the story of stuff

20 minute video, putting it all on the table. as a designer, it troubles me…reminds me…

the thing is, for a majority of the world’s poulation, this information is new…

how long before a new model of consumerism evolves? will it ever?


anyone watch it yet?


everything is coming together at once.

one of the interesting things i’ve noticed, with all the attention the green movement is getting, people believe that the only problem we face is climate change. once you start talking about resource depletion (oil, water, fish, metals) and persistent toxicity, top soil depletion, etc., they are like, huh?

the attention is good, i hope it will lead to a better future, but i still don’t know how to be a better designer (i’m trying to learn, its hard to find the way, but it is getting better) and not just feel like shit for my part in that video.

oh. interesting video i saw today at the recent continuum green meeting/presentation thingie…

she talks about the transition some designers go through to become ‘green’

i thought it was interesting as most opinion on this board seems to be that there is little we can do (lack of resources/systems in place, people will always need stuff, etc)

I just watched the Story of Stuff video, and I’m going to watch the Continuum one later tonight. Thanks for the links.

Regarding the question of a new model of consumption arising: I am skeptical that it will happen in my lifetime. I know a lot of people who talk a lot about sustainablity issues, but i know very few who act accordingly. At least in the parts of their lives that I see.

Excellent…great link! I suddenly feel guilty for the stuff I’ve designed.

I know, I know. I’m a fairly new convert to this topic. If you watch that talk from Jennifer van der Meer she talks about designers first burying their head in the sand about the issue. Then those designers who ‘convert’ to a sustainable ethos having a ‘spear in the heart’ moment. I feel like I’ve been going through that lately. Half of me is unsure about the ultimate goal of the design industry (nothing more that the perceived obsolescence in the stuff video)…half hoping that I can work in my career to be part of the solution. Its all a bit much at times.

much of the richness and betterment of man, whether through technology or design which improves quality of life, is exactly the same thing that is choking the planet. The design world tends to think that an emotional connection with a consumer via something they don’t need is all the justification needed to push an unsustainable cycle. Then again…how much of our GDP is based on that cycle? If it went away (not that it ever would go away)? I think about that a lot with the downfall of retail (amazon, digital age, etc). How many people work in retail across the country? Will model like amazon ultimately suffer because it puts people out of work and thus unable to buy more stuff?

I found this via that continuum info…

Is Industrial design were Architecture was 20-30 years ago? The lack of a centralized place for information and best practices is starting to be addressed. I don’t think it can happen fast enough.

I have a great number of problems with this film. I get that the target audience is a fourth grader, but the condescending tone is nauseating. If you can get past that, this film is riddled with so many fallacies it will, I believe, ultimately do more damage than good to the sustainability movement.

First off, the concept of a finite planet is deceiving and inaccurate. As described by economist Julian Simon, human intellect is an infinite variable that generally invalidates conclusions based on closed system reasoning. Consider copper, once in danger of disappearing due to how and how much people consumed it. It’s disappearance seemed likely when one calculated how much copper was left and at what rate people used it. It was a simple math equation. Today it is not uncommon to see a penny left on the ground without anyone stooping to pick it up. How could this be? The simple math equation was a closed and static system that didn’t account for the nature of human needs or the market. People didn’t need copper. They need a conduit for communication. They needed a conduit for plumbing. Etc. The equation didn’t account for the innovation inspired by the price differential. In a market economy a mechanism called the price differential encourages alternative use. As something gets more scarce, the price rises until it’s no longer a tenable solution. The same could be said of oil. People don’t need oil, and it is not all that relevant how much oil is left in the earth. What people need is a source of energy and oil happens to be the cheapest. It is the cheapest because of a) federal subsidies and price caps prevent the proper functioning of this price mechanism and b) governments ensure that costs are externalized. She gets it half right, which in this case is worse than all wrong. The solution would be to extricate the government from the equation, however why would one do that if they accepted the premise that

“it’s the government’s job to take care of us”

Leave aside the fact that they are hardly capable of doing that and more often than not do the exact opposite. It’s a bold, yet unsubstantiated, claim. According to which political theory and why should I accept that theory? How does one define ‘taking care of us’? It frightens me how glibly this Orwellian concept is stated. It strains the credibility of her critique. Evidently she uses ‘us’ or ‘we’ to mean the people of the United States. I’m curious where in the Constitution or Declaration of Independence she finds this concept. I’d argue that they pretty clearly describe something entirely different.

