Frances Moore Lappe kicked off a whole subgenre of ecolocgy literature with her beststilling Diet for a Small Planet in 1971. The book challenged assumptions about the redistribution of food and how people's everyday actions might impact the global picture. Her latest, EcoMind, is a book devoted to overcoming mental habits that become obstacles to sustainable progress, and it's just out in paperback. We spoke by phone a few days ago.
Earth to Philly: When you originally wrote Diet for a Small Planet you were pulling together a lot of info on food and economics that people hadn't examined to such an extent. Did you see your main mission as conveying this data or changing the way people were thinking about these problems?
Frances Moore Lappe: I would say the latter, although I wouldn't have had that phrase then. But I was sitting in the U.C.-Berkeley library with my dad's slide rule, putting numbers together while the headlines were blaring to us that the world is running out of food famine is inevitable, scarcity is the cause of hunger, and my youthful intuition was that if I could just figure food out -- food is so basic, if we can't figure out why we're not feeding ourselves, all of us, that's a problem -- if I could just figure that one out then that would unlock the mysteries of economics and politics for me.
So I started with that one question, why are people hungry? Is it true that we're running out of food? And within a few months of putting the numbers together I had this shocking moment when I realized that we were actually creating scarcity out of plenty - that there was more than enough for all of us, but we had created this incredibly inefficient food system because the concentration of wealth and power meant that people couldn't buy the food they needed and it got diverted into feed -- and now, of course, into fuel -- and so today we have 20 to 30 percent more food for each of us, and yet there are as many people hungry today as there were when I wrote Diet for a Small Planet.
I was trying to get people to say, wait, the problem is not scarcity, we're locked into a scarcity mentality that ends up creating scarcity and that is really the theme of my new book all these decades later.
Earth to Philly: And it's this type of mentality or "thought traps" your new book explores.
Frances Moore Lappe: Right. Einstein said "It is theory that decides what we can observe" - he wrote that in a letter to Heisenberg in 1946. In other words, it's the ideas that we hold, the mental frame, that determines what we can see and what we cannot see.
Ecomind points out that there are 7 thought traps that block us from seeing what is right in front of our noses. For example, day before yesterday, I spoke at a 100% Renewable conference here, with financial experts on renewable energy from around the world, and over and over, these experts told us there is no techological obstacle to 100% renewable energy within a few decades. We have vast capacity for renewables - but it's all this sense that oh, we're trapped in this mode where there's not enough, not enough.
Earth to Philly: Since this is running on Earth Day, how do you address the issue that some critics of the green movement point out all this focus on individuals making small changes, like changing our light bulbs, that really amounts to just busywork when compared to the amount of harm being done by powerful institutions and corporations? Can EcoMind affect the mentality of those who actually have the power in this system?
Frances Moore Lappe: And why do those people have the power? Only because we allow it. Ultimately we have what I call privately-held government, meaning there's so much influence, for example of the fossil-fuel industry, in our government -- why is that true? It's because we have enabled that; we have not believed in our capacity for real democracy accountable to us. So I think that EcoMind is truly revolutionary: I'm saying we must think like an ecosystem -- to get away from the scarcity of quantity and look at the system of relationships where we give away our power, and appreciate from an ecological perspective the power we have, yes, in our everyday actions that ripple out.
All the things that I do - choosing a plant-centered diet or hanging my clothes on the line - those are all things that align me with the health of the earth and other people, it's so gratifying to know that, and people observe me, and they change, so that's part of our power from an ecological perspective: We're affecting everybody that observes us, and all the way through the market ripples. And in EcoMind we see that we have a political system that has certain leverage points in it that can allow us as citizens to step up, and one of them has to do with money and politics.
One of the most progressive countries in the world today is Germany, which in 2010 supplied half the world's supply of solar energy - even though it's a cloudy country! Well, it's no coincidence to me that they rank highest in the world, an incredible ranking I find, in terms of the role of money in politics. They're at #83 at the scale of 1 to 100 whereas the U.S. in this same scale of how much power private wealth has in our political system, we rank #29. So what I'm saying is that if we think in terms of systems then every act we take that aligns with the earth has the power to ripple out, but we also need to use the leverage points in the system, and one of them has to be getting a true accountable democracy so that we can set the rules -- for example stop subsidizing fossil fuels -- and move in directions where it's so doable to get to 100% renewable.
