'The Story of Stuff' by Annie Leonard

Another way to say that everything exists as part of a larger system (including systems themselves) is to say everything is connected.

It's funny: Most people's professional paths start with a general interest that becomes increasingly specialized with years of education, training, and on-the-job implementation. There's powerful social and professional validation for increasing specialization like this. I, however, took the opposite path: I started with a fascination—and outrage—about garbage, specifically about the bags of the Stuff piled up on New York City's Upper West Side. After getting a degree in environmental science, I got a job with Greenpeace International, which paid me to track the destination and the impact of all the waste loaded onto ships in the United States and sent abroad. My whole job was about investigating and stopping the international dumping of waste.

I will forever be grateful to Greenpeace. Founded on the Quaker principle of bearing witness—the idea that seeing wrong-doing with our own eyes creates a moral responsibility to inform others and take action— Greenpeace provided me with a laptop computer and rudimentary training and then set me loose upon the world to bear witness to waste trafficking and tell everyone what I saw. However, like most institutions, Greenpeace divided its work into specific issue areas that left us working in silos, disconnected from one another: toxics, oceans, forests, nukes, marine ecosystems, genetically modified organisms, climate, etc. The organization cultivated a strong culture of specific expertise. For example, the toxics people knew a scary amount about toxics—even the interns could rattle off the molecular structures of chlorinated organic compounds and explain their environmental health impacts—and they single-mindedly pursued their issue to the exclusion of everything else. Back then, we didn't spend much time understanding the connections between the problems we were each working so hard to solve.

In the early 1990s, I started traveling extensively to work with allies in other countries. At first, I prided myself on knowing more about international waste trafficking than anyone outside my team at Greenpeace. But the more I traveled, the more I realized how much I didn't know and didn't understand. I was initially shocked by the scope of work that I found others doing, in India, Indonesia, the Philippines, Haiti, and South Africa, for example. I met dozens of people who worked on a whole jumble of issues altogether: water and forests and energy and even women's issues and international trade. At first, I assumed that they had to cover so many issues because they were short staffed; I felt sorry for them having to do the jobs of multiple people while I had the luxury of devoting all my attention to one issue. After a while, I had a revelation: all those issues are interconnected. As I kept unraveling the strings of connections, I realized that garbage—or any single problem, for that matter—can't be solved in isolation. Focusing so exclusively on a single issue wasn't helping me; in fact it was retarding my ability to understand the context of the issue of garbage, to see the Big Picture. Learning about other issues wouldn't distract from my progress, it would enable breakthroughs.

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