

government The Story of Stuff explores issues of government and corporations as they relate to sustainability, probes political, cultural and commercial principles of consumerism, and really makes us question how it’s possible for RadioShack to sell a radio for the laughable price of $4.99, which doesn’t even pay for shelf space.

For us, the pinnacle of how deformed our culture is came from a quote of the famous post-war economist Victor Lebow’s frightening advice to the Eisenhower administration:

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It’s not surprising, then, that we live in a world economy where those who don’t own or buy a lot of stuff simply don’t have value. Which explains why the Third World is being exploited, why natural resources are being pillaged from those who have inhabited them for generations, why that capitalist sense of entitlement is really humanity’s greatest downfall.

newsystem The film ends on a hopeful note, suggesting a more realistic solution in a new system based on sustainability and equity, where millions of us intervene with small contributions all along the system, so that our cumulative impact makes a real, tangible, literally world-changing difference.

And it all starts with seeing the big picture like you’ve never seen it before.

So go ahead, see. The Story of Stuff is easily the best thing you’ll do for your global citizen conscience this year.

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