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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