Former Utne Reader senior editor Keith Goetzman on environmental issues from climate change to composting.
Friday, May 03, 2013 4:17 PM
Some of our best
online-only material from the month of April
While we may have shed our “Best of the Alternative Press”
tagline, Utne.com is still all about envisioning and realizing alternatives—whether
that’s a different kind of politics or a new way to collaborate on a DIY
science project. With that mind, here are some of our favorite blog posts,
articles, and book excerpts from the past month.
For Story of Stuff
filmmaker Annie Leonard, one big alternative begins with liberating ourselves
from overconsumption and recognizing the commons all around us. “We have to learn to
share more and waste less,” she says in an interview with former Utne editor Jay Walljasper. “The good news is that these changes not only will enable us
to continue to live on this planet, but they will result in a happier,
healthier society overall.”
In a similar vein, in “The Ideabook,” author Katie Haegele
explores how repurposing
vintage clothing—you might call it cross-generational sharing—can help us
connect with the struggles, changes, and styles of the past, especially if we
approach that past knowingly.
Sharing is also a big part of Dani Burlison’s post
on California’s Maker Faire, an annual festival of crafts, science
projects, and innovative ideas. With a strong emphasis on collaborative
learning and a DIY ethos, the Faire creates a unique space where experimentation
is encouraged and cooperation is essential.
For those who envision larger changes, Starhawk’s new EmpowermentManual and a new book of Howard Zinn speeches offer inspiring models
for making it happen. While Zinn explores the life
and enduring significance of activist, writer, and all-around awesome
person Emma Goldman, Starhawk’s blueprint
for social change gives us the tools to realize the kind of transformation
Goldman had long fought for. As Starhawk writes, the first thing such struggle
requires is a positive vision for change: “We are most empowered when we know
what we do want, not just what we don’t want.”
That’s certainly true of the teachers’ movement Nancy
Schniedewind and Mara Sapon-Shevin describe in Educational Courage. The
reform agenda may be powerful, they write, but it can’t stop them from envisioning
and working toward a truly democratic education system—one
where social justice and connection to a larger community are front and center.
We can also see some of that hopefulness in Jon Queally’s surprisingly
optimistic update on the climate movement’s anti-Keystone campaign. The
State Department’s official “comment period” may be over, writes Queally, but
the fight sure isn’t.
A little less hopeful, but no less informative, is Suzanne
gif blog on the history of corporate power in Washington—from the Powell Memo to corporate
personhood. “Nearly 80 percent
of the public opposes the Citizens United decision,” Suzanne writes. “That it hasn’t
been reversed goes to show how skewed the current balance of power is.”
Equally sobering are the campaign
finance stats Lawrence Lessig shares with us, from the time Congresspeople
actually spend begging rich folks for money (a lot) to the 132 Americans—that’s
the .000042 percent, if you’re curious—responsible for 60 percent of
Super PAC funding in 2012.
To realize real alternatives, it seems, we’re going to have
to confront the system of institutionalized bribery holding sway over Washington—or,
as insiders call it, politics.
Tuesday, April 09, 2013 12:41 PM
Filmmaker Annie Leonard finds people want to be liberated from overconsumption.
Annie Leonard is one of the most articulate, effective champions of the commons today. Her webfilm The Story of Stuff has been seen more than 15 million times by viewers. She also adapted it into a book.
Drawing on her experience investigating and organizing on environmental health and justice issues in more than 40 countries, Leonard says she’s “made it her life’s calling to blow the whistle on important issues plaguing our world.”
This article originally appeared in On the Commons.
On the Commons recently asked Leonard a few questions about the commons.
How did you first learn about the commons?
I first learned about the commons as a kid using parks and libraries. I didn’t assign the label “commons” to them, but I understood early on that some things belong to all of us and these shared assets enhance our lives and rely on our care.
Like many other college students, my first introduction to the word “commons” was sadly in conjunction with the word “sheep” and “tragedy.” That lousy resource management class tainted the word for me for years, until I heard Ralph Nader address a group of college students. He asked them to yell out a list of everything they own. This being the pre-i-gadget 1980’s, the list included “Sony Walkman…boombox… books…bicycle…clothes…bank account.” When the lists started to peter out, Ralph asked about National Parks and public airwaves. A light went off in each of our heads, and a whole new list was shouted out: rivers, libraries, the Smithsonian, monuments. That’s when I realized that the commons isn’t an overgrazed pasture; it really is all that we share.
What do you see as the biggest obstacle to creating a commons-based society right now?