From there we are told that we are running out of resources. There again, as intuitive as this may sound at first, it is factually and historically inaccurate. In a market economy, the greater the scarcity of a given material, the greater the value. At some point the cost of a resource will be too great for the market to bear creating incentive for consumers to substitute, innovate or do without. See: rubber, aluminum.

Another bothersome concept is that ‘we’, the US, are using more than our share of resources. How this was determined was conveniently absent from the monologue. Is ‘fair share’ based on population? (as I believe she is intimating) Is it based on the ability to create wealth? Efficiency in using resources? Is it based on ability to distribute resources? Is it based on Divine Right? Geography? Of course this would make all the difference in the world. Should a nation have a proportion of coal based on, say, population despite that their current process may require the consumption of four times the amount to produce the same power as a more advanced industrial nation? That would seem to be quite a wasteful way to distribute resources, yet I glean this is her understanding of ‘fair share’.

(Her description of the US’s relationship with the Third World was little more than incoherent.)

At one point she claims that the resource use and industrialization in the US is what has caused the lack of available career options for factory workers abroad. Aside from the fact that this statement is laughably incorrect, it is a tragic misconception. Let them eat cake, I suppose.

(She goes on to describe the mass exodus of people from their local environments, that have allegedly ‘sustained’ them for years, to the cities. Even living in slums! My word! It couldn’t be that there are greater opportunities in the city. No. It couldn’t be that eking out at subsistence level only to be consumed by typhoid fever after watching two out of six of your children survive past the age of ten from starvation is less appealing than steady work in a factory. No. She knows better. Ugh.)

Now, there is something to be said for the problem of externalizing the costs of production, something made possible by a gross lack of clearly defined and rigorously enforced private property rights, likely unfamiliar to the interventionist model government. Something to consider.

Moving on to her critique on consumption, one should compare apples to apples. It would be sloppy and lazy reasoning to claim that 50 years ago people used less resources than people today. She claims this and it’s outright dishonest. It does no good to say that 50 years ago people used (x) amount of resources and today people use (x * x) amount without explaining that people fifty years ago were able to do (y) and people today can do (y * y * y). Due to industrialization, the resources required to build and heat a home in 2007 are significantly more efficiently allocated than doing the same in 1957. The amount saved allows people a greater standard of living. Consider the advancements in medicine alone and the benefits of higher standards of living should be obvious.

The most offensive bit of misdirection is next. She mentions that the stated purpose of the US economy is to produce more consumer goods. She goes on with feigned indignation that the purpose should really be to provide health care, safe transportation, education, sustainability (?) and justice. By what index, by what measure, are health care, safe transportation and education not consumer goods?? Are they not calculated in the GDP? Disgusting. I do not include sustainability and justice for obvious reasons.

(Her list reads like a standardized test question.
Which does not belong?

A cat
A dog
A monkey

Justice is properly provided by the government, not by the economy. That is the function of the government as outlined in the founding documents. Apparently she’d have corporations administer justice and the government regulate the economy. Truly grotesque.)

She continues. Planned obsolescence is exemplified by computers getting faster and more powerful. You see, the only difference is a puzzle piece with the date on it. Why, they should have put the one marked 2060 in the first computer and saved all those resources. Oh, and of course computers are impossible to upgrade. (??) Nobody does that.

Perceived obsolescence is defined as making products look better so people have no choice but to discard their fully functioning products for new, better looking ones. This says something profound about the speaker’s opinion of consumers and they’re ability to think for themselves. The example she uses is lady’s shoes. She explains that the reason that thin heels and fat heels alternate years in popularity is because corporations want you to keep buying them. Corporations are so wicked that they actually provide products people want to buy. The worst part about it is that this activity contributes to the economy, creating jobs, increasing our standard of living.

