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Annie Leonard's Story of Change

By Daniel Noll

Annie Leonard is a filmmaker and sustainability advocate most famous for her animated film project The Story of Stuff, which chronicles the lifecycle of consumer goods from creation, distribution, consumption to disposal. In her closing keynote at SXSW Eco, she gave a rousing speech that brought many in the audience to tears as she rallied the audience to believe again in the power of community and government to create change.

Leonard began her talk by painting a bleak picture of the path and future direction our planet is taking. Almost every important trend, she argues — from income inequality, to environmental health, hunger, and disease, is going in the wrong direction. Moreover, degradation of our physical environment is correlating with social problems like isolation, depression, and loneliness. Leonard’s bottom line is that our economy is unsustainable. We’re wasting too much stuff and bumping up against the ecological limits that our planet is capable of supporting. One metric of planetary overuse is a statistic put out by the Global Footprint Network, which estimates that we are currently consuming 1.5 times the amount of goods the earth is capable of supporting. Whether the figure is 1.5 or 1.4 doesn’t matter, Leonard argues, anything over one is a serious issue.

Leonard matches this bleak landscape with a bullish characterization of technological and social solutions that hold the promise of rescuing us from this path. Much of the harm that comes as a byproduct of chemical and other manufactured goods are unintended harms. Our awareness of these harms is leading scientists — in chemistry for example — to develop new compounds and materials that achieve the same objectives of current solutions in ways that mitigate problems like toxic overexposure.

At the heart of Leonard’s solution is her insight that most people around the world care about the environment and hold similar values. She argues that most people want clean water and clean air and support the EPA’s ability to regulate how much pollution companies can put into our ecosystem (73 percent in one poll, to be exact). This type of support is much higher than what existed during the abolitionist movement or civil rights movements. So why aren’t we making more progress?  Why aren’t people moving from knowing to taking action?

Leonard argues that many of the fracture points in our political discourse do not accurately reflect public opinion, but rather have been skewed by corporations that have too much power. From advertising in public spaces to financial contributions to politicians, corporations with an economic bottom line have wrestled control of our policymaking process from concerned citizens. Corporations have succeeded, intentionally or unintentionally, in, effectively, paralyzing public participation in our society. As a society, Leonard continues, we’ve forgotten how to make change and what it means to come together as a society.

Every day we are bombarded by advertisements and stimuli that are sophisticated tools for nurturing our internal processes as consumers. This “consumer muscle” gets a lot of exercise and as a result lives strong in all of us. On the other hand, our “citizen muscle,” the one that is represents our ability to effectively engage as members of a society, has atrophied. What is often pointed to as individual-level “solutions” to helping the environment — using canvas grocery bags, installing high efficiency light bulbs, riding your bike to work, and composting — are all good things, but amount to little more than modern adult hygiene. Leonard argues that these solutions are not scalable to the magnitude of the problems that stand before us. For real change to occur, citizens must exercise their largest power by becoming active in the community and in the halls of government.

Leonard’s plea for civic engagement reminded the audience that they have the potential to build the power to win. Sometimes between the obscure legal jargon of legislation and the stigma surrounding politics we forget that it’s about an exciting concept: power. And that’s exactly what’s at stake. Without engaged citizens, the strings of power are left in the control of corporations who cannot and do not express the same values that people hold. Furthermore, Leonard points out that there are personal benefits inherent to becoming involved and working together. It is common-sense (and academically verified) that working together and engaging with people adds meaning, joy and friends to our lives.

As her address (and the conference) drew to a close, it was evident on the faces of most in the audience that her message had hit a nerve.  You could argue that much of this was due to the fact that Leonard was preaching to the choir given the venue. “There’s a reason you preach to the choice,” Leonard said seeming to anticipate this argument. “You preach to the choir to hone your arguments and motivate the base. Let’s Go!”