The Story of Stuff
Annie Leonard, host of the Internet sensation ‘The Story of Stuff’, talks to Giovanna Dunmall about her motivation for reducing all the ‘stuff’ in our world, and about the path that took her there.
Can you tell me about your childhood, and your early influences?
I grew up in Seattle, in the Pacific Northwest of the USA. The incredible natural environment was a big influence on me. Long before learning about things like carbon sequestration and moderation of hydrological cycles, I just knew the forests felt good to be in. I was in awe of the snow-capped mountains around Seattle, the sparkling water of Puget Sound. I learned to love Nature, not through classes but just by experiencing it.
My mother was a big influence on my thinking about stuff. She was a single mother, a school nurse on a tight budget with three kids. Rather than a feeling of economic hardship, my mother raised us to have a sense of appreciation for the things we had. I learned that broken things are mended, not thrown away.
What was your personal path to making the film?
My family would go camping every summer. I’d look out of the car window, studying the landscape, for the whole drive. Each year, I noticed that the stores and strip malls reached a bit further and the forests started a bit later than the previous year. I wondered where all those forests were going.
It turned out to be fortuitous that I went to college in New York City, even though at the time it seemed an odd place to go for environmental studies. Every morning I would groggily walk the six blocks to my college campus, staring at the piles of garbage that line the city’s street’s every dawn. My curiosity got the better of me: I started looking into the trash each morning to see what was in those never-ending piles. Much of it was paper.
Once I realised that those morning trash piles were nearly half paper – were once forests – I was determined to find out where they were going. So I took a trip to the infamous Fresh Kills Landfill on Staten Island. Covering 4.6 square miles, Fresh Kills is one of the largest dumps in the world. When it was officially closed in 2001, some say its volume was greater than that of the Great Wall of China, its peaks 25 metres taller than the Statue of Liberty. I had never seen anything like it. I stood at its edge in absolute awe. As far as I could see in every direction were couches, refrigerators, boxes, apple cores, used clothes, stuff. I didn’t understand both how we could have developed a system based on such rapid destruction of the Earth’s resources and how it could be so well hidden. So I vowed to investigate it further and share what I learned along the way.
Why do you feel so strongly about ‘stuff’ and all the issues surrounding the making and disposing of our stuff?
I’ve seen the mountains in Africa blown up to mine metals for the latest electronic gizmo. I’ve seen the hazardous waste pouring out of effluent pipes at textile factories in Gujarat where fabric for our increasingly disposable clothing is dyed. I’ve seen young garment workers walking to work before dawn in Dhaka, when they should have been at home sleeping before a day of school. I’ve seen waste from the United States and Europe dumped as far afield as Indonesia and Haiti. When you see these hidden impacts at first hand, it changes how you look at all the stuff in our lives. I’ve also seen the impacts closer to home. I’ve seen neighbourhoods lose their cohesion and security as people divert their time away from community activities to spend more and more time working, watching TV and shopping. We’re stuck in a trap where we’re devoting our days to obtaining ever more, newer, faster stuff and we’re neglecting the things that actually make us happy, healthy and secure: friends, leisure time, recreation, civic engagement. We have more stuff than previous generations could have imagined, yet we also have growing obesity, depression, income inequality and loneliness.
How can we stop wanting to buy stuff all the time? Do you have any tips?
Much of our desire to consume is a relative thing: we look at those around us, at the advertisements, in the media and we tend to judge the adequacy of our own stuff in comparison to that of others we see. So the biggest thing we can do to escape from the desire to over-consume is to liberate ourselves from that constant comparison. Getting rid of commercial television is a great help in this regard (as a responsible recycler, of course, so the lead-contaminated thing doesn’t end up in China or Nigeria).
As we watch less TV, and then reduce our superfluous consumption, we free up hours in our day that we’ve spent working to pay for all that stuff, or shopping to get all that stuff, or maintaining all that stuff. We can invest those freed-up hours in healthy, fulfilling activities: time with family, leisure, exercise, arts, music, community activities, gardening. As we extract from the work-watch TV-spend treadmill, we reorient our lives to activities that actually make us happier and are more fun. It’s not about hardship or a negative sacrifice: it’s about reclaiming our days to actually live them fully.
You have been called anti-American, and also politically biased. What do you make of these comments? Do they surprise you?
I am biased, and thank god for bias! All my heroes in life were biased: Gandhi, Martin Luther King, Rachel Carson. I am biased in that I want the planet to survive. I want babies to be born healthy. I want people to have enough food and shelter and health care and education and leisure to have healthy, meaningful lives. I don’t like toxic pollution, I don’t like exploiting people, I don’t like waste. What a dismal world we would have without people standing up for these same values – or, as some would call them, biases.
It does surprise me that I have been attacked as anti-American. Regardless of where one sits on any map or political spectrum, the hard facts are that lots of things in the United States are not working well. The metrics on a range of health and social wellbeing indices – obesity, diabetes, income inequality, environmental links to cancer, and more – clearly show we’re not on a good trajectory. I would think that pointing this out and calling for things to be done better, for problems to be solved would be seen as pro-American. I want us to be the best we can be; I want to fix these problems. If a ship is sinking and someone points out the leak, are they anti-ship?
What motivates you to keep doing this day after day?
I’m motivated by my confidence that solutions exist, my knowledge that we can do things differently. If these problems were intractable, I’d have a hard time getting out of bed every day. But they aren’t! There are so many solutions; it is absolutely possible to live a healthy, fair, sustainable life on this planet with food and education and health care and justice for all. In fact, the thing that is not possible is continuing on this current trajectory, with our current growth-obsessed, toxic-laden, consumer-frenzied economy.
Annie Leonard’s short film can be seen at www.storyofstuff.org