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Annie Leonard on Life After Stuff

Annie Leonard reveals what gives her strength, even as she and her popular film, The Story of Stuff, are attacked as un-American.
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Annie Leonard portrait, photo by Lane Hartwell

Environmental activist Annie Leonard visits a Berkeley park that is on a reclaimed landfill. Her 2007 animated film has had 7.5 million views and inspired millions to rethink the consumer economy.

Photo by Lane Hartwell for YES! Magazine.

I’ve spent much of the past two decades visiting factories where our stuff is made and dumps where it is disposed of around the world. After years of seeing firsthand the often hidden environmental, social, and health impacts of all the stuff we consume, I’ve developed a sort of neurosis: When I look at a product—a disposable coffee cup, a cell phone, a piece of clothing—its entire life cycle flashes before my eyes.

Instinctively, some part of my brain runs through images of oil fields in Ogoniland, garment factories in Port-au-Prince, factories in Gujarat, ships crisscrossing the ocean, and dumps here and abroad. It’s a fascinating neurosis to have, but to be honest, it has been lonely sometimes. While many friends and colleagues work on more photogenic issues like rainforest preservation or more visible issues like social inequity, I have often been alone in my fascination with trash. No longer.

It’s true: I do love exploring garbage, visiting dumps, and rifling through trash cans in new cities. But for me, garbage never has been the end point; it is an entree to much deeper economic, social, and environmental issues—the same issues that many are working to address. Over the years, I’ve learned that we can’t solve the waste problem by working only on waste. We must examine the economic and cultural forces that drive such massive waste production and somehow make it seem tolerable. In the same way, we can’t solve the climate crisis, resource depletion, or social injustice until we see what’s driving those problems. And when we look deep enough, we see that many of the drivers are the same.

While I once felt like a marginalized garbage-nut, I now realize I am part of a massive community of people, all over the world, who know deep in our hearts that something is wrong.

Looking deeper can be hard and intimidating. It is much easier to call for a forest to be saved or a toxic chemical to be eliminated from consumer products than it is to ask the tough questions about how we’re treating each other and the planet.

In late 2007, Free Range Studios and I made an animated film, The Story of Stuff, which sought to spark conversation about the hidden impacts of the stuff we consume. Our hope was that The Story of Stuff would inspire viewers to think about the underlying connections among a range of issues and to think big about alternatives beyond individual campaigns. Since we posted the film online at www.storyofstuff.org, viewers in some 200 countries and territories have visited the site more than 7.5 million times. The film has been shown in universities, churches, and community meetings, and even on television. The response has amazed me in two ways.

The Story of Stuff film poster

WATCH THE FILM: A fun and fact-filled look at our production and consumption patterns.

First, I’m inspired and delighted by the breadth and volume of positive feedback. We’ve been flooded with emails from people for whom the film resonated. Many have written to thank us for articulating something they felt but couldn’t quite express. We’ve heard from people new to these issues, who tell us that the film turned on a light switch of awareness, motivating them to rethink their relationship to stuff. And we’ve heard from longtime activists who’ve worked on one piece of the materials economy for years without thinking much about the broader system.

One day I received emails from both an Oxford University economics professor and a fourth-grader from Michigan. The professor, originally from India, explained that in Punjab there is an expression: to enclose the ocean in a bowl. “The Story of Stuff,” he said “covers so much that it encloses the ocean in a bowl.” The fourth-grader, who had seen the film in class, said The Story of Stuff was “totally awesome” and filled the page with dozens of electronic smiley faces.

We’ve heard from people who have incorporated The Story of Stuff into teaching curricula, who have written songs or created puppet shows based on it, and who have organized neighborhood stuff swaps inspired by the newfound desire to have less stuff and more community.

While I once felt like a marginalized garbage-nut, I now realize I am part of a massive community of people, all over the world, who know deep in our hearts that something is wrong. Our economy is off track. Half the world’s population lives on less than $2.50 a day, unable to meet basic needs, while a handful of people amass obscene levels of wealth. Our industries convert the planet’s resources into wastelands while pumping out toxic chemicals so pervasive that they are now present in every body, even in those of newborn infants. And our culture encourages us to find fulfillment in rampant consumerism rather than compassion and connection.

The outpouring of support has shown me that many, many people recognize these problems and want change—enough to actually make that change! It’s not just a few little pockets of us in eco-hotspots. All around the world, parents, students, farmers, activists, religious leaders, writers, engineers, scientists, fisher folk, businesspeople, and many others are standing up, speaking out, calling for a new kind of economy and culture that serves the planet and its people, rather than sacrifices these for the economic benefit of the few. So, in spite of the dire data on the state of the planet, I find myself more full of hope than ever. I am not alone.

We are not alone.

At the same time, another response has surprised me. This one is much smaller, but makes up in viciousness what it lacks in both size and critical reflection. Since the film’s launch, both it and I have been accused of being anti-American and of terrorizing viewers. I’ve even been called “Marx in a ponytail.” I’ve received hate mail, with messages such as “you should move to a mud hut in Afghanistan if you don’t like stuff” and “you’re a traitor for questioning consumption.” There’s even a blog discussing the best physical violence I deserve for daring to raise these issues.

Every leader I admire throughout history has faced far greater threats than Fox News talk show hosts.

These responses make me sad, not so much for me, but for the sorry state of discourse in this country. What does it mean for our country if one must endure such hatred for raising important issues about resource depletion, toxic chemicals, worker safety, economic justice, and overconsumption? Why is it not seen as a service to our country to point out where we’ve gone astray, where our economic and industrial system is no longer serving the vast majority of the country’s—or the planet’s—people? Why is it so unacceptable to say, “We could do better”? Isn’t saying so a sign of respect? Of hope?

I know we can do better. We can design and make our products without trashing the environment or our health. We can share the planet’s resources more fairly. We can replace a culture of out-of-control consumerism with one of wonder and appreciation for this phenomenal planet and the people with whom we share it.

Now that I know how many people share this vision, I am more confident than ever that we can bring about this transition. And now that I’ve seen the viciousness of the resistance firsthand, I see more clearly the structural and cultural obstacles we’ll face.

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But for those seeking to make the world a better place, facing resistance is nothing new. Every leader I admire throughout history has faced far greater threats than Fox News talk show hosts. We’ll succeed if we keep our focus on the end goal—building a sustainable and just society.

A first step in that direction is advancing a rational, informed, and respectful conversation about what is and is not working in our current economic and industrial system. There are many things that simply aren’t working, yet these issues remain beyond the attention of mainstream media and elected officials. We’ve got to turn up the volume on these conversations and refuse to let the attacks on us stifle discussion and dissent.

So write articles and blogs, ask questions in classes and church, visit elected officials, and raise these issues everywhere you go. With climate change as severe as it is, the future of the planet as we know it is at stake. Now would be a good time to get people to start talking about solutions. The Story of Stuff Project is going to continue doing our part to turn up the volume on these discussions. We’re partnering with allied organizations to produce new films and launch an interactive website that allows viewers to share information and take collective action.

We need to be courageous, we need to support each other moving forward, and we need to stay focused, think big, and love strong. And, in doing so, we won’t be alone.


Annie LeonardAnnie Leonard wrote this article for Climate Action, the Winter 2010 issue of YES! Magazine. Annie is the director of the Berkeley, California-based Story of Stuff Project. Her book, a follow-up to the film, is scheduled to be released in 2010. On December 1, 2009, Annie Leonard and Free Range Studios released her next film: The Story of Cap and Trade.

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