Interview With Annie Leonard’s Creator Of ‘Story of Solutions’

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Video Shows How to Create Change By Fixing a Broken System

A Q&A with the Story of Stuff Project founder about her new video on the biggest obstacles to change and how we can overcome them.Annie Leonard

Annie Leonard’s groundbreaking video, The Story of Stuff, awakened millions of people to the repercussions of our consumer culture. Now she’s taking on an even bigger campaign—transforming our flawed economic system and calling for a new conversation about how we can create meaningful change. The Story of Solutions, the newest video from Leonard and her Story of Stuff project, encourages viewers to push for solutions that change the economy’s goal from “more” to “better.”

In the video, Leonard says: “Changing the goal of the entire economy is a huge task. Of course, we can’t do it all at once. But when we focus on game-changing solutions, we gradually make it possible for a new game to be played.”

Leonard further discussed the new video, change and obstacles to it with AlterNet.

Alyssa Figueroa: What inspired you to create The Story of Solutions?

Annie Leonard: I’ve been so surprised at the response to The Story of Stuff in terms of how many people have seen it — it’s now past 30 million views. But what’s surprised me more is the number of folks who’ve written to ask us for additional films, and by far the most requested one is The Story of Solutions.A lot of people say, “It’s nice the problem is outlined, but what can we do?”

Its been nearly six years since I released The Story of Stuff, and the reason I didn’t do The Story of Solutions right away is because there were a lot of questions that came in from people about specific aspects of what’s wrong with the economy. And there were so many questions about what they can personally do. So first we did a series of films about problems with the materials economy—about manufactured demand and toxic products and our throwaway culture—that were made in partnership with groups that had the capacity to handle tens of thousands of people coming to them to get involved. Because in the beginning it was just me and a couple other people here. We didn’t have the capacity to handle the interest, so we started working with groups to which we could direct our viewers.

The thing is, I began to see that the kind of solutions work that many folks were doing was too often addressing the symptom rather than the drivers of the problem. And even if folks were advancing really good, deep, transformational solutions, there were some common, consistent barriers in their way. There are so many different solutions, but we keep running up against the same obstacles, so that’s what we address inThe Story of Solutions.

It was interesting to think through our contribution to the discussion about solutions. When word got out we were making this, dozens of environmental organizations emailed me and said, “My solution is in there, right?” You know, green chemistry or recycling or renewable energy. And I said, “No, actually it’s not. This is not a list of solutions.” Partly because that would be a list and that would be boring. And also because solutions are really different depending on where you are. I can’t really say, “This is how you do transportation” because it’s different if you’re in Boston or Bombay. So rather than giving boring lists of solutions, we decided to inspire people to think more deeply about the kinds of solutions we need.

We don’t use these words in the film because we try to be as accessible as possible, but really it’s a look at transactional solutions and transformational solutions. By that I mean there are a bunch of fundamental, structural flaws in our economy and government today. And transactional solutions try to advance a solution within that fundamentally flawed structure. Transactional solutions aren’t always bad, like banning lead or banning DDT. Those were transactional solutions that thank God they happened. Children are smarter and people are healthier today because of those. So transactional solutions aren’t always bad. But they don’t try to transform this overwhelmingly flawed structure. Whereas transformational solutions begin to transform that flawed structure. What I’m saying in the film is, absent the deeper transformational solutions, all of our individual work for solutions on any front is going to be a) not enough; and b) really, really hard.

We are always beating our heads against these same structural obstacles. But if we can take some time to incorporate changing the context of our work with a different set of economic priorities and a different kind of government, we could open the floodgates to solutions. It wouldn’t be as hard to advance solutions because the actual goal of the economy would be healthy, happy people and a thriving environment.

AF: Your video is focused around changing the goal of the game frommore to better. But before people try to go out and change the world, do they need to change themselves to want better instead of more?

AL: I think there are changes needed on three different levels. So a part of it is, personally and individually, we need to make sure that our own priorities support happy, healthy communities in a sustainable environment. So somebody who is buying new iPhones every year and buying new cars every year and really stuck on the consumer treadmill, I would encourage them to reconsider their own priorities. But I also don’t blame the individual fully because we’re so trapped in a society that structurally supports the consumerist model.

You know, $16,000 is spent on advertising every second, getting us to buy more stuff. What if there was $16,000 per second spent on messages saying that we are good enough the way that we are? That our hair and our bodies and our skin and our cars and our houses are all good enough?  Can you imagine how different a society we’d have? So of course we do need to make sure our individual actions are in line with a healthy, sustainable future, but it’s hard to do that when we are constantly bombarded with messages telling us, “more, more, more.”

I would love to see limits on advertising. I was in Canada a few months ago talking to an association of school superintendents, and they were absolutely stunned when I told them that our public schools allow corporate advertising. They were like, “How can you have corporate advertising in your schools, indoctrinating kids at such a young age?” So yes, we want to encourage our kids to want better instead of more, but we also need to get those relentless messages telling them “more, more, more” out of our schools and elsewhere. We have to reclaim both our physical and mental landscape.

AF: You state in the video that our happiness comes from many things, including our “sense of purpose.” What do you think is that purpose? Or how do we get that sense of purpose?

