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Annie Leonard: We Should Not Buy Artifacts of Indulgence and Disposability: How About Well-Made, and Doesn't Trash the Planet?

The way we make and use stuff is harming the world—and ourselves.

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One of our best models of citizenship in the United States is the Civil Rights Movement of the 1960s. It’s a myth that when Rosa Parks refused to move to the back of the bus it was a spontaneous act of individual conscience. She was part of a network of thousands of activists who mapped out their campaign, trained to be ready for the struggles to come, then put their bodies on the line in carefully planned civil disobedience. Consumer-based actions, such as boycotting segregated buses or lunch counters, were part of the campaign, but were done collectively and strategically. That model has been used, with varying degrees of success, in the environmental, gay rights, pro-choice, and other movements. But consumer action alone—absent that larger citizen-led campaign—isn't enough to create deep change.

So yes, it is important to be conscious of our consumer decisions. But we're most powerful when this is connected to collective efforts for bigger structural change. As individuals, we can use less stuff if we remember to look inward and evaluate our well-being by our health, the strength of our friendships, and the richness of our hobbies and civic endeavors. And we can make even more progress by working together—as citizens, not consumers—to strengthen laws and business practices increasing efficiency and reducing waste.

As individuals, we can use less toxic stuff by prioritizing organic products, avoiding toxic additives, and ensuring safe recycling of our stuff. But we can achieve much more as citizens demanding tougher laws and cleaner production systems that protect public health overall. And there are many ways we can share more, like my community of several families does. Since we share our stuff, we only need one tall ladder, one pickup truck, and one set of power tools. This means we need to buy, own, and dispose of less stuff. From public tool lending libraries to online peer-to-peer sharing platforms, there are many avenues for scaling sharing efforts from the neighborhood to the national level.

We can't avoid buying and using stuff. But we can work to reclaim our relationship to it. We used to own our stuff; now our stuff owns us. How can we restore the proper balance?

I remember talking to Colin Beavan, aka  No Impact Man, at the end of his year of living as low impact as he could manage in New York City: no waste, no preprocessed meals, no television, no cars, no buying new stuff. He shared with me his surprise at journalists calling to ask what he most missed, what he was going to run out and consume.

What he said has stayed with me as a perfect summation of the shift in thinking we all need to save the world—and ourselves—from stuff.

"They assumed I just finished a year of deprivation," Colin said. "But I realized that it was the prior 35 years that had been deprived. I worked around the clock, rushed home late and exhausted, ate take-out food, and plopped down to watch TV until it was time to take out the trash, go to sleep, and start all over again. That was deprivation."

Fortunately for the planet and for us, there is another way.

Annie Leonard wrote this article for  The Human Cost of Stuff , the Fall 2013 issue of  YES! Magazine . Leonard’s  “Story of...” series started with the 2007 “Story of Stuff” and now includes eight titles.

 
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