by Annie Leonard
I used to think the truth would set us free. Like many who care about the environment, I spent years thinking that information would lead to change. So I wrote reports, gave speeches, even testified before Congress.
Some things changed. Sadly, the big picture didn’t.
For a long time I couldn’t understand why. Now I’ve realized that it isn’t because we don’t have enough data, white papers or experts to tell us we’re in trouble. The problem is we’ve forgotten what it takes to make change.
My new movie, The Story of Change, argues that’s partly because we’ve gotten stuck in consumer mode.
I’ve come to see that we have two parts to ourselves; it’s almost like two muscles – a consumer muscle and a citizen muscle. Our consumer muscle, which is fed and exercised constantly, has grown strong. So strong that “consumer” has become our primary identity, our reason for being. We’re told so often that we’re a nation of consumers that we don’t blink when the media use “consumer” and “person” interchangeably.
Meanwhile, our citizen muscle has gotten flabby. There’s no marketing campaign reminding us to engage as citizens. On the contrary, we’re bombarded with lists of simple things we can buy or do to save the planet, without going out of our way or breaking a sweat.
No wonder that faced with daunting problems and discouraged by the intransigence of the status quo, we instinctively flex our power in the only way we know how – as consumers. Plastic garbage choking the oceans? Carry your own shopping bag. Formaldehyde in baby shampoo? Buy the brand with the green seal. Global warming threatening life as we know it? Change your lightbulb. (As Michael Maniates, a professor of political and environmental science at Allegheny College, says: “Never has so little been asked of so many.”)
Now, all of those are good things to do. When we shop, it’s good to choose products without toxic chemicals and unnecessary packaging, made by locally-based companies that treat their workers well.
But our real power is not in choosing from items on a limited menu; it is in determining what gets on that menu. The way to ensure that toxic, climate-disrupting choices are replaced with safe and healthy alternatives – for everyone, not just those who can afford them – is by engaging as citizens: working together for bigger, bolder change than we could ever accomplish as individual consumers.
Look back at successful movements – civil rights, anti-apartheid, the early environmental victories – and you’ll see that three things are needed to make change at the scale we need today.
First, we need a Big Idea of how things could be better – a morally compelling, ecologically sustainable and socially just idea that will not just make things a little better for a few, but a lot better for everyone. Millions around the world already have that idea: an economy based on the needs of people and the planet, not corporate profit.
Second, we need a commitment to work together. In history’s most transformative social movements, people didn’t say “I will perfect my individual daily choices,” but “We will work together until the problem is solved.” Today, it’s easier than ever to work together, online and off.
Finally, we need all of us who share that Big Idea to get active. We need to move from a place of shared concern, frustration and fear to a place of engaged citizen action. That’s how we build the power to make real change.
We have to aim high, work together and act boldly. It’s not simple, and it won’t be easy. But history is on our side. Let’s get to work to make the kind of change we know is possible.
Ever since I learned where our stuff really comes from – and how this system is trashing people and the planet – I’ve been trying to figure out how we can change it.
I’ve read a lot of these: 100 Ways to Save the Planet Without Leaving Your House, 50 SimpleThings You Can do to Save the Earth, The Little Green Book of Shopping.
I thought they might have the answers, but their tips all start here – with buying better stuff[iii] – and they all end here – with recycling all that stuff when I’m done with it.
But when it comes to making change, this story of “going green” – even though we see it everywhere – has some serious shortcomings.
It says that if I become a smarter shopper, and tell my friends to do the same, I’ve done my part. And if I don’t buy all this green stuff, then it’s my fault that the planet’s being destroyed.
Wait a minute. My fault? I didn’t choose to put toxic products on the shelves or to allow slave labor in factories around the world. I didn’t choose to fill stores with electronics that can’t be repaired and have to be thrown away. I didn’t choose a world in which some people can afford to live green, leaving the rest of us to be irresponsible planet wreckers!
Of course when we do shop we should buy the least toxic and most fair products we can, but it’s not bad shoppers – here – who are the source of the problem, it’s bad policies and bad business practices – here. And that’s why the solutions we really need are not for sale at the supermarket.
If we actually want to change the world, we can’t talk only about consumers voting with our dollars. Real change happens when citizens[xiii] come together to demand rules that work.
Look, it is important to try to live green. As Gandhi said, “be the change.” Living our values in small ways shows ourselves and others we care. So it is a great place to start.
But it’s a terrible place to stop. After all, would we even know who Gandhi was if he just sewed his own clothes and then sat back waiting for the British to leave India?
So how do we make big change?
To answer that question, I went back and looked at Gandhi, the anti-apartheid movement in South Africa, the U.S. Civil Rights Movement, and the environmental victories here in the 1970s. They didn’t just nag people to perfect their day-to-day choices. They changed the rules of the game. It turns out, there are three things you find whenever people get together and actually change the world. First, they share a big idea for how things could be better. Not just a little better for a few people, a whole lot better for everyone. And they don’t just tinker around the edges; they go right to the heart of the problem, even when it means changing systems that don’t want to be changed. And that can be scary!
Hey, millions of us already share a big idea for how things can be better. Instead of this dinosaur economy that focuses only on corporate profits – we want a new economy that puts safe products, happy people, and a healthy planet first. Duh, isn’t that what an economy should be for?
Trying to live eco-perfectly in today’s system is like trying to swim upstream, when the current is pushing us all the other way. But by changing what our economy prioritizes, we can change the current so that the right thing becomes the easiest thing to do.
Second, the millions of ordinary people who made these extraordinary changes didn’t try to do it alone. They didn’t just say, “I will be more responsible.” They said, “We will work together until the problem is solved.”
Today it’s easier than ever to work together. Can you imagine how hard it was to get a message across India in 1930? We can do it now in less than a second.
And finally, these movements succeeded in creating change because they took their big idea, and their commitment to work together, and then they took action
Did you know that when Martin Luther King junior organized his march on Washington, less than a quarter of Americans supported him?[xxvii] But that was enough to make change – because those supporters took action – they did stuff. Today 74% of Americans support tougher laws on toxic chemicals. 83% want clean energy laws. 85% think corporations should have less influence in government.
We’ve got the big idea and the commitment. We just haven’t turned it all into massive action yet. And this is our only missing piece. So let’s do it.
Making real change takes all kinds of citizens – not just protestors. When you realize what you’re good at and what you like to do, plugging in doesn’t seem so hard. Whatever you have to offer, a better future needs it.
So ask yourself, “What kind of change maker am I?” We need investigators, communicators, builders, resisters, nurturers, and networkers.
At StoryofStuff.org, you can explore these types of change makers and find your first, or your next, step to take action.
Being an engaged citizen starts with voting. That’s one of those basic things that everyone’s just gotta do. But it gets way more exciting – and fun – when we put our unique skills and interests to work alongside thousands of others.
I know that changing a whole economic system is a huge challenge. It’s not easy to see a clear path from where we are today to where we need to go. And there’s no ten simple things we can do without leaving our couches!said, “Faith is taking the first step even though you don’t see the whole staircase.”
But the path didn’t start out clear to all these guys either.
So, they worked hard to get organized, practiced the small acts that built their citizen muscles and kept their focus on their big idea – and when the time was right, they were ready. It’s time for us to get ready too – ready to make change and write the next chapter in the story of stuff.