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The Story of Stuff

August 31, 2010

Tags Free MarketsGlobal EconomyEntrepreneurship


I just walked through the house, and now I'm looking around the breakfast room where I type. One thing is certain: I have a lot of stuff. Last week, I helped one of my best friends move. As it turns out, he has a lot of stuff too.

I thought that how we produce, consume, and dispose of stuff was a fairly straightforward process. According to Annie Leonard, host of The Story of Stuff, I was wrong.

Leonard's video has become a hit on YouTube, with over one million views — and there is even a book now available.

The problem is, Annie Leonard could not be more wrong.

To begin, Leonard declares that the current method of producing "stuff" — extraction, production, distribution, consumption, and disposal — is in crisis. And what is her reason for this system being in crisis? She declares that

It's a linear system, and we live in a finite planet. And you cannot run a linear system on a finite planet indefinitely.

What? Semantically, this is nonsense. "Linear systems" are drawn all the time, by both computer and ruler. A line is what cannot exist in a finite plane, not a "linear system."

Poorly defined terms aside, Leonard — who, at that moment in the video, is briefly considering making her cartoon symbol of government into a tank — nearly gets it right when she says that in this system, some people matter more than others. Instead, however, she presses forward and laments the increasing size and importance of corporations, ignoring that the rise of corporations has been largely an outcome of consumer preferences.

The video continues on, and for a 20-minute video, the mistakes, inaccuracies, and all out untruths are too many to count. So, here is a top ten.

The Top Ten Things Annie Leonard Got Wrong In "The Story of Stuff"

1. Moving back to the beginning of her diagram, Leonard renames the "extraction" phase, "natural resource exploitation."

"Which is just a fancy word for trashing the planet," she continues. "We chop down trees, we blow up mountains to get the metals inside, we use up all the water, and we wipe out all the animals. … We are running out of resources. We are using too much stuff."

Really? "We are using too much stuff"? Compared to what? How Malthusian can Leonard be? One can grow tired repeating over and over the concept of the tragedy of the commons to those that are unable to think two steps ahead.

2. "In the US, we have less than 4 percent of our original forests left."

Wrong again. According to Global Forest Watch, approximately 24.7 percent of the United States' land area is forested. That makes Leonard's statistic impossible.[1]

3. Leonard later contends that the United States' response to consuming too much stuff is that it just takes someone else's: "[The third world,] some would say, is just another word for our stuff that got on someone else's land."

Who says that? Give me one example. Does entering into voluntary transactions with foreign nationals, where labor or raw materials may be cheaper, imply that? I think not.

4. "Seventy-five percent of global fisheries are fished at or beyond capacity."

Again, it would be helpful if Leonard understood the tragedy of the commons.

5. "In this system, if you don't own or buy a lot of stuff, you don't have value."

First, value is subjective. Second, if you don't produce that which your fellow man wants and values, you will be entitled to less of what he/she has taken the time to produce. How is that bad?

6. "What happens there [production] is that we use energy to mix toxic chemicals in with the natural resources to make toxic contaminated products."

That's it? That's all we need to know about the production of "stuff"? By what definition are all of these chemicals toxic? What is their rate of impact on health? What is the severity of their impact on health? I doubt it is actually common for truly toxic products to be produced and sold in the United States. Furthermore, I doubt many corporations would be in business for long if they sold them.

7. "How do [distributors] keep the prices down? Well they don't pay the store workers very much, and they skimp on health insurance every time they can. It's all about externalizing the cost."

"They don't pay workers very much." Compared to what? By disregarding the concept of the marginal productivity of labor, Annie Leonard displays her ignorance of even the most basic concepts in economics.

8. "Our primary identity is that of being consumers — not mothers, teachers, farmers, but consumers."

Is that true? What is Leonard's basis for such a statement? I know of no one, personally, that would identify themselves foremost in that way. And even if some people do, so what? Isn't that a moral judgment?

9. "President Eisenhower's Council of Economic Advisers chairman said that the American economy's purpose is to produce more consumer goods."

Leonard bemoans the statement, but the advisor was right! Everything is produced for consumption. The end result of all economic activity is consumption!

10. "Our national happiness peaked in the 1950s, the same time that this consumption mania exploded. Hmmm. Interesting coincidence," Leonard says, smiling.

Post hoc ergo propter hoc. Using the same foolish logic, I could say that Dwight Eisenhower's election as president caused Castro to take over Cuba.

In rebuttal to all ten points, we can say that the production, use, and disposal of "stuff" is not just a needless and wasteful re-sorting of raw materials. Leonard lacks any understanding of the benefits of voluntary transactions, the virtue in creation, and the value of capital accumulation. All voluntary transactions are beneficial. By definition! If one did not deem themselves better off by entering into a transaction, they simply would not enter it in the first place.[2]

$12 $10


In her claimed "ten years of study," all Annie Leonard learned how to do was be an environmental alarmist, political hack, and liar. How sad.

Not only is the entire video dishonest, vague, and devoid of any citation of sources, but your kids may be watching it at school. The website boasts that "The Story of Stuff is being used in classrooms all across the country and around the world."

They even offer faith-based programs for Christian and Jewish teens.

In the end, all that can be learned from The Story of Stuff is that Annie Leonard and the Tides Foundation, for which she speaks, need a week at Mises University even more than Paul Krugman.

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[1] Technically, Leonard's statistic could just be very misleading. If the United States was once 60 percent forest, and then sometime after the arrival of the settlers it hit an all-time low of 2 percent forest, then even though 24.7 percent of the land is currently forested, the United States would actually have "less than 4 percent of our original forests left."

[2] For a more eloquent portrayal of this point, see Jeffrey Tucker's article "A Society of Mutual Benefactors."

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