Monday, March 16, 2009

The Story of Stuff

March 16, 2009, 12:15 p.m.

"The Story of Stuff," the Alternative,
Government by Campaign Contribution, and Population Control

(brought to you by*)

Note: Since writing this, a reader posted a comment (see below) taking issue with the accuracy of "The Story of Stuff" video (embedded below). Indeed, "taking issue" is an understatement. He is "appalled" that I am "enthralled" by a video that is "beyond belief" and "so full of patent falsehoods" as to be little more than a "load of neo-Marxist garbage."

The comment was posted here on May 14. By coincidence, the very next evening Bill Moyers led one of his "Journal" segments with an excerpt from that very same "Story of Stuff" video, prior to his interview with the New York Times former science reporter, Daniel Goleman. The Web site for this segment, which contains a link to the entire "Story of Stuff," explains,
"Goleman's latest book is ECOLOGICAL INTELLIGENCE: HOW KNOWING THE HIDDEN IMPACTS OF WHAT WE BUY CAN CHANGE EVERYTHING. The book argues that new information technologies will create 'radical transparency,' allowing us to know the environmental, health, and social consequences of what we buy. As shoppers use point-of-purchase ecological comparisons to guide their purchases, market share will shift to support steady, incremental upgrades in how products are made — changing everything for the better."
"The Hidden Costs of Stuff," Bill Moyers Journal, May 15, 2009. (An example of the "radical transparency" to which Goleman refers is a Web site he mentioned:

The comment on this blog entry does not cite any specific "patent falsehood," nor would I research and respond with any confirming sources of data if it had. I'll leave that to those who, like Goleman, write books rather than blog entries, or research and produce nationally-distributed television programs, like Moyers.

Of course, everyone should make an effort to be as accurate as possible in what they put into a video, such as "The Story of Stuff" -- or the videos they embed in a blog entry, as I have done.

But there is a concept in defamation law that I think is applicable by analogy in this instance. It is referred to as "the sting of the charges." It goes to the question of the "truth" defense. For example, if the plaintiff alleges that he was defamed by the defendant's charge that the plaintiff embezzled "over $100,000 from the bank," because in fact he only embezzled $87,000, the plaintiff can still use the "truth" defense because the inaccuracy did not diminish the fact that "the sting of the charges" (embezzlement of a significant amount) was true.

What "The Story of Stuff" and Goleman and Moyers and perhaps hundreds of others with and without scientific credentials seem to be suggesting is that there are economic, ecological, and epidemiological externalities that flow from our consumer consumption. They take into account the extraction process that obtains the basic natural resources, the manufacturing process, transportation to our stores, and the ultimate disposal of the product and the packaging in which it comes. As the story of these consequences gets around, governmental and personal decisions can better take them into account -- for the benefit of ourselves and future generations.

Debates about details aside, it seems to me "the sting of the charges" is something to which we need pay attention.

-- N.J., May 16, 2009


A week or so ago I posted a blog entry called, "Don't Buy Stuff," March 6, 2009. It addressed the values of paying cash, my experience doing so with automobiles, and it included the "Saturday Night Live" 2:28-minute sketch entitled "Don't Buy Stuff You Cannot Afford" ["Don't Buy Stuff: The sure-fire way to get out of debt," NBC Saturday Night Live, Season 31, Episode 12, aired February 4, 2006].

If you missed that blog entry you might want to go back and check it out, along with that "Saturday Night Live" sketch.

Meanwhile, today I'd like to continue the theme with a little more in-depth look at "The Story of Stuff."

The Story of Stuff

A week ago Tom Friedman asked, "What if the crisis of 2008 represents something much more fundamental than a deep recession? What if it’s telling us that the whole growth model we created over the last 50 years is simply unsustainable economically and ecologically and that 2008 was when we hit the wall — when Mother Nature and the market both said: 'No more.'” Thomas L. Friedman, "The Inflection is Near?" New York Times, March 7, 2009 [hard copy version, March 8, 2009, p. WK12, New York edition]. The entire column is very much worth reading.

His is a profound and fundamental question being asked, and discussed, around the world today as the friends and beneficiaries of bankers and financiers, who are now running Washington, blindly continue on with their multi-trillion-dollar giveaway of our grandchildren's money in a failing effort to reconstruct the capitalist, consumer economy that enabled greed to fuel a drive off the cliff -- and will undoubtedly succeed in doing so again if we merely rebuild what we had before.

"The Story of Stuff" is a video narrated by Annie Leonard and made possible by the Tides Foundation, Funders Workgroup for Sustainable Production and Consumption, and Free Range Studios; see also My thanks to Trina L.C. Sonnenberg, TLC Promotions, Internet Marketing Maven, for bringing it to my attention.

The video is suitable for all ages -- and if you're a teacher of a subject as to which it would be relevant (whether K-12 or college) you might want to think about it as a discussion-starter for your class. Although it runs 21:19 I think you'll find it very much worth your time (as a summary of what would otherwise have taken you an entire semester in a classroom!) -- entertaining in its own way as well as educational. It contains occasional observations some might consider ideological -- causing you either to cheer or sneer depending on your orientation -- but they are few and far between and seemed to me mostly just factual.

