Citizens, Not Consumers, Are Key to Solving Climate Crisis

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Annie Leonard spent 20 years working for environmental organizations, studying where our stuff comes from and where it goes. She followed waste from industrialized countries to apartheid-era South Africa, where it was dumped in black townships, to Haiti, where it was disguised as fertilizer and dumped on a beach, to Pakistan, Indonesia and the Philippines where we sent everything from e-waste to used car batteries for recycling in a process too dirty for our own backyard.

Then, in 2007, she made a short animated film about our consumer culture and the damage it does to the environment. The Story of Stuff went viral (chances are you’ve seen it — more than 15 million people have) and spawned a whole series of videos that explain complicated environmental and political concepts in an irresistibly simple and engaging way. We reached Annie via email to talk about the latest installment, The Story of Change. This one’s a bit of a departure — instead of looking at the problem, it proposes a solution.

Lauren Feeney: I’ve often heard that one of the reasons we as a society have been so slow to act on climate change is that it’s kind of a boring subject, so it doesn’t get nearly the press coverage it deserves. How do we make it interesting? 

Annie Leonard: We can communicate about climate change in a way that is abstract, technical and alienating – maybe even boring. Or we can communicate with stories, images and examples that are relevant and accessible to our daily reality. Melting ice caps and polar bears might not evoke immediate concern from today’s urban communities, but increasing food prices, health impacts and extreme weather do. Environmental researchers and scientists tend to lead with the data, which is understandable considering how terrifying and compelling the climate data is. It’s hard not to want to share it with everyone we pass on the street. But we’re learning that data alone doesn’t inspire people to act at the level needed. Heck, data alone doesn’t even inspire people to do simple things, like improve our diets or exercise more. When we’re communicating about climate change, it serves us to keep the data and technical jargon on tap, not on top. We need to understand the science for ourselves and for those who want to know more, but not lead with it. Lead with our hearts, our humanity, our empathy, our stories and we’ll see greater results.

That said, there are other reasons that climate change doesn’t get the press coverage it merits. True, these discussions do get bogged down by technical terms and data-heavy science but they also don’t happen in a vacuum. Much of today’s mainstream media is deeply invested in maintaining business-as-usual and an honest assessment of the current climate situation leads to the realization that fundamental shifts are essential in our economy, our transportation, our built environment, and much more. So, the silence is partly about poor communication skills and partly about vested interests and power.

Feeney: Your most recent video, The Story of Change, focuses on political activism rather than individual acts of “going green” as a way to help heal the planet. Why? How did your thinking on this evolve from The Story of Stuff to The Story of Change

Leonard: After we released The Story of Stuff film in 2007, we received over 200,000 emails. The number one question people asked was “what can I do?” Same thing in public forums – over the last five years I’ve traveled coast to coast and at every venue, people aren’t asking if there is a problem, but are asking what they can do to help. Prior to this experience, I thought that the obstacle preventing more people from getting involved was a lack of knowledge or concern about the problems. “If only people knew and cared,” I’d tell myself, “they’d get involved.” My anecdotal information is backed up by numerous polls; at this point in the U.S., most people know we’ve got serious environmental problems and most people care. Yet, most environmentalists still focus on providing more information to the public, as though one more fact sheet or pie chart is what’s needed to inspire people to take action. I believe that what’s really needed is to reengage our citizen muscles.

Each of us has two different roles we play in society, almost like two muscles: a consumer muscle and a citizen muscle. Our consumer muscle is spoken to and validated constantly. We’re called upon to use it every day and, as a result, we’re really good at it. It’s overdeveloped so much that being a consumer is our primary role in society so much that the words “consumer” and “person” are used interchangeably. At the same time, our citizen muscle has atrophied. So when we’re faced with problems as gigantic as disruption of the global climate, we stick with the familiar consumer muscle. We buy green products, switch our lightbulbs, reject bottled water, carry a reusable bag to the store. Now, don’t get me wrong – those are all very good things to do. But those are not about making transformative change like we need right now. To do this, we need to step out of our consumer role and into our citizen role and work together, through our democratic structures, to achieve big bold change. Perfecting our day to day eco-choices can be a step in the right direction, or it can be a distraction if we’re deluded into thinking that we’ve done our part since we shopped at Whole Foods. That’s why the subtitle of our last movie is “Why citizens, not shoppers, hold the key to a better world.” We need to start exercising our citizen muscles again.

