Crusader exposing impact of consumerism
By Tony Hicks
McClatchy-Tribune News Service
WALNUT CREEK, Calif. — Annie Leonard knows trash. The force behind the viral video "The Story of Stuff" and one of Time Magazine's 2008 "Heroes of the Environment," she is obsessed with what we throw away and why we have so much of it.
"My goal is to make the invisible visible and have people think more comprehensively about life," said Leonard, from the back seat of a car somewhere between Portland and Seattle, where she grew up.
Leonard, a Berkeley, Calif., resident and mother of a 10-year-old daughter, is on the road promoting her new book "The Story of Stuff: How Our Obsession Is Trashing the Planet, Our Communities, and Our Health — and a Vision for Change." (Free Press).
"All this stuff came from somewhere. And it goes somewhere," she said. "Everyone should visit a landfill."
Visiting more than 30 countries over more than a decade, she's seen firsthand the impact of consumerism on the environment and human health.
Toxic chemicals are used in everything, she said, from electronics to pillow cases, without much thought to the latent effects on humans. Compounding the problem is a relentless demand for new clothes, electronics and other consumer goods, otherwise known as "planned obsolescence." When we buy the new stuff, the old stuff goes into landfills or gets incinerated, releasing toxins into the air.
"Products are not safe," she said. "Products are made to be disposed of as fast as possible."
Leonard's 20-minute video uses cartoon stick figures ("I watched a lot of 'Schoolhouse Rock' making this") to demonstrate the linear progression of "stuff," from the extraction of resources, to the factory, to the store, to the consumer and, finally, to the landfill.
Since its release online in December 2007, the video has garnered more than 8 million hits and she's been featured in Time, USA Today and last month on "The Colbert Report."
Her solutions to the problem aren't limited to recycling. She digs deeper, questioning the amount of usage to begin with, and posing the core question — does having more stuff really make us happier?
In addition to her firsthand experience, Leonard's expertise comes from working in Washington, D.C., for Ralph Nader and a number of environmental and consumer groups, including Greenpeace. In doing so, she's become a lightning rod for the political right.
Conservatives target her point that it's the government's job to help its people rather than cater to big business. Specifically, a line in her video — "It's the government's job to take care of us" — has critics accusing her of being a socialist, among other things.
"In hindsight, I probably shouldn't have said that," she said. "(But) I think we need government. All these corporations have shown they can't be relied upon to do the right thing ... the government should make (using toxins) illegal."
Leonard gets trashed by such conservatives as Lou Dobbs and Glenn Beck, among others, for what they call her anti-consumerism, anti-American stance. Bloggers accuse her of focusing only on what America consumes instead of what it produces (one of her main points: with 5 percent of the world's population, the U.S. consumes 30 percent of the Earth's resources).
Some say she exaggerates the effect of chemicals used in electronics and that she ignores the fact that some technological advances she accuses of being part of "planned obsolescence" (flat-screen TVs, for example) lead to products that actually use less energy.
Her critics, she said, are missing the point.
"These crazy people who say I'm undermining the fabric of our country — it's a lack of deeper thinking," Leonard said. "I'm not anti-stuff. I want us to value the stuff we have."
SO MANY STORIES
What helps counterbalance the attacks is knowing she's changing lives.
"It's amazing. A lot of people talk to us about major changes in their lives, thanks to 'The Story of Stuff,' " she said. "Sometimes it surprises us, because nothing in the film is new. We have so many stories. One woman last night said they moved to a smaller house and got rid of stuff they didn't need because of it."
She has followed up "The Story of Stuff" video with several sequels, including one about plastic bottles and another explaining the concept of emissions cap-and-trade. One of her goals now is to get the word out to as many schools as possible.
"What's amazing is that it's being used in schools, from elementary schools to Oxford," she said. "We're working on curriculum based on facing the future."
Leonard's overall goal, simply put, is to save the world. But is there time?
"I don't know," she said. "I'm positive we're going to change, but right now we're using 1 1/4 planet's (worth of resources). It's not a good trajectory. We can't continue this indifference."
Still, she's hopeful "because I know it's solvable."