There are so many interrelated aspects of our current economic and social systems which undermine the commons. Some obstacles are structural, like government spending priorities that elevate military spending and oil company subsidies over maintenance of parks and libraries. Others are social, including the erosion in social fabric and community-based lifestyles. Actually, even those have structural drivers; for example, land use planning which eliminates sidewalks and requires long commutes to work contribute to breakdown of social commons by impeding social interactions. It’s all so interconnected!
A huge obstacle is the shift toward greater privatization and commodification of physical and social assets. Many things that used to be shared—from open spaces for recreation to support systems to help a neighbor in need—have been privatized and commodified; they’ve been moved out of the community into the market place. This triggers a downward spiral. Once things become privatized, or un-commoned, we no longer have access to them without paying a fee. We then have to work longer hours to pay for all these things which used to be freely available—everything from safe afterschool recreation for kids to clean water to swim in to someone to talk to when you’re feeling blue. And since we’re working longer hours and spending more time alone, we have less time to contribute to the commons to rebuild these assets: less volunteer hours, less beach-clean-up days, less time for civic engagement to advocate for policies that protect the commons, less time to invite a neighbor over for tea. And on it goes.
What is the greatest opportunity to strengthen and expand the commons right now?
In spite of real obstacles, we have a lot on our side as we advance a commons-based agenda. First, we have no choice. There’s a very real ecological imperative weighing down on us. Even if we wanted to continue this overconsumptive, hyper individualistic and vastly unequal way of living, we simply can’t. We have to learn to share more and waste less, to find joy and meaning in shared assets and experiences rather than in private accumulation, to work together for a better world, rather than to build bigger walls around those who can. And the good news is that these changes not only will enable us to continue to live on this planet, but they will result in a happier, healthier society overall.
There’s another shift emerging which offers some real opportunities for building support for the commons. People in the overconsuming parts of the world are getting fed up with the burden of trying to own everything individually. We used to own our stuff and increasingly our stuff owns us. We work extra hours to buy more stuff, we spend our weekends sorting our stuff. We’re constantly needing to upgrade, repair, untangle, recharge, even pay to store our stuff. It’s exhausting.
The shift I see emerging is from an acquisition focused relationship to stuff, to an access- focused relationship. In the acquisition framework, the more stuff we had, the better, as captured in the 1990s bumpersticker “He Who Dies with the Most Toys Wins.” Having spent a couple decades being slaves to our stuff, we are rethinking. Now it is “He Who dies with the Most Toys Wasted His Life Working to Buy Them and Lived in a Cluttered House When He Could have been Investing in Community with which to Share Toys.
Increasingly people want access to stuff, not all the burden that comes with ownership. Instead of owning a car and dealing with all that comes with it, we get one just when we want through city car share programs. Instead of hiring a plumber, we swap music lessons with one through skillsharing networks. Why buy something to own alone, when we can share it with others? Why signup for an even more crushing mortgage for a house with a big back yard, when we can instead share public parks? From coast to coast, there’s a resurgence of sharing, so much that it even has a fancy new name: collaborative consumption. I’m really excited about this. A whole new generation of people is realizing that access to shared stuff is easier on one’s budget and on the planet, then individual ownership. Now, that’s liberating.
Image: Annie Leonard by annainaustin, licensed under Creative Commons.
"Story of Change", Annie Leonard's "Story of Stuff" follow-up video.
Wednesday, January 23, 2013 9:51 AM
When it comes to trashing the planet, Americans are ready
for change, and the ever-growing popularity of biking and buying organic aren’t
the only evidence. Across the political spectrum, people agree on ending
subsidies that encourage environmental degradation. And a majority of
Americans support a shift to clean energy and more regulation over toxic
chemicals. Our economy is struggling, but many Americans believe that a better one
is possible—one that puts people and the planet first. So why isn’t it
That’s the question Annie Leonard, creator of the animated
video series The Story of Stuff,
addresses in “The Story of Change.”
Back in 2007, Leonard’s first video, “The Story of
Stuff,” connected the dots between resource extraction and sweatshops, planned
obsolescence and pollution, urban growth and the influence of corporations in
government. This unsustainable system “didn’t just happen,” Leonard told the
internet. “It was designed.”
By the tens of thousands, viewers emailed her to ask how
they could help. Leonard made more videos, demystifying topics from emissions
trading to the
federal budget. Although the series has been popular, it hasn’t translated
into public demand for change.
A lack of information wasn’t the problem, Leonard realized. She
looked at the stats and found that most Americans are on-board with increased protections for people and the environment. In the “Story of Change” video, she
states that “74 percent of Americans support tougher laws on toxic chemicals,
83 percent want clean energy laws, and 85 percent think corporations should
have less influence in government.”
In an interview
with Lauren Feeney for BillMoyers.com,
Leonard expands on this idea. “[A]t this
point in the U.S., 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.”
