May 11, 2009

A Cautionary Video About America's 'Stuff'


The thick-lined drawings of the Earth, a factory and a house, meant 
to convey the cycle of human consumption, are straightforward and 
child-friendly. So are the pictures of dark puffs of factory smoke 
and an outlined skull and crossbones, representing polluting 
chemicals floating in the air.

Which is one reason "The Story of Stuff," a 20-minute video about the 
effects of human consumption, has become a sleeper hit in classrooms 
across the nation.

The video is a cheerful but brutal assessment of how much Americans 
waste, and it has its detractors. But it has been embraced by 
teachers eager to supplement textbooks that lag behind scientific 
findings on climate change and pollution. And many children who watch 
it take it to heart: riding in the car one day with his parents in 
Tacoma, Wash., Rafael de la Torre Batker, 9, was worried about 
whether it would be bad for the planet if he got a new set of Legos.

"When driving by a big-box store, you could see he was struggling 
with it," his father, David Batker, said. But then Rafael said, "It's 
O.K. if I have Legos because I'm going to keep them for a very long 
time," Mr. Batker recalled.

The video was created by Annie Leonard, a former Greenpeace employee 
and an independent lecturer who paints a picture of how American 
habits result in forests being felled, mountaintops being destroyed, 
water being polluted and people and animals being poisoned. Ms. 
Leonard, who describes herself as an "unapologetic activist," is also 
critical of corporations and the federal government, which she says 
spends too much on the military.

Ms. Leonard put the video on the Internet in December 2007. Word 
quickly spread among teachers, who recommended it to one another as a 
brief, provocative way of drawing students into a dialogue about how 
buying a cellphone or jeans could contribute to environmental 

So far, six million people have viewed the film at its site,, and millions more have seen it on YouTube. More 
than 7,000 schools, churches and others have ordered a DVD version, 
and hundreds of teachers have written Ms. Leonard to say they have 
assigned students to view it on the Web.

It has also won support from independent groups that advise teachers 
on curriculum choices. Facing the Future, a curriculum developer for 
schools in all 50 states, is drafting lesson plans based on the 
video. And Ms. Leonard has a contract with Simon & Schuster to write 
a book based on the video.

The enthusiasm is not universal. In January, a school board in 
Missoula County, Mont., decided that screening the video treaded on 
academic freedom after a parent complained that its message was 

But many educators say the video is a boon to teachers as they 
struggle to address the gap in what textbooks say about the 
environment and what science has revealed in recent years.

"Frankly, a lot of the textbooks are awful on the subject of the 
environment," said Bill Bigelow, the curriculum editor of Rethinking 
Schools, a quarterly magazine that has promoted "The Story of Stuff" 
to its subscribers and on its Web site, which reaches about 600,000 
educators a month. "The one used out here in Oregon for global 
studies - it's required - has only three paragraphs on climate 
change. So, yes, teachers are looking for alternative resources."

Environmental education is still a young and variable field, 
according to Frank Niepold, the climate education coordinator at the 
National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration. There are few state 
or local school mandates on how to teach the subject.

The agency is seeking to change that, but in the interim many 
teachers are developing their own lesson plans on climate change, 
taking some elements from established sources like the National 
Wildlife Federation and others from less conventional ones like "The 
Story of Stuff."

Ms. Leonard is self-educated on where waste goes and worked for 
Greenpeace to prevent richer nations from dumping their trash in 
poorer ones. She produced the video, with the Free Range Studios 
company, and with money from numerous nonprofit groups; the largest 
single giver was the Tides Foundation. She did so, she said, after 
tiring of traveling often to present her views at philanthropic and 
environmental conferences. She attributes the response to the video's 

"A lot of what's in the film was already out there," Ms. Leonard 
said, "but the style of the animation makes it easy to watch. It is a 
nice counterbalance to the starkness of the facts."

The video certainly makes the facts stark and at times very 
political: "We'll start with extraction, which is a fancy word for 
natural resource exploitation, which is a fancy word for trashing the 
planet," she says at one point. "What this looks like is we chop down 
the trees, we blow up mountains to get the metals inside, we use up 
all the water and we wipe out the animals."

Mark Lukach, who teaches global studies at Woodside Priory, a 
Catholic college-preparatory school in Portola Valley, Calif., 
acknowledged that the film is edgy, but said the 20-minute length 
gives students time to challenge it in class after viewing it.

"Compared to 'An Inconvenient Truth,' " he said, referring to Al 
Gore's one-and-a-half-hour documentary on climate change, "it is much 
shorter and easier to compact into a class segment. You can watch it 
and then segue into a discussion."

Mr. Lukach's students made a response video and posted it on YouTube, 
asking Ms. Leonard to scare them less and give them ideas on how to 
make things better. That in turn inspired high school students in 
Mendocino, Calif., to post an answer to Woodside, with suggested 

Dawn Zweig, who teaches environmental studies at the Putney School, a 
private academy in Vermont, said that the very reason the video 
appealed to teachers - it shows students how their own behavior is 
linked to what is happening across the globe - could also raise 
sensitive issues. She said students, particularly affluent ones, 
might take the critique personally. "If you offend a student, they 
turn off the learning button and then you won't get anywhere," Ms. 
Zweig said.

Sometimes teachers observe the opposite: children who become 
environmental advocates at home after seeing the video. After Jasmine 
Madavi, 18, saw it last year in Mr. Lukach's class at Woodside 
Priory, she began nagging her parents to stop buying bottled water. 
Her mother resisted, saying that filtered tap water, Jasmine's 
suggested alternative, would not taste as good. But Jasmine bought 
the filter on her own, and the household is now converted.

"You just have to be persistent," said Ms. Madavi, who is now a 
community college student. "When you use a water bottle, it just 
doesn't disappear. That's Annie's message."

Most parents take such needling with humor. But Mark Zuber, a parent 
of a child at Big Sky High School in Missoula, had a stronger 
reaction when a teacher showed the video to his daughter last year. 
"There was not one positive thing about capitalism in the whole 
thing," Mr. Zuber said.

Corporations, for example, are portrayed as a bloated person sporting 
a top hat and with a dollar sign etched on its front.

He described the video as one-sided. "It was very well done, very 
effective advocacy, but it was just that," he said.

Mr. Zuber argued before the Missoula County School Board that the way 
in which "The Story of Stuff" was presented, without an alternative 
point of view, violated its standards on bias, and the board agreed 
in a 4-to-3 vote.

Still, Ms. Leonard is hoping the video will circle the globe. "I've 
heard from teachers in Palestine and Papua New Guinea," she said. "It 
is just spreading and spreading."