AASHE Interview Series: Frances Moore Lappé, Founder, Small Planet Institute
Frances Moore Lappé, Founder of the Small Planet Institute, talks to AASHE about her newest book, EcoMind: Changing the Way We Think to Create the World We Want. Lappé discusses the importance of thinking critically about the ways different messages and metaphors impact our choices, shares stories of her encounters with campus sustainability, and more.
Your recent book EcoMind describes how individuals can change their thinking and behavior patterns. What compelled you to write EcoMind, which to me read as a call for action, at this time in the global environmental movement?
This was my unplanned pregnancy. It kind of grew in me in as a response to a sense, that after speaking at a conference in D.C., I felt so down, so paralyzed afterward. I started worrying that the way we are framing the environmental message may not be the motivating message that it has to be now more than ever. EcoMind grew from reading the current and popular literature, and thinking about some of the metaphors that the environmental movement was using to trigger fear.
What suggestions do you have for individuals who may experience that same sense of dismay you describe when trying to actively engage themselves in sustainability issues?
Other than read my book? (laughter)
A major theme of this book is courage, in the sense that environmental messages should make us feel courageous and more able to walk with fear. And for me, in order to keep the life force flowing, keep the sense of possibility alive, I think we have to actively choose what I call a “courage news diet.”
We have to consciously bring into our lives information and stories, even if it’s a small, incremental change, that keep us moving in the right direction.
I think there’s more that we know now in neuroscience, that our thoughts actually change the pathways in our brain, and if we dwell in fear or dwell in depressive thoughts or thoughts of impossibilities, we create gullies in our neural system, such that the next thought will go into that negative gully, too. So, it’s up to us to take charge. It’s really empowering to think that our thoughts have the power to change ourselves. This is not to ignore the negative problems that are there, but rather to not dwell on them.
Tell me about the seven “thought traps” you selected to frame the chapters of the book. Are these meant to be applicable for residents of emerging, developing, and developed economies? How do they or do they not cross age demographics?
This is just really an invitation to think very, very carefully and critically, and use our whole body to feel how we respond to terms and phrases. It’s about going more deeply, and not just self-critically putting out these phrases like “we’ve hit the limit to a finite planet,” for example, and then just repeat that because it seems like a no-brainer since there are so many crises in out natural system so of course why would anyone even think about that. So, I guess, the process is what I’m really calling for. It’s really to think about these messages, how our bodies respond to them, how they make us feel, and what images they suggest – and do they really lead us to solutions.
It’s about really looking for metaphors that bring us to root causes and relationships that we have with each other that get away from quantitative, up and down, more and less, empty-full metaphors that keep us stuck in measurements of things rather than relationships of people.
A significant purpose of the book is to encourage “thinking like an ecosystem.” Can you explain for our readers how thinking like an ecosystem primarily differs and/or overlaps with our current way of thinking? Are there examples of communities currently practicing this type of thinking?
The dominant culture which affects us all is the mechanical worldview, with the premise of lack, the “lack of goodness.” This worldview is very fear-inducing because it pits us against each other in a world in which there’s not enough.
That is the dominant view, and unfortunately I think that some pieces of our environmental message feed into that scarcity mindset. For instance, when we hit 7 billion, we saw a revival of interest in population explosion and scarcity news. These are deeply ingrained ideas, that there’s just not enough. So, all of the examples in the book and everything that I’m writing about are coming from a different set of assumptions and are proving that, in fact, we can align, which is also one of the keywords in this book.
As an example, I was reading this morning an article in Andhra Pradesh in India, these really poor Indian farmers, with one hectare (2.5 acres) on average, they doubled their income simply by stopping using chemicals and relying on their own personally created “pesticide potions,” I call them. There are 108 plants that they’ve identified in this community which they use to control pests and learn how to restore their earth’s fertility so they are holding their yields but drastically reducing their costs.
So that’s what I mean by alignment. That is one very powerful example, and of course, they are helping to address the climate crisis as well as their own financial crisis. I guess that is the profound shift of worldview. That idea of “not enoughness” fortunately has not completely infected the rest of the world. There are still cultures in which there is still a presumption that if we live in a way that understands and works with the laws of nature, that there is enough for all of us, which is also the essence of the “thinking like an ecosystem” worldview.
