When Annie Leonard put her groundbreaking cartoon The Story of Stuff online in late 2007, she would have been really happy if 50,000 people had watched it.
“To my utter amazement we got 50,000 viewers on the first day,” she told Green Left Weekly during a recent visit to Australia. Almost four years later, more than 15 million people, in every country in the world, have watched The Story of Stuff.
The Story of Stuff is a 20-minute cartoon with a serious message. Leonard said: “It takes viewers on a journey of where all our stuff comes from and where it goes. It’s a really quick whiz-through the lifecycle of all our stuff.”
The story begins with extraction, how the raw materials needed to make our products are taken from the natural environment. From there, Leonard looks at how stuff is manufactured, how it is distributed, how it is consumed (“the very short time we actually own and appreciate our stuff”) and finally how it is disposed of.
It’s a story of the modern, globalised capitalist economy, how little sense it makes and how little it benefits people and the planet.
Leonard said she made the cartoon “after spending more than a decade travelling all around the world, visiting the factories where our stuff is made and the dumps where our stuff is dumped — and I mean all over Africa and Asia and Latin America, and the United States and Europe.
“So by doing that, I got to see firsthand the often hidden environmental, social, economic and even emotional costs, the mental health costs, of our relationship with stuff, of how we make and use and throw away stuff.
“I saw enormous problems, and I saw an enormous amount of opportunities to do things better. And when I came back to the United States I was frustrated at how low the volume was on the conversation about this.
“The mainstream discourse around stuff is just ‘get more’ and you will be happier and better loved and more successful, which is first of all false and secondly it also ignores a huge part of the reality.
“So I was experimenting in different ways to talk about this in a way that is engaging an accessible and fun.”
Leonard’s experiment was wildly successful. Building on the success, the Story of Stuff project has since produced a further five cartoons that “look at key problems in our current materials economy”.
These include The Story of Electronics, The Story of Bottled Water and The Story of Cosmetics. A new cartoon, The Story of Broke: Why There is Still Plenty of Money to Build a Better Future, will be released on November 8.
The Story of Stuff Project films don’t just examine the problems, but also point to solutions. All the cartoons share a common theme: a first step on the road to a sustainable, healthy economy is people taking collective action for progressive change.
Given this, I asked Leonard what she thought of the global Occupy movement and the extent to which it had the potential to raise some of the big questions about our society she raises in her films.
“It’s not just its potential: it’s already raising them,” she said. “The Occupy movement is an inspiration both in process and in content. It is just absolutely beautiful. I’m enormously happy about it.
“The Occupy movement is taking back our spaces, [it is] taking back our discourses, it is striving to take back our government and in many ways it is taking back ourselves.”
Leonard said that one of the things she has noticed based on responses to The Story of Stuff that, as a society, “we are forgetting how to make change”.
“We are bombarded with this depressing list of uncoordinated, individual actions where people say: ‘I can ride a bike’, ‘I can carry my bags to the store’, ‘I can recycle’, ‘I can change my lightbulbs’, ‘I can buy organic’, ‘I can buy PCB free’.
“All of these things are definitely good things to do. But those are not how we collectively make change. Those are how you act as a responsible, functioning adult in society …
“But I feel like we have been bombarded with these messages … that we have lost our sense of identity as collective citizens, who can work together to make change.
“And so I’m enormously thrilled to see people stepping out of their imposed identity as consumers. Being consumers is the main identity we have in the world these days, so much that media often use the words “consumer” and “human being” interchangeably.
“People are stepping out of that imposed identity … and reclaiming that sense of agency. So I’m just absolutely delighted to see the Occupy movement spread all over the world.”