The Environmental Crisis Is in Reality a Crisis in Democracy

Frances Moore Lappé, author of "EcoMind: Changing the Way We Think to Create the World We Want"

 “Our economy creates scarcity by being extraordinarily wasteful and destructive.”

Stephen Leahy interviews writer and environmentalist FRANCES MOORE LAPPÉ

UXBRIDGE, Canada (IPS)

To meet the challenges of the 21st century, including climate change, feeding the world and eliminating poverty, we need to free ourselves from the “thought traps” that prevent us from seeing the world as it truly is and narrow our vision of how to respond.

At same time, we need to eliminate “privately-held government”, says Frances Moore Lappé, author of “EcoMind: Changing the Way We Think to Create the World We Want” published by Nation Books. Lappé has written 18 books, including the very influential “Diet for a Small Planet”.

“There is no way to deal with climate change or poverty without real democracy,” she says.

IPS climate and environment correspondent Stephen Leahy spoke with Lappé about her new book.

Q: What do you mean by the term “thought traps”?

A: We don’t see the world as it really is but through a filter or mental map. Research in neuroscience shows that we interpret the world based on our previous experiences and understanding of the world. In other words we see what we expect to see.

One of the dominant ideas in our society is about scarcity or lack. There isn’t enough resources or food or whatever for all of us. We then “see” or interpret everything from that filter or frame of reference.

Q: How does this widely-held idea of “scarcity” affect us? 

A: Believing there isn’t enough makes us defensive and competitive with each other. We think we’d better get ours before someone else does. The majority of people I talk to insist with seven billion people on the planet scarcity is our reality now and into the future. They are blinkered by this scarcity mentality.

Q: But isn’t it true that we are running out of resources like water, energy, food and so on? 

A: I discovered as a young student that the U.S. food production was extraordinarily wasteful and inefficient. Sixteen pounds of corn and soy fed to cattle to get one pound of meat. That pound of meat also requires as much as 12,000 gallons of water. Nearly half of all food harvested is never consumed.

This staggering waste is the rule, not the exception, and not just in food production. The U.S. energy sector wastes 55-87 percent of the energy generated – most of it in the form of waste heat at power plants. It’s not just the U.S. U.N. studies showed that 3,000 of the world’s biggest corporations caused two trillion dollars in damage to the global environment in 2008 alone.

Powerful and inspiring, EcoMind will open your eyes and change your thinking. I want everyone to read it — Jane Goodall

Q: Why are we so destructive and wasteful? 

A: It’s a result of the current market economy with its single focus on generating the quickest and highest return to a small minority of wealth-holders. Our economy creates scarcity by being extraordinarily wasteful and destructive. The term “free market economy” is completely wrong. What we have is a corporate-monopoly market economy of waste and destruction. We need to be more careful and more precise in our language.

Q: There is a growing call by environmentalists and some economists of the need to shift from a growth economy to a no-growth economy, but you say this is a thought trap? 

A: Yes, it leads to a distracting debate about merits of growth versus no-growth. Growth sounds like a good thing so most people will resist the idea of no growth. Better to focus on creating a system that enhances health, happiness, ecological vitality and social power.

Q: In your book you also say everyone needs to focus on “living democracy”. 

A: America has become what’s called a “plutonomy”, where the top one percent control more wealth than the bottom 90 percent. Inequality is now greater in the U.S. than in Pakistan or Egypt, according to the World Bank. The result is corporations and the very wealthy sway public decision making via political contributions and lobbying. There are now two dozen lobbyists for every member of Congress.

To counter this privately-held government we need to re-create a culture of mutual responsibility, transparency, citizen participation and public financing of elections. Democracy is not just voting once a year, it is a culture, a way of living.

The “mother of all issues” in most countries is removing the power of concentrated wealth from public-decision making and infusing citizens’ voices instead. The environmental crisis is in fact a crisis in democracy.

Q: There is a feeling amongst many environmentally-aware people that it is already too late and there is too much to be overcome. 

A: Thinking it’s too late is another thought trap. It may be too late to avoid significant impacts that could have been avoided if action had been taken two decades ago. It is not too late for life. My book is filled with examples of people taking charge and turning things around.