Earth to Philly: In terms of actions people focus on, is working through the big-picture channels like these political leverage points or making individual changes that winds up being more effective?
Frances Moore Lappe: Well, I dont believe there is a tradeoff between the two, because when you think of our daily choices, that's a way to empower ourselves directly, by eating more healthy foods, by supporting and making relationships through farmers markets with community supported agriculture, those are all ways we can improve our lives, improve our children's experience. I know my little grandson when he went to a farmers market all summer he wanted to be a farmer for Halloween - it's powerful what we can do with our friends and how we model on each other
We can claim our power as citizens as well and pay attention to the kinds of legislation that will reclaim the citizen factor and the accountability factor and not the corporation and the private donor. There is, for example, the anti-corruption act now at the website represent.us and there's an approach to reform now that doesn't wait for a constitutional amendment to weaken the power of corporations over our politics, an approach that can really put "us" back into the equation, so that our commonsense desire for renewable energy, for healthier foods and so forth, that this can actually be national policy.
Earth to Philly: We're talking after a week that many found epic in its dispiriting nature, and one part of it was the failure of our elected representatives in the Senate to pass gun legislation that 90 percent of the country approves of. When something like that happens, how do you avoid getting caught in a despair trap?
Frances Moore Lappe: Well, I feel despair is the one luxury no one can afford right now. We can't afford it for ourselves or for our children, so our slogan at the Small Planet Institute is "Hope is not what we find in evidence, it's what we become in action." So it's an action verb, and that means connecting with others and recognizing that throughout the entire history of our species it's only been by decade after decade that we've ever achieved, for example, civil rights measures or the Clean Air Act. I mean ,these things happen only because we step up.
And in this case, the vote about gun safety, that's directly because of the power of private wealth over our political process. We've got to have what I call living democracy, that is really alive because all our voices get heard, and there's a pathway to that. There's now legislation pending in congress that would help to remove the power of private wealth and private interests and get the public back in.
But I think the basic thing to realize, from an ecological perspective, is that the only choice we don't have is whether to change the world. If we now go into despair mode and believe that we can't have the world we want, that is also changing it, but for the worse. Even if we don't do anything, we are having an effect, we are modeling that resignation to our children and grandchildren and we can't do that. So I loved writing EcoMind, because it's all stories of regular people stepping up. Like the woman in Germany after Chernobyl: That could have been a real time of despair, but instead of reacting like, "I'm just going to go into my shell," she started a cooperative for renewable energy that now has thousands of customers, and helped remove nuclear power from Germany.
So that's what we have to do, look for people who are out there, and relate to them, and you will become more like them. We're all social mimics, so bring into your life people who are more gutsy and courageous, and you will become that way.
Earth to Philly: Some environmental-assessment experts tell us that while overhauling our energy-technology infrastructure will take a while, shifting people's diets to eliminate more meat and dairy consumption could be achieved within a few years and would have a larger effect on climate change in a shorter time. What do you think - is that in sync with the spirit of EcoMind?
Frances Moore Lappe: Well, we do know, I've heard many experts say, that the single most important immediate ripple effect that we can take as individuals is shifting our diet to a plant-centered diet. This is a dramatic shift because I've seen it estimated that somewhere from 40% to 57% of greenhouse gas emissions are in some way related to our food system and a lot of that is grain-fed meat and dairy.
And the great thing is that we'll feel better and our health-care costs will come down because a whole-foods, plant-centered diet is healthier. And I know people can change - I changed. I grew up in Texas, near the stockyards in Fort Worth, Texas!
People come to me all the time and say, "I'm eating less meat and I'm loving it" and "I'm feeling better, I've never felt so good" and the key here is not pointing fingers like y"ou greedy little meat-eater" but to say, hey, this is where life is, this is where health is , and taste and all the fruit variety - that's what blew my mind too, when I started Diet for a Small Planet, there was never any sacrifice, because the world of plant food is where all these different tastes come from, and colors, and shapes, and textures, and all different varieties of legumes, and nuts, and seeds, and vegetables, and fruits, and on and on.
So it's the spirit of we are on this adventure to align with the earth, not to shrink ourselves to keep within the limits of some quantitative frame but to abound with the rules of nature - we are nature, we are part of nature. So that's the spirit of EcoMind.