'The Story Of Stuff' | Chemical & Engineering News
Volume 87 Issue 31 | p. 4 | Letters
Issue Date: August 3, 2009

'The Story Of Stuff'

Department: Letters

I am surprised that Rudy Baum takes issue with the message of "The Story of Stuff" by Annie Leonard (C&EN, May 18, page 3). Yes, the message is inflammatory. Yes, it is over the top. But how do you capture the attention of a culture devoted to rampant consumption if you don't yell?

We are encouraged to "upgrade" our mobile phone, computer, television, etc., as soon as a newer better bigger version appears on the market. Because newer, bigger, better versions of these products appear almost monthly, we are encouraged to consume at a faster and faster rate. What is seldom, if ever, discussed is where all the material comes from to produce these things and what happens to them when we throw them away.

For example, to build computers, we need a host of heavy metals. The extraction of these metals, gold is very good example, often does lead to the "trashing of the planet." Mining practices around the world are widely noted as being especially destructive to local and remote environments, especially to water resources.

What happens when we decide after a couple of years that we don't need these computers anymore? They often end up as municipal waste in landfills where the metals can leach into water streams or, if incinerated, can end up in the air. If a computer is "recycled," components may go to China or India where people work outdoors without fume hoods or respirators while using woks and strong acids to extract the precious metals for resale. Yikes!

Yes, it is true that Leonard overstated the known neurotoxic impacts of brominated flame retardants. But, as noted in the same issue of C&EN on page 9, these compounds have been added to the list of chemicals in the Stockholm Convention on Persistent Organic Pollutants that should be phased out because of concerns regarding their carcinogenicity and impacts on reproduction and development and on immune and nervous systems. "The Story of Stuff" is a hammer to be sure, but you need a hammer to get a sleeping audience to wake up and realize what we are doing to this planet as we consume, consume, consume, without any understanding of the consequences of that consumption.

Alison Geyh

Although the context and content of "The Story of Stuff" is controversial, there is a lesson from its uptake and the impact it has had on millions of Americans. As an organization, ACS should take note of the lightning speed in which this video took hold, the enormous number of citizens who have been exposed to it, and the lasting power it has had in remaining mainstream.

We, as ACS members, should follow this lead and start educating in a similar fashion. We should produce simplified graphic representations of various processes and make accompanying videos to showcase the numerous principles and impacts of our industry. As a medicinal chemist at a research-intensive biotech company, I propose that we use graphics and videos to teach the drug discovery process to the world. The graphic could picture a patient in need, then cut to a lab research scene, then on to a depiction of safety studies, and finally show a bottle of pills being provided to the patient.

An accompanying video could be a time-lapse chronicle of a young scientist conducting research who becomes a middle-aged expert in his or her field and whose discoveries have a dramatic impact on patients. This would illustrate the years of experiments and testing and the millions of dollars that go into discovering a new drug. The video could be educational yet humorous, emotional, and dramatic.

Another graphic could illustrate the impact of science education: The first frame would be kids doing a chemistry experiment, the second frame would be an ivory tower and suggest the attainment of a degree in science or math, and the third frame would show some of the professions realized (doctors, engineers, professors, researchers, and environmentalists, etc.). These videos could change the way the public views chemistry.

ACS should actively counteract the misrepresentation of chemistry to the public and vigorously supply easy, straightforward, and wide-reaching venues so that anyone (like the 6 million folks who took a look at "The Story of Stuff") could learn about our industry and our efforts to better the world. Let's counter "The Story of Stuff" with our own educational blitz.

Stacie S. Canan
San Diego

Baum scolds Annie Leonard's short video, "The Story of Stuff," for its characterization of the use of brominated flame retardants; however, on page 9 in the same issue is an article on the addition of brominated flame retardants to the Stockholm Convention on Persistent Organic Pollutants because of their detrimental effects on the human body.

I am in complete agreement with the idea that the effects of certain chemicals should not be exaggerated or oversimplified and used as propaganda through scare-tactics (my apologies to flame-retardant pillow salespeople), but it is difficult to know what the true significance of a chemical's use or nonuse is when such contradictory statements are juxtaposed, especially in a nonpropaganda publication such as C&EN.

Patrick Frantom
New York City

While I was still an executive in industry, I tried to persuade my employers to undertake a proactive program aimed at clarifying for the public at large the many benefits that society has gained from chemistry, but none of them ever felt sufficiently strongly, nor did they want to spend any money in this endeavor. Hence, I formulated my own program.

As one of the speakers of the ACS Speaker Service, one of the talks I have offered is titled, "Chemistry-Good or Evil?" In it, I try to present a balanced picture of the problems that have been caused by chemicals (really, by the misuse of chemicals) and the numerous benefits that have accrued from chemicals. At the end of the talk, I invite attendees to spread the word. If we, ACS members, do not do it, nobody will. I think more of us should do something along these lines.

Peter R. Lantos
Erdenheim, Pa.

Chemistry lost in the court of public opinion a long time ago, especially in the U.S., with burning rivers, dioxin spills, and other industrial messes. Trust, once lost, is very hard to get back, and chemistry has lost it. But it has not lost respect. People still respect chemistry for the hard science it is, but the public's trust in the chemical industry and the safety of chemical compounds (natural or synthetic) is completely gone. The solution is not just more education, but rather dialogue and communication.

Scientists, in general, are not well trained in the liberal arts, so most of the time we fail at making our points in a passionate and emotional manner. Humans are a passionate and emotional species and are more often swayed by emotional pleas than by cold facts and logic. However, when facts are communicated effectively, people do pay attention.

Getting the public's attention means making catchy viral videos, speaking the language of the environmental movement, and talking to people directly. Scientists must ask, "What do you want science to do besides curl up and die?" We must also be willing to listen to criticism and to act on it rather than dismiss it out of hand. If people's concerns are baseless, we must take the time to be polite and show why concern is unfounded. We must be ready; it will take many attempts to get them to believe.

And finally, most important of all, we must start teaching chemists, young and old, the proper tools of the liberal arts. One can speak and write English fluently and still be a crappy communicator. By studying fiction, creative writing, and public speaking (oration), you can learn to make truly effective arguments. Scientific facts alone won't win an argument; you need convincing rhetoric to make your point.

Improving the poor public image of chemistry will require more communication about the centrality of chemistry and its contribution to life and less emphasis on chemicals. If you can't teach chemists to use the tools of the liberal arts, then start hiring liberal arts majors to communicate chemistry to the public. Otherwise you should give up now and stop being surprised when you're overtaken at every turn by catchy videos.

Alexander B. Morgan
Dayton, Ohio

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