A video claiming that American-style capitalism is ruining the earth is making its way into our nation’s schools as “a sleeper hit in classrooms across the nation,” according to a story on the front page of the New York Times in May.
It’s produced by one Annie Leonard, described in the Times as “a former Greenpeace employee and an independent lecturer.”
It’s a depressing video to watch. For example, extraction is equal to “natural resource exploitation” which is the same as “trashing the planet.” Leonard says “We are running out of resources. We are using too much stuff. … We are trashing the place so fast, we are undermining the ability of people to live here. … We’re using more than our share.”
But then I realized that many of the claims are exaggerated or false. Here’s an example of one of the many dubious claims Leonard makes: “Where I live, in the United States, we have less than 4% of our original forests left.” While this may be true, it’s misleading. She wants you to believe that after logging companies cut trees, they leave the land bare. The reality is the companies replant and manage the forests. So yes, they’re not the original forests. They might even be better.
She leaves out the fact that these forests provided raw materials for heating our homes, for building those houses, and for printing books and newspapers.
During production, “we use energy to mix toxic chemicals in with the natural resources to make toxic contaminated products.” Somehow this leads to whole wasting of communities. Also, the amount of pollution admitted to by industry is probably less than actual emissions, because well, you know how industry is.
Then there’s distribution. It’s a problem because big box stores don’t pay their employees well and they skimp on health insurance as much as they can.
She wonders how a radio can be sold for just $4.99. The answer, of course, is exploitation. She didn’t pay for the radio. Others did, by being exploited. (An example is workers paying for their own health insurance.)
She makes more dubious claims, such as 99% of the “stuff” that is “run through the system” is “trashed” within six months.
It’s all a plan, Leonard says, to make consumption of consumer goods the cornerstone of our lives. It’s accomplished through planned obsolescence and perceived obsolescence. That’s where we’re persuaded to throw out stuff that is still useful, but not fashionable.
The progress in computers is criticized because what changes in a new computer is just a small chip in the corner. I think she’s referring to the processor, which leaves out all the advances in other parts of a computer, such as memory, storage, and communications. She learned this at “a workshop called ‘The Literal and Figurative Story of the Computer’ at the Environmental Grantmakers Association’s annual retreat in Mohonk New York in September 2005.”
Advertising, she says, is designed to make us unhappy with what we have, so that we go shopping. That leads to a spending treadmill.
“Yes, yes, yes, we should all recycle,” but it’s not enough, according to Leonard. Even if we could recycle 100% of our household waste, it wouldn’t be enough because of all the waste generated upstream in the production process. “70 garbage cans of waste were made upstream just to make the junk in that one garbage can you put out on the curb.” Really?
Here’s what the Heritage Foundation’s blog had to say about this video: “The Story of Stuff highlights the very extreme left’s Greenpeace view of America. Essentially it tells the story of how America is not a nation to be proud of, and in fact, your child should be ashamed for living in it.”
This video is really a masterful piece of propaganda, and I mean that in the worse sense of the word — an impartial presentation of information meant to influence. The stereotyped images used in the drawings that make up the film are sure to impress young children.
The video’s anticapitalist message fails to recognize all the good that capitalism has done to raise the standard of living in the countries where it has been allowed to flourish. The grim picture that Leonard paints is largely a result of exaggeration and falsehoods. To the extent that harm has come to the environment in America, things are getting better. We in America, because of the tremendous wealth that capitalism has provided, have the luxury of considering the impact of our lives on the environment. In countries that don’t have freedom and capitalism, concern for mundane things like daily bread and heat take precedence over the environment.
If you decide to watch this video, I recommend as an antidote reading Some Fundamental Insights Into the Benevolent Nature of Capitalism by George Reisman, in which he states: “Capitalism is a system of progressively rising real wages, the shortening of hours, and the improvement of working conditions.”
Another good essay to read is Everything You Love You Owe to Capitalism by Lew Rockwell.