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The Story of Change – Flexing the Citizen Muscle

by Sharon Ede on 17th July 2012

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The media has always been powerful in influencing opinion, awareness and creating change, and so one of the great assets of the Internet age is that media can be produced and disseminated by participatory networks of people.

This phenomenon is a seismic shift, as people who have previously been passive receivers and consumers of content in a one-way relationship – from newspaper to reader, from television broadcast to viewer – have now become the content creators, curators and transmitters.

One of the best examples of this new, social media is The Story of Stuff, released in 2007 by The Story of Stuff Project in conjunction with Free Range Studios.

The 20 minute animated/live action clip was groundbreaking in its clear, concise presentation of a range of consumption issues across the lifecycle of material use. The video went viral, and has been viewed millions of times. It became a teaching resource in schools, as well as the subject of intense debate.

Several clips followed, including The Story of Cap and Trade, The Story of Bottled Water, The Story of Cosmetics, The Story of Electronics, The Story of Broke (a call for a new economy), and The Story of Citizens United vs FEC (although US focused, a universally relevant story about the power of corporations in democracy).

The Project’s latest movie, The Story of Change, has just been been released:

In the 6 minute clip, Annie Leonard challenges ‘green guilt’, and also the ‘laundry lists’ of green tips published in umpteen books and articles back to the 1980s and before:

I’ve read a lot of these: 100 Ways to Save the Planet Without Leaving Your House, 50 SimpleThings You Can do to Save the Earth, The Little Green Book of Shopping.

I thought they might have the answers, but their tips all start here – with buying better stuff – and they all end here – with recycling all that stuff when I’m done with it.

But when it comes to making change, this story of “going green” – even though we see it everywhere – has some serious shortcomings.

One of the most maddening things about the environment/sustainability movement is the focus on personal responsibility at the expense of system-level social and political change.

Change at the personal level is important both for the impact itself and the social norms it contributes to, and a critical mass of individual consumption decisions can create some practical change, influencing supply chains to respond to their markets.

However to leave the scale of change-making needed to the purchasing power of the individual, who may have neither the time, the inclination or the ability to buy anything other than the cheapest product – let alone critically interpret marketing and media messages – is nothing short of negligent.

As UK journalist and commentator George Monbiot noted:

Green consumerism is a substitute for collective action. No political challenge can be met by shopping.

The onus cannot be on the individual alone, whose choices in everything from transportation to food are constrained or enabled by wider system design eg. how accessible, convenient and affordable public transport is.

One of the main barriers to change is that there is a major disconnect between the scale of the challenge communicated (climate upheaval, species loss) and the prescriptions of things individuals can do (change light bulbs, don’t buy products with palm oil) – while people may accept that ‘every bit counts’, they know in their gut that the response needed is bigger than what they can achieve as individuals.

The Story of Change is successful because it draws on previous cultural references of movements throughout history where great change was achieved – such as the Civil Rights Movement led by Martin Luther King, Jr., and the movement for independence in India led by Gandhi – and offers a powerful meme as its call to involvement: ‘Flexing the Citizen Muscle’.

cartoon image with left bicep labelled 'citizen muscle' (currently flabby and weak) and right bicep labelled 'consumer muscle' (currently big and strong)

Our consumer muscle, which is fed and exercised constantly, has grown strong. So strong that “consumer” has become our primary identity, our reason for being. We’re told so often that we’re a nation of consumers that we don’t blink when the media use “consumer” and “person” interchangeably.

Meanwhile, our citizen muscle has gotten flabby. There’s no marketing campaign reminding us to engage as citizens. On the contrary, we’re bombarded with lists of simple things we can buy or do to save the planet, without going out of our way or breaking a sweat.

Leonard identifies three things that were common to successful social change movements:

  • Have a Big Idea – they had a big idea, or story, of how things could be better
  • Commit to Work Together – millions of ordinary people who wanted to make these changes didn’t do it alone, they worked together
  • Take Action – they took their big idea, their commitment to work together and took action

It is pleasing to see that Story of Stuff have produced this clip, as it debunks the green shopping/onus on the individual story, and calls on people to activate their role as citizens, not consumers. It will reach a very large audience because of the initiative’s previous successes.

There’s one other movie that The Story of Stuff Project and Free Range Studios could collaborate on – not only is it a big taboo politically (although it has begun to be seriously questioned since the Global Financial Crisis), but its the story that underpins all the other stories:

The Story of Growth – or preferably, The Story of Post Growth.

Almost every issue The Story of Stuff Project has covered – planned obsolescence of e-waste, carbon and climate change, the take-make-waste of consumer culture, the power of corporations, the call for a new economy – all have at their root an economic system dependent on ever more growth:

Our culture has placed economic growth, as measured by increasing GDP, as a central goal. We have come to equate economic growth, as measured by GDP, with growth in well-being while ignoring the concurrent growth in environmental destruction, stress, alienation, pollution.

Inconveniently, growth is closely linked with the way that today’s economy is structured. We have an economy that needs to increase at an exponential rate of growth to stay afloat (and avoid crashes, job loss, defaults). Yet, in order to grow, the economy needs to grow its use of energy and resources and will increase its impact on the physical environment.

However, maintaining this trajectory is ultimately impossible because the physical and biological capacity of the earth is finite – the planet, it turns out, is not growing any bigger. We’re seeing the effects of the clash between the drive for economic growth with nature’s limits and the environment manifesting as a myriad of ways, such as peak oil and climate change.

The adverse impacts of exponential growth past a certain point are not just environmental.

In a 1999 paper, Clive Hamilton, author of Growth Fetish, also drew a connection between growth past an optimum point, and social decline:

The problem is unemployment; only growth can create the jobs. Schools and hospitals are underfunded; the answer is faster growth. We can’t afford to protect the environment; the solution is more growth. Poverty is entrenched; growth will rescue the poor. Income distribution is unequal; the answer is more growth.

If the answer to the problem is always more growth then who dares ask the question:

What if the problems are caused by economic growth?

The most powerful way to ‘Flex the Citizen Muscle’ would be to go to the source of the symptoms.

In The Story of Change, Leonard rightly points out that ‘Living our values in small ways is a great place to start, but a terrible place to stop’ and that successful social change movements did not ‘tinker around the edges, they went to the heart of the problem – even when it means changing systems that don’t want to be changed.’

So while ‘The Story of’ movies have been a great start in stimulating debate and engaging people, it would be truly groundbreaking to see a movie about ‘The Story of Growth’ – to tackle the issue that goes right into the DNA of the political economy which delivers us the things the Story of Stuff Project has documented so far.

This article was originally posted at Cruxcatalyst: The Heart of Change.

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This post was written by

avatar Sharon is an ideas transmitter, writer and activist who writes, collects, and shares stories on communication and change for sustainability at cruxcatalyst and is founder of Share Adelaide Share Adelaide. Sharon has been working on sustainability issues in paid and voluntary work since 1993 and loves playing connect the dots by cultivating a wide network of people working on sustainability.

Sharon has written 38 posts on Post Growth Institute. Contact Sharon

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