Criticism surprises director of 'Story of Stuff' video,
Annie Leonard traveled the world for 10 years, following garbage tankers that ferried America's excess trash away from her shores.
“I went to 40 countries, and I saw where the things we buy are made and I saw where they're thrown away,” said Leonard, who made the film “The Story of Stuff,” which has created something of a furor here in Missoula. “I was able to see products and really think them through, how we use them and what we do with them.”
By becoming an expert on trash, Leonard became fluent in the throwaway culture spawned by American materialism.
“We are very good in this country at keeping the environmental consequences of our choices hidden from view,” said Leonard, who grew up in Seattle and now lives in Berkeley, Calif. “We can just blindly buy and never see the result of that choice.”
That dynamic got Leonard to thinking: Shouldn't there be a way to talk about where things come from and where they go when we're done with them? Wasn't there a way to do that where the message would be clear and bold, but delivered without the scolding tone that too often accompanies environmental pronouncements?
Leonard at first developed a presentation that took about 45 minutes. Soon enough, she was swamped by speaking requests.
“It got to the point where I just can't be flying all over the world all the time,” she said. “And that's where the idea of the film came in. It was a way to address the topic without me being there.”
The film is “The Story of Stuff.” It's probably safe to say that Missoula wouldn't be nearly so familiar with Leonard's work absent a complaint from the parent of a Big Sky High School student who saw the film in her wildlife biology class. And even that complaint wouldn't have generated much talk had the Missoula County Public Schools board of trustees not found the teacher in violation of district policy for showing the 20-minute film.
Leonard first heard about parent Mark Zuber's complaint from Kathleen Kennedy, the Big Sky teacher who used the film to spark a discussion about consumer culture.
“I was really shocked because this video is being shown in thousands of schools around the world,” said Leonard. “I've heard from people who say it shouldn't have the word ‘suck' in it, but thousands of educators are using it without any problem at all.”
Zuber claimed, among other things, that Kennedy failed to balance her presentation of the film in her class. He also was upset because the film's production company produces other films he viewed as products of liberal orthodoxy.
“I've had people say that it's biased, and this is what I tell them,” Leonard said. “I believe in the ecological survival of the planet. I want us to survive, all of us. I want us to treat one another fairly. I want for my country to not dump its waste on other countries.”
Some would call such beliefs biased, but the notion makes Leonard both laugh and wince.
“What's the other side to what I've said?” she mused. “Unfortunately, we're living it.”
Kennedy asked the same thing in an interview with the Missoulian.
“I was talking to the kids about sustainability of the planet,” she said. “What should I show them for balance - a car ad?”
Annie Leonard grew up in Seattle, surrounded by the temperate forests of the coast.
“We did a lot of camping and I always noticed that the forests were disappearing a little bit more each year,” she said.
Kids have lots of dreams about what they'll be when they grow up, and Leonard was no different.
“It's weird, but I wanted to be secretary of Interior,” she said.
Although she grew up with an environmental ethic, Leonard's view of the world was revolutionized when she went to college in New York City.
“My dorm was about six blocks away from my classes, and I walked everyday past these huge heaps of garbage,” she said. “It was shoulder-high in the morning, but it was all gone when I came home.”
Where did it go? And where did it all come from?
“By that I mean, where do we get all this stuff and why does it all have to be thrown away?” she said. “I could look into those piles and see all that paper and cardboard. I knew where my forests were going.”
After college, Leonard went to Washington, D.C., where she worked on international campaigns involving waste and garbage.
“The more I learned, the more I could see how incredibly wasteful we are,” she said. “There's so much potential for us to make so much less garbage.”
Leonard then went to work for Greenpeace, following “ships of waste” bound for foreign trash dumps.
“I traveled to more than 40 countries and worked with people who are working on garbage and waste issues,” she said. “It was hard not to see the costs and consequences of our lifestyle.”
That work led to involvement with the Global Anti-Incinerator Alliance, GAIA, a coalition of groups working to halt waste burning.
Finally, Leonard's work distilled as “The Story of Stuff,” a film for which she had modest goals that have now been thoroughly smashed.
“Well, online the video has been seen more than 5 million times, it's been shown in countries all over the world and we've received 50,000
e-mails about it,” Leonard said. “I wanted it to create a connection between people for inspiring a discussion about the way we live our lives.”
And that it's done. What it hasn't done is cause controversy.
“It's surprising to me that it caused a problem in a school, because we have so many churches using it and it seems fine to them,” said Leonard, who is now writing a book that will expand on the film.
Leonard has seen, up close and personal, the detritus of modern life. She has seen the way the industrial world dumps its garbage and problems on the Third World. And yet she is an optimist.
“Even though I know all this stuff about the growing inequity of money, about the rates of infant mortality, about pollution in the oceans, I'm hopeful,” she said. “I know that we can do things differently. The way to do that is to put things on the table and talk about them. If we just bury the discussion, we're in even worse trouble than we're in now.”