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Moving environmentalism forward

This Magazine Staff

Two things that have come through my life recently have me thinking about problems and solutions. The first is an incredibly well-presented online video and website called The Story of Stuff. In it, activist Annie Leonard describes her years-long investigation of the lifetime of consumer goods: where they come from, how they get in our homes and what happens when we trash them. The video is about 20 minutes long and worth a look. Its design is simple and elegant and features clever animations and plain, urgent language.

But something about it makes me feel uncomfortable. It’s 19 minutes and 30 seconds about the problem at hand and roughly 30 seconds about hope for change. It appears to be aimed at the average consumer, but its educational tone comes across as a bit pedantic. It encourages viewers to stay on the site and click around for information and stories about positive change, and that’s probably where the real use of the site comes in, but I expect only a small percentage of viewers take the time to stick with it — especially if they approach the topic as skeptics.

Contrast this with a talk I went to last night by Chris Turner, journalist and author of the book The Geography of Hope: A Guided Tour of the World We Need. Through a photo slideshow and Q&A session, Turner outlined some of the amazing strides being made in sustainable living in places like Germany, Denmark, New Mexico and Thailand. Concrete examples of new ways to live, with an emphasis on renewable energy, reducing consumption and recycling. He mentioned a new wave of environmentalism, moving beyond doom-and-gloom predictions and concentrating on what is possible with the technology and willpower we already possess.

In my mind, this is the best way to reach the constituencies of people who remain doubtful about the urgency of climate change or the problems with the free market system. Enough warnings. Those who will listen to the warnings have already heard, and those who will not need a new kind of motivation for change. By getting the word out — and Turner mentioned an activist he knows who consults for Wal-Mart, and the importance of spreading our messages through the mainstream, commercial media — we are best positioned to inspire change in others.

IMAGE: STILL FROM THE STORY OF STUFF

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