Interview with Annie Leonard
Her Story of Stuff animations have been viewed over 36 million times. Now, in her latest short film, US environmental advocate Annie Leonard looks at social change itself. She argues that we need to do much more than alter our shopping habits.
There are so many complex problems with the way we live – how can we make sense of it all?
While the details are complicated, the big picture is not: we are using more resources than the planet can regenerate and creating more waste than it can assimilate each year. We’re simply using too much stuff. We’re stressing ecosystems’ ability to maintain the conditions conducive to life. That’s a pretty big problem; in fact, I can’t imagine a bigger one.
Globally, we’re now using 1.5 planet’s worth of productive capacity each year. We can’t use more than the planet can replace each year – especially with a growing population. It’s not a good trajectory. We need to use less stuff, we need to use less toxic stuff and we need to share more.
Can you explain your idea of the “citizen” and “consumer” muscles?
Each of us today has two parts of ourselves – a consumer part and a citizen part. It is like we have two muscles to use to get things done. We are called on to use the consumer muscle many times a day, starting at a very young age. Our consumer muscle is spoken to, validated, nurtured so much that it has become our primary way of relating to each other and our primary identity. Media often uses the word “people” and “consumers” interchangeably as though that is our primary role. As a result, we’re really good at being consumers. We know how to find any products, where to get the best deal, and how to navigate today’s complex shopping options.
At the same time, our citizen muscles have atrophied. In the U.S. where I live, most people don’t even vote – the most basic act of engaged citizenship! We don’t know who makes decisions about issues we care about, or if we do, we don’t know how to influence them. Many of us have checked out of our democracies, leaving them open to the corporations whose political influence keeps increasing.
In this context, when we’re faced with problems as gigantic as disruption of the global climate or babies being born pre-polluted with 250 industrial chemicals already in their blood, many of us can only think to respond with our consumer muscles. So we stress about buying the least toxic products, driving fuel-efficient cars and changing our light bulbs. While those are all good things to do, they aren’t commensurate with the scale of the problem. The decisions that have the greatest impact are not those made in the supermarket aisles, but those made in the halls of government and boardrooms of businesses – and that’s where we need to be using our citizen muscles to work for bigger, bolder change. Because the moment sure merits it. We’re not going to be able to shop our way to sustainability.
People only have so much time and energy. How should we prioritise reducing our personal or household footprint with taking part in some kind of community or political action?
I do think it is important to make responsible choices at home, but I don’t recommend trying to living eco-perfectly because it is impossible in today’s society and economy that are set up to facilitate unecological choices. Yes, we should each do what we can to reduce our impacts, but our time and energy have far bigger impact when applied to making policy or structural change. For example, don’t beat yourself up for driving if taking public transport would take 4 times as long or isn’t available. Just drive, and then use that extra time to advocate for more public funding of efficient mass transit so people want to use it. We need to change our policies and infrastructure so that doing the right thing is the easiest immediate option. If our economy and community were set up to support environmental health, the polluters have to go out of their way to pollute.
The Story of Change is a big call to action. Can you give some examples of practical first steps that people can start with?
There are many immediate things we can do in our own lives: compost, share with friends instead of buy things we need, grow our own food. Those are all good places to start, but they are terrible places to stop. We need to then move from making change in our kitchens to making change in our communities. Pick an issue that excites you. Better bike lanes? Ending government subsidies for the super profitable coal industry? Figuring out how to reduce packaging? Investments in clean energy? It’s always easier – and more fun – to do things with others. So once you have figured out what you want to work on, join with a friend or call an organization working on this issue.
The most important thing is to choose an issue and engagement strategy that feels right to you. Some people prefer to organize protests in the streets, others to educate children, others to use art to share environmental messages. There are as many ways to get involved as there are people. If we choose the right one for us, working for a better world is an incredibly rewarding way to spend our days. If we try to force ourselves to do something that isn’t a good match, then this work is a chore. It is going to be a long hard struggle ahead, so chose something you love. If you’re not sure, try a few things, shop around!
Once you decide what issues light your fire, then connect with others who share this passion. There are lots of online platforms – such as wiserearth.org – to find others who share your concerns. Connecting with people already active on the issue can speed up your learning curve. And if you can’t find a group working on the issue you want to address, you may have to start your own.
Your movie talks about civil disobedience in the great social movements of the past. But a lot of people are wary about it. Can you explain a little about the history civil disobedience and its place in the environmental movement today?
I don’t advocate civil disobedience lightly. It’s not where I would recommend starting. First, try the existing avenues of democratic participation. Try education, persuasion, campaigns, collaboration and litigation. And if all else fails, it’s time for civil disobedience.
Civil disobedience has a long and noble history in social movements around the world, from Gandhi’s movement for Indian independence to Martin Luther King Jr. and the U.S. civil rights movement to the South African Anti-apartheid struggle.
Today we face the biggest challenge humanity has ever faced. Our use of fossil fuels has dangerously altered the entire planet’s climate, threatening millions and millions of people immediately and potentially destroying the planet’s ability to sustain life. That is a really big problem. It’s the kind of problem that everyone – citizens, elected leaders and business people – should be collaborating around to solve. Yet, in the decades that we have known about this risk, elected leaders have dragged their feet and fossil fuel companies have obstructed solutions. We have tried education, persuasion, campaigning and litigation. We are running out of both options and time.
There are many many things we can and should do, from promoting renewable energies to localizing food production. However, this problem is too big to solve with pockets of sustainability advocates living green. We need governments to lead and businesses to help – or at least get out of the way. If none of the conventional change tactics work, then we’re left with sitting back and watching our incredible planet deteriorate, or engaging in civil disobedience to force change. If any cause ever justified civil disobedience, preserving the ability to live on the planet is it.
Can you explain some of the changes in your thinking over time, as someone who's been working on these issues for so long?
I’ve been working on these issues for 25 years, so my thinking has evolved in many ways. I’ll share one big one here: when I went to college to study environmental science – 30 years ago!! – I thought that being an environmental advocate was optional. It was one option among many. Some people would contribute to the world by making music, others by finding cures for horrible diseases, and some would work for the environment.
Over the past 3 decades, the environmental problems have gotten so much worse, that now I realize we all have to be environmentalists wherever we find ourselves; we all have to pitch in to help build a better future. If you’re a doctor, explore the environmental links to disease and make sure your hospital’s practices aren’t adding to the problem (for example, with polluting medical waste incinerators.) If you’re an artist, leverage those skills to inspire people to action. If you’re an architect, design your buildings to be net energy producers, to recycle grey water, to be as ecological as possible. This is an all-hands-on-deck moment; we need to work together in every way we collectively can.
Read this article about Annie Leonard’s Story of Change.