-And pardon me for being pedantic. Media is plural. The media have, not the media has.-

According to her, this cycle is what is responsible for the decrease in happiness and the declining value of money in the US. She 's convinced it’s not a coincidence, yet correlation does not equal causation. She may want to take a minute and substantiate her claim. I’m glad I didn’t hold my breath. Could the decrease in happiness be attributed to a society and culture more aware and open to discuss psychological issues? Could it be that the psychology field has better means of testing and measuring people’s happiness? Is it possible that people are a little more willing to talk about depression than in 1950?? She mentions that people work longer hours for the same gain. Is this really true? Do people still live like they did in 1950? Same health care? Same quality transportation? She admits that house sizes have doubled since the 1970s, so wouldn’t it be more accurate to consider that? Could it be that more expensive, and traditionally limited to the upper class, products and services are ever more accessible to the average citizen that they are willing to work a little extra to bridge the gap? Could the increased cost of living be due to people stretching to do more, now that more is within reach? Perhaps it’s due to the monetary policies of the Federal Reserve? Oh no. It’s because people want new shoes.

And with more free time, people are choosing to watch TV and shop? The horror.

I can sympathize with a critique of how the general public spend their free time, but by this point, I’m so incredulous of this speaker I have a difficult time listening objectively. This is the crux of the problem with the bulk of the environmental/sustainability advocates. There’s a tremendous credibility gap, a characteristic pedigree of hyperbole, gross ignorance of the means of creating wealth, and a glaring obliviousness to the needs of the developing world.

In all fairness, some of their goals and intentions are good. It’s the ‘how’ part of it that they fumble. For starters:

End Federal subsidies. All of them, they will only be roadblocks in the future when newer, better more sustainable products and processes try to compete.

Enforce private property rights and encourage other nations to do the same. When I can claim in a court of law that company X has polluted my river, the cost of pollution will be internalized.

Encourage free trade and a free market. The developing world won’t care about clean water when the alternative is no water. Only trade helps them to develop their economies faster so they can reach a stage of luxury (like the west) where they can afford to worry about pollution. Saddling them with Protocols and regulations will only make it harder, slower and sometimes impossible.

Advertisement is not inherently evil. There’s a growing market for sustainable products/processes. Don’t alienate your potential allies.

Try and exercise critical thinking by rejecting exaggerated, inaccurate, emotional and dishonest propaganda. Lecturing people for wanting new shoes is the job of Luddite or Puritan and will only turn people off.

To Testudo Liberalis

First off, the concept of a finite planet is deceiving and inaccurate.

Well, we can change our habits, but it’s still a finite planet…

“I’m curious where in the Constitution or Declaration of Independence she finds this concept”

So, does that mean that the Constitution is the truth?

The fact that the US government isn’t taking care of us, doesn’t mean it isn’t possible. There are countries where they do quite a good job.
It’s when capitalism comes to play that the interests of the people get pushed to the background and personal interests are the focus.

It does no good to say that 50 years ago people used (x) amount of resources and today people use (x * x) amount without explaining that people fifty years ago were able to do (y) and people today can do (y * y * y).

That’s exactely what this video gets to. This is a finite planet… with more people doing more things, and buying more stuff, at some point there is going to be a major discrepancy between supply and demand. The message here is: maybe we should start living differently, buy only (y) if that’s what is really needed to make us happy (or function), and not go for (yyy) because advertising makes us believe we need it. People haven’t become happier because they can now buy (yyy). It’s all just an illusion.

Corporations are so wicked that they actually provide products people want to buy. The worst part about it is that this activity contributes to the economy, creating jobs, increasing our standard of living.

If corporations actually could depend on the customers being able to think for themselves, there woul’d need to be any need for advertising, would there? If this system contributes to an unsustainable economy, creates jobs where the worker gets bad conditions then that’s not a positive thing. And it doesn’t increase our standard of living, it will only surely increase our purchase power (at least for us lucky few here in the west). Standard of living also takes into account measures such as access and quality of health care, educational standards and social rights. There’s no guarantee that a strong economy / capitalism results in a high standard of living. Actually everything these days seems to prove otherwise. A strong and ethically sound government on the other hand…

advetising is exists to let people know if something exists in the most appealing manner, still up to the customer to decide to buy it after all. Health care, eductuation, take a trip to cuba for a real eye opener on that front, or ask a canadian who is in the US for a opertation because at “home” its a 2 year wait.

