Making Change — Guest Post by "Story of Stuff" Creator Annie Leonard

Posted on: August 17th, 2012 by National Trust for Historic Preservation 3 Comments

Annie Leonard is the director of the Story of Stuff Project and author of The Story of Stuff. The Story of Stuff has generated over 15 million views in more than 200 countries and territories since its launch, making it one of the most successful environmental-themed viral films of all time. Annie will be speaking at the opening plenary session of the National Preservation Conference on Wednesday, October 31.

I’ve been thinking a lot about change lately. Seems like everyone, on every side of the political spectrum, is calling for change. It’s the topic of the relentless campaign ads leading up to the November election. The number one question we get from the thousands of our movie viewers who write to us is “how can I make change?” There’s so much interest in making change that we decided to tackle the topic head on with our most recent movie, The Story of Change. This latest film explains the three things needed to make change: a good idea of how things could be better, a commitment to work together, and engaged citizens taking action.

While making change requires a forward thinking perspective, it doesn’t require turning our back on the past. In fact, the best type of change is built on foundations of the past -- both the intellectual foundation and the built foundation.  Clearly our ideas about how to run an economy need change; the current model just isn’t working for the majority of the world’s people or for the overstressed planet. But rather than write off the past completely and risk repeating familiar mistakes, let’s study the past and glean lessons about what has and what hasn’t worked. And then let’s keep striving to do things better. The same goes for our built environment. We’ve learned much in recent decades about designing buildings and whole cities to nurture healthy people, healthy communities and a healthy environment. In some cases, positive change does mean humbly scraping past mistakes and building anew. Other times it means preserving and holding dear the buildings and spaces in which our society has developed  to date.

In this moment of political stuckness, I’m often asked if I still think change is possible. Change is more than possible; it’s inevitable. Right now, we’re using more resources than the planet can regenerate and creating more waste than it can assimilate. Sheer physical limits dictate that we can’t continue on this trajectory indefinitely. So the question is not if we’ll change, but how. Will we change by design, or by disaster? Either way, change is coming. If we chose to change by design, it is going to be hard work ahead, but we can be so much more strategic and intelligent about making that change. If we dig our heels in, refusing to critically assess where we’re headed and to start designing a better way forward, we’ll still change, but it will be a whole lot harder and uglier.

I’m convinced that we have what it takes to change by design. We have visionary thinkers and builders and communicators. We have innovative new technologies to meet human needs without trashing the planet. We have a rich history of citizens working together to solve big problems.

Preserving the best of the past while aiming high for a healthy, sustainable and just future, we can make change together. I look forward to meeting you at the National Preservation Conference in Spokane this fall to explore more about making change and building a better future for all.

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3 Responses

  1. EH

    August 20, 2012

    “Clearly our ideas about how to run an economy need change; the current model just isn’t working for the majority of the world’s people or for the overstressed planet.”

    It is one thing for an environmentalist to stick to an argument concerning the use of natural resources, or to “generously” make the leap to our world of cultural resources – but another thing entirely for them to tiptoe into economic analysis. Some may be convinced by her one-sided analysis, but it is hardly a non-biased view of the economic world.

    Let’s hope the presentation at the conference is not designed yet again to alienate part of our consituency by lecturing us on environmental advocacy, the size of our carbon footprint, or global warming. All interesting subjects – but really – can’t we find speakers at the National Trust conference from time to time that provide an alternate point of view?

  2. Annie Leonard

    August 22, 2012

    Dear EH,

    Thanks for sharing your thoughts. I am surprised you object to an environmentalist “tip toeing” into economic analysis. From where I sit, I’d say the only concern with tip toeing is it is too slow. We need to dive in.

    Issues related to the ecology and the economy are inseparable and we can’t understand, or make progress in, one without the other. They are so closely related that they both share a common prefix, “eco,” stemming from the Greek oikos which refers to a household. Economy and Ecology are both about the study and management of our households.

    But the connection goes far beyond etymology. The economy is a physical subset of the environment, and is wholly dependent on it — a fact many economists forget. Yet conventional economics often discounts the environment, as though it has no value or even relevance. As Herman Daly, the renowned ecological economist and professor at the University of Maryland said: “The economy is a wholly owned subsidiary of the environment, not the reverse.”

    I’m writing this note on an important day. According to Global Footprint Network, today – August 22 – is Earth Overshoot Day for 2012. This is the day each year on which humanity has used the amount of resources the planet can replenish in a year and crated the amount of waste it can assimilate in the same. In 8 months, we’ve exhausted the Earth’s budget for the year. Each year, Earth Overshoot Day comes a little sooner. That’s a pretty alarming data point and trajectory, yet the metric barely gets noted, unlike the constant news feeds on economic indicators.

    I’d say it is high time that environmentalists and economists spend more time together, listening to each other, studying each other’s data and then working together to figure out how we can build both a healthy environment and a healthy economy – because we simply can’t have one without the other. We get both or neither. I hope I’ll meet you at the upcoming conference so we can explore the potential synergies between our deeply connected ecos further.

    Annie Leonard

  3. EH

    August 24, 2012

    Thank you, Annie for your thoughtful response!

    Reconciliation between economics and the environment is, I agree, a necessary goal. However, balance comes from a mutually informed point of view. Unfortunately the bulk of my comment has little to do with you personally, but rather the unfortunate fact that for the past two years we have been additionally treated to the likes of Bill McKibben and James Kuntsler – two very controversial and outspoken environmentalists.

    Whether you agree with their opinions or not, the continued selection of such speakers does alienate other points of view and does not present a complete picture. It makes the assumption that preservationists are entirely comprised of individuals who are more interested in being lectured to about global warming, carbon footprints, consumerism and saving the polar bear than they are about saving the places that matter to them. It is one thing to be provocative to boost attendance – it is another thing to be consistently provocative in the same direction. Believe it or not, there are preservationists who might want to hear a plenary speaker that will not lecture them about the environment – particularly when we are faced with trying to save historic (i.e. man-made) resources in the face a struggling economy, high unemployment and debt. This is hardly your fault – it is just a circumstance.

    As for Earth Overshoot Day… well… I’m afraid you lost me at that one. The Global Footprint Network is hardly an unbiased scientific source. In fact, I think it illustrates my point. Personally I am agnostic on the subject. But there are many critics of the methodologies used by this think-tank, so I think representing their data as indisputably factual is dangerous. Thoughtful perhaps, but dangerous.

    I look forward to hearing you in Spokane.