By Jake Weber
The 2011 Isaac Student Research Symposium
Environmental activist and researcher Annie Leonard has a sober message: the Earth is in crisis and consumerism is a major problem—but it’s not a problem that can’t be fixed. She delivered this message with an optimistic and often humorous enthusiasm to a receptive crowd in Goodrich Chapel, closing the 2011 Elkin R. Isaac Student Research Symposium.
Leonard is the creator of “The Story of Stuff,” an Internet sensation that has been viewed more than 12 million times around the globe. The “Story” is an entertaining summary of Leonard’s multidecade research into the materials economy of manufacturing and disposal, and its negative impact on people and societies.
Her interest in the subject began when she left her native Washington State for college in New York City. Walking to class every day, she saw shoulder-high piles of garbage picked up every afternoon, with more taking its place every morning. “You can imagine how happy my parents were, sending me off to college and I called them and said, ‘Guess what, guys—I’m going to follow garbage,’” Leonard joked.
Leonard determined, however, that while garbage was a concern, the real problem was the desire for newer, more fashionable goods and the need to replace made-not-to-last products. Nearly 100,000 toxic chemicals, Leonard reported, are used in manufacturing the things Americans want, with dire effects for the environment and human health.
“In all of your bodies, there are toxic chemicals,” Leonard stated, noting she herself had undergone a toxin screen. “My body contains hundreds of toxic chemicals, including chemicals that were banned when I was a toddler …. We need to get chemical policy reformed, so we can protect everybody,” she said. “Even newborn babies are being born pre-polluted.”
Despite her bleak message, though, “it doesn’t have to be this way,” she affirmed. “Solutions abound; anyone who says there’s no alternative is not actually looking for one.” Leonard gave many examples, including chemists’ interest in bio-mimickry—designing products by looking at natural phenomena. Creating water-resistant adhesive based on barnacle chemistry, or using anthills as design models for HVAC systems, she says, are two examples. “Green chemists … can design out the toxicity … then the hazards just disappear.”
Throughout her talk, Leonard also stressed that embracing environmental concern also boosts emotional health. “One of the biggest ways we pay for our consumer habits is with our happiness,” she said. “We have more cooler, fancier stuff than everyone else; why are we not happy?” The answer, she said, is because consumerism discourages social and personal interaction. “I realize for college students, this might be hard to understand,” she said. “But choose liberation; choose owning your day instead of owning stuff …. It’s not a way to get rich, but it’s a way to be rich. It’s a sweeter way to be.”
“Are we going to change by design or by disaster?” Leonard concluded. “I believe we can live on this planet in a way that is healthy, fair, safe and fun for everybody. But to do this, we need scientists … educators and business leaders who care …. We need you. I promise you, not only can we turn things around, but we can have a planet that is much, much more fun.”