India: The Alternative

NPR's "Morning Edition" had a segment this morning that provides one illustration of how another country is faring, and why, during this global economic collapse. "Why India's Economy Fares Better Than Others," NPR, Morning Edition, March 16, 2009 ("Steve Inskeep talks with Arvind Subramanian of the Peterson Institute for International Economics about how India [is] . . . significantly less affected than the U.S. and Europe").

It's as if the country's billion people had watched "The Story of Stuff" video and decided to begin practicing its clear implications.

India hasn't had a banking problem because it decided "government is the solution, not the problem," and nationalized all its banks long before our bankers became "thieves in suits."

It hasn't bought into the idea that global trade is good for everybody, and let its companies outsource, go offshore, and otherwise destroy jobs, as we have with NAFTA in the name of increased corporate profit. It only exports about 20% of its production -- comparied to some 40-50% in China -- so it doesn't feel as much hurt when global trade declines.

And why haven't its farmers been hurt economically? Because, for whatever reason, India has bought into the idea ecologists have long been urging upon us: eat locally grown foods. Not only is it a way of supporting the agricultural sector, it also radically cuts back on the economic, energy, and ecological consequences of transporting foods -- often into other agricultural areas, as we do in Iowa.

The result? While the U.S. economy is now going into "negative growth" India's economy, while declining, was 9% growth annually, is now 7%, and has 5% predicted for the future.

None of this is to say that all is wonderful in India -- I presume you've seen the movie "Slumdog Millionaire" -- but it does provide a specific example of what we, too, could do if we would really take the lessons of "The Story of Stuff" to heart.

Government by Campaign Contribution

There are some feigned expressions of outrage from Washington, that those who created the problems through personal enrichment are now enriching themselves further with taxpayer-funded multi-million-dollar bonuses, but little in the way of prosecutions, or efforts to get our money back. There are expressions that "we must re-examine and improve our regulatory model so that this never happens again." But we have had this conversation before; this is the happening that is "again;" and the problem is not entirely the model, it is also the people running it -- and few to none of them seem to be being prosecuted either.

Congress has a lot of explaining to do -- after we clean out the lot of them. I've documented before how those who make campaign contributions in the $100,000 to $1,000,000 range generally get something like a 1000-to-2000-to-one return on their "investment" -- for an investment it is, and one that pays much better returns than any on Wall Street. Nicholas Johnson, "Campaigns: You Pay $4 or $4000," Des Moines Register, July 21, 1996, p. C2.

So it comes as no surprise to me to find out that the financial community has contributed some $5 billion to Congress over the past 10 years in campaign contributions and lobbying expenses. After all, members of Congress and senators are honorable people; they don't take $5 billion from someone and then give them a poke in the eye with a sharp stick -- not if they want another $5 billion over the next 10 years. They behave as they've been behaving; they give Wall Street its $5-to-10 trillion return on its $5 billion investment. See the report, Robert Weissman and James Donahue, "Sold Out: How Wall Street and Washington Betrayed America," Essential Information/Consumer Education Foundation, March 2009, linked from "$5 Billion in Political Contributions Bought Wall Street Freedom from Regulation, Restraint, Report Finds," March 4, 2009, Wall Street Watch.

And Population Control?

Of course, as my son, Sherman, is constantly reminding everyone -- most recently me, by email, this morning, "It's gotten to the point where I have a hard time listening to the environmentalists and smart growth advocates. Of course I agree with most of their ideas, but I just don't see how a person/group can rant and rave about the many ways in which humans are destroying the Earth yet not even mention population control as a primary part of any solution."

I'd say what he's pointing out is "the elephant in the living room" but for the pathos: one of the many consequences of largely uncontrolled population growth is its impact on endangered species, all wildlife in general, and elephants in particular.

More on "Stuff"

As far back as 1972 I was writing about this stuff, and my stuff, in a book that still enjoys a bit of a cult following, called Test Pattern for Living. It's available as a free download from my Web site, if you're interested.

My son, Gregory, has a more current version of the theme in his new book, Put Your Life on a Diet.

And let us never forget George Carlin, 1937-2008, and his insights about our "stuff." "George Carlin Talks About 'Stuff,'" George Carlin's classic standup routine about the importance in our lives of "stuff" from his appearance at Comic Relief in 1986, from YouTube:


* Why do I put this blog ID at the top of the entry, when you know full well what blog you're reading? Because there are a number of Internet sites that, for whatever reason, simply take the blog entries of others and reproduce them as their own without crediting the source. I don't mind the flattering attention, but would appreciate acknowledgment as the source -- even if I have to embed it myself. -- Nicholas Johnson

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Maven said...

I love reading your blog, Nick! Thanx for the link.

Anonymous said...

This New York Times article gives some grizzly insight on stuff and what happens to it when things go bad.

Foreclosure Trash-Out: Ill Fortune and Its Leavings

Anonymous said...

better linking to article

Anonymous said...


As a Native Iowan, who believes in the value of common sense and checking one's facts, I'm appalled thay you're enthralled by the "Story of Stuff," a video that is so full of patent falsehoods and ideological indoctrination as to be beyond belief. It is distressing to believe this load of neo-Marxist garbage is being dumped on our schools without question. Discussion starter? You mean discussion ender, as Annie states continually "this is a fact," when IN FACT it is not. I suggest you check out the critique of this mess that can be found on YouTube. Do yourself a favor, do a little research before blessing something as the ground truth.

Kenneth Currie, PhD
Indian Harbour Beach FL