Frances (Frankie) Moore Lappé is the author or co-author of 18 books including the three-million copy best-seller Diet for a Small Planet. She has received 18 honorary doctorates, and is the co-founder of three organizations, including the Small Planet Institute. Her most recent work is EcoMind: Changing the Way We Think to Create the World We Want. Jane Goodall has said, “EcoMind will open your eyes and change your thinking. I want everyone to read it.” Frankie and I talked following the Center for Ecoliteracy’s June seminar, “Becoming Ecoliterate”.
Karen: You put forth several ideas in EcoMind that some people might find provocative, including that we can be mislead by focusing on Earth’s limits. What do you mean by that?
Frankie: How we frame the world — how we talk about it and define it — affects how we see things and how we live. When we say we have “hit the limits,” we are saying that nature is the problem, when in fact the limits we have hit are the limits of destruction and waste, not nature. If we start with “limits” and a premise of scarcity and fear, it makes us fearful of each other, and that makes us vulnerable to anti-democratic systems. Nature has an incredible capacity for regeneration and growth, but we can’t experience it if we stay fearful and focused on lack.
Karen: But shouldn’t we be cutting back? When I visited Etsy, I saw that they are so careful they even weigh their garbage to track their consumption. And a lot of the artisans on the site are very conservative with resources — they recycle, upcycle, and reuse, making the most of everything they have. Isn’t that the right thing to do?
Frankie: Yes! The spirit that I am advocating is reframing how we view the world, and shifting from the negativity of lack and “not enough” to the positive frame of aligning with Nature. We do the things you mentioned because they are in alignment with how Nature maintains balance. What has dawned on me is that focusing on the “finite planet” frame sends a message that we have gone as far as Nature can take us and therefore we need to give power to forces outside Nature. We hear, “Oh, we need to patent GMOs and develop new strains and new chemicals because Nature can’t provide what we need.” I have to debate people all the time who say that Nature can’t provide enough. Nature is with us if we can learn how to align with it and not break the basic laws that generate life.
Karen: You don’t seem to think that technology is going to be the answer to our problems. Instead, you say to focus on relationships. Why?
Frankie: Relationships are the core message of ecology. Science is showing us that we are even more connected to each other than we ever realized. That’s why when you told me about Etsy — and I got teary about it — I could see that Etsy is about a realignment of relationships that is more personal and equitable for the people who are part of it.
The people who started Etsy were obviously not feeling powerless. They had no idea whether it would succeed, but that spirit of being a risk-taker is also the spirit of believing in the power of relationships. What was daring — and dangerous — is that they said, “We’re going to break from traditional consumer culture.” Etsy isn’t about getting the right status symbol or the object that everyone agrees is the most costly or impressive. It’s about a way of being and valuing beauty, beauty that ordinary people can create, not just the beauty in a diamond or a piece of gold. I think that luxury has nothing to do with money, and everything to do with beauty. Beauty exists irrespective of financial circumstances. On Etsy, beauty is created by fellow human beings, and enhanced because they are in relationship with each other.
Karen: So how do you maintain a worldview that runs counter to so many other messages in the culture, even counter to some of the messages in the environmental movement?
Frankie: I developed a free EcoMind workshop you can do with a group of friends. It can be hard to stay grounded because there is little reinforcement for the EcoMind view in the world. In 1969, I had the realization that hunger is not caused by scarcity of food, it is caused by the production system and an absence of democracy throughout the world. The answer came to me through many decades that we all see through culturally-formed filters. These filters decide what we can observe and influence what actions we take. So my hope is that this workshop can help to retrain some of our thought patterns and open our imaginations and sense of connectedness to each other and Nature.
Karen: Diet for a Small Planet was the first book about food I ever bought. Have any of your views about food changed since writing it in 1971?
Frankie: No. But what is different and exciting is how much we have learned. We learned we were right that we don’t need the chemical model of agriculture. We know so much more about the life of soil now and we understand how plants synergistically work together with microbes and animals to create healthy conditions. Approaches to growing food that align with nature also changed human relationships. Old models of farming with chemicals and credit mostly favored privileged men. With organic approaches, women — who have been gardeners for millennia and mothers forever — can rise because of their intimate knowledge of nature. Women can succeed in villages all over the world today without relying on heavy machinery or debt. They can take leadership roles in agriculture, eliminating hunger and inequity. When I wrote Diet I couldn’t have imagined this wealth of new knowledge and how human relationships are changed by relating to the Earth in a new way.
Karen: So it all comes back to relationships?
Frankie: Yes. What we need to get right is not focusing on the fear associated with quantity — not enough, scarcity, and lack — and moving instead to a worldview that explores quality and connectedness. That’s the spirit of the EcoMind.
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