Feeney: In the piece, you say there are three things you find whenever people get together and actually change the world — a big idea, people working together, and real action. Does this exist among people concerned about climate change? Where do you see signs of it? Who’s leading the movement? 

Leonard: We’re starting to see all three of these things in the movements around climate change. For the first decade of work on this issue, the discourse was dominated by technical scientists and Beltway advocates. That didn’t work. It neither captured the public’s attention nor built the power needed to shift elected leaders. We saw firsthand that information alone does not lead to change; that information must be backed up by citizen engagement strong enough to counter entrenched interests. In the decade since, the movements around climate have exploded. All over the world, there are protests, teach-ins, lobby days, marches and works of art with a message. The conversation has busted out of the DC expert arena and is now a broad public one.

There’s not one single movement or leader, which is good. There are many nodes of leadership. is making the science accessible, hosting international trainings, encouraging students to make their universities divest from fossil fuels and taking direct action against the most destructive energy projects. Climate Parents is engaging parents to act on this monumental threat to our children’s future.  Oil Change International is fighting government subsidies for record profitable fossil fuel companies. Sierra Club members are shutting down coal plants across the country. Activists engaged in the Climate Justice movement are ensuring that social justice is not sacrificed in the desperate search for solutions. Thousands of local groups are fighting fracking, promoting environmental justice, engaging youth and faith-based communities. It’s becoming unstoppable.

Feeney: In a recent interview with Time Magazine (for his Person of the Year award), President Obama named climate change as one of the top three priorities for his second term. What would you like to see him do? 

Leonard: Naming climate change is an excellent first start. It’s finally on the table. I’d like to see Obama rapidly phase out subsidies for fossil fuels corporations and instead invest in R&D for cleaner energy. Reject the Keystone XL pipeline, an energy project so polluting that climate expert James Hansen has said developing it would mean it’s “game over” for the climate. I’d like to see the U.S. stop being such an embarrassing obstructionist and bully at international climate negotiations, where we routinely act as a brake on solutions commensurate with the scale of the problem. Provide leadership and incentives for businesses to innovate real solutions. Support the EPA in capping carbon from utilities and other polluters. Begin transitioning to a lower carbon economy: more public transportation, more local manufacturing, more public resources like libraries and parks to reduce our individual consumption levels. Incorporate environmental measures into our national metric for how we’re doing; measuring and celebrating economic growth alone is like celebrating our way right off a cliff.

Feeney: As you say in the piece, “There’s no 10 simple things we can do without leaving our couches.”  But what specifically do you say to people who ask what they can do? 

Leonard: There are plenty of things we can do on an individual scale, and we should do those. Ride a bike, eat local food, recycle your waste (incinerators and landfills contribute to climate change), turn your heat down, share stuff rather than own everything you ever need. Those are good to do because they bring into alignment our values and our actions. They demonstrate our concern to our community. They send market signals up supply chains. But these kind of individual actions don’t have the potential to reduce carbon and promote alternatives anywhere near the level needed.

The real change making potential is by joining with others to demand change from leaders in government and businesses. The most important thing to do (and also the most rewarding) is connecting up with others who care. It can be neighbors, fellow church-goers, student peers or professional organizations like Reach out, connect, join a campaign. Plug in where you’re most interested, whether it is lobbying locally for greater public transit or protesting dirty coal plants. One of the great things about a problem as pervasive as this is that there are so many ways to get involved – there is something for everyone!


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  • Rick Bauer

    Where is the Weather Channel’s John Coleman in any of this? Why does the media insist on giving only one side of the story? Are you all out to make Al Gore wealthier than he already is with the shell game?

  • Kenny Jones

    Oh boy, does this ever hit the nail on the
    head. We’ll never boycott or shop our way to a democratic republic, but
    we can absolutely start governing like the sovereign people we claim to
    be. See also

  • Michael Philips

    A big part of the problem is still inside-the-beltway DC politics, and riding a bike or using a canvas shopping bag won’t change that. For some reason, conservatives feel they have to toe a bizarre anti-science, anti-reason line that says climate change is a hoax and thousands of climate scientists around the world are simply making it up because they’re conspiring to get research grants. It’s an absurd and destructive belief, almost cult-like. You can’t reason with people who say the world’s scientists are liars. These people need to be removed from Congress, but I’m afraid climate change will never be as high a priority in elections as jobs, taxes, health care, education, etc. Fortunately, most of the things we need to do to mitigate climate change make sense anyway – improving the energy efficiency of our buildings, factories and transportation systems, increasing the use of clean energy, and using and wasting less stuff. Those are things everyone can understand and there’s bipartisan support for them. The wind energy production tax credit was extended as part of the fiscal cliff bill because it had strong advocates from both parties. Across the country, city governments, universities, and many businesses are leading the way with energy efficiency and renewables. When the issue is framed as clean energy instead of climate change, many more people sign on.

