Green Peace ED on why a successful activist must be a good storyteller, Our Hearts Are More Powerful Motivators Than Our Brains, How Activists Need to Get the Facts Right, and Remaining Hopeful for the Future.
Interview: Paul D. Miller aka DJ Spooky
Paul D. Miller: Your work as executive director of Greenpeace USA leads you all over the world to engage in activism, but many people know you from the wildly successful web video series The Story of Stuff. What inspires you and how did you bridge the two roles of storyteller and activist?
Annie Leonard: A successful activist must be a good storyteller because we need to connect with and inspire people to join our movement for a better future. It took me a while to realize this. For decades, I thought that scientific truth, solid economic case studies, and common sense were enough to bring about change on the environmental front. After all, the data is so compelling! I thought that if people just understood the severity of today’s environmental threats and knew about available solutions, those solutions would happen. Not so. Turns out, people’s brains are not nearly as powerful a motivator as our hearts. Facts, data, and economic models don’t move people to courageous action the way that powerful stories can. It’s crucial we know the facts and science, but it’s naïve to rely on them alone to build a movement for change.
PDM: What do you think of the role of history in forming the ideologies of our time? How do you think storytelling can change our way of life?
AL: I think history has less of an impact on current times than the stories that we tell ourselves about that history [do]. We all know by now that the stories we’ve told ourselves about the founding of this country are vastly inaccurate, yet they are so deep in our collective subconscious (not to mention our school textbooks) that we still use them to tolerate systemic racism against indigenous people and African Americans. The power that comes from knowing the facts of history is dwarfed by the power that comes from being able to shape the stories about how that history is written and told. Just recognizing and naming that many of the things we treat as historical fact are stories can help erode their power over our sense of identity and thinking. If they are stories rather than “truth,” we can write new stories that better represent the country we aspire to be. Our new stories can be about diverse people working together to overcome challenges and make life better for all, about figuring out how to live sustainably on this one planet we share, and on deep respect for cooperation, fairness, and equity instead of promoting hyper-competitive individualism. Fodder for these stories is real too, but they just haven’t been included in our dominant national narrative.
PDM: Every selection of your video and activist work is deeply researched. What would you suggest for other activists and storytellers about the time of passion in their work?
AL: Activists need to get the facts right. One of the big assets we have on our side is the truth, and we lose credibility and power if w e’re loose with that. It is true that fossil fuels are changing the climate. It is true that corporate interests have hijacked our democracy. It is true that we have permeated our everyday products and the planet with chemicals so thoroughly that babies today are born with over one hundred industrial and agricultural chemicals already in their tiny bodies. Doing the extra work of double-checking facts protects our credibility and prevents wasting time in distracting arguments with deniers who want to challenge specific data points rather than engage in a bigger-picture, productive conversation about how to build a better future. That said, don’t stop there. Solid information is necessary, but insufficient. We also need to present that information in ways that are inspiring and accessible. That’s where stories come in. And I want to clarify that one doesn’t need to be a scientist or have fancy college degrees to know the truth about the health of our children, our communities, and the planet. Community members generally know far more about the health of their own communities than visiting “experts,” yet that knowledge is often discredited because of another story that we tell ourselves: “real” education happens [only] in the halls of universities. Some of the most powerful activists I’ve met are women survivors of Union Carbide’s gas leak in Bhopal, India, providing community health services to gas-affected neighbors, or forest dwellers who know how to harvest a forest sustainably for generations but who never had a day of schooling.
PDM: What do you think of the near-future political landscape and its intersection with environmental activist work and digital media?
AL: I am afraid that I think both the near future environmental reality and political landscape are not looking good—and they are connected. The best tool we have for advancing environmental solutions is our democracy, and we can’t currently access it because it has been so thoroughly hijacked by big corporate interests. So, regardless of if we’re more concerned about climate or economic equality or racial justice or anything else that is good for people and the planet, we simply must also spend some time wresting back our money-marinated democracy. This will require getting money out of politics and then getting people back in. Between the disillusionment that people feel about politics-as-usual, assaults on the right to vote, and the constant feelings of pressure that Americans suffer in our overworked, overstressed economy, too many people have checked out of the political process. No more! We’ve got to rescue our democracy by using it. Even though near-term environmental and political outlooks are bleak, I remain hopeful. Everywhere I go, I meet people ready for change. People who are fed up with the exhaustion that comes from devoting one’s life to the work-watch-spend treadmill. People who know in their hearts that it’s wrong to treat the planet and whole groups of people as disposable. People who are challenging the bogus stories we’ve been fed for years and are writing their own about hope and love and working together to build a better future for everyone.
PHOTO: N. Scott Trimble/Greenpeace