Schoolteachers turning kids anti-capitalist with 'Story of Stuff'

A recent episode of Speaking of Faith on NPR discussed children's spiritual development and the guest, a rabbi, noted that schools do a very good job of teaching children to be "workers and consumers" (but not much else). A little 20-minute online video could very well change that, if a story in Monday's New York Times is to be believed.

The Story of Stuff, a well-designed and straightforward video by Annie Leonard, tells a tale of how our consumption habits, planned obsolescence, and general materialistic race to out-Jones the Joneses, is impacting the planet, both in climate change and with the stultifying enormity of landfills and littered waste we create.

I watched it as part of a passionate, somewhat preachy introductory workshop called "Sustainable Living on a Budget," and went home vowing to buy all my food in bulk with containers I was re-using. I even re-coil from plastic produce bags at farmer's market stands, balancing potatoes and apples in my arms before dumping them awkwardly into my re-usable tote bag now. So you can imagine how this impacts the kids whose teachers are using the video to make up gaps in science curriculum.

According to one educator quoted in the Times, a freshman textbook required for Global Studies only has three paragraphs on climate change; so he recommends the 600,000 educators who subscribe to his emailed newsletter use the Story of Stuff to supplement the text. Over 7,000 schools, churches and other organizations have ordered the DVD, and hundreds more teachers have emailed Leonard to tell her they had assigned their students to view the video online.

With a nine-year-old on record as re-thinking a purchase of Legos (will he really use them for a long time?), this is scary stuff. So scary, in fact, that one Montana parent complained -- "there's not one positive thing about capitalism in the whole thing," said Mark Zuber -- and got the video pulled off his high schooler's curriculum.

It's not the first time a video aimed (at least in part) at children has been accused of the twin evils of eco-oversensitivity and anti-capitalism; the Disney-Pixar film WALL-E, while on the surface just a cute picture about robots, is really a "blatant" and "egregious" depiction of "environmentalist, anticapitalist, and antitechnological propaganda," according to Gennady Stolyarov II.

Why are these animated pieces of propaganda targeted at kids, and why are we going along with it? Perhaps it's a signal that foretells the economy to come. If Alex P. Keaton was the role model of today's young-to-middlin' adult (c'mon, admit it), today's role model is a little robot who fights against fast food, energy drinks, conformity and garbage.

Today's child is not, after all, focused on how recycling is going to change the planet; that was the message playing loudly in the soundtrack of my public school education and just see how that worked for us (hullo, Great Pacific Garbage Patch). Today's child has realized that we can't continue the unblinking production-disposal cycle and is ready to cut back on consumption.

Even if that means fewer Legos.

As my six-year-old son, Everett, said the other day, when I told him I'd rather have him buy a pack of Pokemon cards than a candy bar: "you must really hate sugar!" The very idea that I'd allow him to buy a new toy (packaged in excessive amounts of plastic and cardboard and a foil wrapper to boot) was a shock indeed.

Whether or not you agree with the themes of this video, it's what the kids these days are watching. In a decade or so, the idea that schools teach kids to be good consumers may have been turned totally on its ear. Manufacturers would do well to re-think the durability, craftsmanship, and packaging of their products before a new generation of anti-capitalist consumers does the thinking for them.

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