Leonard believes citizen engagement is key to promoting sustainability

by University Communications,

Across the globe, fresh water supplies are shrinking. The population is multiplying and the world’s paper consumption continues to grow.

With people using one-and-a-half times the resources than what the planet is able to replenish each year, environmentalist Annie Leonard said something has to give.

“We are facing some really big problems,” she said during her lecture April 17. “The bottom line is that our current way of life is not sustainable.”

Leonard, a writer and director, was the featured speaker of this year’s Dempsey Lecture Series at Willamette University. During her speech, she talked about “The Story of Stuff,” a 20-minute online movie that inspired an environmental movement after its release in 2007.

The movie — fact filled and illustrated with simple cartoons — attempts to show the relationship between the stuff in people’s lives and the social, economic and environmental issues everyone faces.

For Leonard, the way to support sustainability is to embrace community activism.

“These problems are totally solvable. It’s really important that we realize this,” she said. “The most important thing we can do is to create a movement and convince others to become engaged citizens.”

People know and care about the world’s problems, Leonard said. But what gets in the way are what she terms “non-informational barriers.” For example, if cities don’t offer curbside recycling, people are less likely to recycle. And if there aren’t enough drinking fountains on a school campus, students are more apt to buy bottled water.

“Working for a better future feeds my soul,” Leonard said. “Change is not just possible, it’s inevitable. We’ll either change by design or change by disaster.”

Her messages resonated with students Anelise Zimmer ’16 and Jack Elton ’17, who heard Leonard speak during an environmental and earth science class earlier in the day.

“I was really inspired,” said Zimmer, an environmental science major and co-president of the Environmental Community Outreach Society. “It’s really special and great that she came here and was available to talk to students.”

Elton agrees, saying getting the chance to talk to Leonard is a key advantage to attending a small liberal arts university.

“In the U.S., we do so many destructive things to the world, and hearing Annie opened up my eyes to how we need to change,” he said. “Getting the chance to meet someone like Annie was one of the reasons I chose to go to Willamette.”

Leonard's lecture was sponsored by the Dempsey Foundation and coordinated by Willamette’s Department of Environmental and Earth Sciences.