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Annie Leonard says: NOPE, We need systemic change

As far as inspirational speakers go, I’d put my friend Annie Leonard among the top. I recently heard her give a talk to several hundred folks on Salt Spring Island, BC in Canada’s Pacific Northwest. After listening to her impressive knowledge of depressing facts regarding pollution levels and how we’re destroying our planet — “We’re in a system in crisis” — you’d think that I’d come away feeling hopeless.

Not at all. Instead, her passion, smarts and insightful perspectives inspired me to take immediate action on an issue I had previously dismissed. Her talk expanded my view of how we can make meaningful and lasting change on a broader scale. I felt invigorated by her enthusiasm.

We’ve all heard the quick ways to help our planet: Ride a bike. Unplug appliances. Buy organic produce. Start a vegetable garden. Yet, when it comes to truly transforming the planet and society, a focus on small, individual actions is ultimately a placebo and mere distraction, says Annie Leonard of The Story of Stuff fame.

“We’re so used to identifying with our consumer role: Shop differently,” she told a crowd of young and old at Salt Spring Island’s Centre for Child Honouring. “We have to start to re-engage as a citizen and engage in our civil society. Our citizen muscle has atrophied.”

She reinforced that individual lifestyle changes are not enough. As a provocative systems thinker, Annie believes that we need deeper, systemic change and to ask tougher questions beyond: Where should I shop? (She promotes the approach of “NOPE” (Not on Planet Earth) rather than the all-too-common NIMBY (Not in my backyard).) She asked a fundamental question: “Why is economy based on growth?” Who says that we need growth? What happened to “Small is beautiful”?

In Annie’s view, we need to rethink our role on the planet to the core, beyond commonly accepted approaches espoused even by many environmentalists. For instance, think in terms of “Waste less” not “Recycle more.”

She says: We need to change the rules of our production methods, to do a life cycle analysis of products. Resist upgrades of electronics. Make them safe. Make them last.

Annie identified our three “simple” problems:

  • We’re trashing the planet
  • We’re trashing each other
  • We’re not having fun.

Besides that, we’re carrying toxic body-burden levels, she says. Annie has had her own body analyzed for harmful chemicals and had 80+ identified. Today’s babies are born pre-polluted with high levels of chemicals found in their umbilical cord, she noted. At the same time, one billion people are chronically hungry.

Amidst North America’s rush for materialist goodies, Annie pointed out four things, according to researchers, that determine happiness:

  • the quality of our social relationships
  • having leisure time
  • a sense of purpose and  meaning in our life
  • coming together with others with shared goals.

Facing an audience that included Green Party leader Elizabeth May in the front row, Annie outlined a few of her solutions for creating a healthier planet of happier people:

  • Build a clean, healthy, green economy.
  • Apply technology to help the planet, whether it’s using zero-waste designers or  biomimicry, whereby scientists study and emulate the processes and systems of nature to solve human problems. For example, how does a peacock make black? (See Biomimicry Institute for more details.)
  • Honour and embrace children as a culture. One way is to have nation-wide, annual testing of breast milk, to monitor what chemicals our vulnerable infants are ingesting. Elizabeth May stood up and told the group: “Nobody can breastfeed without fear on this planet.” Annie expressed her own dismay and worry while breastfeeding: industry has contaminated our most elemental human relationship. (Find out more at Making Our Milk Safe.)

Another way to honour children is to spend more time with them. As  a  single mom who’s on the  road a lot, Annie makes quality time with her daughter Dewi a top priority. When she can, she brings Dewi with her as a combined work trip/holiday. “Children should be first and foremost in our decision-making,” she said.

Our education system offers a great forum for honouring children and offering them ways to serve the planet and society. Annie has worked with teachers to develop curriculum and actions guides for youth around her concepts in The Story of Stuff. (She shared how neocon commentator Glenn Beck raged against her for a week on his previous talk show, telling schools that they should punish any teacher who showed The Story of Stuff in class.)

  • Adopt the same regulatory approach as the European Union. For example, the EU has banned 11,000 chemicals; the United States has banned only 11.
  • “Get corporations out of our democracy.” As event host, Raffi (Annie’s friend, a well-known children’s entertainer and founder of the Centre for Child Honouring) asked: “What choices are you being given by corporations?”

Overall, Annie reinforced that we need to make doing the right thing our default action. In her simplest terms: “hope, love, truth — not fear.” She said: “We need to rebuild community and communication. There is a giant dim sum table of possibilities.” Let’s dig in.

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June 5, 2011 at 6:03 am Comments (0)