When we asked Annie Leonard how neoliberal capitalism might be responsible for the environmental challenges she has spent her career fighting, she reeled off a list of seven ways the current racialized economic order exacerbates the climate crisis and makes it harder to solve. Most important, perhaps, is how our identities as consumers has usurped other ways of acting in the world, limiting the possibilities for the radical and transformative changes necessary to avert climate disaster. As Annie put it: “Our planet’s life-support systems are in absolute crisis, our democracy is in crisis, our communities and social fabric are in crisis, and the best we can do is adjust our shopping and lifestyle choices?” 

In her many years at the forefront of the fight against climate change, Annie has encouraged environmental activists to focus on strengthening our democracy to reclaim it from the fossil fuel industry. At Greenpeace, she has been part of a shift to expand the reach of the organization: from a small cadre of daring activists hanging banners and blocking ships to an open-source social movement that invites millions of people to join in making change. Previously, she created the viral video, The Story of Stuff, which educated millions of people about the environmental consequences of consumerism without being stuffy or preachy. (Its popularity led to the formation of The Story of Stuff Project, which put out a series of other videos.) Annie told us why narrative change has to be part of the work of transformation: whatever else you do, you have to change the story. This interview has been edited and condensed. 

 

Jonathan Heller: How has neoliberalism or financialized capitalism led to our climate crisis? 

Annie Leonard: Neoliberalism or financialized capitalism (or what Nancy MacLean calls “corporate libertarianism”) has both exacerbated the climate crisis and been an obstacle to solutions in a number of ways.

One is obviously the complete dominance of corporate power: we accept that corporations will dominate our political, social, physical, and I would say psychological or mental landscape. 

The supremacy of markets is a second factor, made worse by the perception that things like unions or regulations — which make the economy more fair and healthy — are market “distortions.” The belief that the market will solve problems on its own has accentuated the problem of climate change and made us look for solutions in the wrong place.

Another part of neoliberal capitalism that's made the climate crisis worse is the privatization of the commons, whether it's the air or the government or our sense of being together with others. We need to collectively hold and steward these things for everyone’s wellbeing. 

Attacks on the role of government, “the deconstruction of the administrative state,” as Steve Bannon called for, and the idea that we should make the government so small you can “drown it in a bathtub” have all had a huge impact too, because we can’t expect a tiny little drowning thing to solve the biggest existential crisis that humanity has ever faced.

One of the films we made at The Story of Stuff Project was called The Story of Broke, and it talks about various good things the government has done, including the EPA. I was amazed at the pushback from viewers who challenged me, asking, “Who said the EPA helped this country?” I was like, “Dude! Did you not hear about the river that caught on fire?” The delegitimization or outright rejection of government as a vehicle to advance solutions is a huge obstacle because the problems we’re facing now are too big to be solved at the individual level.

Another obstacle is the uncritical embrace of competition and hyper-individualism that neoliberal capitalism promotes. If people buy into Margaret Thatcher's famous line that “there is no society,” then we don’t see our interdependence, we don’t care for each other, we don’t work together to solve big collective problems. I love what Eric Liu says: “We're all better off when we're all better off.”

Another problem I see in the environmental sphere is damage that comes from the constant reinforcement of our identity as consumers at the expense of any other kind of identity, particularly our identity as citizens. As human beings, we have a consumer muscle and a citizen muscle. We are constantly provided opportunities to use the consumer muscle, so it's really robust. But we’re not often called upon to use our citizen muscle, so it has atrophied. Barriers to participation in voting and shrinking democratic space further deter us from engaging our citizen muscle. As a result, we’ve come to see our primary identity and role in society as consumers. It’s so pervasive that the word “consumer” and “human being” are often used interchangeably. When I give public talks about the enormity of the climate crisis, someone in the audience inevitably raises their hand and asks, “What should I buy then? What kind of car should I buy?” Our planet’s life-support systems are in absolute crisis, our democracy is in crisis, our communities and social fabric are in crisis, and the best we can do is adjust our shopping and lifestyle choices?? Instead of perfecting consumer choices, we need to work collectively to demand broad structural change.

So for all those reasons, yes, yes, yes, yes, neoliberal financialized capitalism has accentuated the problem and obstructed the solutions. I'm not sure I'm ready to say it's the root of the problem, because there’s something deeper. We could call it a narrative or mindset or paradigm or logic, but whatever we call it, neoliberalism is built on a belief system that condones and depends upon the domination and exploitation of the planet, of Black and brown people, Indigenous people, and women. So maybe the ultimate cause of climate change is a racial extractive capitalism that is deeper than neoliberalism and predates neoliberalism. The word neoliberalism was coined in 1938 but its throughline begins much further back, in colonialism, imperialism, and slavery. 

