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The story of Web sensation Annie Leonard merges piles of trash, Glenn Beck and underrated field trips

Glenn Beck seems to take offense to most everything these days. Including a little 20-minute animated film that's become an Internet success.

This fall, filmmaker Annie Leonard found herself the target of the FOX News commentator for The Story of Stuff, in which she tells an entertaining tale of global production and consumption patterns, and their connections to larger social and environmental issues. Though it hit the Web two years ago, the film still receives 10,000 views per day and has now been seen by 7.7 million people.

The film's entrée into schools — the New York Times has labeled it "a sleeper hit in classrooms across the nation" — is what grabbed Beck's attention. On his show in September, Beck ridiculed the piece, calling it "unbelievably wrong on just about every fact."

While it may be Leonard's first film, she certainly has the experience — nearly 20 years of investigating and organizing on environmental and health issues — to stand behind it. And if Beck wanted to know where her information came from, a quick visit to storyofstuff.com would have led him to a fully annotated script.

Leonard says that what Beck and his base really don't like about the film is where she says it's the government's job to watch out over us: "I've gotten some e-mail from some of them that say things like, 'It's the government's job to get out of our way. This country was built on individual entrepreneurship, and we need to pull ourselves up from our bootstraps and blah, blah, blah.'"

Leonard doesn't necessarily disagree.

"We should all be individually responsible and entrepreneurial and all of that," she says. "And there are some problems that cannot be solved at the individual level. And that's why we pay taxes and have a government and come together as a society."

Logjam

One example of such a problem: toxics. Leonard, 45, recently had her body analyzed to see what toxics would show up. Understand, Leonard is a self-proclaimed "neurotic" when it comes to this issue. She has no PVCs, BFRs or BPAs in her home. She doesn't microwave or store food in plastic. She eats organic and owns a solar-powered electric car.

"I am the most extreme when I can be ... but still, my body is loaded with toxic chemicals," Leonard says. "If we're to allow industries to use so many toxic chemicals on a routine basis, there is no way as an individual that we can protect ourselves and our children."

Leonard's interest in the environment dates back to her own childhood. During summertime, her family would drive from Seattle to the North Cascades to go camping.

"I loved the forest," she says. "And I would look at the forest and wonder why it would get further and further away each summer. We'd pass these massive logging trucks barreling down the road with these huge logs. I was too young to know about carbon sequestration and hydrological cycles and all that, but I knew there was something wrong."

While attending Columbia University's Barnard College in New York City, Leonard says, she "was just fascinated by the piles of garbage on the street. Every morning I would walk to class and there would be piles of garbage like shoulder-high ... And then every afternoon I'd come home and it would be gone and I was like, 'What is that stuff?'"

She started digging in it and, finding mostly paper, realized where all her forests had been going. Wondering also where the trash piles were carted off to, she made her first trip to a landfill.

"It was like a bolt of lightning hitting me, in terms of my life's purpose," she says. "I just thought, 'My God, we have this huge problem. We have built our entire society on the rapid conversion of natural resources into trash, and it's hidden from view.'"

Information dump

Over the next two decades, through work with Greenpeace International and other global organizations, Leonard would add factories to her field trips, so she could see both "where stuff was made and where our stuff was dumped." Year after year, as she traveled through 40 countries, she became even more committed to speaking out, even if few seemed to be listening.

"My friend Van Jones said, 'One of the good things about having a marginalized message for 20 years is you get really good saying it, so by the time people are ready to listen, you know what to say.' I really did spend 20 years thinking about this and distilling the message down."

It's worth noting, of course, that Glenn Beck's bloviations about Jones' long and leftist past helped bring on Jones' resignation as "green jobs" adviser in the Obama administration this year. But fighting Leonard and The Story of Stuff may be even more difficult.

Two years after the Tides Foundation and others helped the film debut, its message of making smarter decisions has reached thousands of schools, "ranging from elementary schools literally to post-graduate economics classes at Oxford." Leonard and her team are partnering with Facing the Future, a Seattle nonprofit, to develop a cross-sector curriculum to respond to all the teachers who have asked for help.

Leonard has also been inundated by faith-based communities and is partnering with another group to develop a cross-denominational study and action guide. Just last month, a Spanish version of the film was released, and in March 2010, The Story of Stuff book, published by Simon & Schuster, will hit stores. She's expanded beyond "stuff," too; on Dec. 1, Leonard and Stuff producers Free Range Studios released The Story of Cap & Trade (storyofcapandtrade.org), the first in a new series of mini-films.

If Leonard could suggest one thing everyone do to learn more (aside from watch her films), it would be to visit a local landfill: "Every time I go to a new city, that's what I do. ... It helps you understand what's happening in that city so well. It's sort of like reading a city's secret diary."

One of the more surprising visits came during an educational tour of Cuba.

"I went to the dump, and there was not one scavenger," Leonard says. "I have never, ever been to a dump in any less industrialized country where there is not a significant population of people scavenging."

Finally she found one kid. When she asked him what he was doing, he said he was looking for a very precise piece of metal to repair his bicycle.

"I thought, wow, we really could do things differently if we had a different set of priorities," she says.

"If you write that, then Glenn Beck will really say I'm a communist," she adds, laughing. "But you know, I'm sorry, it was the best dump I ever saw. What can I say?"

kakens@csindy.com

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