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Teaching 'stuff' about ecology

Annie Leonard's animated Web video has spread her environmental message worldwide to more than 12 million people.

July 13, 2010|By Margot Roosevelt, Los Angeles Times

Annie Leonard used to spout jargon. She reveled in the sort of geek-speak that glazes your eyeballs.

Externalized costs, paradigm shifts, the precautionary principle, extended producer responsibility.

That was before she discovered cartoons.

Today the 45-year-old Berkeley activist is America's pitchperson for a new style of environmental message. Out with boring PowerPoints and turgid reports; in with witty videos that explain complex issues in digestible terms.

"We environmentalists are a whiny, wonky bunch," Leonard says. "We bombard people with facts. But who wants to join a movement where people just scold you? We have to make it inspiring. We have to make it fun."

In the past 2 1/2 years, more than 12 million people worldwide have viewed Leonard's animated Web video, "The Story of Stuff," a 20-minute expose of humanity's wasteful ways. It has been translated into more than 15 languages and has spawned a book of the same name, published on recycled paper with soy ink.

Leonard recently launched "The Story of Bottled Water," a video about how clever marketing turned a freely available commodity — tap water — into a source of profit and pollution, and "The Story of Cap and Trade," her take on how carbon trading undermines efforts to curb global warming.

"The Story of Cosmetics," about toxicity in personal care products, will go live July 21. Coming this fall: "The Story of Electronics," on planned obsolescence and pollutants in computers and cellphones.

The nation's most powerful environmental groups, with millions of members and scores of public relations experts, look at Leonard's one-woman show with something akin to awe. "Others have tried to do what she's done — including us," says Carl Pope, chairman of the Sierra Club. "But none have connected with the public as well."

The gist of "Stuff" — that the consumer society is placing unsustainable burdens on the environment — is not new. But with her millions of Web fans and more than 70,000 Facebook friends, Leonard reaches beyond the usual eco-audience. And she doesn't lard her lessons with qualifiers and caveats. "Extraction," she says at the outset of "The Story of Stuff," "is a fancy word for natural resource exploitation, which is a fancy word for trashing the planet."

In a cartoon backdrop, forests collapse, factories burp pollutants, pillows are doused in flame-retardant neurotoxins and stick figures push shopping carts through "BigBox-Mart."

In the foreground, Leonard (the actual person, not a cartoon likeness) gesticulates, jokes, exclaims ("Yuck!", "Duh!") and exhorts viewers to "chuck … this old-school throwaway mind-set."

What began as a one-off video, financed by several environmental foundations, has given rise to the Story of Stuff Project, a nonprofit with a budget of $950,000 and a staff of four, housed in the attic of a century-old carriage house in downtown Berkeley. Here, stuff is kept to a minimum: a faded pink-and-purple sofa, a few mismatched chairs and some hortatory posters: "Power Past Coal" and "There is another way: Zero Waste."

Gathering staffers around a wooden table one afternoon, Leonard, in jeans and sandals, ran quickly through the meeting agenda before racing home to help her 10-year old daughter with a science fair project. There was an invitation for Leonard to appear on "Good Morning America" (she accepted) and news that a Persian translation of "The Story of Stuff" was underway.

There was also a progress report on a "Story of Stuff" curriculum for schools, and the launch of a downloadable study guide for churches titled "Let There Be … Stuff?"

In recent months, Leonard's 317-page book version of "The Story of Stuff" has brought her a wave of media attention.

"You must think this economic downturn is fantastic," said Stephen Colbert, razzing her on Comedy Central's "The Colbert Report." "People have less money to go spend on things.... You must be going, 'Yeeee! Let's have a depression!' "

Leonard was unfazed. "I'm excited about the potential of the economic downturn to get us to think a little more critically," she replied. "When there's less dollars to spend, we've got to think: 'Is it really worth that extra job working that weekend to get this new car? Or that 15th pair of shoes?'"

Her videos attacking consumerism, toxic ingredients and heedless waste disposal have prompted criticism. Lee Doren, a blogger affiliated with the Competitive Enterprise Institute, a libertarian think tank, called it "Marxism for Kids" in his four-part YouTube critique.

Fox News host Glenn Beck dubbed it an "anti-capitalist tale that unfortunately has virtually no facts correct."

"The Story of Cap and Trade," a critique of what Leonard calls the "multi-trillion-dollar carbon racket," is "entertaining … but terribly misleading," said Harvard University economist Robert Stavins.

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