“One of the things [Leonard] has noticed based on responses
to ‘The Story of Stuff,’ writes
Simon Butler of Green Left, “[is]
that, as a society, ‘we are forgetting how to make change.’” In “The Story of Change,” Leonard creates an
equation for change: a clear goal, teamwork, and political action.
One group that’s on the right track? Occupy. Leonard told Butler that she finds
hope in the movement and supports it enthusiastically. “The Occupy movement is
taking back our spaces, taking back our discourses, it is striving to take back
our government and in many ways it is taking back ourselves.”
Sources: Story of Stuff, BillMoyers.com,
See Utne Reader on “The
Story of Cap and Trade,” “The
Story of Citizens United v. FEC,” and “The
Story of Broke.”
Friday, November 11, 2011 10:49 AM
Income inequality is on the forefront of the collective America brain. With economists ringing alarm bells, protestors occupying available slivers of public land, and families feeling the squeeze on a daily basis, the American status quo hasn’t been so vocally scrutinized in decades. With so much coverage, it’s easy to get lost in the details—statistics and scandals, history and histrionics. Leave it to Annie Leonard, the activist and cartoonist behind the popular series “The Story of Stuff,” to clear up a how the richest nation on earth can’t afford to pay its bills.
In “The Story of Broke,” Leonard’s most recent film, she explains in broad strokes how American tax dollars get turned into corporate pocket lining—and stolen from the people and infrastructure that need government support most. America is hardly the hard scrabble, heartless country that politicians make it, Leonard contends, “So next time you have an idea for a better future and someone tells you, ‘that’s nice, but there’s no money for that,’ you tell them we’re not broke. There is money, it’s ours, and it’s time to invest it right.”
“The Story of Stuff” series has a way of oversimplifying to introduce issues to a broader audience. For example, “The Story of Broke” paints a rose-tinted, neoliberal picture of how thoughtful government spending solves unemployment: “Instead of subsidizing garbage incinerators, let’s subsidize real solutions, like zero waste. Raising the US recycling rate to 75 percent would create one and a half million new jobs” [emphasis mine].
Sunshine on America’s liberal shoulders aside, Leonard’s strongest takeaway is that tax dollars come from everyday citizens and, to borrow the language of corporations, the customer is always right.
Also, see Utne Reader on “The Story of Cap and Trade” and “The Story of Citizens United v. FEC.”
Thursday, December 02, 2010 4:19 PM
Every week we share links to stories, articles, and other interesting things we’ve come across online for you to enjoy over the weekend. It’s the utne.com crockpot; we add the ingredients for a great online meal.
Maybe we’ve been living under a rock—you know, too caught up in our alternative media over here—but what the hell is going on with Randy Quaid?
A frog dissection made with LEGOs. Seriously.
The animated environmental video short The Story of Stuff went so very, very viral that it launched a cottage industry for filmmaker Annie Leonard. Her latest is The Story of Electronics, about “designed for the dump” consumer tech products.
Artsy folks will love counting down the days until Christmas with this advent calendar on Tumblr.
Also worth checking out: 3rd of May, another Tumblr that will feature an artwork every day, all year long.
Yes, your local community college may have a wind-power technician training program, but don’t be fooled: America is fast falling behind other countries in the push for green jobs.
Lapham’s Quarterly has a really fun chart of gangs in New York from 1840 to 1910.
As we approach the solstice, gray moods and scant sunlight pervade—which makes it a perfect time to wallow in gloomy literature for dreary days.
Tuesday, June 15, 2010 9:05 AM
The woman behind the anticonsumerist viral video phenomenon The Story of Stuff has a new target in her sights: the carbon-trading shell game known as cap and trade. But she’s finding that it’s a touchy subject for fellow environmentalists who’ve bought into it as a political compromise. Here’s filmmaker Annie Leonard telling Northern California green mag Terrain why she’s not backing down:
“I called so many environmental groups … and asked them, ‘What do you think about cap and trade?’ Everybody I talked to said it doesn’t meet what the science says we need, it probably won’t work, but it’s the best we’re going to get. … I had this existential crisis because a lot of the groups that I knew said, ‘Don’t make that film, because it’s going to jeopardize our chance to get this bill, and even though it won’t work it’s the best we’re going to get.’ And I said, ‘Well, it’s definitely the best we’re going to get if that’s all we ask for.’ …
“There are some times in which you have to make compromises in politics. That is part of the game. But you can only make so many compromises before your solution is not a solution anymore. I don’t trust commodities traders to save the planet. They’ve never made saving the planet their priority; I don’t believe they’re going to do it now.”
See The Story of Cap and Trade here:
Source: Terrain, The Story of Cap and Trade
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