What makes people think it’s too late is that they feel alone and powerless. People feel that way because of the thought traps, the false beliefs about scarcity and of human nature as greedy and selfish. Those beliefs and a privately-held government have led to feelings of powerlessness.

Q: This year is the 20th anniversary of the historic Earth Summit and major conference called Rio+20 will be held in June. What are your thoughts? 

A: I participated in the Rio+10 conference and we’ve gone backwards in those 10 years. Rio+20 could be the opportunity to reverse course and align ourselves with nature to create the world we really want.

First published on IPS Feb 7, 2012 Q&A: “The Environmental Crisis Is in Fact a Crisis in Democracy” – IPS ipsnews.net.

“It is unacceptable that the Canadian public sits back and allows access to the science they’re funding to be denied them,” said Andrew Weaver, a climate scientist.

Stephen Leahy, International Environmental Journalist

Canadian media coverage of climate change has fallen by 80 percent

By Stephen Leahy

VANCOUVER, Canada, Feb 21, 2012 (IPS)

Amid revelations of a well-funded U.S. organisation’s plans to deliberately distort climate science, scientists and journalists at a major scientific conference called on the Canadian government to stop its muzzling of scientists.

For the past four years, the Canadian government has been denying timely access to government scientists even when their findings are published in leading scientific journals, said scientists and journalists in a special session of the American Academy for the Advancement of Science meeting here in Vancouver, British Columbia.

“The Canadian public doesn’t know as much as they could about science and climate change,” said Margaret Munro, who is a science writer for Postmedia News, based in Vancouver.

“The more controversial the story, the less likely you are to talk to the scientists,” Munro told IPS.

Last…

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Continuing studies show plastics are found everywhere in the oceans even at great depths. The only solutions that works are bans on single use plastic material like bottled water.

Stephen Leahy, International Environmental Journalist

“Degradable or compostable plastic should be banned….bio-plastics simply break down into microplastic particles”– scientist

By Stephen Leahy

HONOLULU, Hawaii, U.S., Mar 24, 2011 (IPS)

That plastic bottle or plastic take-away coffee lid that has 20 minutes of use can spend decades killing countless seabirds, marine animals and fish, experts reported here this week.

On remote Pacific island atolls, diligent albatross parents unknowingly fill their chicks’ bellies with bits of plastic that resemble food. The chicks die of malnutrition, and when their bodies decay all those plastic bottle tops, disposable lighters, and the ubiquitous bits of plastic detritus get back into the environment in a cruel perversion of ‘recycling’.

There is now so much plastic in the oceans it is likely that virtually every seabird has plastic in its belly if its feeding habits mean it mistakes plastic bits for food. The same is true for sea turtles, marine animals or…

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Traditional Slash and Burn Agriculture Sustainable Solution to Climate Change

Gwendolyn Smith, Amazon Conservation Team. Photo: Stephen Leahy

Climate change is the result of not behaving in the right way says remote Amazon tribe

 by Stephen Leahy

First published at National Geographic’s NewsWatch

Climate change is the result of not behaving in the right way, according to the isolated Trio, an indigenous people living in Suriname’s Amazon forest near its border with Brazil.

“They see climate change as big problem. They say their forests are changing, deteriorating,” said Gwendolyn Smith, a project director for the non-profit organization Amazon Conservation Team (ACT).

ACT was launched by U.S. ethnobotanist Mark Plotkin and Costa Rican conservationist Liliana Madrigain Madrigal in 1996 to work with indigenous peoples in the rainforests of Suriname and elsewhere in the Amazon to retain their traditional knowledge.

The Trio (also known as Tiriyó) number perhaps 2000 and live entirely off their forests as hunters and swidden farmers. Swidden is a form of slash and burn agriculture where small plots are cleared and crops planted for one or two seasons, after which plots in new areas are cleared. Old plots are left fallow for many years, allowing the forest and soils to replinish. On a small scale this is sustainable.

“They have strict rules for managing their forest,” said Smith, who has worked with the Trio for seven years and is also a PhD student at Nova Southeastern University in Florida.

Their knowledge of the forest is unparalleled but the Trio know little about the wider world. “Money was only introduced to them six years ago and they don’t really understand concepts like saving,” she said.

