Last night I had the great fortune of getting to hear some words from Anne Leonard at the Consuming Kids Summit and I got to re-watch the Story of Stuff on a big screen. I hadn’t seen the film in a while and of course it inspired me to reduce my consumption and waste. Leonard said something after the film played that has given me some food for thought. She said people often ask her when she speaks what they can do, and she sometimes turns the question back around at them and asks what kinds of things they imagine they could do. Invariably, she said, the answers are personal –I could ride my bike more, I could waste less, I could recycle (and often, I could buy better stuff!). Leonard says that’s all great and we should be doing those things, but that’s not going to fix the problem. We can reduce our own waste, but for every trashcan we throw out, 70 trashcans were sent to the dump in the process of making stuff. We can try to avoid buying products that contain toxic chemicals, but the problem is that almost all products contain toxins. We need to exercise our “civic muscle” as she called it and start organizing and calling our government to task for not protecting us and our natural resources.
I know that I fall into this same trap. I tend to think that we do our part by not owning a car, living in a small space, and trying to limit the amount of stuff we buy (especially the amount of new stuff). But that’s like my daughter H thinking she’s cleaned up her whole room when all she really did was pick up the one Lego she saw. I think she tends to get a little overwhelmed at the prospect of cleaning her whole room. I feel the same way about civic action. I can’t even wrap my mind around any piece of the larger problem, how can I engage for change? And as a working parent with two small children, I’m lucky to be able to find small moments to do the personal things, like dragging recycling down to the curb, processing the hand-me-downs that keep the kids clothed without creating new waste, making purees so we don’t have to buy so many jars of babyfood (OK, Nathan does that), washing our cloth diapers, cooking non-processed food, and doing all the mundane chores of day-to-day life. I focus on the personal things because they meet multiple goals — washing diapers and processing hand-me-downs saves us money as well as reducing waste, making babyfood gives baby R better food to eat, cooking and eating together brings our family closer.
Looking at the list of suggested things you can do on the Story of Stuff website, I note that most of them are the small, personal things. The larger things seem impossible to me. Write letters to the newspaper? What about? I’m never really sure I have a clear understanding of the issues. I’m sure I should also be writing to congress or something, but I confess that I rarely do. The shameful fact is that I don’t personally feel connected to the process and that makes it very hard for me to put those kinds of actions high on my priority list.
But do you know what makes me happy? While writing this post of frustration, I got an email from a friend inviting me to participate in a group that’s looking to improve the traffic and business situation in my neighborhood. I love my neighborhood and I love my neighbors. The chance to work with neighbors on making this a better, more connected place to live seems like something civic that, with some luck, I can really do. It may not be specifically focused on the “stuff” problem, but I’ll take it. Maybe if I start exercising that civic muscle I’ll find I can do a lot more than I thought. I love serendipity.