JH: Compared to policies, how much of a role do you think narrative plays in climate change or any of the other crises we're facing, or do they go hand in hand?

AL: They absolutely go hand in hand. Narratives define our thinking; they allow outrageous things to become acceptable and morally righteous things to appear impossible. The “there is no alternative” narrative is more powerful than a thousand policies or tanks in the streets. You either have to be a dictator with complete brute force or you have to control the narrative.

After I made the internet film The Story of Stuff, almost a million people wrote to me asking what they could do to help address the problems laid out in that film. I had never done a mass project like that before. I’ve spent my life as an environmental campaigner working with thirty-to-fifty people who have the same analysis, same worldview, same basic tools. We get together and make our plan, and everyone goes and does their part and we coordinate closely. So when a million people who I didn't know asked me what they could do, I felt challenged. I couldn't say, “Go transform the global economy!” And I didn't want to say, “Carry your own reusable bag to the grocery store.” So I was struggling with what guidance to offer.

Just as I was trying to figure out where to point all these people, I read a really helpful article by Donnela Meadows about “Leverage Points in the System.” I came up with four leverage points, four things we have to do to change the system that is trashing people and the planet. It’s a menu: you pick whichever you want, except everyone has to help on the last one. Number one is, fight the bad stuff: stop the incinerator, ban the toxic chemical, stop the pipeline, end subsidies for fossil fuels. Number two is, build the good stuff: promote renewable energy, build community gardens, invent green chemistry solutions. Number three is, change the rules because it’s the rules more than the rulers which determine how the system works. And number four is, change the story. I don't care which of the first three you do — pick whichever one matches your interests and skills — but we have to work to change the story when we’re doing those other things. If we don’t promote a different story, we’re not opening the possibilities which will make the next battle easier.

Think about the dominant neoliberal narratives around individualism: “Pull yourself up by your bootstraps.” “There's no such thing as society.” That narrative makes millions of people who care deeply about the climate think the best they can do is recycle or buy a hybrid. It diverts this energy that we actually need to drive big change and makes people feel satisfied with individual actions that will never add up to enough.

Judith Barish: How do you as an organizer prevent yourself from being constrained by that narrative?

AL: For me, the biggest antidote has been spending time in other communities where people have different dominant narratives. As one example, when I was in my 20s, I lived for a while in South Asia with communities who had very different narratives about lots of things, including the role of government in society. When I first arrived in Dhaka, I stayed at a guest house, and there was a woman from some U.S. NGO who was doing a project educating girls. It seemed like a worthwhile project, but when I mentioned it to my new Bengali friends, they were disapproving. They said, “It’s not civil society’s role to do that. That’s the government's role!” I responded, “Sure, but the government is not doing it, so isn’t it good that somebody is?” They walked me through how this project lets government off the hook and normalizes the belief that the government doesn’t have to educate girls. It would be better, they argued, to work together to demand more from the government. That seems so obvious to me now, but back then the environmental activists I spent my time with in the U.S. were busier filling in gaps left by the government than holding the government accountable. It was an eye-opening moment for me, and, ever since then, I’ve rejected the narrative that we shouldn't expect, and even demand, that government help solve big problems. 

JH: We’re in the middle of a pandemic and, this week, we've also seen protests for Black lives and against police brutality. Do you think they create openings for ideological and structural changes? 

AL: Totally. We are in such a ripe-for-change moment, with public support growing for racial justice, action on climate, and many other long overdue good things. 

For decades, when we demanded clean energy, a Just Transition to safeguard workers and communities, better mass transit or anything, we got the same answer from elected leaders: “Nice idea, but there’s no money for that.” Well, turns out there is money after all! Congress is spending trillions on COVID relief and economic stimulus. This once-in-a-generation infusion of public money could bail out big corporations including the failing fossil fuel industry or it could be a down-payment on a healthy, fair, secure, climate-resilient future. These stimulus programs at both national and state levels are openings to advance real solutions. These are opportunities to fight the bad, build the good, and change the rules. 

