Annie Leonard: originally didn't want to live in Berkeley because she thought she would go soft.

Annie Leonard says Americans are so obsessed with stuff that we’re trashing our planet, without making ourselves all that happy. Leonard, a writer and activist who lives in Berkeley, spends her workday exploring what happens to stuff and educating the rest of us on how we can put the brakes on conspicuous consumption.

Leonard traveled the globe for ten years, discovering all aspects of stuff, and produced an animated 20-minute video called The Story of Stuff that became an internet sensation — viewed over 10 million times in over 200 countries. The response to the video produced so many e-mails and questions, that she followed that up with a book, also called  The Story of Stuff, published in March this year.

Jane Tierney sat down with the author last week and talked about why Leonard was worried living in Berkeley would make her go soft, why garbage feeds her soul and why we don’t all need a bundt pan.

You have talked about being neurotic about the lifecycle of stuff. Is there one particular type of stuff that makes for a more compelling case than another?

One of the top culprits is the production of electronics. It’s incredibly destructive. The mining of metals is linked to civil wars and human rights abuses in the Congo, and incredible environmental degradation. It’s responsible for the destruction of indigenous people’s habitat, and water supplies in Indonesia and South Africa. The production of metals used for electronics used to be in Silicon Valley, until people figured out how dangerous it was, and it moved to China. And these people [in developing countries] are showing up with increased cancer and birth defects.

And then there is the consumption of electronics, because of the speed with which we buy and chuck these things. The only product with a shorter life span than a cell phone is an ice cream cone! We just chuck them so fast. The average lifespan of a cell phone is less than a year. And most are still working. They have an over-identification as a status symbol.

I’m not against stuff. I’m against stuff that trashes the planet, or that poisons people, or with which we identify our sense of self-worth. Electronics have become such a premier status symbol that people buy them as a fashion accessory, rather than a usable item. Our e-waste is going to Africa, Asia. I’d say there’s room for vast improvements in the toxicity, and the out-of-control frenzy of our electronics. Our demand to electronics companies is: make them safe, make them last. We have a new film coming out on November 9th called The Story of Electronics.

Living in Berkeley, do you feel you are less isolated in your awareness of stuff?

Absolutely, and that’s good and bad. I’ve lived elsewhere in the world and didn’t feel like I was surrounded by allies. For a while, I didn’t want to live in Berkeley because I thought I would get too soft. We lived in “third world” countries for a number of years, and when we would come to visit our friends in Berkeley, I was worried that not seeing the day-to-day injustices of the world, I would grow soft.

Then I reached a point where I felt my sense of hope and optimism were getting chipped away. So I felt I needed to come here to get replenished. It’s true it’s softer here. It’s one of the most privileged places on the planet. And it puts the onus on us to leverage our privilege to change the world and make it a better place. One could go around in Berkeley and not think there’s a problem. Life’s looking pretty good right here. I feel enormously privileged, and also vigilant. There are a lot of people out there who don’t have it as good as us.

Berkeley prides itself on its awareness and participation in reducing, reusing and recycling. Is there anything in particular, that you want to increase awareness about in Berkeley?

I love the waste program here. It’s a very different kind of recycling here in Berkeley than anywhere in the nation, because it’s run by a non-profit organization. There’s just a few around the country: Boulder, Ann Arbor. Most others are run by big private companies who make a profit on moving the garbage or recycling from one place to another. They’re invested in continued wasting.

Berkeley’s program has a different goal: not to recycle more, but to waste less. If your goal is recycle more, you love it when people go out and buy more bottled water. They want you to have more single-use disposable waste. It creates more profit. The Berkeley Ecology Center‘s goal is to waste less, not recycle more. It’s a much more holistic vision. It’s a more community oriented rather than personal profit vision. They’re just absolutely fabulous!

Recycling is not always green. It still has an environmental impact. It’s still better to reduce and avoid waste, rather than recycle it. A lot of people think, I can get that, it’s recyclable, and chuck it into the bin. There’s a reason “recycle” is last in that mantra of “reduce, reuse, recycle.” It’s an admission of defeat. It shows you were not clever or careful enough to avoid using that material in the first place.

You’ve said “We’re trashing the planet, trashing each other, and we’re not even having fun. Let’s try something different.” Is there anything positive we as Berkeleyans can do to to improve our community and neighborhoods?

I get excited about solutions to this problem: there’s co-op sharing of tools and equipment by neighbors. Berkeley Library has the Tool Lending Library. The things that will make us happier, and rebuild our communities, and make us have more fun, are the very things that can reduce the pressure on the environment.

