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Creator of "The Story of Stuff" shows what's at stake with commons assets

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 from OTC 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?

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.

How did you first learn about the commons?

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.

How does the commons influence your work?

The commons is a key piece of building a sustainable, healthy and fair society. At the Story of Stuff Project, we’re concerned about the hyper-individualization and consumer-mania that has taken over our society. It’s a problem because we’re consuming more resources than the planet can produce each year and creating more waste than it can assimilate. The Global Footprint Network says we’re using 1.5 planets worth of resources a year. Basic physics dictates that we simply can’t keep consuming at this rate. In addition to depleting the very planet on which life depends, our consumer culture isn’t making us happy. We’re working longer hours than in just about any other industrialized country, we’re constantly stressed, tired and burdened by debt. It’s no coincidence that rates of social isolation, loneliness and depression are also on the rise. A thriving commons helps on all these fronts.

Shared things means we use less resources overall; that we can slow down the frenzied work-watch-spend treadmill; and that we’re investing in community rather than clutter and consumer debt. For example, my town has a Tool Lending Library as part of the public library system. Rather than every household needing to own a power drill and jackhammer, we can just borrow them for the few times a year we need them. This could be extended to include all sorts of things. Shared public resources means less resources consumed overall, less waste generated, less money spent and more time chatting with our neighbors – building community.

How does the commons affect your life?

Recognizing and nurturing the commons makes my life sweeter, easier, richer, lighter, happier. I end up with less stuff and more friends.

What strategies do you recommend for making more people aware of the importance of the commons?

Talking about the commons is a critical first step. We’re so indoctrinated in an individualist focused approach to stuff and private property that we need to be reminded—like my college class mentioned above—that there’s much more that we share and, that for a wide range of things, sharing is better. So, let’s introduce the term into public discourse, slip it into conversations, include it in letters to the editor and blog posts. Talking more about the commons will make it more visible.

It’s hard to love what we don’t see, so let’s bring the commons right out into the spotlight!

I also fear that I am not alone in having associated the “commons” with a sheep-filled pasture for too long. We need to think of more ways to explain what the commons is, to create a new frame for the word, so that the full richness of the commons comes to mind when we hear the term. I love the phrase “all that we share.” That’s clear, accessible and makes us feel good thinking about all that we share. That’s what we want people to feel when they think of the commons.

What do you see as the biggest obstacle to creating a commons-based society right now?

There are so many interrelated aspects of our current economic and social systems which undermine the commons. Some obstacles are structural, like government spending priorities that elevate military spending and oil company subsidies over maintenance of parks and libraries. Others are social, including the erosion in social fabric and community-based lifestyles. Actually, even those have structural drivers; for example, land use planning which eliminates sidewalks and requires long commutes to work contribute to breakdown of social commons by impeding social interactions. It’s all so interconnected!

A huge obstacle is the shift towards greater privatization and commodification of physical and social assets. Many things that used to be shared – from open spaces for recreation to support systems to help a neighbor in need – have been privatized and commodified; they’ve been moved out of the community into the market place. This triggers a downward spiral. Once things become privatized, or un-commoned, we no longer have access to them without paying a fee. We then have to work longer hours to pay for all these things which used to be freely available – everything from safe afterschool recreation for kids to clean water to swim in to someone to talk to when you’re feeling blue. And since we’re working longer hours and spending more time alone, we have less time to contribute to the commons to rebuild these assets: less volunteer hours, less beach-clean-up days, less time for civic engagement to advocate for policies that protect the commons, less time to invite a neighbor over for tea. And on it goes.

What is the greatest opportunity to strengthen and expand the commons right now?

In spite of real obstacles, we have a lot on our side as we advance a commons-based agenda. First, we have no choice. There’s a very real ecological imperative weighing down on us. Even if we wanted to continue this overconsumptive, hyper individualistic and vastly unequal way of living, we simply can’t. We have to learn to share more and waste less, to find joy and meaning in shared assets and experiences rather than in private accumulation, to work together for a better world, rather than to build bigger walls around those who can. And the good news is that these changes not only will enable us to continue to live on this planet, but they will result in a happier, healthier society overall.

There’s another shift emerging which offers some real opportunities for building support for the commons. People in the overconsuming parts of the world are getting fed up with the burden of trying to own everything individually. We used to own our stuff and increasingly our stuff owns us. We work extra hours to buy more stuff, we spend our weekends sorting our stuff. We’re constantly needing to upgrade, repair, untangle, recharge, even pay to store our stuff. It’s exhausting.

The shift I see emerging is from an acquisition focused relationship to stuff, to an access- focused relationship. In the acquisition framework, the more stuff we had, the better, as captured in the 1990s bumpersticker “He Who Dies with the Most Toys Wins.” Having spent a couple decades being slaves to our stuff, we are rethinking. Now it is “He Who dies with the Most Toys Wasted His Life Working to Buy Them and Lived in a Cluttered House When He Could have been Investing in Community with which to Share Toys.”

Increasingly people want access to stuff, not all the burden that comes with ownership. Instead of owning a car and dealing with all that comes with it, we get one just when we want through city car share programs. Instead of hiring a plumber, we swap music lessons with one through skillsharing networks. Why buy something to own alone, when we can share it with others? Why signup for an even more crushing mortgage for a house with a big back yard, when we can instead share public parks? From coast to coast, there’s a resurgence of sharing, so much that it even has a fancy new name: collaborative consumption.

I’m really excited about this. A whole new generation of people is realizing that access to shared stuff is easier on one’s budget and on the planet, then individual ownership. Now, that’s liberating.

What do you think? Leave a comment below.

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