What my seventh-grade daughter learned during her school’s ‘sustainability day’

Jim Huffman Dean Emeritus, Lewis & Clark Law School
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A few weeks ago, my seventh-grade daughter’s school put regular classes on hold for a “sustainability day.” One of the things they did during this reprieve from the rigors of math, history and English was watch a video titled “The Story of Stuff,” starring Annie Leonard and lots of animated illustrations. The video has been around since 2007. It has had about 2 million YouTube and goodness knows how many voluntary and involuntary classroom viewers. Leonard even bagged an interview on “The Colbert Report,” though she was so humorless that Colbert appears to have cut the interview short.

If you haven’t seen the video, here are a few highlights:

  • Our materials economy (extraction, production, distribution, consumption, disposal) is a linear system on a finite planet and that does not work (Is that because the planet is round and a line is straight?)
  • Extraction equals natural resource exploitation equals “trashing the planet”
  • Over just the last three decades, one-third of the earth’s “natural resource space” has been consumed (So is the earth one-third smaller than it was in 1980?)
  • Less than 4% of the original forests in the United States still exist
  • The United States takes other people’s stuff
  • Production involves mixing toxics with natural resources to make toxic products
  • The highest level of toxics occur in human breast milk (though it is somehow still safe to drink)
  • Victor LeBow (you can look him up on Wikipedia) invented conspicuous consumption
  • The point of advertising is to make us unhappy so we will consume more stuff
  • Low prices, at the expense of low wages and no health care for workers, keep us buying more stuff

You get the idea. We are destroying the planet because we have been convinced that the only way to have value as human beings is to consume as much or more than the other guy. By way of illustration, Leonard explains how women are duped into constantly buying new shoes. (Hint: it has to do with the size of the heels.)

But that’s not my favorite part of Ms. Leonard’s version of “Apocalypse Now.” The best part is this: “It is government’s job to watch out for us, take care of us, that’s their job.”

Maybe Annie Leonard should join the Obama campaign staff with an eye to becoming Lisa Jackson’s successor as administrator of the Environmental Protection Agency. This kind of talent should not be wasted on a few million YouTube viewers. Or maybe she could become secretary of education and develop a national curriculum to teach students about the role of government. We already have nearly half the population paying no federal income taxes, but many of them may not understand that, nonetheless, it’s government’s job to take care of them.

It helps that Leonard is oblivious to the facts. Only 4% of our original forests remain? There are more forests in the United States today than when Europeans arrived thanks to the Native American practice of burning vast areas to promote hunting and agriculture. We are fast running out of natural resources? Apparently Leonard is too young to have heard of the Julian Simon-Paul Ehrlich wager on the future price of copper, chromium, nickel, tin and tungsten. Ehrlich lost, and not because demand declined. And Leonard is unfazed in reporting (and illustrating with cute drawings) that the pillows young people sleep on have been dipped in toxics to prevent kids’ heads from catching on fire.

The bad news is that Leonard’s little project has been so successful that she now has a staff and has produced other fanciful videos about bottled water, cap and trade, Citizens United, cosmetics, electronics and how we’re not really too broke to finance all manner of government good works.

The good news is that my daughter found “The Story of Stuff” laughable. But she thinks some of her classmates have abandoned their pillows. After all, they heard it at school.

Jim Huffman is the dean emeritus of Lewis & Clark Law School, the co-founder of Northwest Free Press and a member of the Hoover Institution’s De Nault Task Force on Property Rights, Freedom and Prosperity.