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Carol Craig is the Centre's Chief Executive. She is author of The Scots' Crisis of Confidence, Creating Confidence: A Handbook for Professionals Working with Young People, The Tears that Made the Clyde: Well-being in Glasgow and The Great Takeover: How materialism, the media and markets now dominate our lives. Her latest book is Hiding in Plain Sight: Exploring Scotland's ill health. She is Commissioning editor for the Postcards from Scotland series. Carol blogs on confidence, well-being, inequality, every day life and some of the great challenges of our time. The views she expresses are her own unless she specifically states that they reflect the Centre's thinking.

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Posted 09/11/2015

I am just back from the Smart Civil Society Organisations (Smart CSOs) conference in Berlin. I’ve been involved in this network for three years now and I’m continually inspired by their thinking.

At this event the highlight for me was an extended Skype interview with Annie Leonard. Annie’s considerable claim to fame is that she is the brains behind the internet sensation ‘The Story of Stuff’ – as it has been watched by so many viewers it is the most popular environmental film online.

What I hadn’t realised is that in 2014 Annie became the executive director of Greenpeace and is bringing to that pivotal organisation a great deal of new thinking. Like Smart CSO’s she wants us to ‘reimagine activism’.

Before creating The Story of Stuff Annie worked for Greenpeace and was an expert on waste. It was in this role that she realised just how limited subject specialism is. ‘There are no solutions to the waste problem. We can’t clean it up as quickly as it is produced,’ Annie told us. In other words, it is essential to try and change the bigger system that produces waste. So while she could also see that there is value in ameliorating the effects of, for example, lead in petrol, bringing about these type of changes will not affect the system and hardly dent its deleterious effects.  To do this we need to move from ‘transactional to transformational change’.

Annie also realised that the problem with the way the present system works isn’t confined to environmental destruction as it also includes human rights transgressions and fundamental questions of inequality and social justice.

So apart from focusing more on changing the system, rather than improving it, Annie could see that it is essential to find allies for change and to create a much broader movement. Indeed she argues that such a coalition can be formed with activists from environmental, anti-consumerist, social justice, labour unions and black groups. I would add that in this list she could also include some groups of people like us, who are interested in well-being. 

Annie could also see the importance of basing campaigns, not on cold logic as has been traditionally the case, but on compelling narratives which engage people emotionally – hence ‘The Story of Stuff’. She argues we must try to counteract the dominant story in the West which tells us that the path to happiness is owning more stuff and concentrating exclusively on our personal success.

Indeed when Annie listed the elements of the new stories we should be telling – the importance of meaning and purpose, nature and community – it sounded very like what the Centre has been saying for the past decade.

Annie stopped working for Greenpeace as a waste specialist in 1996 because they were not interested in social justice. So when she was approached about returning to the organisation in the top job she laid down certain conditions: Greenpeace had to become ‘more movement minded’; they needed to be more interested in system and transformational change; and they needed to embrace innovation and risk taking.

Greenpeace agreed to Annie’s vision and is already changing the focus of their work. For example, in a recent campaign on tuna fishing they haven’t just been focusing on the environmental damage but also campaigning on the fact that many workers in the industry are effectively slaves. This means that Greenpeace has now been working alongside labour unions and social justice campaigners.

In recent years there is mounting anger and concern in the USA about the number of police shootings of black people and so Greenpeace is also working with black groups on rights issues. They are also offering the use of their significant resources to lots of different campaign groups.

Finally, Annie is confident that big change is imminent. She maintains that a growing number of people in America are beginning to question the dominant story about the value of stuff as it simply isn’t working for them. Not only is the economic system increasingly unfair and simply not delivering enough money to potential consumers, those who have copious resources are feeling more and more overwhelmed by their stuff.  It isn’t feeling good for them. She reports that in America more people are now moving to smaller homes.

She argues that the time is ripe to encourage people not to focus on more (the dominant driver of the current system) but on better. It is worth watching Annie’s video ‘The Story of Solutions’ where she sets out her thinking on this.

Listening to Annie talk made me realise how much our work at the Centre resonated with what she was saying. To date we’ve done a lot of questioning of consumerism. This was the main thrust of my book in our Postcards from Scotland series – The Great Takeover: How materialism, the media and markets now dominate our lives.  (Currently out of print but a second edition will be available in a couple of weeks and we are taking orders.)

Now we are in the midst of planning the showing of ‘the True Cost Movie’ on the horrendous effects of the fast fashion industry. One of the solutions is to buy fewer clothes and treasure them.  We are showing the film in Glasgow on January 21st 2016. We’ll announce details soon.

Annie’s talk was a particular highlight of my trip to Berlin  but I also learned about other useful resources and perspectives which I’ll write about in future blogs.





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