November 11, 2010

Stuff It

The Story of Stuff - is a cute and conscientious effort at promoting a more responsible and sustainable way of living. Narrated by a breathless Annie Leonard, the main video (embedded below) is an exploration of our current consumption-based economy and how unsustainable it really is. Interspersed with cute stick cartoons, Annie describes the linear nature of western economies, with particular focus on America - starting from extraction through to disposal of various material goods.

The core idea is not revolutionary - be sustainable because our current way of life is most certainly not. But the presentation seeks to gain a leg up via two different approaches, cartoon factoids and conspiracy theories. All through the video, you find instances of figures and ratios written up on virtual blackboards. They may all be true, or they may just represent the worst case scenario - one would never know from how neatly they are packaged. And then there are the conspiracy theories, right from the government - big business nexus to the secret cabal of post war economists and marketing directors. By no means is all of it false, and indeed expecting to get anything more than that in 20 minutes is rather naive. But by the same token, I would be hard pressed to imagine that all of today's economy is nothing more than a carefully packaged, herd the sheep, dog and pony show (talk about animated analogies).

With the facetious itch out of the way, let's get a tad more serious. The problem with sustainability in my mind, is that it has facets of the prisoners dilemma. In effect if all of us try to live sustainably, then it is a huge payoff for everyone. But if some of us do it and the others do not, then it leaves those of us acting in a sustainable manner worse off than those who are not. That is the way the dice of today's economy is loaded. When Annie talks about external costs she is not joking. Living off by your own self is not only more expensive, but it is not supported by the way society is set up today. That is what makes sustainable living a catch-22 situation.

Who then do we turn to? The same government that we blame for secretly getting us into this mess in the first place? The big business who care only about profits above all else? Or is the answer a more inclusive - all of the above? And that is the big issue I have with the tone of the message. The big question isn't how can we live more sustainably, but how do we make sustainability a social & economic imperative? Not one or the other. I have not heard a great answer yet.

Nevertheless, the video is a great way to communicate the message and urgency of a more sustainable life - to quote - "Make 'em Safe, Make 'em Last, and Take 'em Back."

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