Story of Stuff's Annie Leonard to Keynote Gradfest Symposium

May 01, 2012

By Ann Guy

When a 20-minute lecture about the economic supply chain goes viral, spawning a stunning 12 million views, a non-profit organization with a slate of multimedia offerings, and a vibrant online community of hundreds of thousands of citizens eager to make the world a better place, one has to wonder: what secret force is behind it?

The Story Of Stuff creator Annie Leonard is quick to tell you that a staff of six full-time people create the magic mixture of cartoons and intelligently and wryly distilled information, but it started with just her deep knowledge and commitment to the issue, and an infectious fire in the belly that jumps through the camera.

Leonard will be on the UC Berkeley campus this Friday, May 4, to give the keynote address for the Department of Environmental Science, Policy, and Management’s (ESPM’s) annual Gradfest event, where graduating Ph.D.’s show off the department’s depth and diversity with spirited mini-talks on their dissertation research on topics, which this year include topics as wide-ranging as biodiversity in Caribbean coral, sudden oak death at Point Reyes National Seashore, and Conservation policy in Bottswana.

Leonard has been on campus a lot lately, for only-at-Berkeley intellectual swap. Her videos are shown in several different ESPM classes and are now so widely used by educators as teaching tools that a majority of students arrive at college already having seen them. But with all the travel and lectures since the video blew up in 2008, Leonard wanted to make sure her information was up to date. “Over the past four years I spend more time learning about social media, and less about the issues that really turn me on, which is how stuff is made and used and thrown away, and how we can do it better,” she said. “That’s what my passion is."

So she signed up for professor Dara O’Rourke’s graduate seminar ESPM 260, Towards Sustainable Consumption and Production, which focuses on governance strategies for global supply chains—that is, where the opportunities for improvement lie along the supply chain of extraction, production, distribution, consumption, and disposal.

Despite being a source for millions of people on these supply-chain issues, and having interviewed O’Rourke extensively as part of the research for her book, The Story of Stuff, Leonard is keenly aware of the need to keep learning. A lot of the learning came from her classmates, she said, whose various backgrounds included city and regional planning, business, and environmental science. “It helped me so much to think about how I frame my ideas, how other people are thinking and talking about these issues, most of which the Story of Stuff Project addresses every day.”

And stepping back from the work helped her clarify a few issues she and her staff had been struggling with. “In many ways this class was like the grown-up academic explanation of my cartoon,” she said.

For example, learning the term “non-informational barriers to change” gave her and her staff the language to address an issue they’d identified, but didn’t really know how to talk about. The past 40 years, Leonard says, the environmental movement has been operating on the primary assumption that if you give people information about an issue, like climate change or waste, they will then change. “The theory of change was: give information; change will happen. It didn’t work.”

Leonard says they had figured out that making change was more complex than just providing information, and the class helped her organization to ask: what are the non-information barriers to change? “Is it that people have forgotten how to engage as citizens? Is it that people have no hope because they think corporations have taken over democracy? Is it that people are working too many hours in this country so they don’t have the leisure time to engage in civil society?” Before O’Rourke’s class, The Story of Stuff Project  had already put out videos addressing these deeper drivers of society’s consumption issues—on the Citizens United decision about “corporate personhood,” and on cracking the illusion that that the government is broke. But now they had a way to talk about it more directly.

In addition to the classroom, Leonard thinks universities can play a role beyond just education, strengthening the ties between nonprofit organizations and communities. O’Rourke, who is known for his Good Guide website, is the model she thinks others should look to. He has made himself available to advocacy groups and organizations for 20 years, she said. “A lot of academics I know think their value is in the production of knowledge abstractly, and Dara really sees his value is in producing knowledge that then can be used to help make the world better.”

But scientists have to rise above partisanship and agendas for particular outcomes, and must adhere to the highest academic standards and peer review processes. Leonard agrees, but she thinks those reports and articles academics generate should then be placed in the hands of activists. “The activists can change policies that will make children healthier and the environment cleaner.

The Story Stuff Project, once just a single passionate activist’s lecture, has become one of those activist groups with the power and visibility to create change. “We absolutely believe we can turn things around in this country and globally," Leonard said. “And we absolutely believe that we can have an economy that is healthy and sustainable and fair. It’s totally possible—there is no technical reason we cannot have that.”

Annie Leonard’s talk and Q&A take place Friday, May 4, from 11 a.m. to noon in East Pauley Ballroom. All Gradfest events are open to the campus community, but pre-registration is required, even if just attending Leonard’s talk.