Annie Leonard is a Barnard graduate (wahoo!) who has become a mastermind behind our system of “stuff”. While attending college in New York City and witnessing mountains of trash piled on the curb, she took a trip to Fresh Kills Landfill and was astounded by our economy of waste. She started researching the path of our “stuff” and has since spent over 10 years investigating where our products come from, where they go when we’re through with them, and what their overall impact is on all of us. She created an hour-long talk on “The Story of Stuff” which in 2007, was compacted into an illustrated 21-minute video. That video has since had over 15 million views in over 200 countries, making it one of the most well-known environmental videos of all time!
Annie’s belief is that in our current western lifestyle, we’re trashing the planet, we’re trashing each other, and we’re not even having fun. We’re at an “ecological brink” of disaster on a lot of issues and by 2050, we’ll be living over 500% above the planet’s resources. Communities across the world are suffering environmental and health damage to make our products and then bearing the burden of our hazardous trash when it’s shipped back to them. We’re spending the majority of our time watching tv and shopping, which often doesn’t give us lasting happiness (it’s been found that the key factors to happiness beyond basic fundamental needs are: having purpose or meaning in life, having strong social relationships, and spending leisure time with friends or family). We have become consumers first and everything that used to be provided by the community and social interaction has been commodified. As a result, we have to work more to get more stuff, which now has become a burden to us. Our stuff owns us.
Annie has looked further into this issue to discover that our increasing identification with material objects and our ability to purchase them (thank you advertising!) is connected to a broader phenomenon in which corporations in this country have made our society and government serve them above the population. As Annie says, our tax money has been “hijacked” to subsidize a whole manner of unsustainable practices and industries that aren’t good for anything in the long run except the corporation’s profits (for example, why are we granting oil and gas companies $10 million in subsidies every year when ExxonMobil alone made over $10 billion in profits in 2011??) We’re financing processes that pollute people and the environment with our own tax dollars- we’re essentially paying these corporations to destroy the planet. And with the 2010 Citizens United v. FEC Supreme Court decision, in which 5 Justices decided that corporations can essentially pay as much money as they want to influence our votes, the corporation’s control of our government has increased all the more.
So what does Annie suggest? She recommends that we 1) reclaim our power and identity as citizens, first and foremost; 2) reduce the quantity of what we consume (and also, in hand, aim for better quality as to lengthen the lives of our products); 3) demand more from our tax dollars (after all, it’s our money!), and 4) increase our social connections in our communities. Our democracy was built to serve us, not corporations (in fact, corporations used to be disbanded once they had concluded their projects!) Our priority is to engage as citizens, not to consume (look where focusing mostly on consumption has gotten us today- we’re working more hours, our houses are filled with crap and we’re constantly schlepping). With so much focus on consumption, Annie believes our social fabric is deteriorating- and banding together as a group can fix that. She says that heroes are just “regular people who get involved in making this world better”. We can all be heroes.
To learn more about Annie’s Story of Stuff and various projects, watch her fun, illustrated videos: