By Debra Huron
She stepped onto the world stage in 1971 at the age of 27 with the publication of Diet for a Small Planet — a book that has since sold three million copies worldwide and changed the way people view food, world hunger, and justice. In early February, USC Canada (formerly the Unitarian Service Committee of Canada) brought Frances Moore Lappé, now 68, to Ottawa and Toronto.
On the Ottawa leg of the tour, 600 people filled a city church to hear the prolific writer talk about food, corporate-dependent agriculture, and a new way of creating justice that she calls living democracy.
Five minutes after meeting her, you learn that Moore Lappé calls herself “Frankie,” and that she wants you to just relax and use her nickname, too. “I can’t wait to be a 90-year- old Frankie,” she says with a smile during an interview with Healthwise Ottawa. Moore Lappé does not hide the fact that she is 68.
“A big deal in my life is about fighting ageism, especially as it relates to women. I believe in talking about my age and bringing out that, really, the best times of our lives can be when we have lived decades and we have this richness in us, not just in our memories but also in the deep learnings from the different stages of our lives.”
Moore Lappé’s 2011 book EcoMind: Changing the Way We Think, to Create the World We Want focuses on how North Americans and most people in Western democracies can reframe the way they see themselves and the world by adopting what she calls the EcoMind. It’s a way of being in the world that models the way an ecosystem works. The EcoMind welcomes connection (not separation), continuous change (not rigid rules), and co-creation (not power over).
“I think [Frankie’s] really a philosopher,” says Susan Walsh, USC Canada’s Executive Director.
But Frankie does not call herself a philosopher, an optimist, or a pessimist. “I’m a possibilist,” she says.
The burning question that pushed Moore Lappé to write Diet for a Small Planet was ‘Why is there hunger in the world’?
“What does every species do? It feeds itself, it feeds its offspring, it eats what’s healthy for it...that’s how it thrives,” she explains. “Yet I found (during my research) that we in our modern culture were not able to create a society where everyone would have access to food.”
As she wrote in 2003 in Hope’s Edge — one of her 18 books — Diet for a Small Planet “helped to shatter the myth that hunger is caused by a scarcity in nature. It showed that the crisis is not a scarcity of food, but of democracy, as more and more people are denied a voice in shaping their own futures.”
She describes her struggle today as one that involves “celebrating and being part of the idea of eating food that is grown in a benign way, in supporting food systems that actually regenerate our earth, that do not use up all our water...”
She also believes in “keeping a finger on the pulse of the decision-making system in our society.”
While she was writing Diet for a Small Planet, Moore Lappé was pregnant with more than her first child: The research she was doing made her decide that the ethical choice for her own diet, not just the planet’s, had to be plant-centred.
These days, the economic rationale for a plant-centred diet goes beyond the fact that growing grains to feed cattle is wasteful, with the nutrients returned to humans as meat being many times lower than the value of those grains or legumes were we to eat them directly.
Today, the bigger problem with livestock is how its production contributes to climate change. Yet in EcoMind, Moore Lappé writes that “livestock didn’t ask to be penned up and stuffed with grain.” She suggests that the reasons livestock are implicated in climate change have to do with the way humans made them the centre of northern diets — consuming over a third of all grain the world produces, and cutting down forests to grow feed for them, or to create pasture.
So, what is a sustainable way to eat? “I think it involves seeking out the organic, seeking out the local, and staying in the whole foods model,” says Moore Lappé. She herself is “almost vegan,” with a diet that has little animal protein except for small amounts of cheese, yogurt, and an occasional egg.
Moore Lappé urges people to act on the issues that matter to them, whether those issues relate to food, climate change, or the lack of democracy in our democracies. The central question she asks her audiences to chew on is this: Why are we together creating a world that we as individuals would never create?
Perhaps as valid a query is the question of what “thinking outside the box” means to her, as she is someone who has been doing it for years.
“Well, I see the box as grounded in fear,” she says. “And in our cultures today, that fear comes from a fundamental assumption or premise of lack. We start with the premise that there’s not enough love, there’s not enough energy, there’s not enough food.
“And it’s not only lack of goods, but also a lack of goodness. Something we absorb in this culture, unlike in many ancient cultures where people believed they were descended from the gods, is that the human essence involves self-centredness, materialism, and competitiveness.
“So you put those two things together — that there’s not enough for us all and that we’re all selfish competitors — and that helps me understand...why there’s so much depression and suicide in the world. We have a way of seeing life that is fundamentally life-destroying.”
One night in Seattle, Moore Lappé and her daughter, Anna (who works with her at the Small Planet Institute in Cambridge, Massachusetts and Brooklyn, New York) were watching a rainstorm — not on television but in real life. (One of Moore Lappé’s books is called What To Do After You Turn Off the TV.)
“People often say, ‘Well, I’m just a drop in the bucket.’ As if that’s nothing. But my daughter and I, we had this ‘aha’ moment in which we realized that buckets fill up really fast on a rainy night. So being a drop in the bucket is magnificent if you’re hitting the bucket.
“But most people don’t even see where the bucket is. They feel like they’re crossing the Sahara, and that their drop just evaporates before it touches the sand.”
For people to be engaged in creating meaningful change, Moore Lappé says they have to “get excited about seeing the larger meaning of their actions...they have to actually see the bucket.”
Moore Lappé thinks we humans are “good enough,” but we do need to work on courage. We’re told that we’re all egoists, she explains, but actually humans are so social that it’s hard for us to break away from the pack. Because we fear rejection, we usually opt for the status quo.
“So many ‘big’ issues and ideas may seem far removed from our political choices, or our food choices, or how we raise our children. But they’re not at all removed. Learning to think like an ecosystem of endless connectedness, we see that every choice we make, or don’t, matters. Each sends out ripples.”
Moore Lappé counsels bold humility. “The only choice we don’t have,” she says, “is whether to change the world.”
View a webcast of Frances Moore Lappé’s speech in Toronto in February 2012.