Making non-informational barriers non-existent

Leonard talks about the obstacles of environmental change

On March 14, 2014

  • “If these problems were intractable, it would be really hard to get out of bed in the morning,” Annie Leonard said of consumerism and barriers against change. “But they are not – they are eminently solvable.”. Kelsang Rmetchuk, The Spectrum

Annie Leonard may have developed a strange "mental neurosis" after sneaking in and out of factories for 20 years.

Leonard's mind immediately goes through the potential steps of extraction, production, distribution, consumption and disposal of any object she touches. Even while she stood in front of a microphone in the Center For the Arts, she could not help but think out loud on the origins of the metals and plastic used for the device.

Leonard is a sustainability advocate and the creator of The Story of Stuff, a 20-minute film depicting the life cycle of items consumed starting from extraction and lasting until disposal. Her talk Tuesday evening at the CFA focused on the problems of consumerism and the barriers against potential change in the world.

"If these problems were intractable, it would be really hard to get out of bed in the morning," Leonard said. "But they are not - they are eminently solvable."       

The idea of people not knowing enough about environmental issues or not caring about them enough is a myth, according to Leonard. The work of environmental scientists and the visible signs of environmental disruption through greater natural disasters are too large to ignore, she said.

Some statistics Leonard listed showed 74 percent of Americans believe there should be stricter regulations on toxic chemicals. She also said 85 to 95 percent believe corporations have too much influence in our democracy.

Leonard uses the phrase "non-informational barriers to change" to pinpoint why change isn't happening despite all the evidence that it should be progressing.

The term refers to something that leads to a deterrence of positive solutions but cannot be solved through more information about the issue. And the biggest contribution to this idea is people "forgetting how to make change," Leonard said.

Rather than working together to create progress, Leonard believes there has been an individualization of the environmental movement through simple acts of riding a bicycle or recycling. She thinks these acts should be "normal adult functions" by now.

"Focusing on what we need to do differently in our kitchens, in our supermarkets, distracts us from the much harder and much more important discussion about what we need to do about our governments and our businesses," Leonard said. "It misses the structural drivers of today's environmental problems and our greatest source of power, which is not as more responsible consumers, but as engaged citizens working together for bigger bolder change."

Sara Johnson, from North Buffalo, used to work in green education. She came to see Leonard to immerse herself in the topic again.

"I really liked that she mentioned doing personal things isn't always enough," Johnson said. "I like to think of myself as always trying to influence other people to do smaller things. But it is true that it's so difficult to get people to change on that level sometimes - unless you're really trying to be with other people who care and want to talk about it."

This idea stretches into her dichotomy of a "citizen muscle" versus a "consumer muscle."

Leonard believes our consumer muscle is nurtured every day through a cultural non-informational barrier to change. American culture celebrates excessive consumption and people are led to believe more "stuff" will make us happier, she said.

"The media now often uses the term consumers and human being interchangeably," Leonard said.

Jayralin Herrera, a freshman environmental studies major, had the opportunity to introduce Leonard and carried a red backpack onto the stage that showed how she minimizes her "stuff" in that bag and another duffel.

"She focused on something that most people don't focus on," Herrera said. "Where were my things made, how did they get here, where are they going to go after? Nobody really thinks about that and her video helped bring that to light, not only to me, but to millions of people."

Herrera has been following Leonard since ninth grade and said she "almost cried" when she met Leonard earlier in the day. After discovering the videos, she became inspired to be a minimalist.

"I now don't own a lot of stuff and try my best not to consume," Herrera said. "And when I do consume, I either buy from thrift shops or buy it through a local producer or small business like Etsy ... I get to learn more about the shop owner and not get stuck behind closed doors where I don't know who's making stuff or where its coming from."

Leonard believes students like Herrera are the basis of a cultural shift in the generations.

"Right now, for the first time in decades, graduating students are reporting that they are more interested in a life of meaning and purpose than a life rich in stuff," Leonard said. "That is a really important cultural shift, and I hope you guys will continue to nurture that."



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