Monday, March 15, 2010

Story Time with Annie Leonard

If you have to have a neuroses, Annie Leonard, the brain behind "The Story of Stuff" who held a book reading at Politics & Prose here in DC yesterday, would recommend hers.

When she sees an item--be it a chair, an iPod, or a bottle of shampoo--she immediately thinks of all of the stages of its life, from the factories to the landfills--all of which she has visited over the past 20 years. These materials, what she calls "stuff," exist in a specific context for her, a context of which most of us have lost focus.

If you have not already seen Annie's video, "The Story of Stuff," click this link and watch it now---it is a valuable, informative, engaging 20-minutes summary and tutorial on the relationship between your life and the lives of the stuff you buy, including the laptop from which you are probably reading this.

Annie's video and her book, which provides more in-depth information, demonstrate how so many of the issues that we face are interconnected, and in order to make positive, lasting social change, we must understand this. Rather than trying to get someone else to work for your issue, show them why their issue and your issue are intrinsically the same, and then work together for the solution. The environment, workers' rights, the treatment of women and minorities, global poverty, and more are all caught up in this web of "shop-watch-buy" and its effects. Moreover, if you really cared about "family values," you should value quality time with your family over the endless cycle of material consumption. Just saying.

The value of Annie's message, moreover, is that it speaks to the heart--to that deep, vibrant core in all of us that wants to see a difference and make it happen.

One of the most commendable traits that Ms. Leonard embodies is persistence. She has been working for over 20 years on the issue of waste, one that has not gotten a lot of attention in comparison to more aesthetically pleasing of topics. However, one of the best lessons to learn is what her good friend and notable environmental advocate Van Jones told her: "It's good to be marginalized for 20 years. By the time people start listening to you, you've gotten really good at saying it."

Returning to the crux of the topic, however, two fundamental paradigm shifts lie at the heart of the solution:
1) Waste is not an essence: it's a location. If a can is sitting on the table, it is a can, but as soon as it gets thrown away, it becomes "trash" or "waste." Break the paradigm that says that all things must end up in the trash can; buy the products that have the least amount of packaging, and find creative ways to reuse what you end up with.

2) The revitalization of the "citizen" part of our identity to match and surpass the "consumer" part of identity. As members of any collective body, we engage with others as both consumers and citizens. From an early age, we are taught to consume, to participate in the rituals of shopping. However, the lessons of citizenship often get lost, and an engaged civil society , one imbued with the ability to think critically (perhaps the most valuable asset of all), is essential to any attempt at lasting change for the public interest.

"The Story of Stuff" will soon be followed by more videos because of its unexpected, but decidedly well-deserved, success of the first. Premiering on March 22nd (World Water Day) will be "The Story of Bottled Water," a tale of manufactured demand. Soon to come, as well, will be "The Story of Electronics" (planned obsolescence), "The Story of Cosmetics" (toxics), and "The Story of Corporations" (on the recent Supreme Court decision).

A quick, amusing after-note: During the Q&A session, one guy came up to the mike holding a disposable cup and asked her if she would sign it for him. She replied, "Only if you promise never to throw it away."

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