As part of Earth Week, yesterday, Lawrence University had the pleasure of having the esteemed Annie Leonard, of The Story of Stuff fame, on campus. The Story of Stuff is a short internet film crafted by Leonard explaining the socio-political systems and factors driving our modern American materialistic culture of excessive consumerism and consumption. (See Leonard’s video here.)
Alright. I cannot reign in my enthusiasm while writing this post any longer. Annie Leonard was phenomenal! She was the most inspiring, energetic, fascinating, knowledgeable speaker on the subject of sustainability and environmental activism I have ever seen in my life! I not only got the opportunity to see her speak in the scheduled evening lecture, but I participated in a Q&A session earlier in the day, introduced her evening lecture, and got to go out to dinner with her afterwards! It was more than 6 full hours of pure inspiration!
(For those of you who missed Annie Leonard’s talk on The Story of Stuff, it was recorded and will soon be available through the Lawrence University website. As soon as it becomes available, I’ll be sure to link to it here!)
Annie talked primarily about how in today’s world, we increasingly turn to stuff and things as a replacement for human interaction and connection. College students, she said in last night’s address, tend to have “a surplus of friends and a deficit of stuff.” However, as we go through life, she continued, we begin to have fewer and fewer friends and more and more stuff. This results in a three-part problem in society, she says:
“We’re trashing the planet.
We’re trashing each other.
And we’re not even having any fun.”
There is so much more in her arguments, but the crux of it is this: Because of the deterioration of community, we’re buying more and more stuff that we don’t need and is full of toxic chemicals anyways. And in order to pay for this consumption, we’re working more and more, and have less and less time to enjoy ourselves. And, of course, all this stuff we buy uses tons of natural resources, the extraction of which is destroying ecosystems and causing massive ecological crises. So we’re destroying the planet, ourselves, and we’re not even enjoying ourselves in the meantime.
Annie’s thoughts and ideas are essentially the culmination and articulation of things I’ve been stewing over since the start of my undergrad. In today’s world, we are increasingly disconnected from other people and from the ecological reality of our planet. As community deteriorates–perpetuated by urban sprawl, large yards with fences to barricade us from our neighbors, store-to-door delivery of everything from books to groceries, and fear of crime–it becomes harder and harder to even know the name of your neighbor, much less create meaningful relationships. Our daily needs become farther and farther away from where we live and so we increasingly rely on the fossil-fueled car to take us to work, the shopping mall, the internet café, etc. All so we can work more to buy more stuff!
As I said in my introduction to Annie’s talk, modern society often measures how “successful” we are by how much “stuff” we have. This concept–often termed “keeping up with the Jones’”–is not at all unfamiliar to us: how many times has each of us looked at our neighbor’s house or pool and wished we had something “as nice as they did”? We are constantly seeking to prove our worth to those around us by how much we have–do we have the latest flat screen HDTV? Do we have the newest iPod? Is the car we drive fancy enough, new enough, big enough? Even proclaimed “environmentalists” often define their status and commitment to the cause by what they have: do you drive a Prius hybrid, or ride your bike?
But Annie Leonard (not to mention the many others with similar ideas–Paul Theobald, David Orr, Richard Louv, Paul Hawken, Amory Lovins, et al.) is not all about the doom and gloom inherent in the destruction of community and the environment. Ms. Leonard, especially, more than any others I’ve come in contact with, is a true optimist and makes it clear that there are so many things we can do to help.
“One of the good things about such a pervasive problem,” she said yesterday, “is that there’s a lot to be done in terms of solutions.”
We can be more conscious of what we buy and whether we need it. We can send letters, emails, make phone calls and visit our legislators lobbying to get the toxics out of all the stuff we buy. We can get internships, volunteer, or work for the many organizations designed to help develop and implement solutions to these socio-ecological crises. We can talk to our neighbors and figure out how to share things so we don’t need to buy as much stuff for ourselves. We can start thinking about how to redesign the system.
One of the many tools people can use to start making a difference is Wiser Earth. Created by Paul Hawken, Wiser Earth is an open-source, wiki-based networking site for individuals, organizations, resources, solutions–everything dedicated to creating a sustainable earth. I recommend that everyone get connected on this website, and start finding the people in your area dedicated to sustainability and community activism. Then we can connect with each other, get organized, and start formulating plans for how to start the sustainability revolution!
My Wiser Earth page.
Endnote: For those who are hungry to know more about The Story of Stuff and the deeper reasons behind our consumerist society, Annie Leonard is fast at work on a book to accompany the internet version of The Story of Stuff. It is set to be published March 9, 2010, and I can’t wait to read it!
(This entry was originally published in Jess’ personal blog, Adventures In Sustainability, found at: http://adventuresinsustainability.wordpress.com/)