Viral Video 'The Story of Stuff' Is Full of Misleading Numbers

Al Gore may have an Oscar, a Grammy and a Nobel Prize on the mantle of his solar-powered, carbon-free fireplace, but he's being one-upped by a controversial environmental activist named Annie Leonard.

The California-based filmmaker has an online hit with "The Story of Stuff," a 20-minute video that is being used in thousands of schools to explain America's dangerous obsession with material things — and one that some critics are calling a misleading diatribe against capitalism.

The Story of Stuff's kid-friendly illustrations and easy delivery have endeared it to environmentalists and educators alike. Six million people have watched the video in 11 translations on its Web site,, and millions more have seen it on YouTube. It's also available on DVD, and a book is on the way.

But some teachers are starting to worry over the one-sided nature of the presentation.

A school district in Montana recently voted to ban it for violating its regulations on bias. Other critics have called it a "firehose of paranoia" meant to scare children into becoming environmental activists. They say the video romanticizes poverty in its attack on industrial nations and corporations.

"This is community college Marxism in a pony tail," said Chris Horner, a senior fellow at the Competitive Enterprise Institute.

Leonard says she's presenting the facts, and she defends using her work as a teaching tool.

"A lot of what's in the film was already out there," she told the New York Times, "but the style of the animation makes it easy to watch. It is a nice counterbalance to the starkness of the facts."

Stark? Yes. Correct? Not exactly.

Here's a look at some of the scariest figures Leonard cites in her movie that are misleading or just plain wrong.

Misleading: "Where I live, in the United States, we have less than 4 percent of our original forests left."

• The U.S. Forest Service reports that 33 percent of the nation is forested, and that the number has been stable for about 100 years. It sounds like Leonard is saying that 96 percent of our forests have been cut down, but what she's really saying is that some trees have been cut down at some point in the last 400 years in nearly every forest.

Misleading: "80 percent of the planet's original forests are gone."

• The U.N. reports that 30 percent of the earth's land surface is forested. Though many areas have been logged, the film seems to imply that 80 percent of forests are now gone, which is untrue. Though still a substantial environmental problem, the U.N. reports that the rate of deforestation is going down.

False: "Of the largest 100 economies on earth now, 51 are corporations."

• According to a 2002 study at the University of Leuven in Belgium, that number should be about 37. And even the largest corporation is tiny compared to some of the world's biggest economies — Exxon, the biggest of all, is 1/200th the size of the U.S. economy. The error came about because environmentalists were comparing the sales of corporations to the GDP of nations, which aren't comparable.

Misleading: "75 percent of global fisheries now are fished at or beyond capacity."

• According to the U.N.'s Food and Agriculture Organization, 24 percent of the fisheries they're monitoring are over-exploited or depleted. Fifty-two percent are being fished at or near capacity, which means fish stocks aren't going up, but they won't necessarily go down either.

Though Leonard could not be reached for comment, the team behind the video told that they stand by the numbers in the film. The forest numbers were accurate, they said, because newly planted trees don't provide "the same ecological and biodiversity services which an intact old growth forest does, thus the differentiation between original forests and plantations.

"We think the film provides a much needed systemic perspective on the current ecological crisis," they wrote.