Annie Leonard says three problems in this country are critically harming the environment and our own mental and physical well being as people.
"We're trashing the planet, we're trashing each other and we're not having fun at it," Leonard told an audience at Franklin & Marshall College's Common Hour on Thursday, April 18.
The creator and narrator of the animated documentary and book "The Story of Stuff," which exposes hidden environmental and social costs in our current means of production and our consumption, said that the nation's consumer-driven economy is taxing our ecosystems with seemingly endless demand for more things, and the heavy-metal toxins from the manufacturing of those things are getting into our bodies and blood streams.
"We're using too much stuff," she said. "We're actually stressing the planet's ecological systems."
Leonard, a sustainability activist and co-director of The Story of Stuff Project, spent two decades investigating and organizing environmental health and justice issues. She traveled to 40 countries, visiting factories and dumps to see where stuff is made and where it's disposed.
She said she has a fascination with "thinking about where stuff comes from and where it goes. I can't turn it off."
"I look in garbage wherever I go," Leonard said, and implored audience members to do the same. "It's like reading a secret journal of what goes on in a place."
The solution to improving the planet's sustainability is not to make so much garbage, and to demand products that are free of toxic metals and chemicals, Leonard said. That would reduce the stress on the ecosystem.
She used the analogy of forgetting you left the kitchen sink's faucet on and coming home to find the house flooded, but instead of addressing the problem with a solution -- turning off the faucet -- you start trying to sponge the water off the floor.
"We need to turn off the tap," she said. "That's what we need to do with our garbage."
Sarah Dawson, director of Franklin & Marshall College's Wohlsen Center for the Sustainable Environment, worked to bring Leonard to F&M for Sustainability Week, which runs through April 20. She said Leonard is sounding a warning that has more people listening.
"I really think that it's the most important environmental message out there today," Dawson said. "We cannot continue to live on a linear manufacturing system with stuff that we just throw away."
Leonard didn't think many people wanted to hear her message, and when she put "The Story of Stuff" documentary on the Internet five years ago, she had humble expectations.
"My goal was to get 50,000 people to watch it in 10 years," she said. "To my utter amazement we got 50,000 views in one day."
Today, Leonard said, the number of documentary views is 20 million.
The author praised F&M College for such an awareness of sustainability. To that point, Tom Simpson, the Wohlsen Center's sustainability coordinator, reported this week the final results of the 2013 Recyclemania contest and F&M's rank among colleges and universities that competed in each category.
In overall standings, F&M ranked 120 out of 274 schools with a recycling rate of 29.88 percent. Among recycling categories where F&M stood out: first out of 161 schools in cardboard waste per person, 25.99 pounds, and 54th out of 162 in bottles and cans per person, 1.87 pounds.
All totaled, Simpson said, it was an improvement over last year.
Less waste means less stuff. Leonard said that makes for happier people, citing statistics that show happiness has been declining in wealthy countries such as the United States.
"The things that most make us happy are not things," she said.
Instead, Leonard said, again citing polls, what makes us happy is the quality of our social relationships, our leisure time, our sense of purpose, and working together on shared goals.
Common Hour, held on Thursdays throughout the academic year, is intended to bring the entire F&M community together for culturally and academically enriching events and to promote dialog on international, national, local and institutional issues.