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7.13.2010 Teaching stuff about ecology

By Margot Roosevelt

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.

In a cap-and-trade system, the government sets limits on carbon emissions and companies buy and sell permits to discharge pollutants within those limits. Clean manufacturers can sell their permits — in theory a strong incentive to curb greenhouse gas emissions.

Leonard says that because of loopholes and exceptions, such a system would do little for the environment but would enrich financiers and trading firms. Stavins, however, noted that several environmental groups see cap-and-trade as "the preferred progressive approach to address climate change."

A video from the bottling industry countered "The Story of Bottled Water," which focuses on pollution from discarded plastic bottles.

Leonard grew up in Seattle, the daughter of a Boeing engineer and a school nurse. She majored in environmental studies at Barnard College in New York. Astonished by all the trash on the city's streets, she took a field trip to the now-shut Fresh Kills Landfill on Staten Island, once the world's biggest garbage heap.

"If you've never been to a dump, I really recommend it," she says. "It is like a society's secret journal. You see what's going on behind the scenes."

After college, Leonard worked eight years for Greenpeace International on a team that battled the export of toxic waste from industrialized countries to the Third World. She lived in India and Bangladesh and visited factories and dumps across Asia and Africa. She lobbied governments, organized protests and survived a kidnapping attempt.

Work for other environmental groups followed, as well as a brief marriage, in Washington, D.C., to Maung Zarni, founder of the Free Burma Coalition. They had a daughter, Dewi.

In 2001, Leonard and Dewi moved to a two-bedroom bungalow in North Berkeley on a block where several friends also owned homes and had torn down the fences between their backyards.

Leonard, who collects a $33,000 salary from her nonprofit, doesn't watch TV — a device she holds responsible for ad-driven consumerism. She and her neighbors swap children's clothes and share one swing set, one pickup truck, one exercise machine and one ladder.

She has a two-seat electric car, a Zenn, which cost $8,000, and she powers it with solar panels she purchased with the advance on her book. The tangled pipes of a graywater system, shared with a neighbor, irrigate their yards with washing-machine runoff.

Leonard admits to "a kind of neurosis: when I pick up a pen or a cellphone or a toothbrush, its whole life cycle flips through my mind. Plastic is made from oil: I think of oil fields in Nigeria. I think of kids in the Congo dropping out of school to mine coltan, a metal used in electronics. I think of mountains of hazardous waste."

Leonard used to speak in less accessible terms. But five years ago, at a seminar for activists, as she was droning on about "the materials economy," an organizer from MoveOn.org interrupted her, saying, "I have no idea what you're talking about."

She tried explaining, again, how extraction of raw materials, followed by production and distribution of consumer goods, followed by consumption and disposal of those goods, all on a giant scale, could not go on forever. But her listeners' attention wandered.

Finally, she marched up to a white board and began drawing cartoons.

After a year of refining her visuals before local groups, she raised money to hire Berkeley-based filmmakers, Free Range Studios, to put together the video that became "The Story of Stuff."

Evidence of Leonard's reach can be seen at Pioneer Middle School in Tustin: eighth graders watch "The Story of Stuff" and then draw up a list of the items they bought or received as gifts in the previous six months. "We talk about whether that item is still in use or important to them," said teacher Gina Dearborn. "For most, it is not."

But Leonard is a tad impatient with fans who boast that they are re-soling their shoes, eating organic and changing to energy-efficient light bulbs. Such steps are "like flossing your teeth," she says. "It's not enough."

Her message: Government must do more, and people must "engage their citizen action muscles" to change the way the economy works. A list of "10 Little and Big Things You can Do" on her website has such subtitles as "Park your car and walk … and when necessary MARCH!" and "Recycle your trash … and recycle your elected officials."

Leonard's new videos will be shorter and tied to activist campaigns. "The Story of Cosmetics" is being produced in partnership with the Campaign for Safe Cosmetics. "The Story of Electronics," a collaboration with the Electronics Take-Back Coalition, will advocate laws requiring manufacturers to safely dispose of used cellphones and computers.

If her videos leave you overwhelmed, Leonard has an answer: "I've been reading about the emerging science of happiness," she says merrily. "It turns out that after our basic needs are met, more stuff doesn't make us happy. It's the quality of our relationships. It's coming together around shared goals.

"So, re-engage! It's more fun."