When writing EcoMind, did you consciously decide to use the terms and concepts of “ecology” or “environment” more prominently than “sustainability?” What benefits do you see in framing the book as well as the larger ideas captured by the book from an “eco” or “environmental” perspective?
To me, “thinking like an ecosystem,” the “ecomind,” is what I want to bring out in the book; sustainability itself as a word does not communicate that. The essence of ecology is relationships, while the core idea of sustainability is “that which continues.”
I think sustainbility is a set of applications, a set of actions, and a set of techniques. An ecological worldview or eco-mind or thinking like an ecosystem, is a kind of consciousness - at least that’s how it settles in me, and at least part of sustainability would flow from the eco-mind worldview.
So, sustainable is certainly a very serviceable word, but it just doesn’t fire my engine (to use a very mechanical metaphor!)
How do you see universities and colleges effecting some of the ideas you’ve put forth in this book? (Or in your other works on building more sustainable communities.)
We are developing a workshop that’s very much more personal around the concepts in the book. We’re going to put it online so people can create their own workshop. I can imagine students adapting that on their campuses. We did our first one at UC Santa Cruz and it was mainly students involved -- they gave us a lot of great feedback.
What are the most important tools that students in higher ed institutions around the world have to discuss their own lives, and effect larger, meaningful change in their communities?
I was just at UMass Amherst, for a dedication of a garden that was growing food for the dining hall. So we were looking out of the dining hall down at this beautiful garden. It was a totally positive experience. There were hundreds of people at this dedication, they had created the shape of the garden to look like a leaf;, and they had gotten the food service provider into the whole spirit of provisioning locally as much as possible, getting organic, just making it fun.
At Stanford, I heard students presenting about how they were helping people think about the relationship with food by encouraging people to eat reasonable portions and not be wasteful. As you walked into the dining hall, you could see what was being put out for dinner, and it was being put out on dinner plates in portions that looked reasonable. So you’ve planted that idea in your mind as you’re going to the line instead of mindlessly throwing food on your plate. It looks so much more appetizing, but it also did reduce the waste.
To me, the question for a college campus action is, how do you create situations in which you can talk to people you don’t know at all, and are outside of your social grouping? That’s the essence of organizing – talking to strangers – and yet we tend to stay within our own subgroups.
One of the popular sessions at last year’s AASHE Student Summit was an Open Space discussion titled “Addressing the Apathetic.” What advice do you have to students and other stakeholders on campus who are attempting to more effectively engage those who are not moved by popular environmental messages or feel fundamentally opposed due to ideological beliefs?
Well, that’s the unfortunate thing that’s happened in our country: the environment has become left wing. But not entirely. As I say in EcoMind, there are a lot of conservative religious groups that are very committed to the stewardship idea. So, I think for any individuals in another political, non-progressive political framework who have a traditional religious orientation, there is a lot of great language about creation (“creation care” is a catch phrase that I think is really beautiful). Using that frame for anyone you know who is coming from a traditional religious orientation could be really helpful.
Also, anything that better elicits that feeling of “this gives meaning in my life,” “this makes me part of the solution,” “this makes me feel better about myself, too,” is helpful. Appealing to people’s desire to feel connected to something and have a greater meaning in their lives is really good.
At least in my life, it feels so good - even with small things - to think that my choices are more aligned with what I know; and I think we can assume other people will feel that too, if you’re not making them feel guilty and like a criminal for not having already acted. Make it interesting and lighthearted, and appealing, about being part of the solution.
One of my favorite examples of the impact I hope this book would have has emerged in the book tour. One student said before she read the book that she found herself (though these may not have been her exact words) arm-twisting, trying to convince and brow-beat her fellow students to get on the environmental bandwagon. After she read the book, her view completely shifted -- she just wanted to share her excitement about all that she’s learning and doing.
I guess that’s the inner shift I’m hoping this book will make: from a sense of burden to a sense of excitement and meaning that being part of this movement gives us.
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