The narrative openings are even more exciting: things that people took for granted for decades are now up for grabs. One of them is about the role of government. Trump telling governors to get their own ventilators and pitting them against each other to obtain them was only possible because our collective expectations of government have eroded for decades. I am hopeful that some of the people who had bought into the idea that “government is not the solution, it’s the problem” (to quote Ronald Reagan) are now seeing that we do, in fact, need a functioning, accountable government.

And we do in fact need each other! I love this beautiful explosion of mutual aid and a growing sense of interdependence as we take care of each other in this crisis. Some of the mutual aid may be filling gaps that the government should be providing, but there's something else happening. People are recognizing we’re in this together and coming together to demand a better future, which means health care for all, racial justice, climate resilience, and diverting money from violent policing to real security. People are waking up and rising up! It’s our moment.

JH: Is having a unified meta-narrative an important strategy for building alliances and bringing the left together? 

AL: A shared narrative is not enough. We also need a shared underlying analysis. I don't think we have to have the exact same narrative. We just have to have enough overlap of analysis and narrative to reinforce each other, understand where we need to go, and move in the same direction.

JB: In the context of “jobs versus the environment,” for example, what would a shared analysis or meta-narrative or common campaign look like?

AL: The story that we have to choose between good jobs and a healthy environment is a tired old narrative that only serves capital’s interests, but sadly it has worked to keep workers and environmentalists from coming together to build shared power for too long. The truth is the opposite: the best way to have a thriving economy with good jobs is by embracing climate solutions. The Green New Deal could be an example: with government leadership and investment, we could build an equitable, prosperous, resilient economy that provides good jobs, economic security, and healthy communities. There are literally millions of jobs in responding to climate change, redesigning our built infrastructure, building renewable energy, developing sustainable food and waste systems, not to mention caring for each other, providing health care and education. On one hand, the climate crisis is a terrifying and deadly threat. On the other hand, it is a massive opportunity to set things right. It’s important we frame it that way: responding to the climate crisis builds a healthier economy and healthier people!

Environmentalists tend to be a whiny and wonky bunch, with all our data and graphs and charts. But leading with data and fear is not the best way to inspire people to join the struggle. Yes, have the data and facts in your back pocket, but expertise should be on tap, not on top. Lead with a compelling narrative that paints a vision of how much better life can be. The Green New Deal does that; it’s not just about reducing carbon emissions but also about shared prosperity and real security. It should bury the jobs vs. environment debate far underground, once and for all, where we’ll leave the rest of the fossil fuels.

JH: Are there other narratives you have been experimenting with?

AL: Constantly! At Greenpeace, we wanted to engage our supporter base on issues of democracy, which we know is core to environmental solutions. Initially, we got pushback from members who questioned why an environmental group was talking about democracy. Some told us to “stay in your lane.” We experimented with different narratives to explain how a healthy democracy is a precondition for a healthy environment. We used ecologist language about “pollution in an ecosystem” to explain how fossil fuel money pollutes our democracy. We told stories that demonstrated that the best tool we have to advance climate solutions is our democracy. We can't use it now because it's been hijacked by corporations, while people who share our values are obstructed from participating. We drew links between voting rights and climate policy; as my board chair says, “If Black and brown people could vote, this country would be green.” Nowadays, when we talk about the need to strengthen our democracy, Greenpeace supporters respond enthusiastically and sign up to help. They know working to fix our democracy is not mission drift: it’s mission critical.

JB: Annie, could you describe the way Greenpeace has shifted its approach? 

AL: About five years ago, Greenpeace leaders from around the world assessed all that we had accomplished and compared it to what’s needed. Greenpeace has racked up some huge accomplishments in its almost fifty years of campaigning; because of Greenpeace, there are forests standing, chemicals banned, coal plants no longer operating, and even Antarctica is protected. Greenpeace achieved a global ban on international toxic waste dumping and an end to most commercial whaling. But we realized that if we did the same things for the next fifty years, we're toast. We’re winning too slowly, and when it comes to climate change, winning slowly is also called losing. We realized we needed to work in a fundamentally different way and accomplish bigger systemic change. So the organization engaged our staff, supporters, and allies around the world in a two-year process to develop a new long-term strategic framework to guide our work. 

I can best explain this new framework with a visual, and I warn you it will sound oversimplified, but often the biggest insights can be distilled into something simple. And its impact on our work is huge.