To Spark,

The earth is not finite in any sense relevant to this discussion. We are talking about resource scarcity. Given the human capacity for innovation, the total mass of a given resource is not relevant. The examples I provided illuminate this. You may address those if you like.

“So, does that mean that the Constitution is the truth?”

I did not say that. She was describing the role of the government and repeatedly used the US as an example. I’m curious as to her source material. If it is not the US founding documents, that is fine. I’d still like to know how she concluded that the government’s job is to ‘take care of us’ and why I should subscribe to that political philosophy. In other words, it isn’t an axiom or incantation made true by merely stating it.

“It’s when capitalism comes to play that the interests of the people get pushed to the background and personal interests are the focus.”

This frankly doesn’t make a lot of sense. How are interests of the people not personal interests and vice versa?

As for your next point:

a)you aren’t in a position to decide what makes other people happy
b)the major discrepency you describe was posited by Ehrlich in The Population Bomb. He’s been proven wrong.
c)advertising cannot make you do anything.
d)people aren’t happy because they can buy (yyy)? Should y=medical attention for your child, a life-flight to the hospital, a portable dialysis machine, etc I believe that’s no illusion. BTW, how is it that you know what makes people happy?

“If this system contributes to an unsustainable economy, creates jobs where the worker gets bad conditions then that’s not a positive thing.”

For some people bad conditions, by your standard, are an improvement over their current or previous conditions. I’ll leave that for them to determine. Also, that increase in purchasing power extends beyond the west. See: China, India

"There’s no guarantee that a strong economy / capitalism results in a high standard of living. "

No guarentee, only empirical evidence.

“Actually everything these days seems to prove otherwise.”

I’m genuinely curious about this, can you elaborate?

“A strong and ethically sound government on the other hand…”

Oy, Where to start…

I don’t want to be misunderstood. As I am an advocate of designing high quality sustainable products and I do agree that these environmental problems need to be addressed, I am deeply frustrated with the politicization of this topic. Governments are infamously the least efficient, least ethical institutions to have tackle any problem. Examples are so numerous I won’t waste anyone’s time listing them. What I find frustrating is that the mainstream environmental movement embraces this incompetent bohemoth not for it’s ability to solve problems, but specifically for it’s monopoly on the use of coercive force. This is sad enough. The second complaint is that they go a step further and insult the people they allegedly care about and denegrate the only allies, advertisers and businesses, capable of delivering their professed values in a way people want.

I simply cannot help but question their motives. Imposing one’s values by force betrays a fundamental lack of creativity.

Critique of the film: nice animation. good presentation. I didn’t like the typical hippy tone, because it would have made the 70% of people who don’t care close the window to another hippy guilt-trip.

Moreover, there was nothing new here. I could have read this in a book from the '60s. The names change, but the problems don’t.

Critique of the discussion: First of all, in a democracy, the citizens can decide how they want the government to contribute to society. Not surprisingly, there isn’t one capitalist country in the world. They are all mixed. The US has huge government companies (USPS, the armed forces, Amtrak).

Which brings me to healthcare. The US system is pretty ugly. First of all, it spends more per person than anywhere else, but doesn’t cover 16% of the population. Moreover, it wastes 12% of the money put into healthcare. That’s 4 times the waste in Canada and something like 10 times the waste in Germany, France or the UK. In fact, it’s 4 times the waste that exists in US Medicare, which is government run. So much for capitalism solving all problems. BTW, waste=profit. In other words, money spent that does not go to actually delivering the service.

This massive amount of waste, mixed with such hippy notions, such as requiring emergency rooms to take care of patients regardless of their ability to pay, has lead to ERs closing acrossing the US. That sounds like heaven.

In Canada, the citizens decided to exit this system. They took the profit out of the system to reduce costs, and spread the remaining cost across the entire population. By making everyone pay, it also reduces the amount of unnecessary procedures.* By doing this, Canada has a system that delivers excellent healthcare to its citizens within reasonable waits with few exceptions…nothing is perfect.

