An Interview with Frances Moore Lappé
"We find hope because we have to. We find hope because our planet needs us to. We find hope because we are alive."
Frances Moore Lappé and Anna Lappé, Hopes Edge
When I left my parents home in 1978 at the tender age of 18, I bcame a vegetarian for the simple reason that I didnt like cooking meat. It wasnt a politically conscious nor nutritionally informed decision. Rather it was one that rose organically from within me, a celebration of my new found independence. At first, being a vegetarian simply meant avoiding eating meat of any kind. I was uneducated about healthy alternatives and hesitant to eat what I had recently thought of as birdseed. My vegetarian cooking and education was severely limited until I discovered the vegetarian bible, Diet for a Small Planet by Frances Moore Lappé.
First published in 1971, Diet for a Small Planet has now sold over three million copies. Besides offering a number of delectable recipes, it has been instrumental in promoting the idea that world hunger is a manmade problem, not an inevitable fact of life. World hunger, according to Lappé, is solvable if we end todays wasteful agricultural practices and begin eating a plant-centered diet. What began as Lappés simple inquiry to understand why hunger exists on our planet became a pivitol book that continues to help a new generation of vegetarian eaters make healthier and more conscious choices.
Frances Moore Lappé is a passionate and compassionate voice for global sanity, asking the kinds of questions that might just stop us from being completely submerged into corporate consumerism. Hopes Edge: The Next Diet for a Small Planet, co-authored with her daughter, Anna, and published last February, poses a new challenge, "Where do we find hope to take us forward?" During their travels on five continents, the Lappés met people who are doing the impossible and spreading seeds of hope.
In Kenya, we meet Wangari Maathai and members of the Green Belt movement, responsible for planting twenty million trees over the past twenty years and reclaiming fertile farmland from the encroaching desert. In Belo Horizonte, Brazils fourth largest city, we discover a powerful dedication to providing affordable healthy food for everyone, rich and poor alike. And closer to home, we delight in children cooking lunch from their edible schoolyard garden in Berkeley, California. Hopes Edge inspires us with real life examples helping us move from frustration, fear, and scarcity to creating sustainable, humane results for an abundant world. Recently, Frances took the time to speak with me about Hopes Edge and some of her current work.
SC: Can you tell us about the main focus of your work right now?
FML: I feel that my main focus is to help people see the bigger picture, the longer-term picture of where we are on the planet because it is so easy, in the immediate sense, to despair. We have to find a way to seed useful action in this world today. And so I see my purpose as helping people pull back, helping them see the grand scope, so they can choose to feel that they are making choices that are moving the planet toward health.
I feel it is harder than ever for people to see their connectedness to the positive path. Thats why we wrote our book the way we did to show this. It is less an analytical book and more a narrative of possibility, exploring what people are doing throughout the world that we can each relate to and be motivated by.
I was recently surprised and encouraged by something I heard when I was in England teaching for a week. I heard a presentation about community-supported agriculture (CSA) and farmers markets by someone in rural England. It was a U.S. example that triggered this whole movement, which has taken off the last five years in England. This is a beautiful example of how our actions have ripple effects. The whole CSA movement is only about fifteen years old and now it has jumped to another continent. That was very exciting for me.
You know what else was so fantastic? Right before we had our fundraising party for the Small Planet Fund, I got an email about Wangari Maathai, who is written about in the Kenya chapter. She is one of my favorite people in the whole book. This is a woman who has been beaten by the government police, jailed too, and she just won a local election, which means almost certainly that she is going to be in the parliament (the new parliament of Kenya). The email described women dancing in the streets of Nairobi. I had chills all over my body because this woman has just walked her talk and lived with the consequences. And so this was quite a victory that she was elected.
SC: Tell me more about the Small Planet Fund.
FML: We started this to channel funds to support the people in our book because we feel that everybody reading our book is going get a good dose of what Anna and I got, which has really changed our lives. We really felt like these people we met are with us now. Their courage to hope which we call "pushing the edge of hope" is something we are now living. Weve incorporated some of their spirit into us, and we think it is only appropriate that we complete that circle and channel the funds back to help them keep going. We think that will empower the giver of the gifts as well, now that they are making that direct connection with the people in the book. We set up this fund and we had a party in New York on December 12 that was really successful.
We are going to have almost $50,000 dollars to give away very soon. Weve chosen seven groups; you can read about it at <smallplanet.org>. We will be making the first disbursements in the beginning of the year.
SC: Hopes Edge talks about drawing new maps to survive. It seems that many people are feeling overwhelmed by all that is going on politically and environmentally, as well as in their personal lives. What advice do you have for them?
FML: Let me start at the beginning and explain the idea of our book. The first chapter is called "Maps of the Mind" to remind people that we live within these mental maps that literally determine what we see, what we think is possible, how we see ourselves and others, and all these dimensions that are really ideas we hold about ourselves. Another metaphor might be that we are the fish in the water, but the water is the map and we take it for granted because we cant see it. So the first challenge in gaining a sense of meaning and letting go of despair is to be able to see the dominant map and the conditioning.
The first step is to become aware of the assumptions that drive us. And certainly scarcity is profound because everything in our culture is based on that idea that theres not enough. So seeing these and liberating ourselves from them is the first step.
