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The Story of Change: Story of Stuff Part II

   /   Jul 18th, 2012Environment, Interviews

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Ann Leonard exemplifies new media – by fusing cartoony graphics with activism, her first video, The Story of Stuff, went viral in 2007 getting over 15 million views online.   Now, she’s got a new video (see above) that takes the message further.  How do we materialize all these ideas and civic engagement into tangible results?  How do we create change, not just talk about it.

Dowser speaks with Ann and co-director, Michael O’Heaney about the new campaign,  ”The Story of Change.”

Do you have any data on how many people ultimately saw the last video, the story of stuff?

The Story of Stuff was the first film we put on the Internet, in December 2007. We had hoped to get 50,000 views in its lifespan; to our surprise, it had that many views in less than 2 days! It’s now had over 15 million online views. Every day we hear of teachers, ministers, corporate H.R. programs and others who use it in group settings as well, so we can’t track the total number of views. We now have 8 films – all free to watch at www.storyofstuff.org – that have together been viewed over 20 million times online.

How did that project transpire and what were your intentions with it when you started it?  Did you have certain goals that you wanted to hit – did you?  I imagine that it going viral was not on the agenda but an added bonus.

Prior to making The Story of Stuff film, I spent over a decade visiting the factories where our stuff is made and the dumps where our stuff is dumped.

I got to see firsthand the often hidden environmental, social, and health costs of the way we make, use and throw away stuff. I was frustrated at how little awareness there was on these issues and I wanted to turn the volume up on the conversation. I started experimenting with ways to talk about it without getting trapped in wonky technical language or leaving audiences weighed down with guilt and fear.  I developed a fact-filled but entertaining presentation which was the precursor to The Story of Stuff.

When I couldn’t keep up with requests to give the talk in person, I decided to make a film to reach a broader audience. I hoped it would spark conversation, but in my wildest dreams I never expected it would be viewed by millions, in every country in the world, translated into over two dozen languages, and inspire a book and film series. I am delighted that so many people are ready to dive into this much needed conversation about how we can do things better.

With this new campaign, how do you ensure that these “changemakers” really to do act upon their principles?

After almost 5 years of making and sharing content (films, podcasts, curricula), we’ve developed a pretty robust community of people who care about issues related to Stuff. It’s a diverse community – some are focusing on toxic exposures to workers in electronics factories, others work on shifting their own life to feel less weighed down by consumerism – but overall the community is clear and aligned about our core values and destination.

Turn vacant lots into community gardens! Lobby for bike lanes and more public spaces! Work for chemical policy reform!  Get corporations out of our democracy! It’s all good.

On the practical side, we stay in touch with the people who take the Changemaker quiz and who have signed up on our website or social media platforms – both via email and in person when possible. We have over 350,000 people signed up already and we’re going to keep sharing information, offering guidance and facilitating exchanges to flex our citizen muscles.

How do we get corporations to change their ways? Money seems to still dictate the world.

Corporations are not a homogenous bunch.

Some are leaders in finding sustainable solutions – either because they happen to have leaders who honestly care (think Patagonia or Interface Carpet) or because they realize the economic benefits of environmental improvements. Others are begrudgingly making changes, after being targeted by citizen campaigns or because they realize the inevitability of stronger environmental health protections.

Some though are real laggards, continuing to invest in the dinosaur economy and using their financial might to sway elected officials to delay real solutions. Ultimately, the best way to get across-the-board improvements in corporate behavior is with stronger laws that prioritize public health and environmental sustainability over short-term corporate profit.

And the only way we’re going to get that is by getting corporations out of our democracy and getting people back in. Corporations have more money, but people have more voice and more votes – if we use them.

How much progress do you think that we’ve made in the last decade as more and more global governance meetings are addressing this and there are platforms such as the UN Global Compact for companies to attest to more “people-friendly” approaches?

While there has been huge progress on raising awareness, a bounty of “green speak” by business and government leaders, and some real progress in specific isolated areas, overall, we’re losing. We’re losing big time.

The biological and physical systems are the planet are increasingly stressed, terrifyingly near tipping points from which it will be difficult to recover.

Globally, we’re now using 1.5 planets worth of resources and waste assimilation capacity each year. This is a problem when we only have one planet. Our trajectory is not sustainable, especially with both population and per capacity consumption on the rise. I understand that this is not the most fun thing to talk about, but we’ve got to put it on the table and figure out what to do as quickly, efficiently and fairly as possible.

What did you learn in the process of the Story of Stuff campaign?  What were some of the challenges?

My experience with The Story of Stuff taught me that there are millions and millions of people who are ready for this difficult conversation and who want to work together for a better future. It’s fueled my sense of hope and possibility!

It’s always a challenge to talk about such serious and grim information in a way that leaves people engaged and inspired, rather than scared and depressed. The empirical data about the environment today is scary and depressing, but that’s not a great place from which to make change, so I like to acknowledge that reality and then move on to a more hopeful and powerful place.

What is your ultimate goal with this campaign?

My goal is to transform systems of production and consumption – or how we make, use and throw away Stuff – to be healthy, sustainable and fair. In doing this work, I’ve learned that there’s no technical reason we can’t achieve this; we just need more engaged citizens demanding better of our leaders in business and government. So a secondary goal has evolved – to inspire people to be engaged citizens so we can make positive change together.

Do you feel that video via the Internet is the best way to communicate these ideas?  Or do you like any other new media platforms as well?

Freely sharing our films on the internet has been enormously successful. They’ve been viewed all over the world, translated in many languages, shown on TV, incorporated into dance performances and inspired puppet shows and parade floats from Boston to India to South Africa. There’s just no way we could have reached so many people without a free, internet-based film. But we’re excited about evolving communication tools, too. At The Story of Stuff Project, we experiment with all kinds of new media tools and platforms, as well as tried and true tools: talking to people in person, presenting at gatherings, writing a book. Just as our audience is diverse, we need diverse communication platforms. The single voice broadcast model is dead.
What is the greatest lesson from Gandhi’s efforts against apartheid and suppression by the British (which you mention in the video) that can be applied to this campaign?

There are a number of lessons from Gandhi that have influenced my work and that I bring to The Story of Stuff: Aim high. Don’t compromise our values. Respect our opponents. Embrace diversity. Question what doesn’t seem fair. Be willing to be uncomfortable. Maintain compassion and love.

What does the new economy that you refer to look like?  Isn’t the most sustainable solution to get rid of these so-called “mega marts” or stop selling sugary bubbly water (cola)?  But that’s not likely to happen.  So, what’s a happy medium?

Looking at our current economy and corporate money-marinated government, change may seem unlikely. But looking at the data about the state of the planet and the growing number of people calling for a better future, change is inevitable.

The question is not if we’re going to change, but how. Are we going to refuse to innovate until our backs are against the wall and our options are few, or are we going to be proactive, strategic, and compassionate and figure out together how to build an economy that works for all? We don’t know exactly what that new economy will look like since it hasn’t been invented yet. Physical realities dictate that it will have to be an economy that recognizes the planet’s limits. If our movement is successful, this new economy will produce safe products, happy people and a healthy environment.

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