Thursday, February 28, 2008

Students at Campus Middle School for Girls explore “The Story of Stuff” with guest speaker William Sullivan

Students at Campus Middle School for Girls explore “The Story of Stuff” with guest speaker William Sullivan

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My seventh-grade daughter is a student at Campus Middle School for Girls, which is housed in the Wesley Foundation on the U of I Campus, and which residents of Champaign-Urbana may know by its former name, Home Hi. Once each year, the students and teachers at CMS set aside the regular curriculum for a week in order to explore a single topic in greater depth.

This year’s topic was global warming, and the week was packed with activity, everything from experiments demonstrating the greenhouse effect to tours of the U of I Waste Transfer Facility, and the newest super energy-efficient house being built by E-co Lab in Urbana.

The featured speaker for this week devoted to the study of global warming was Professor William Sullivan, Director of the Environmental Council at the U of I. But he came to his talk without the standard material we’ve come to expect in presentations on global warming—data about changes in mean temperature, pictures of retreating glaciers, charts projecting the rise in sea level.

Instead, he introduced his middle school audience to “The Story of Stuff,” a 20-minute video by Annie Leonard, which you can view on the web at

“The Story of Stuff” encourages people to look at environmental issues—including global warming—from a broader perspective than we often do, and in combination with other issues, especially social justice. Throughout the video, Leonard asserts that the degradation of the planet and the social inequities that characterize today’s world are outgrowths of the consumer culture that has come to dominate American life since the end of the Second World War.

Most of “The Story of Stuff” is devoted to recovering the details that are omitted in more conventional descriptions of how material goods are produced, consumed, distributed and disposed of. Leonard emphasizes that Americans are able to buy material goods at impossibly low prices because our economic system allows for the real costs involved in making them to be shifted onto other people around the world.

But “The Story of Stuff” also makes the point that consumerism isn’t even truly beneficial for the people who are doing the buying. Americans can buy more stuff now than ever before, but they pay for it by having less time for the things that really make people happy--family, friends, leisure.

All of this stuff about “stuff” is connected to global warming: each step in the life-cycle of material goods contributes to the problem.

I think my daughter and her classmates found “The Story of Stuff” a little unsettling—and I do, too—because it doesn’t end with a list of ten easy things you can do to save the planet. But it does introduce some systems that people are developing right now that offer more substantial hope for the future: things like green chemistry, renewable energy, and zero waste production. And in the end, the point of “The Story of Stuff”—and, I think, Bill Sullivan’s point in introducing it to my daughter’s class—was that people can come to grips with serious problems, and that in response they can create something new.