  • paul moss

    useful ideas re climate change for all of us

  • Anonymous

    One way I contribute is to buy (and contribute to) from second-hand shops. I am happy to see how busy those shops are. The buyers are all there for bargains or consumer activism, but we contribute to not pollute the planet any more.

  • Cammy

    This was a bit flimsy. I would have rather her have given specific things to do…who to write…a march, a protest. Specifics…

  • Anonymous

    Finding the “big idea” is what we citizens do when we exercise our citizen muscle. That’s not Annie’s job. That’s our job. In our own communities, with our neighbors. There are no “specific things to do” except those that are agreed to by the citizens that join together and agree on those specific actions and then do them together.

    In our town, our citizens want the right to a sustainable food system. Right now we can’t have that because of industrial agricultural practices, patented seeds (GMOs) that are owned by mega corporations that sue our farmers when their crops are contaminated and they plant the seeds from their own crops the next season like farmers have done for millennia. Further, we have to have clean air, water, and active living ecosystems, especially soils, to have our sustainable food system. So, a bunch of us got together, and with the help of the Community Environmental Legal Defense Fund (, we wrote a local initiative that we have submitted to elections to be put on a ballot that the citizens can vote on. We are exercising our right to govern what goes on in our community just like our state constitution says we have the right to do.

    Over 150 communities across the U.S. have passed these local rights based ordinances/charter amendments and stopped all kinds of corporate harms – fracking, CAFOs, toxic sludge on farm land, privatization of water, etc.- by exercising their citizen muscles and their rights together.

  • California Hal

    “It is time for a new look at energy supplies”

    The current hearings scheduled before Congress will do little but pit ‘feel good’ energy (wind, solar, and bio-) against ‘business as usual’ (carbon based) energy supplies. Recent applications for a plethora of new fission power plants only exacerbate the issues for fission is both dangerous and has many hidden taxpayer costs as do the persistent advertisements about clean coal (the world’s greatest oxymoron), abundant natural gas supplies, and the expected status of the US becoming an oil exporting nation in the next decade. All of these positions only confuse the public and are likely to result in an increased expenditure of tax dollars for ineffective solutions. Instead of our energy policy being based on sound bites, we need to engage in a lengthy debate about what our energy policy is and what it could and should be.

    For the past 10 decades our policy has been to use the cheapest form of energy available, to foster the development of fossil fuels, to encourage the use of nuclear energy, and, more recently, to adopt the philosophically feel good energies (wind, solar, biomass) as our long term energy supply. This encouragement has been provided via tax incentives given to selective industries without any clear understanding of the consequences of these policies. And our lack of full discussion and disclosure now looks as though it will result in the taxpayer becoming responsible for the inherent and immeasurable risk that is present in the current trend. This risk is many faceted and only poorly understood and varies from loan guarantees for questionable projects, to potential radioactive discharge events like Chernobyl or Fukushima, to rising sea level that will destroy ports and coastal land, costing the world trillions of dollars

    But there is another unintended policy consequence. Complacence and assurances that our energy supply is adequate has led to a position of ‘no urgency’ relative to implementing fusion processes as our source of future energy. Fusion is clearly the cleanest of all forms of energy for it has no CO2 emission, cannot ‘go critical’, and generates virtually no radioactivity. But research, both basic and applied, has all but died for there is no source of funding, neither appropriated nor via tax incentives, for the development of the most promising long-term base-load source of energy available for the world.

    Fusion research is supported at levels that are laughable by any standard. America’s total annual budget for fusion has been less than one tenth that spent on ethanol subsidies. Fusion has the potential to be THE SOLUTION while ethanol never had a ghost of a chance to make even a dent in our energy supply and subtracted from the food supply.

