EcoLogician Frances Moore Lappé: A conversation with the writer, activist and EcoLogic supporter

Frances Moore Lappé is a well known writer and activist who first became known in 1971 for her groundbreaking book “Diet for A Small Planet” which argued persuasively that the industrial food system was largely responsible for world hunger and food insecurity, not natural disasters or environmental limits. In 2001, she founded the Small Planet Institute with her daughter, Anna, to promote a world-wide movement toward “Living Democracy.” They define Living Democracy as an ethos in which “citizens infuse the values of inclusion, fairness and mutual accountability into all dimensions of public life” leading to a just and sustainable society.

frankie_compressedIn August 2002, Frances Moore Lappé traveled to Johannesburg, South Africa to attend The World Summit on Sustainable Development — otherwise known as Rio+10 or the Earth Summit. She stayed with friends from Vermont who had brought together a group of visitors to share a place to stay for the week. There, over breakfast, Lappé and another attendee, EcoLogic co-founder Shaun Paul, struck up a conversation. They had much in common including a passion for social justice and a commitment to protecting the natural world. They were also both living and working in the greater Boston area, and Lappé had recently begun looking for new office space for her nascent organization, the Small Planet Institute. As it so happened, EcoLogic had extra space to offer. Thus began a mutually beneficial relationship between the two organizations which has provided camaraderie, a cross-pollination of ideas, and as Lappé observes, a “fecund work environment of mutuality and respect.”

No doubt that many EcoLogic supporters know you as an author—of 18 books now!—and a speaker and an activist. How would you characterize what you do and why?

FML: My life’s mission is to help people find their power, so they can engage in the world in a meaningful way. Unless we can see what is the causal pattern creating needless misery, it is very hard to feel that our individual actions add up to anything. People say, “I’m just a drop in the bucket,” and disparage themselves and their impact. The Small Planet Institute counter is, “Hey, buckets fill up really fast on a rainy night.” So my whole life has been devoted to helping people see the “bucket” of Living Democracy emerging so they can believe in the power of the rainstorm.

So almost ten years ago now, you moved into a shared office space with EcoLogic. You’d worked largely in private spaces before. What was the change like?

FML: It was easy. I immediately felt so aligned with the goals of EcoLogic, because it seemed to me—and still does—that what EcoLogic does and how it does it, is the expression of all the different elements that I try to describe in Living Democracy. EcoLogic is not just about the ecological dimensions and land considerations, but also encompasses the social dimension—how people relate to one another, make decisions that are inclusive, and take action. You can’t have healthy ecological communities without healthy social communities. All of that requires learning. Agroforestry is learning. Finding new and sustainable ways to do things is learning. EcoLogic actively creates a learning culture about the land, and flora and fauna. And for almost ten years our shared office space has provided a living example of our principles, not to mention the cross-pollination of ideas that happens, and the camaraderie and celebration of our similar purposes. And we also have fun sometimes, too!

Frances Moore Lappé Shaun Paul

Frances Moore Lappé with EcoLogic co-founder Shaun Paul

Obviously we’re fans of the prefix “Eco” and the meaning of “ecology” it conveys, but tell me about the reasons you titled your latest book, EcoMind?

FML: I went to a huge conference a few years ago with persuasive speakers and a massive amount of information about the global environmental crisis, and I came away so heavy hearted it felt like I was wearing a suit of lead. I realized that if I felt this way—and I’m a cheerleader for “we can make this change”—then how much more paralyzed must other people feel? So I wanted to learn about the assumptions underlying the way we think about things. I focus on our frames of thinking about particular issues which are often articulated and understood through metaphors that either free us towards solutions or constrain us. I realized a lot of our metaphors are still locked in the mechanical world view—what I call the “scarcity mind”—which says that reality is made of distinct entities that are not interconnected and that are fixed. We’ve “hit the limits”, as an example, that is a quantitative “more or less” way of looking at something rather than a systems view focusing on the interaction of all elements. I realized that even our way of thinking about ecology is not ecological.

So you wanted to help people change how they view the problems?

FML: Yes, the reason for the book is to try to answer the question, How do we think like an ecosystem? As an example, in ecology everything is both cause and effect, both acted on and an actor. From this perspective, you recognize that human beings are organisms, too. And so just like a tree that depends on its environment and responds to it, humans are the same way. We can be kind and magnificent and cruel and barbaric. What are the conditions that bring out the best, or bring out the worst? With every organism it depends; many people can behave nobly even under adverse conditions. But we don’t know until we’re put to the test, whether we’re the majority that will go along with evil or not. So we have to create the conditions—the environment—so we’re not put to that test.

How do EcoLogic and Small Planet interconnect?

FML: I wanted to say that having co-started two organizations before Small Planet Institute—I’ve been so aware of the culture of organizations. EcoLogic is an organization that creates a culture of mutual respect and accountability, exactly what’s proven to bring out the best in our species—I feel like I’m a beneficiary of that every day: a work community where the norm is mutuality instead of finger pointing. I’m not privy to everything EcoLogic does, of course, but I think you all have internalized some of that idea, that our problems are not because of the bad egg—we all have a role to play in creating a working environment that is conducive to achieving our goals and improving the world. I see EcoLogic embodying that in the work you do, helping to foment cultures of learning, questioning, and mutuality, not just pointing the finger at the other guy. You don’t just bring resources to a place you work, but this culture of learning and cooperation, so that the people you work with feel responsible. Why am I aligned with EcoLogic? You do everything I write and talk about! You integrate Living Democracy principles into your projects. That’s why my partner, Richard Rowe, and I have been long-time supporters and donors to EcoLogic. And why I hope Small Planet and EcoLogic have another ten productive years together!