My practical advice is to find allies. I profoundly believe that we are such social creatures that we need others. It could be just one other person. It could be two other people. The point is to really work with other people on an ongoing basis who are tying to make changes in their lives, trying to go deeper and dig deeper, and trying to connect their inner wisdom with their outer actions. I believe it is so hard to do this alone. I believe in meditation, in reflection, but I also believe in a close group of friends.
SC: Do you think corporate globalization is the enemy of the people?
FML: I would peel away another layer. The real enemy is the thought system that has resulted in global corporatism, as I am now calling it. That thought system has led us to really give away our own common sense and our own power to a handful of people in control of economic structures that are undemocratic. The thought system has to do with this idea that the only way the market could work is by the highest return to existing wealth. Thats not the only way the market could work. But once you buy that notion and you think the market is the essential mechanism for human society to work, then you are really up a tree. You are really caught. Because there is no escape from global corporatism once you accept and follow this logic.
So I would just ask people to peel away the layers, to go back to questioning whether there are other ways to organize an effective market. In fact, we hold in our book that this current notion of market system actually destroys the market because if we only have few economic players then we dont have the necessary competition to make the market work. It is so ironic. The true believers end up destroying the very core of the original conscience. Once you buy that belief system, then the market itself is being destroyed by concentration, by a monopoly. And the worst part of that monopoly is not the food monopoly but the thought monopoly. Because now we have maybe six corporations that control the content of the news for most of the people on the planet. That is maybe the worst part of the market that weve turned the airwaves over to the market.
SC: I understand you had a news service of your own. Can you tell us about your experience?
FML: For five years, I was a cofounder and editor of the American News Service, which read stories of community problem solving. Our tag line is "We Cover Americas Search for Solutions." We discovered that newspapers would carry our stories. We had stringers all over the country and professional journalists writing our stories. We ended up with 1600 stories, almost all of them published somewhere and we got published in half of the top papers in the country. Then we started trying to move away from a foundation-funded service to a fee for service, and we couldnt get the media to pay for the stories. As long as we were able to give them away, we could get them published.
SC: Why do you think that is?
FML: They dont see the value of this kind of news, and as far as writing it themselves, it takes more energy. Its easier for a reporter to write about the shooting in the schoolyard than it is to go in and interview the students, the teachers, and the principal about the innovations happening that can really help our kids learn. And so it takes more resources and they werent willing to pay for those resources.
Thomas Jefferson once said that if he had to choose between an elected government and a free press, hed choose a free press. Its at the very core of democracy. But now the press or the media is just another commodity. We really are robbed of the free interchange of ideas on which democracy rests and my experience with the American News Service is an example of how that plays out in practical terms.
SC: Are you a vegetarian? When you talk about the benefits of a plant-based diet, are you promoting a strictly vegetarian diet?
FML: We stress using a plant-centered diet. I havent eaten meat in 32 years probably, or poultry. Depending on the situation, I might eat fish. If my stepmother who is 89 years old serves me fish, I will eat it. There are other values that I will bring into play.
"Plant-centered" or "plant-based" is a good way to reach most people because many, many people can move into that direction and not feel that they cant occasionally eat meat if they feel they need to for some reason. But I would hope they wouldnt, simply because it would be such an advantage to the earth and themselves if they turned to a plant-centered diet. I still think we are better off not eating meat.
SC: As youve traveled throughout the world, do you see a lot of apathy?
FML: I dont believe in the concept of apathy. I believe apathy is only a veneer. I believe what appears to be apathy is actually suppression, peoples denial of themselves. We feel that the world is so out of line with what we want, what we need, and what meets our common sense and so many of us feel so powerless to do anything. And so we suppress those feelings, suppress our common sense, and it comes out looking like apathy and not knowing what to do.
It is fear of being ourselves, fear of saying what we really think, fear of expressing our needs and sensibilities about other people. I think anthropologists would agree. Theres even evidence from MRI studies showing that we are hard-wired to enjoy cooperating with other people. And when that is thwarted and we are put into this mode, as our culture does, of endless competition, that undermines this very great need we have to feel that we are cooperating with members of our species. So I think we are living in this extraordinary era. We are getting farther and farther away from what our common sense and our hearts tell us.
And that is really what our book is about. Its about showing examples of people who are listening to their hearts and their common sense so that we feel more enabled to do that ourselves. And then we dont feel apathetic. We feel energized, enthusiastic, and joyful even amidst the pain. And I think that is another theme of our book that the joy of being alive is not about blocking out the pain. Its about acknowledging it and letting it in and feeling the joy of being alive with all the pain.
SC: I know that, like so many people, I need to be reminded of that again and again. Is this true for you as well?
FML: Oh absolutely! We think that the only way to keep any kind of sense of wellbeing is to block out the suffering, and I think the opposite is true. And that is how we end our book, with this metaphor of the courage of the expanding heart. I could call that the joy of the expanding heart as well. Because only as we let our hearts grow big enough to hold both the pain and the joy can we find and live in a state of courage.
Frances Moore Lappé will present "Rethinking our Mental Map: Stories from the Edge of Hope" February 16th at 7:30 p.m. and "Discovering Power, Choice and Honest Hope" February 17th from 9:00 a.m.-noon at the Women of Wisdom Conference. Call (206) 782-3363 or visit <www.womenofwisdom.org>. Visit <www.smallplanet.org> for more information about Frances work.
Susan Chiat is a writer, marketing and public relations consultant in Seattle, WA. She can be reached at <firstname.lastname@example.org>.