Similarly, the concept of carbon and using their forests to soak up carbon is simply not part of their worldview, she told delegates at The Climate Change Mitigation with Local Communities and Indigenous Peoples workshop in Cairns, Australia. Continue reading

This week’s most popular story.

Stephen Leahy, International Environmental Journalist

UPDATE Jan 2013:

Yet another study reveals fracking has a huge problem of gas leaks. Up to  9% of the gas pumped out of the ground leaks into the atmosphere according to a study by National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration (NOAA) published in Nature this week. Natural gas (methane) is a powerful greenhouse gas. If these leaks are widespread, fracking is worse than burning coal, accelerating global warming.

In Jan 2012 I detailed new research in the article below showing that replacing coal with natural gas from fracking does little to fight climate change (see below). Now two studies published that since then make an even stronger case that fracking for natural gas is a HUGE MISTAKE:

From Nature: Air sampling reveals high emissions from gas field. Methane leaks during production may offset climate benefits of natural gas.

From Environmental Research Letters: New study demonstrates switching to natural…

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Coming up on two years and full story is still not known. “It was a disaster that was going to happen, but business and government simply pretended it was not going to happen.” That statement can be applied to nearly every environmental disaster. This piece links the Gulf oil spill to failing biological infrastructure that supports all life.

Stephen Leahy, International Environmental Journalist

We Can Live Without Oil

“It was a disaster that was going to happen, but business and government simply pretended it was not going to happen.”

[Update: Why the BP spill cannot be cleaned up]

By Stephen Leahy*

UXBRIDGE, Canada, May 10, 2010 (Tierramérica)

The policies and deals that contributed to the massive oil spill under way in the Gulf of Mexico are also jeopardising the Earth’s vital biological infrastructure, according to the Global Biodiversity Outlook 3, published Monday.

The British Petroleum oil spill of 5,000 barrels a day in the Gulf of Mexico, which began Apr. 20 when an explosion caused a rupture at the Deepwater Horizon oil rig, will have devastating consequences for marine life and coastal ecosystems for decades, experts say.

Similar business and policy decisions, multiplied thousands times over the last hundred years, have put the biological infrastructure that supports life in jeopardy,

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Rio+20: The Moment in History to Ensure Our Future Survival?

Planet Under Pressure - State of the Planet Declaration Mar 29 2012.

Worlds’ Scientists Say Facing “Planetary Emergency”

By Stephen Leahy

UXBRIDGE, Canada, (IPS)

The upcoming Rio+20 conference has to be the moment in human history when the nations of the world come together to find ways to ensure the very survival of humanity, many science and environmental experts believe.

Except that governments, the media and the public aren’t paying attention to the “planetary emergency” unfolding around them. The situation is like firefighters yelling “fire” in crowded room and still no listens.

“The situation is absolutely desperate and yet there’s nothing on the front pages or on the agenda of world leaders,” said Pat Mooney, executive director of the ETC Group, an international environmental organisation based in Ottawa.

“The lack of attention is a tragedy,” said Mooney, who has 40 years experience in international environment and development issues.

Humanity is failing in its stewardship of the planet. An incredible 85 percent of the world’s oceans are in trouble, said Susan Lieberman, director of international policy at the Pew Environment Group, a U.S. organisation.

Rio+20 is a major opportunity to turn this around, Lieberman told IPS.

The Jun. 20-22 Rio+20 meet is timed to coincide with the 20th anniversary of 1992 Earth Summit in Rio de Janerio. The Earth Summit captured world attention, with leaders from most countries and some 10,000 media attending.

It gave birth to the most important environmental treaties on climate change, biodiversity and land degradation and desertification. World leaders also endorsed Agenda 21, a detailed blueprint on how nations can practice sustainable development.

Years of preparation went into the 1992 Summit, while only months have gone into Rio+20.

“There hasn’t been nearly enough preparation to be able to sign treaties,” said Lieberman. It’s been a struggle to get many governments like such as the US to focus on Rio+20 at all she said.

“Governments are not giving this opportunity enough importance given the mess we are in,” said Lisa Speer, director of the international oceans programme at the Natural Resources Defense Council, a U.S. NGO. Continue reading