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The Trouble with Stuff: A Conversation with Annie Leonard

Annie Leonard 
Filmmaker Annie Leonard finds people want to be liberated from overconsumption.  

This article originally appeared in On the Commons.

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's also adapted it into a book. Drawing on her experience investigating and organizing on environmental health and justice issues in more than 40 countries.

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.