AL: There’s a whole interesting world of happiness studies. All the different fields of academics studying this now are finding very consistent answers to the question of what contributes to lasting happiness. Once your basic needs are met, the things that most contribute to happiness are having a social fabric — a sense of community, having leisure time to spend with your friends and family — having a sense of purpose or meaning in your life beyond yourself, and the act of working together with others on shared goals.

It doesn’t even matter what that sense of purpose is, just the act of working with others toward a shared goal and having a sense that there is more to your life than just working and shopping, leads to a greater sense of happiness. Then it’s like a positive cycle because a greater sense of satisfaction and meaning and happiness leads to a decreased desire to shop for more stuff. How fortunate for us that the very thing we need to do to get our country and the planet back on track is to work together, engage together as citizens and build a better future, and that very act will not only make us happier but will help build the power to make a better world. We’re lucky that the thing we need to do isn’t that what makes us miserable, it’s that what makes us most happy.

AF: What would you say to those — probably most affected by this game — who don’t feel they have time to fight for change? Maybe they are so in the grind with work and other things.

AL: Well, that’s definitely not just their imagination. When I look at some of the systemic obstacles to greater civic engagement in our country, number one is overwork. We work 300 to 400 hours a year more than our counterparts in Europe. We work more hours per week than any other industrialized country except maybe South Korea depending on which data set you look at—and they’re not exactly a leisure-filled society, so that’s not a good bar. It’s not just a perception that we are overworked and exhausted, we actually are overworked and exhausted.

A number of economists who are trying to figure out how to reduce our environmental impact, increase our sense of happiness and increase our civic engagement are on a mission to reduce amount of hours we work in this country. A number of them make a very compelling point that going to a four-day workweek would not only equalize employment opportunities, but it’s probably the single biggest thing we could do to increase civic engagement.

It also has enormous environmental benefits, but it’s on the agenda of very few environmental groups. In Seattle, John de Graaf, who wrote Affluenza, now runs a campaign called Take Back Your Time. He has incredible statistics about how overworked we are compared to not just other countries but to our parents’ generation.

AF: What about those who just feel apathetic and helpless and who don’t think they are going to win anything?

AL: Again, in a sense they’re not imagining that because we have been so pushed out of the political world, pushed out of our democracy so much that our citizen muscles have gotten flabby. I like to talk about consumer muscles and citizen muscles. And our consumer muscles are spoken to and validated so much that they are really overdeveloped. We really know how to be good consumers. But we’re so seldom called upon to act as citizens that our citizen muscles have atrophied and one of the results is we feel apathetic. That’s a negative reinforcing cycle in which we feel apathetic and we don’t do anything so we sit back and watch more and corporations take over our government and get more and more outrageous policies passed and then we get even more apathetic. What we need to do is start exercising our citizen muscles.

You know the corporations, when they’re trying to promote their agenda in the policy world, the big thing they have is money. They have millions and millions of dollars. But we have millions and millions of us. And that’s only going to start making a difference if we start using it. So we’re really on a kick here to get our community and viewers to start exercising our citizen muscles, even if it’s small. Start doing something to build that muscle, because we learn to win by winning. We begin to build power by building power. So even if you’re sore after the first workout, you’ve got to start getting involved to build that better future. And the good thing is that it’s fun. It provides that sense of meaning and purpose that provides such longer lasting happiness than a new iPhone.

AF: What do you hope is the major takeaway for people?

AL: I hope people get that there is a different level of solutions we should be advocating for—these systemic solutions—and that without that, everything that we do is going to be not enough and really hard.

I was recently giving this talk to forest campaigners in Southeast Asia who were working to protect the rainforest. I was talking to them about the problems of operating in a growth-oriented society because the entire way the economy is set up and measured and validated goes against what they’re trying to do. I was explaining to them that they need to learn about the economy and they need to incorporate a critique of a growth-oriented economy in their work.

One of them looked at me and looked so tired and said, “I’m working so hard to save the Indonesian rainforest. And you’re telling me I have to also try to change the economy?” I said, “If we don’t change the economy, you will never save the rainforest.” It’s not like it’s in addition— it’s necessary. Not only is it necessary, once we do that, we won’t have to work so hard to save the rainforest because it will then be in accordance to the new norms.

AF: Because these structures are so systemic and huge, do you think the people will be victorious in the end? Do you think that even matters to what’s happening right now?

AL: People ask me if I think change is possible. I say change is inevitable. I mean change is absolutely happening. We have an absolutely different situation now than in any of the other social movements in the past, in that we are seriously bumping up against ecological limits. So we are going to be forced to change. We are going to be forced to look to each other rather than the market. We are going to be forced to meet our needs. We are going to be forced to become less consumeristic and buy less stuff. There are actual physical and biological limitations. Because of that, we know change is going to happen. Right now, we’re using about one and a half times the amount of resources the planet can regenerate each year. We’re eating into the stockpiles nature has built up.

So I’m positive that change is going to come, and there are already so many places where you see it sprouting up. The question is: are we going to change by design or disaster? Either we get proactive and work together democratically, intelligently, strategically, and we figure out another way to live on this planet that’s more sustainable, more healthy, more fair and actually a lot more fun — it’s not that fun being an exhausted consumer – or we keep living the way we’re living. It’s really up to us to decide if we’re going to change by design or disaster. One way or the other, change is coming. There’s still time to change by design, but the clock is ticking.

Alyssa Figueroa is an associate editor at AlterNet. Follow her on Twitter @alyssa_fig.