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Unstuff It
Annie Leonard discusses her new book and why individual action isn’t enough to save the planet.

Annie Leonard
Christy McDonald

By now Annie Leonard’s story has been told, from a childhood spent in the outdoors of the Pacific Northwest to a job with Greenpeace working to prevent rich countries from sending their garbage to poor countries. Her movie, The Story of Stuff, took the Internet by storm: It’s been viewed eight million times and has generated hundreds of thousands of questions (click here to see the video). Two years later this environmentalist crusader is out with a book by the same name. At the pace Leonard’s moving now—touring the country, partnering with faith-based organizations, making movies about bottled water and electronics and a plethora of other topics—it seems there’s no stopping her. Audubon caught up with this garbage master.

Click here to read a review of her new book, The Story of Stuff: How Our Obsession With Stuff Is Trashing the Planet, Our Communities, and Our Health—And a Vision for Change.

Audubon: The information in your book, statistic upon overwhelming statistic, can be depressing en masse. How does it not bog you down?
Leonard: I think it is super exciting because there are so many things we can do to make it better. That’s why I don’t get depressed actually. It’s amazing stuff, from green chemists developing entirely new molecules that are not dangerous, to electrical designers who are figuring out how to make things without toxic chemicals. On every front, so much exciting work is being done.

Your book seems to suggest that we’re beyond individuals making a real difference, that it’s up to corporations and the government now.
If you look at the list of 10 things we could do to save the planet, if everybody did those 10 things, it still wouldn’t be enough. I’m interested in seeing people engage in this as a citizen rather than a consumer. We have two parts to our identities: The consumer part and the citizen part. The consumer part of our identity, it’s very well developed, spoken to, and nurtured and validated from day one. The citizen part has atrophied.

Right now solutions are limited and predetermined by forces outside of stores. Children’s pajamas are doused in toxic chemicals. I could go around to every parent I know saying, “Don’t buy these pajamas.” Or we could just change the laws so that children’s pajamas aren’t dripping in toxic chemicals.
Not every person has in them that activist spirit or motivation. 
I don’t think you have to be an activist. It’s about engaging in an active society.

I’m also not saying we shouldn’t do those individual things. I compost. I drive a solar-powered electric car, carry my own bags to the store, ride my bike. I definitely advocate them. They’re definitely better for the planet, better for workers in factories. But we shouldn’t think that that’s political action. The 10 simple things you can do to save the planet don’t work. In reality, the change that we need is much deeper and bigger.

Why do you think The Story of Stuff movie became such a viral Internet sensation?
It was the right message at the right time. There’s a growing sense of unease. People know things aren’t right. The plants in the garden are acting differently than they have before. The price of gas is so high. People don’t feel safe letting their kids play outside even though they used to play outside themselves. Everywhere you turn, there are signs that things aren’t working right. The movie provided a framework and explanation for why that is.

What’s different about the book?
The book has a lot more details, more info, more solutions, more ideas about what people can do to change, and finally, more personal stories. In the film, it’s so fast. In the book, I explain more.

How do you respond to criticism? Like when Glenn Beck critiqued The Story of Stuff on his show and website calling it an “anti-capitalist tale” with “virtually no facts correct”?
It depends on who’s doing the criticizing. If somebody’s criticizing me about actual facts, I’m all for that. [But] Glenn Beck, for example, he has a show, he’s a performer, he’s doing his thing.

So will we change enough to save this planet?
We’re definitely going to change. Change is inevitable. The question is not if. Right now, we’re using one-and-a-half the resources of our planet. We can’t use one-and-a-half planet’s worth of resources indefinitely. The question is, will we change by design or default?

If we change by design, we can be so much more intense, compassionate, and intelligent. If we change by default, we’re still going to have to change, but it’s going to be so much uglier and violent and unpleasant. If we’re proactive about it, we can make changes that make our lives better.

Americans have so much stuff, but we’re working like dogs. This is not what my life is for. I want to consume less. Let’s consume less and put our time and resources into a better-quality life for everybody. One thing I have going for me is that people aren’t having fun.

For a review of Annie Leonard’s book, click here.


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