Where I live in Berkeley, on just one block, we share a pick-up truck, a swing set, a barbecue, tools, sporting equipment. We all know who has a fax machine, and a scanner. When I have a need for something, I can look first to my community. I don’t have to buy another ladder, when my neighbor has a ladder. I don’t have to work the extra hours to pay for that ladder. I don’t have to have a bigger house to put that ladder in. We’re just so buried with our stuff.

The new paradigm about stuff is about access, not ownership. That’s why things like Zip Car are growing. We don’t all need a wheel barrow, a lawn mower, a bundt pan. But you can’t share unless you know your neighbors. Borrowing requires you to talk, and that builds community. And that’s something I think we need more of. We need to decide whether we want to keep paying to amass more stuff, which requires more money, or invest in community.

You’ve said that “we are working longer than any industrialized country. This brings us more stuff, fewer friends. . . What is the value of a new Pottery Barn dining room table if you don’t have a gang of friends and neighbors to crowd around it?”

There’s a great website that analyzes time. It’s called Take Back Your Time. We’re exhausted, on both ends of the economic system. We’re having some serious problems with obesity, gout, that are a result of over-consumption. And on the poverty end of the spectrum, more people are poor than ever before.

We have measurements for consumption and manufacturing, such as the Gross Domestic Product, or GDP. What are some measurements of the health of our community that are not based on consumption?

One is the Genuine Progress Indicator, or GPI. It looks at the economy, but it also looks at the health of our children, water, air and biological systems that sustain life. Up to a point, increased economic activity benefits well being. And then they start to diverge. GDP is not the end goal. It’s one tool towards the end goal, which must be a healthy planet, healthy communities, happy people. As long as increased GDP leads to those, let’s keep doing it.But when it starts to undermine our real goals, we need to examine that.

There’s another one called the Happy Planet Index, created by the New Economics Foundation in London. It’s a measurement of how well different world economies convert resources into human well being. None of them are perfect, but anything that looks at something besides just money changing hands and resources used. That’s no longer a measurement of how well we’re doing as a society.

Every time we have a BP oil spill, a car crash, every new prison built, the GDP goes up. And the GDP rising is considered a good thing. But is that a good thing? The GDP doesn’t distinguish between good production and bad. It doesn’t measure community volunteers, or neighbors helping neighbors.

Initially you had the film, which you produced locally. Then you expanded on that with the book: The Story of Stuff. How has the book been received nationally, internationally?

It’s much easier to watch a 20-minute film, so we reached a lot more people with the film. The book is a much more serious effort. After the film came out, I received over 100,000 emails asking me questions. Initially, I was so excited. I’d been working on this for 20 years and no-one wanted to talk about it. I actually tried to stay up all night and answer them. We’re still getting 10,000 views a day.

I realized I needed a different way. So I wrote the book in response to all the emails. Most people wanted to know the personal: how did you learn all this? Did you really spend ten years traveling the world? People wanted to know more about solutions. The book outlines that more clearly with signs of hope and another way. It’s not about getting depressed, it’s about finding another way.

Do you see the message as universal?

I started this internationally with a fabulous coalition of people. This summer, I spoke in Beirut, Lebanon, Bangkok, Thailand, and Nantucket, MA. I took a suitcase of books, thinking people wouldn’t have them locally. But in each place, people brought their own copies! It’s been translated into dozens of languages and Google Analytics shows that people in 223 countries and territories have seen the film.

Food is a big part of the Berkeley scene. What about food? Do you plan on “The Story of Food”, or do you think that has been covered?

I get asked about 10 times a week to do “The Story of Food”. I’m not going to make a story of food. First, it’s not my expertise. I’m a stuff person. I’ve spent 20 years understanding systems of production consumption related to stuff. Increasingly, our industrialized agriculture mirrors our industrialized other stuff. There is a film, produced by a Canadian group, “Story of Food.”

What can Berkeleyans do? How can we get involved?

There’s lots of helpful groups on our website. I think it’s important to choose things we love. Inventory your interests and skills. You’ll find people that share your values and your interests. Studies show that activists are happier. For me, it’s garbage, and I get that’s not for everyone. But there are lots of opportunities: climate, water, transportation, childhood education, fighting racism, citizen media. I wanted to find way to talk about these issues in a popular and inviting way. Find a way that’s strategic and that feeds your soul. It’s important, these are our lives, and we want to have fun.

Annie Leonard will be speaking this weekend, October 2, 2010, at The Ecology Center’s Watershed Environmental Poetry Festival in Berkeley, from noon to 4:30pm at Civic Center Park, MLK Way & Center St. Her films can be seen on her website, and the book is found locally at Mrs. Dalloway’s bookstore at 2904 College Avenue.

Guest contributor

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