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Goodbye Overconsumption: Why the Commons Can Save Us From Drowning in Too Much Stuff

Story of Stuff creator Annie Leonard talks about why the commons are so integral to our lives.

Annie Leonard is one of the most articulate, effective champions of the commons today. Her webfilm  The Story of Stuff has been seen more than 15 million times by viewers. She also adapted it into a  book.

Drawing on her experience investigating and organizing on environmental health and justice issues in more than 40 countries, Leonard says she’s “made it her life’s calling to blow the whistle on important issues plaguing our world.”

She deploys hard facts, common sense, witty animation and an engaging “everywoman” role as narrator to probe complex problems such as the high costs of consumerism, the influence of corporate money in our democracy, and government budget priorities.

In 2008, she founded the  Story of Stuff Project, to help people get involved in making the decisions that affect their future and to create new webfilms on critical issues such as  The Story of Citizens United and The Story of Bottled Water. Her most recent film  The Story of Broke, provides a riveting rebuttal to claims that America can no longer afford health and social protections.

Here Leonard answers a few questions about the importance of the commons in her life, work and the world.

Jay Walljasper: What are a few of the most beloved commons in your life and community?

Annie Leonard: I asked this question to our Story of Stuff team over lunch recently and the conversation lit up as we each called out commons we cherish most. We identified cultural commons that add such richness to our lives (music, recipes, the amazing murals in San Francisco), physical commons that we use daily (the library, bike lanes and dog parks ranked high); social commons that make the broader society better for all (teachers, health care providers, the woman who helps pedestrians cross the street at a particularly busy intersection near our office). We also thought of another category, which I’ll call aspirational commons: hope, passion, commitment, the future. These belong to all of us, and it is up to all of us to protect and nourish them—because a society without hope and passion, and without a possibility-rich future, is a dreary society indeed. And, of course, our democracy: it belongs to all of us and only works when we all engage.

For us at The Story of Stuff Project, the commons is also an orientation; it is about how we do things, how we work together as much as the assets that we all share. It is the act of figuring out solutions together and ensuring diverse voices are engaged in planning processes. It is a commitment to collective action, collective wellbeing and having each other’s backs. It is the realization that no one is as smart as everyone. It’s the realization that we all do better when we all do better.

JW: How did you first learn about the commons?

AL: I first learned about the commons as a kid using parks and libraries. I didn’t assign the label “commons” to them, but I understood early on that some things belong to all of us and these shared assets enhance our lives and rely on our care. I also learned that investments in the commons pay back manyfold: if we organize a litter clean up, we get a super fun park to play in.

Like many other college students, my first introduction to the word “commons” was sadly in conjunction with the word “sheep” and “tragedy.” That lousy resource management class tainted the word for me for years, until I heard Ralph Nader address a group of college students. He asked them to yell out a list of everything they own. This being the pre-i-gadget 1980’s, the list included “Sony Walkman…boombox… books…bicycle…clothes…bank account.” When the lists started to peter out, Ralph asked about National Parks and public air waves. A light went off in each of our heads, and a whole new list was shouted out: rivers, libraries, the Smithsonian, monuments. That’s when I realized that the commons isn’t an overgrazed pasture; it really is all that we share.

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