Campus Life Editor
Annie Leonard, Greenpeace activist and co-director of the movie The Story of Stuff, spoke at this week’s Common Hour about environmental sustainability and the ways in which current consumer habits are harming the ecosystem and personal happiness.
Leonard spent the past 20 years working for Greenpeace, traveling to more than 40 countries to explore environmental issues and meet with communities, governments, and businesses to learn about how the products Americans buy are produced and disposed.
The Story of Stuff, a 20-minute film Leonard directed, explores the production, use, and disposal of the products people use and has been viewed more than 20 million times. The film describes factories around the world where products are made, the disposal sites where they are dumped, and the environmental, social, economic, and emotional impacts of this process.
Leonard grew up in Seattle, WA in an environmentally-aware family. While attending college in New York City, she walked past shoulder-high piles of garbage lined along sidewalks waiting for pick-up.
“I was totally mesmerized by this,” Leonard said. “So I started wondering, ‘What is in all those bags?’ And so that’s where I picked up the habit I still have of looking in garbage wherever I go. You can learn so much about what that community prioritizes, what they value, how they spend their days.”
After college, Leonard began working for Greenpeace, where she tracked how America disposes of its waste around the world. Greenpeace focuses on providing incentives and motivation for people and governments to produce less waste, instead of just focusing on dealing with tons of garbage once it is produced. The organization wants to make it as expensive, politically unpopular, and strictly regulated to dispose of garbage as possible, to try to deter its production.
Through her travel and research, Leonard discovered that much of the U.S.’s waste is shipped abroad to developing countries and dumped, with great cost to the environment and the societies where the waste is deposited.
“There was a company in New Jersey that had mercury waste it didn’t want to deal with here,” Leonard said. “So they sent it to South Africa. It leaked into a river that ran through a town, which people were using for washing and bathing. We tested the soil sediment in the river, and the toxic levels were 8,600 times what would be classified as hazardous waste. It was an outrage.”
In the U.S., incineration, which is the process of burning trash to reduce its volume, is one of the most popular ways to dispose of garbage. However, this is a very harmful process because toxic chemicals are produced in the gas that comes off the burning trash and are released into the environment.
Much electronic waste is still being exported to China and developing countries in Africa that have much less stringent environmental protection laws than the U.S. does.
Leonard produced The Story of Stuff film to try to engage people in these environmental and consumerism issues. The film attracted a much larger audience than Leonard expected, and she said it has been viewed in every country in the world.
“Just last week I met rag pickers from Bogota [Colombia] who are very poor and support themselves by collecting garbage on the streets,” Leonard said. “They were so excited to meet me, and they said they had used principles from The Story of Stuff when organizing other rag pickers in Bogota. It was amazing.”
In addition, Leonard identified three major issues with the current system.
“We are trashing the planet, we are trashing each other, and we are not even having fun while doing it,” Leonard said. “So why not look for a different way of doing things?”
In terms of trashing the planet, people are draining the world of its natural resources by using them to produce all the products humans consume.
“We have one planet, and we have to learn to stay within the limits of that one planet,” Leonard said. “We’re going to start undermining the systems that replenish the Earth. We cannot use more than the planet regenerates every single year.”
In saying humans are trashing each other, Leonard explained that U.S. companies are regularly putting toxic chemicals in their products. Many of these chemicals are known to cause cancer, birth defects, and neurological diseases, yet they are being put into food, furniture, and clothes.
“We now all carry a load of toxic chemicals in our bodies,” Leonard said. “A study was recently done on the umbilical cord blood of newborn babies in the U.S., and it was found that, on average, the babies had 260 industrial and agricultural chemicals in their blood. Our babies are being born pre-polluted. Isn’t that too far?”
Leonard argued we need to focus on the policy-makers and laws that limit chemical use by large companies because it is essentially impossible for individuals to protect themselves from the chemicals as they are so prevalent.
Leonard also explained that countless studies are showing happiness levels are declining, especially in the U.S., meaning people are not enjoying their excessive consumption.
“It turns out the things that most make us happy are not things,” Leonard said. “Once your basic needs are met, the things that most make us happy are the quality of our social relationships, leisure time with friends and family, having a sense of meaning and purpose in our life, and coming together with others to achieve a common goal.”
Leonard argued there is a spectrum in life, with one end representing people who have large amounts of stuff but little sense of community and the other end representing people with less stuff but a greater sense of community.
“It’s lonely at the low-community high-stuff end of the spectrum,” Leonard said. “So what if you have a new couch and flat screen television if you don’t have a bunch of friends to watch it with.”
Questions from the audience ranged from why proposed legislation in California that would have labeled genetically-modified foods was unable to pass to whether technological innovation can solve environmental problems.
Although Leonard said she is generally optimistic about the human ability to work to solve these problems, she is becoming worried that people are forgetting how to make expansive social change.
“People are thinking of individual lifestyle and consumer change — like riding a bicycle, and using reusable bags — but not systemic changes [to protect the environment],” Leonard said. “We have really infantilized and personalized our ability to respond to the enormous challenge we have.”
Leonard argued focusing only on minor, individual changes people can make on their own distracts from the harder but much more important conversations people need to have about the structural drivers to these environmental problems.
“We have every single thing we need to build a healthy, sustainable, fair, and fun society,” Leonard said. “We have technological innovation and policy models that we know will work, but the one thing we are missing is engaged citizens. It’s not a fact that most people don’t know or care about the environmental issues. We really can build a better future, but we need everyone to build that future together.”
Questions? Email Julia at firstname.lastname@example.org.