Editor’s Note: This guest post comes from Annie Leonard, Co-Director of the Story of Stuff Project (a project of Tides!).  It is cross-posted on the Story of Stuff Project’s blog under the title “We’re Not Broke.”

Story of Broke“They got bailed out; we got sold out!” The chant rang in my ears as I marched with my 12-year-old daughter and thousands of my fellow citizens through the streets of Oakland last week. But that $700 billion bank bailout is only part of the way the government takes our taxes – money that should be paying teachers, building clinics, ensuring a healthy environment or feeding poor kids – and gives it to big corporations which aren’t helping build a better future. Every year the government gives billions of our tax dollars to resource-consuming, pollution-spewing, dinosaur industries – oil and gas, coal mining, industrial agriculture, waste incinerators – while investing far less in better, cleaner and ultimately cheaper alternatives. Yet whenever I talk about the promise of developing clean energy, safer chemicals or other innovative ways out of the environmental mess we’re in, I hear the same thing: Those things would be nice, but the country’s broke.

That is, to put it delicately, bull.

We’re not really broke—our public money has just been hijacked. Our new film, The Story of Broke, shines a light on the dumb choices our elected so-called leaders are making with our money: handing out tax breaks for oil companies reaping record profits; paving public roads that only go to one place—a new Walmart; granting permits to mine public lands at prices set in 1872; cleaning up toxic messes made by giant chemical companies; and offering public funds for corporations building nuclear reactors and other risky ventures.

Here’s how it’s supposed to work in a democracy: Every year, you and I pitch some of our money into the shared public account.  Our government is supposed to use this money for the public good: public safety, education, environmental protection, and helping those in need. Some public money also gets used to help businesses—to encourage job creation or spur technological innovation, for instance.

I’m all for the government using some of my money to help businesses grow and innovate – as long as I and my fellow citizens also benefit. Unfortunately that’s not always what happens. And we usually don’t see it happening because most of the handouts take the form of hidden subsidies – tax breaks, government contracts, access to public land and water.

Story of BrokeIf a member of Congress came to your house and asked for money to build a garbage incinerator in a low-income neighborhood, to mine uranium near the Colorado River, or boost the balance sheet of an oil company that just posted record profits, you’d tell him to get off your lawn.  But thousands of lobbyists in Washington and billons in campaign contributions keep the subsidies flowing – and hold America back from the sustainable economy of the future.

So as we balance our personal bank accounts each month, let’s remember that there’s a whole other pot of money we’re responsible for as well. It’s both our right and our responsibility to help determine how that money is spent and we should be making sure its helping build a better world.

We know that a better future is possible—that we can make Stuff in ways that are safe and healthy and fair. We know that clean energy and non-toxic chemicals exist. Better alternatives have been around for decades.

It’s high time we gave a leg up to the kinds of cleaner, healthier industries we need for the century ahead. It’s time we put our money behind businesses that will help build a better future.

That means stepping out of our consumer selves and occupying our citizen selves. It means reminding ourselves and our governments of the power we have when we unite as citizens.

That’s why what was happening in Oakland and other cities last week was so exciting. Because together, getting out of the shopping mall and into the streets, we do have real power to make a better future. And we have enough money to get started right now.

Watch The Story of Broke:

Annie Leonard has dedicated nearly two decades to investigating and organizing on environmental health and justice issues. Prior to creating and releasing The Story of Stuff in December 2007, she worked with the Funders Workgroup for Sustainable Production and Consumption, GAIA (Global Alliance for Incinerator Alternatives), Health Care Without Harm, Essential Action and Greenpeace International. She currently serves on the boards of GAIA and Public Citizen, and has previously served on the boards of the International Forum on Globalization, Grassroots Recycling Network, Environmental Health Fund, Global Greengrants India and Greenpeace India. Annie’s first book—The Story of Stuff—was published by Free Press (an imprint of Simon & Schuster) in March 2010.