Environmental pied piper Annie Leonard’s 20-minute teaching video The Story of Stuff got five minutes of frantic Fox News treatment a few days ago — which means it’s making an impact out there in the wilds of America. New York Times Education writer Leslie Kaufman, writing about it on Sunday, noted that six million people have viewed the film on the Story of Stuff web site, millions more have seen it on YouTube, over 7,000 schools, churches and others have ordered a DVD version, and Facing the Future, a sustainability and global issues curriculum developer for schools in all 50 states, is drafting lesson plans based on the video. Kaufman calls it “a sleeper hit in classrooms across the nation.” She also notes its critics, including a Montana school board that decided against showing the video “after a parent complained that its message was anticapitalist.”
Fox’s liberal media watchers apparently took the Times story as a cue to do a segment on it, so they invited Allegheny College environmental studies prof Michael Maniates and the American Enterprise Institute’s global warming skeptic Chris Horner to debate it for a full, well, not quite five minutes. (If the environmental studies field had its academic stars, Maniates would be one of them, alongside David Orr, Gus Speth, and a few others. That list alone makes me want to ask: where are ES’s Judith Butlers and Donna Haraways? But that’s a topic for another conversation.)
Horner describes the video as an “abysmal” marriage of Malthus and Marx — “community college Marxism in a ponytail” (sounds scary, doesn’t it?) — and claims that it “terrorizes children into rejecting the prosperity that will allow them to live into their 70s or likely 80s in America as opposed to their 40s if they’re lucky in Haiti or 50s in India — these poor societies that we idolize and romanticize through philosophies like this, which [...] were disproven some time ago.”
It’s that very connection between us living into our 80s here and the Haitians and Indians living only to their 50s ‘there’ that the video is so good at thematizing. Despite its oversimplification of the details, Leonard’s video captures the systemic interconnections between ecology, industrial growth, human rights and social justice, and corporate globalization in ways that’s nearly impossible in twenty minutes. It’s not a marriage of Malthus and Marx — calling it that is just Horner’s attempt to make it seem both dated and dangerous, though he may be shooting himself in the foot, since most Fox viewers aren’t likely to know much about either of them. It’s really a simplified ‘for-kids’ version of a pretty current synthesis of ecological economics (and industrial ecology) with world systems theory and political economy — or, in a word, political ecology.
One of Maniates’s points (one of the few he’s allowed to make in such a short segment) is that the video is being greeted well not only by the environmental left but also by parts of the right. You can see a bit of that on the Christianity Today blog, for instance (though I’m not sure how ‘right’ they are). Some interesting critical discussion of the video can also be found on tech-geek Andy Brain’s blog.