Wednesday, May 13, 2009

The Story of Stuff: a study guide

A year and a half ago, Annie Leonard released The Story of Stuff, a 20-minute video about the dangers of over-consumption. It "has become a sleeper hit in classrooms across the nation," Leslie Kaufman wrote in Sunday's New York Times: "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."

Critics object to the video's negative portrayal of big business, inaccuracies, and oversimplification. Even if you agree with Leonard’s main point—that we buy far too much, and that this is bad for us, for others, and for the earth—you may find the video unnecessarily confrontational.

Like it or not, chances are your kids (friends, relatives, coworkers) are going to watch this video, and it may come soon to a church near you. Stick with it, even if the first three minutes appall you. Leonard raises issues that Christians are already discussing (see, for example, the discussion of fair trade at the Ten Thousand Villages web site) and that we need to talk more about with our kids. For example:
  • Let’s assume that some businesses do operate for the benefit of humankind and the earth. How do these businesses care for the environment? What are their policies on work hours? Wages? Health benefits? Child labor? The products they make? The way they market their products?
  • Can a business care for the environment and its employees and still make a profit?
  • How much of my identity is related to things I buy? Which of my purchases have made me happier? Am I happier today because of anything I bought last year?
My parish offers a two-year class in church history, and today we read an encyclical letter, “On the Development of Peoples,” written by Pope Paul VI in 1967. Noting that justice “calls for great generosity, willing sacrifice and diligent effort,” he made the discussion personal:
  • Are we “prepared to support, at [our] own expense, projects and undertakings designed to help the needy?
  • [Are we] prepared to pay higher taxes so that public authorities may expand their efforts in the work of development?
  • [Are we] prepared to pay more for imported goods, so that the foreign producer may make a fairer profit?”
After thinking about these questions for a while, read the New Testament letter of James. It sounds like it was written directly to us.

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