Francis Moore Lappe Offers a New EcoMind Diet for a Big Planet

November 13, 2011
Maria Grusauskas
Santa Cruz Patch

Although the world outlook looks gloomy, with environmental calamities, global warming and world hunger, Frances Moore Lappe, author of the 1971 bestseller Diet for a Small Planet, told a Cabrillo College audience Friday that there are still plenty of reasons to be hopeful.

And, she said, if people are willing to make small changes, they can still stave off the worst that the future may hold.

Lappe was joined by Michael Levy of Transition Santa Cruz, local marine biologist Dr. Wallace J. Nichols and author John Robbins, the scion who left the Baskin-Robbins empire. They all focused on the idea of the “Ecomind” presented in Lappe’s latest book, the subversive yet optimistic EcoMind: Changing the Way We Think, to Create the World We Want. 

In his introduction, Levy warned the audience that the talk would “tweak your perspectives,” and this would be a good thing.

“I’ve found that over the years many people have turned a deaf ear on environmental causes because it often brings up feelings of fear and guilt,” said Levy. “The transition movement is about reframing and having a new perspective, and the reason that that’s necessary is because what we’re doing is taking on issues that are totally scary to everybody: Climate change, peak oil, and economic collapse. By the time you’ve listed these the party is over and people have left."

Lappe’s ideas grooved on a similar note, focusing on the “thought traps” that environmentalists like herself are prone to in the present day.

For example, the common conception that we have hit the limits of a finite earth, or that it is too late for change, or what she calls the “premise of scarcity” — the belief that our resources and energy are very scarce, when in reality the problem lies in the fact that we are wasting much more than we are producing.

Although the facts may be dismal, the speakers all emphasized that it may be too late for some things, like species that are already extinct, but it’s actually not too late for life. 

“It’s a kind of work for us to keep this sort of perspective, because we’re bombarded continually with messages to the contrary, messages that it’s too late," said Levy.

“We kind of know in our mind that getting more and more additional things is causing damage, and it’s not really going to get us what we want. And so it’s a kind of discouraging backdrop to our lives in a way."

Lappe unleashed several discomforting world facts upon the audience — the very facts that she says lead people to feel a “notion of powerlessness,” and a believe in the premise of scarcity.

But she followed by embarking on an onslaught of examples supporting the contrary, kind of like that familiar, yet for some reason still daunting adage: that a small group of thoughtful minded citizens can change the world, indeed it’s the only thing that has.

“Four hundred people in this country right now control as much wealth as the bottom 50% put together," said Lappe. "We’ve reached a point where our inequality, our gap between rich and poor is greater than Pakistan or Yemen."

Another sad fact Lappe shared is that 50 percent of U.S. children will be dependent on food stamps at some point in their childhood.

“Even though in the last five years the grain production in the world has grown almost twice as fast as population, we have more hunger than ever,” said Lappe. “We have almost 1 billion people who are going hungry.” 

Hunger is indeed proof that scarcity exists, said Lappe, but accepting this idea at face value can easily divert our eyes from the fact that our economy, this one-world economy, actually creates more waste and destruction than it does growth and things that we enjoy. 

“The estimates of the waste of energy in the United States varies from 55-87 percent of all of the energy it produces. So suggesting this idea that we’ve hit the limits—if we’re wasting more than we’re using, how can we say that we’ve hit the limits?” asked Lappe. 

The positive notes resonated brightly after such dark glimpses of reality. Lappe noted that a study at the University of Michigan in 2007 found that if the whole world went organic then we would actually have more than enough food to support a growing population.

She also noted that although agriculture is a huge contributor to climate change —contributing as much as 57 percent of the world’s green house gases— it has a huge potential to contribute to the solution.

The examples of positive community-minded changes to the wasteful world economy as we know it were numerous, including: 

In the last 20 years in Niger, Africa, farmers have re-greened 12.5 million acres with 200 million trees, providing food security for 2.5 million people. 

In impovershed cities in Columbia, a group of women has begun cultivating nutritious edible mushrooms in the massive piles of coffee production waste. 

In Andhra Pradesh, India, where there was a farmer suicide epidemic linked to widespread deadly pesticide use, people have started saying "no" to genetically engineered cotton and pesticides and switching to heirloom seeds and the ancient traditions of how to control pests. 

So what next? 

After the talk, the speakers were asked to put their talk in more local contexts. When asked what we can do to change the world, here is what they replied: 

“Find the local group that really works on things you care most about and give them everything you possibly can. Just give big. We see how it works here in Santa Cruz.. The homeless garden project and other projects, just amazing.. do that. Do a lot of that,” said Nichols. 

Levy talked about how important forming community in your neighborhood is, since shifting your perspective about the world is impossible to do alone. 

“We actually have to make a conscious choice to have a different perspective... It really helps to have company. You really can’t shift your perspective by yourself, you need a community,” said Levy, whose latest project “Resilient Neighborhoods” connects neighbors through potluck dinners.

Often times he finds that neighbors living among each other for as many as 20 years have never met. This social norm of never connecting with people who live around you is one that discourages sharing of material goods and ideas, and perpetuates isolation of ideas and consumerism.

For Lappe, it was a far loftier idea, which perhaps the Occupy Movement is chipping away at: “There is, in my view, a mother of all issues... We should all be weighing in on the question of getting money out of politics,” said Lappe.

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