Why I am not offering “10 simple steps” to get involved.

I just saw this wonderful short video that some high school kids at Woodside Priory School’s Global Issues Class made about Story of Stuff:

In this great little film, the students asked specific questions about extraction and toxics and waste. I wrote them answers, which I can post here if anyone wants to see them.

More importantly though, the students asked what they can do to help address the concerns described in The Story of Stuff. They wanted to know what to do.

I explained to them why I didn’t and won’t provide a list of simple steps for people to get involved.

I’ve received a number of emails asking the same thing, so I want to share my answer to the WPS students.

I intentionally didn’t include specific recommendations for action for a couple reasons:
1) the solutions don’t lend themselves to sound bites and
2) I don’t want to prescribe and limit the actions each viewer may choose to do.

“It’s complicated.”

In their film, the students parody me saying “it’s complicated.” Well, that’s the truth. Neither the problems nor the solutions are simple or easy. If we want to change the situation we’re in, we’ve got to be willing to spend time figuring all this out.

I didn’t want to lay out this massive critique of the interconnected environmental and social problems of our current global materials economy and then belittle both viewers and the diversity and breadth of the solutions by providing a pre-determined concise list of simple action steps. I did capitulate to those asking for lists of recommended actions by providing some suggestions but even this list includes just a sampling of the many ways to make a difference.

I don’t like simple lists of recommended actions because I believe what is needed can’t be captured in that format. As Michael Maniates, a professor at Allegheny College said in a recent Washington Post op-ed: “We need to be looking at fundamental change in our energy, transportation and agricultural systems rather than technological tweaking on the margins, and this means changes and costs that our current and would-be leaders seem afraid to discuss. Which is a pity, since Americans are at their best when they’re struggling together, and sometimes with one another, toward difficult goals.”

My goal in making The Story of Stuff was to encourage people to have this difficult conversation, to begin thinking and talking about these complicated issues. Our current ways of making, using and throwing away stuff is largely based on unsustainable and unjust systems yet, as a society,we’ve got this big collective blind spot about talking about this. Let’s raise the issues, let’s ask the hard questions, let’s get it on the table and examine it and debate it and figure out together how to move forward towards solutions.

As I said in the film, one of the good things about such an all pervasive problem is that there are so many points of intervention. We each need to find that intervention that matches our skill set and our passions. The passion piece is key, because it is going to be a long haul and we need to rely on our passions, the fire in our bellies for change, to see us through. So, I advised the students to find something that they feel passionate about and dive in.

There are as many ways to get involved as there are people who care. Are you outraged that your cosmetics and body care products have toxics that aren’t even labeled? Get a bunch of friends together and call the Campaign for Safe Cosmetics to find out what can be done. Are you concerned about what happens to your MP3 Player or computer when it dies? Call Silicon Valley Toxics Coalition and Basel Action Network. Do you want to make local, organic food accessible and affordable? Join a CSA (Community Supported Agriculture) program or set up a farmers market in your town. Adopt a green procurement policy at your company or school to mandate that purchases prioritize local and sustainable products. Look into the Renewable Fuels Portfolio is in your State and join with those working to increase it. Start a used book, tool, and clothing swap program on your campus or community. Pressure local businesses to stop selling super toxic PVC plastic. Green your hospital. Have a monthly screening and discussion with films on these issues at your church or school. Make your campus Zero Waste. Talk to your neighbors about these issues. Fill your free time with friends rather than stuff. The list goes on and on…

It is less important what we chose to do than how we do it. To make all these activities add up to more than a list of “teachnological tweakings at the margins,”as Maniates describes it, whatever we each do must be part of a larger effort. We’ve got to get toxics out of cosmetics and reform the health care system and build local community and stop incinerators not as ends in themselves but as part of strengthening an active democracy, as part of transforming the current system to be in the service of community health, ecological stability and social justice.

I’d love to hear from you about the strategies or entry points you’ve found to address the specific and the systemic issues described in The Story of Stuff. What has worked for you? What is needed to make positive change? What projects or campaigns are you involved in that give you hope?