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.

4 thoughts on “The Environmental Crisis Is in Reality a Crisis in Democracy

  1. “What makes people think it’s too late is that they feel alone and powerless.”

    Actually, what makes people think it’s too late is that:

    1. It is too late and

    2. We are powerless

    But if pretending that scarcity is simply a false belief, and that human nature is generous and selfless (ignoring all of history) will help Frances sell more books, hey, I’m all for it.

  2. I had the good fortune of listening to Ms. Lappe speak two weeks ago and I found it very inspiring. I actually picked up that book myself and it’s next on my list. Her words and views have a lot to offer, in a similar vein to Janine Benyus.

  3. Perhaps the change to a more democratic culture is slowly, albeit almost imperceptibly, starting to trend in the right direction. Arab Spring opened the door to Occupy and now to American Spring (featured in a blog post on BoomerWarrior.org). Mass demonstrations throughout the Eurozone, Britain, Russia, etc. are further evidence that people no longer trust their elected governments. The fact that most incumbent leaders are not being re-elected is a very positive trend. People around the globe want and need change

  4. Lappe is to be commended for raising ghe issue of thought traps (in sociology we call this hegemony, based on pioneering work by Antonio Gramsci decades ago). That’s not to say there are no physical limits, because there are and we’re rushing headlong into them. But Lappe reminds us there is still huge potential for transformation is we can just break out of our mental sqight jackets.

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