    Inexpensive energy is what has made our country prosper. But all of our incentive efforts are aimed at developing ever more expensive sources of energy, many of which will never repay the investment that has been made in them for they are known to be impractical in terms of energy efficiency, energy availability, or demand load requirements.

    To be real about what is needed to meet the energy crisis, one only needs to step back and look at where we have been. Wind, solar, and biomass have many problems becoming the base load for the 14 TW needed by 2050. The world cannot afford the CO2 load in the atmosphere from fossil fuel that is expected to be used in the next 20-30 years.

    So what is the alternative? Fusion, but not as we have been currently lead to believe to gain energy. (Laser fusion is a spoof, magnetic confinement needs a magic material for protection and plasmas are squirrely – uncontrollable.)

    Fusion is an energy source that has been known and generally understood by scientists for more than 5 decades. Fusion requires tremendous heat and compression for its ignition. It takes energy to provide this heat and compression and the energy one gets in return must be large enough to assure that more energy is created than the amount it took to initiate the reaction. The H bomb resulted from a small trigger yielding more than 1000 times as much yield. But controlled releases are also possible at much smaller levels that still put out 100 times as much energy as is consumed.

    A controlled process to do this was defined in the 1970s by Argonne National Laboratory (ANL). But are we supporting research in these processes now? No, not one single federal dollar is directed to these promising avenues of achieving fusion through RF accelerator driven fusion reactions as researched in the 1970s by ANL. Why? The research was done in a weapons lab by the DOD and it can not be a weapon. And because the energy industry is built on the delivery of about 1GW at a location. Fusion requires the delivery of more than 10 Gigawatts of energy from one site to become economic and the driver is thought to be too expensive and cannot be made smaller. In the 1970s this decision may have been wise for the US had no need for large new sources of clean energy at the time. But now, we have an urgent need to replace a significant amount of our dirty base load facilities with sources that do not emit CO2 or other harmful products and do not go critical.

    Fusion comes in many flavors, from the impractical systems that produce less energy than they consume, to the ones that produce massive amounts of radiation due to their failure to adequately shield the system from the neutrons generated by the Deuterium-Tritium fusion reaction. Only one system has repeatedly received the endorsement of hundreds of scientists and that is a system that uses a large RF (radio frequency) accelerator to provide the energy to drive the fusion reaction. It would produce no climate altering CO2 and, since all the research has been done, it could be online in about a decade.

    RF accelerator driven fusion should be our showcase national energy project, but this process seems to be totally unknown. It does not have the support of the US Department of Energy and thus is unknown to politicians.

    Politicians need to understand that RF accelerator driven fusion is a viable option for the replacement of fossil fuel for energy generation, NOW.

    RF accelerator driven fusion is a technique that has been endorsed by leading scientists throughout the world for the past 35 years and it is time it was implemented.


    Here is how it can be done NOW … not 20 years from now …

    Google Tech Talk “Heavy Ion Fusion”

    You Tube “StarPower for Tomorrow”

  • Barbjbf

    James Hansen stresses that putting a rising price on carbon is essential. This fee on fossil fuel producers would then be distributed to residents to offset rising fuel costs. Making fossil fuels more expensive by including the costs of these fuels to society and the environment would drive innovation and efficiency. I wish environmental groups and others would unite to make pricing carbon the top advocacy priority.

  • ConnieLeigh

    Concord, New Hampshire has managed to ban sale of single-serving bottled water … a move every city could make, and let’s hope they do. Meanwhile, our family in our different homes tries to share ‘stuff’ when we can rather than buy separate items. Small steps, long journey; but just getting started is the thing!

  • jwc2blue

    It’s hard to get people to focus on climate when the economy is so bad. Thanks for trying to keep the focus on it. We all need to do whatever small things we can do in our daily lives. Together we make a difference.

  • Barbara Bloom

    Question for economists: Do we ALL have unlimited wants and needs?

  • Tom Brian

    Lets see, put a fee on producers, give fee to consumers, then they return the money back to the producers because of higher prices. sound like a closed loop system. who gains on this? control freaks?

  • Sheema

    Not to mention some people simply don’t have a choice but to drive because public transport is either inadequate or non-existent!

  • Anonymous

    Al Gore (& Laurie David) put Global Warming on the map. There is only one side to truth.

  • Diane Kaldany

    You’re right Michael, so we need to start a movement from the bottom up and show these politicians that we mean business.