On a side note, when I lived in the US, I waited just as long at clinics as I have in Montreal. So much for getting more for your money.

I got tired of hearing trash talking about the Canadian system through outright lies and exceptional cases, so I posted a bunch more stuff on my blog if anyone is interested. Unlike most of the chain letters out there, I list my sources.

*I know this sounds like BS. It’s too complicated for me to explain on a forum. If you are really interested, read the book, “The Efficient Society” by Joseph Heath.


“First of all, in a democracy, the citizens can decide how they want the government to contribute to society.”

That statement is incorrect. In a democracy, the majority of citizens decide for the minority how they want the government to contribute to society. This is precisely why the US was established as a Constitutional Republic. Unfortunately, that is no longer the case due to the people’s eagerness to support presidents who have little respect for the constitution. It’s a terrible shame. To quote a tired cliché, democracy is two wolves and a lamb voting on what’s for dinner.

“Not surprisingly, there isn’t one capitalist country in the world.”

Correct. It is tragic, yet not surprising.

I said,

“Governments are infamously the least efficient, least ethical institutions to have tackle any problem.”

To which you replied

"The US has huge government companies (USPS, the armed forces, Amtrak). "


Anyway, there are a few fallacies in your comparisons between the US system, which by the way, is not an example of a capitalist system, and the Canadian system. What an individual spends on health care is an irrelevant statistic. I may spend three times what my neighbor spends on art per month. Meaningless. The percentage of income spent on a coequal procedure with a coequally trained, certified and insured doctor would be a much more interesting statistic.

Also that you conflate waste with profit is erroneous, they aren’t synonyms merely because you say they are. That profit encourages innovation by rewarding a producer for providing a good or service of greater value to the customer than competition, in a way that waste doesn’t, seems so obvious I feel embarrassed stating it.

“requiring emergency rooms to take care of patients regardless of their ability to pay”

“but doesn’t cover 16% of the population”

How do those statements make sense together? You apparently believe both.

You go on to explain how the costs are dispersed among the population. How is that just? An individual who eats well and exercises regularly has to pay to support an individual who smokes and drinks and sits on a couch? If you were to alleviate that discrepancy, would it not require the government keeping tabs on its citizen’s lifestyle habits?

(If you care to explain, please do not merely compare it to the US system. We’ve established that the US system is not representative of a capitalist system, and frankly, I’m less interested in nationalist bravado than in addressing this issue. The current US system is wretched, though I am not convinced that there are any better. Because we in the US are gearing up for some major changes, these issues of justice/invasion of privacy are prime for re-evaluation and of particular concern to me.)

The remainder of your post and the following one are mostly anecdotal. To be fair, I’ve heard more than my appetite of anecdotes from Canadians on both sides of the issue. The link you provided was helpful and I appreciate the addition of source material. Good blog you have.

Thank you for articulating more or less exactly what I thought while watching this shrill bit of propaganda.

I don’t think there’s a designer on earth would wouldn’t agree that we need to do more (a lot more) in regards to producing sustainable, responsibly produced products. And anyone who’s been paying attention can see that attitude starting to trickle down into the market, and from there into the heads of the people who tell us what to design. The change I’ve seen first hand in people’s attitudes over the last five years is startling.

But giving us scary boogeyman stories like this is only going to do more harm than good. When you turn a serious, scientifically sound factual premise into a vague and dubious attack on the entire system, you set the whole thing up to be another political talking point, to be argued over ad infinitum by our worthless politicians. You can see it headed that way already, and when that happens, you can kiss any chance at real change goodbye.

Making stuff has been the basis of the economy for the last 5,000 years or so, ever since we started specializing our labor and living in cities. What would the filmmaker have us do, if we can no longer create “stuff”? Go back to subsistence farming? Maybe after we execute 3/4 of the world’s population. I’ve got about 5000ft^2 I could use for growing food if I tear down the garage and cut down my trees. I suppose I could grow enough food to feed three people (not sure how I’d heat the house), but I’m going to have to say no thanks.

this video is excellent for all to understand the life cycle of a product…as many dont grasp where all their things come from.