Frances Moore Lappé on Escaping Thought Traps and Creating Democracy for a Small Planet (Podcast)

TreeHugger: In the book, "EcoMind" you define seven thought traps of environmental thinking. The one you start out with is the growth/no growth paradigm. Why is this faulty thinking?

Frances Moore Lappé: Well, first of all, it blesses what we are currently doing with a word that most people think of as positive. Most people think growth is good: we want our plants to grow, we want our kids to grow, our love to grow. It's a positive.

That's a problem. Because what we are now doing, I call it the “waste instruction economy,” not the growth economy. We are wasting and destroying more than we are actually creating positively in our lives. I think it's very confusing to call what we are currently doing growth.
That's really my foundational suggestion. It diverts us from the real nature of our economy.

Actually in an early version of this book I tried to argue that we should reclaim the word growth for that which is the positive that people associate with it. I became convinced by my buddies to talk about growth economy as a positive, but it's just not going to work. It's so associated with quantitative measure. It has nothing to do with qualitative values in life.

TH: Connected to that idea is the notion of consumer society. You talk about “consumer society being the problem” as the second of these thought traps.

Lappé: Yes. Well, number one, I think that it's received by the people you and I want to reach as finger pointing: you are to blame, it's your fault that you are this greedy materialist. Right? I think that just to get our head around peoples' actual reality, we know now that most of the world feels like it's just barely struggling to keep head above water, if that.

I cite figures about, just in terms of disposable income, there's really been no increase in a portion of our spending on consumer goods. Most of it has gone to increased health care costs over the last 30 years, and a little bit to education. But I think this focus on "consumer is to blame" distracts us from really looking at what are all of the systemic roots of destruction that is created by our current production system. In other words, it keeps us focused on the quantity.

For example, we could say, "Oh yes, we're going to cut back half on our consumption of bottled water." Yet, that would still be, what, 15 billion bottles in the U.S. a year? "Oh, we're going to cut back on plastic." Oh, that would mean only one Texas-sized plastic blight in the Pacific Ocean instead of two.

In other words, it keeps us focused on quantities rather than on the systems of production that are so destructive. It also is confusing in that so much of our focus on consumption is that sense of a lack of community where we feel accepted, where our lives are enriched by the work that we do.

Feeling like we're part of the group comes down to our purchases. Do we have the correct clothes and gadgets and things? It's the way I say it in the book: communities of common purchase, instead of common purpose. How do we move toward that idea that we are together because we are working to create the world we want? Then, our fixation on having just the right consumer item diminishes.

I quote a conversation I had with a wonderful woman who was part of Kentuckians for the Commonwealth (who by the way has done a great job of fighting coal there). She said before she got involved in Kentuckians for the Commonwealth, if her neighbor bought a new couch she'd feel like she had to upgrade also. But once she got involved in stuff she cared about, all of that was immaterial, literally. It wasn't materially important to her anymore.

I think that demonizing the consumer as the root of the problem doesn't help us reach out to people. It distracts us from these deeper needs and deeper systemic problems. That's really my overall take. I tell stories about myself and rethinking "What is luxury?" I argue that actually if we reflect, we realize that luxury is beauty in our lives.

I experienced this in the jungles of Peru where I realized it was the most beautiful setting I'd ever been in. I felt like I was in utter luxury, even though there were no private baths, there was no granite or chandeliers or anything like that. It's more of a thought chapter on really refining what gives us satisfaction, and helping us to see how this constructed consumer society is built on what I call a one-rule economy.

TH: A lot of people will say that we are hitting up against the limits of an Earth that has a finite amount of resources to give, but you see that as a thought trap.

Lappé: I do. I think that's probably the most widespread environmental message that I try to reframe in this book. One of the metaphors that I use is the metaphor of a pianist. A pianist doesn't say "Oh my God, I only have 88 keys." But rather, "What is the harmony that I can create with this incredible instrument?"

It is this idea of celebrating that as we align with the rules--for the pianist, it's the rules of harmony and so many keys--that there's more than enough combinations that I could create beauty or discord out of. I can create horrible sound, but I can also create beauty. I think that that's one metaphor that's been helpful to me of thinking about, "How do I think about my place on the planet?"

But again, that idea that we've hit the limits is kind of absurd when you think about the fact that scientists tell us that in the U.S. for example, between 55 to 87 percent of all the energy in our country that we're producing is wasted. That overall, throughout the world, two thirds of the energy entering a power plant is wasted. That globally, one third of our food is wasted. I'm convinced that's probably conservative. It's greater than that in the US, certainly. Only half of the world's grain goes to people directly. The rest goes to livestock, who return a fraction of those nutrients to us. And now it increasingly goes to agrofuels.

How can we say we are at the limits if we are wasting and destroying more than we are using? Again, I think it's the framing. It sets us up to feel very scared and very competitive with each other. "How am I going to get mine?” Because it's a scarce world, we've already hit the limits. That's problematic.

The other big problem with the "hit the limits" frame is that if that's the main environmental message I'm hearing, I would assume that what we need are genetically modified organisms and geo-engineering, because we've gone as far as nature can take us. That's really bad news, if people conclude that we can't go any further with nature. We have to do better than nature.

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