Propaganda 101: Keep It Accurate

“Propaganda, to be effective, must be believed. To be believed, it must be credible. To be credible, it must be true.”* But what happens if the facts are skewed, estimated, or simply not true? Though still labeled “propaganda,” it transforms into something far more corrupting: an excuse for your friends to believe lies and for your enemies to ignore the truth.

That’s what we have with The Story of Stuff, an animated explanation of how America’s rampant consumerism is destroying the planet. This video, which has been labeled “cautionary” and “anticapitalist,” is purportedly all the rage with American teachers seeking current, entertaining resources to supplement their curriculum. I’ve watched it twice and read through some of the supporting materials on the site. My conclusion: It’s a great, lost opportunity. (And, I hope all those teachers accompany the showing with a straight-talk discussion.)

The themes and lessons presented by narrator Annie Leonard are deeply sobering, and preach a dire lesson about the true cost—in damage to the environment, public health, and human life—of our overconsumption. Tragically, some of the most shocking points—those that make you think “surely that can’t be true!”—turn out to be imprecisely presented. Here are a few:

  • Extraction is defined as “a fancy word for trashing the planet.” This means every industry that exploits (i.e., “uses”) natural resources for their product—from sea salt to blood diamonds—is a global vandal? No more paper for you.
  • “More than 50% of our federal tax money is now going to the military.” This estimate includes NASA, veterans benefits, military-related spending by other depts. (e.g., State, Energy, Homeland Security), 80% of the interest on the national debt, and an extra $162 billion to offset the government’s “misleading” 2009 cost estimates.
  • “In the United States, we have less than 4% of our original forests left.” Her source phrases it more clearly: “95–98% of forests in the continental United States have been logged at least once since settlement by Europeans.” So we still have more than 4% of our original forestland, but most of it has been logged since the mid-1600s.
  • “The food at the top of the food chain with the highest levels of many toxic contaminants [is] human breast milk.” A shocking fact, but apparently not as bad as it sounds because she then says, “Now breastfeeding is still best and mothers should definitely keep breastfeeding.” The simplest way to reconcile these opposing concepts is to discount one of them.
  • While discussing consumer shopping habits, and showing a person surrounded with goods they purchased, she says “99 percent of the stuff we run through this system is trashed within 6 months.” Despite the context and visuals, her footnote defines the word “stuff” here as the “upstream waste created in the extraction, production, packaging, transportation and selling of all the stuff you bought.” Consumers don’t actually throw away 99 percent of their purchases within six months.
  • “Our national happiness peaked sometime in the 1950s, the same time as this consumption mania exploded. Hmmm. Interesting coincidence.” Her suggestion comes across as a post hoc fallacy because she avoids labeling consumption mania as a contributing factor to national unhappiness—along with other possible factors such as television viewing, pornography, recreational drug use, irreligiousness, etc. (choose your scapegoat).

The great tragedy here—and the reason this video irritates instead of motivates—is that her core facts don’t need embellishment. They’re appalling all on their own. But this sort of glossy simplification not only props up eco-evangelists with precarious arguments, it gives unbelievers an excuse to disregard the entire message, to everyone’s loss.

Ian Smith blogs for Gemstone Media, located in Boise, Idaho.

* Quote by Hubert H. Humphrey.

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