Think of our new framework as a triangle. The top peak represents protecting ecosystem boundaries: there are a number of ecosystem boundaries scientists have figured out that we simply cannot cross, the two most important of which are climate limits and biological diversity. Protecting ecosystem boundaries used to be pretty much Greenpeace’s sole focus. The other two corners of the framework triangle represent shifting power relations and shifting dominant mindsets or narratives. We think of this triangle as a lens through which we develop the work; all of our work should fit within that triangle, maybe closer to one corner than another, but we strive to advance each of those objectives. How do we combat single use plastic in a way that also combats the dominant narratives that regulations are a market distortion? How do we save rainforests in ways that also combat the commodification of nature and instead reinforce Indigenous land rights? Requiring us to think about building power and changing dominant mindsets has given us a more systemic, effective, and transformational way of thinking about our work. Greenpeace is really good at getting people with power to act differently; now we’re gonna change who has the power. 

JH: I’d like to hear your reaction to this idea of the social surplus narrative. The idea is, we have abundance as a society — more than enough for everyone to thrive — and abundance comes from the labor we all contribute, the environment we are stewards of, and the collective systems we have set up together. That abundance rightfully belongs to all of us and should be shared by everyone. What are your reactions? 

AL: I like the term “abundance” more than “wealth” since it implies something broader. But I'm curious about the general public responses to an abundance frame, given that 40% of the people in the U.S. don't have $400 for an emergency. If we come along in our Patagonia jackets and say, “actually, there's great abundance,” I wonder if people who are getting hammered by our exploitative economy will resonate with that term.

I like the idea of recognizing abundance as a way of getting out of the dominant scarcity narrative that we have to endlessly acquire and consume. I used to give talks after The Story of Stuff, and people would say, “So what should I get to live sustainably?” I’d say, “You should get an internal metric of satisfaction, a sense of enough.” We need the ability to identify when we have enough and not be defined by Kim Kardashian or the latest advertisement we saw. 

What I don't love about the social surplus concept is assuming the existence of a surplus. The reason a surplus exists is that there are flaws in the economic model. From the environmental perspective, if all the externalized costs — pollution, climate change, health impacts — were accounted for and paid for, there would be no surplus. In fact, there would be a gigantic deficit. So maintaining a surplus means maintaining the structural flaws, even if you reallocate some of it to alleviate the pain of those flaws.

JH: What are the narrative themes we on the left should use together?

AL: I would love us all to throw down to reinforce the legitimacy of a functioning, accountable government and demand that our government serve people and the planet. Once, at an environmental group’s holiday party, I was chatting with two young women, and one of them said to me, “I heard Congress used to do stuff, is that true?” And then the other said, “I heard that too!” I asked where they heard it, and they both said they’d heard it from a college professor. Imagine if you have no experience of seeing your elected leaders solve big problems! If no one tells you something is a perfectly reasonable demand, it’s easy not to know it’s possible. Believing something is possible is the first step in fighting for it.

JH: What would bring our campaigns to the next level so we can actually win?

AL: We need more support for disruption, because disruption loosens the grip of dominant narratives and creates openings we can seize. We see this today: after a month of sustained protests for Black Lives, public support for the movement is growing, as is support for specific policy demands. Protest works, which is why we’re seeing a crackdown on the right to protest, and even criminalization of protest, spreading across the country. We must protect our right to dissent and protest.

When the polite levers of democracy fail and you are forced to organize sustained disruption, it creates narrative openings. In moments of disruption, the ideas that get picked up are the ones ready to seize the openings. Some of the disruption right now is external, but the movement is also driving disruption: the youth climate strikes last year, and now the Movement for Black Lives protests, which are both beautiful and effective. 

JB: Is there more to say about the shifts at Greenpeace?

AL: Legacy organizations like Greenpeace, whose programs were built as more staff-led than people-powered, have to evolve if we're going to drive big change. Take climate: we have almost everything we need to win. We have model economic policies and innovative green technologies and common sense and a road map of how to shift to a hundred percent renewable energy in ten years. We are only missing one thing: the power to make it so. To build that power, we need to evolve as an organization, and we’re doing that. We’re standing up for racial justice, workers rights, immigrants rights, and other causes because we recognize the interconnections and are stronger together. We’re engaging our supporters in more meaningful ways than just asking them to donate and sign petitions. Increasingly, people want a sense of agency and a collaborative relationship with the organizations they are part of, so we’re expanding our programs to engage our base in meaningful ways. Our allies and supporters are Greenpeace’s greatest assets, and working with them gives me hope that we’re going to win some really big, good changes in the coming years. Now is the time.



 

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