Our stuff, our planet

Pub date April 6, 2010
WriterSarah Phelan
SectionGreen City


Annie Leonard, author of The Story of Stuff (Free Press, 2010), sat in her office in Berkeley explaining why we must direct our energy toward making policy and reforming laws, not just individual green lifestyles, to avoid destroying the planet.

Leonard recalled how, at a recent reading to promote her book, she was presented with the claim that people in Berkeley are environmentally superior to other folks. “But people shouldn’t point the finger at other individuals unless those individuals are the heads of Chevron, Dow Chemical, Disney, Fox News, Halliburton, McDonald’s, Shell, or the World Bank,” Leonard warned.

Her point is that the planet’s biggest problems are systemic, not a result of personal choices. “Because our choices are limited to the forces outside the store. We have this big illusion of that ‘free market,’ but I can’t choose pajamas for my kid without them containing neurotoxins because of the law. And I cannot choose an electrical appliance that lasts for more than a year. The overall structure encourages people to use toxics. We have to start looking at these harder issues,” she said. “It’s so easy to think it’s an individual’s fault.”

Leonard’s quest to shine some cleansing light on the toxic effects of capitalism started with her short film, The Story of Stuff, which became an Internet sensation with more than 10 million viewings. It showed how our obsession with buying stuff is trashing our planet, communities, and health, thanks to the hidden costs in how we organize our economy.

Her book goes into the details of how these costs come at the expense of millions of people who live and work in dangerous, unhealthy circumstances. Leonard isn’t saying that people shouldn’t be responsible and smart in their individual and household actions. But she is critical of the idea that we can solve the problems caused by “our take-make-waste paradigm” entirely through green living.

“Unfortunately, there are no 10 easy things individuals can do to save the planet,” Leonard said. “We definitely should engage in these actions, as long as we don’t let them lull us into a false sense of accomplishment or let the effort of maintaining this constant, uptight, rigorous green screen on our life exhaust us. And as long as taking these actions doesn’t stand in the way of engaging in the broader political arena for real change.”

Leonard includes a list of “recommended individual actions” in her book, but it’s tucked behind examples of “promising policies, reforms, and laws” and ahead of a sample political letter warning that “PVC is the most hazardous plastic at all stages of its lifecycle.”

What worries Leonard is that the planet is already bumping up against ecological limits. “If we don’t change, we’ll have change forced upon us,” she said. “If change is by design, it’ll be much more compassionate and strategic. If it’s by default, it’ll be a lot uglier, a lot more violent, and a lot less fair.”

Leonard says our planetary problem stems from approaching product purchases as if we were exempt from the ecological system. “If you think as a consumer, you want the best product and the best price. But if you think as a citizen, you want what’s best for your community, your environment.

“We all know how to be good consumers, but our citizen muscle has atrophied,” she added. “That has limited our ability to know how to solve problems. And often environmental victories here become problems elsewhere, like e-waste that gets taken to third world countries.”

Fox News has labeled Leonard anticapitalist, describing her as “Karl Marx with a ponytail.” But Leonard stresses that she is not anti-stuff, just stuff that trashes the planet, poisons people, and that people confuse with personal self-worth.

“I’m pro stuff,” she said. “But I want us to have a reverence for it, to ask, ‘Who made this, and where did it come from?’ Because someone mixed those metals, felled that forest. And I’ve become fascinated by why folks in the U.S. can’t talk about capitalism. It’s the economic system that must not be named. It’s like we’re in an ice cream shop that serves only one flavor and we’re not allowed to look over the counter.”