An Interview With Frances Moore Lappé
Co-leader of Small Planet Institute and author of Diet for a Small Planet
What led you to write your latest book, Getting a Grip, which has been characterized by Barbara Kingsolver as “a new pair of glasses,” making the world more comprehensible, more manageable, and even more beautiful?
Lappé: While researching my first book, Diet for a Small Planet, I learned that I could think for myself and no longer needed to blindly follow experts. I discovered a better appreciation for my sense of curiosity and the importance of asking questions, such as: “Why are we, as societies, creating a world that we, as individuals, abhor?”
This particular question has propelled my life for decades, compelling me to search for answers as to why we invent rules that generate a sense of scarcity for hundreds of millions of people—rules that leave us feeling powerless and robbed of the energy and creativity needed to form a world we are proud of. I wrote Getting a Grip to get a grip on what we know about these rules, what informs us and how we make the choices we make in our daily and public lives. Investigation led me to see how we have become trapped in a limited understanding of democracy, one that prevents us from realizing that we all have the power to create the world we want.
What is the difference between what you call Thin Democracy and Living Democracy?
Lappé: Thin Democracy is an unworkable mental map that keeps us from coming to terms with local-to-global crises. This inherited map includes such ideas as: democracy is something that is done to or for us by distant officials; it is a set system of an elected government plus a market economy; public life is ugly and alienating, so that even the most thoughtful citizens are relegated to simply voting, working and shopping. A single rule—the highest return to shareholders—continues to drive the market, which tends to concentrate wealth and power, which in turn influence the political process.
Living Democracy, a learned art, is an ongoing culture of change and a set of qualities that permeate and shape a rewarding way of life. Its values of inclusion, fairness and mutual accountability naturally infuse not only political life, but economic and cultural life, as well.
Living Democracy is always evolving, as citizens use their voices and values to shape public choices. The people set rules to keep wealth continually circulating and to keep its influence out of politics. Here, citizens’ values guide our laws and economy while conscious shopping choices foster healthy communities.
What surprised you most about the concept of Getting a Grip?
Lappé: It was when I wrote that “ideas are more powerful than instincts.” That statement surprised me. The concept seemed counterintuitive. Yet, it’s so obvious, that our ideas trump our instincts every day. This insight allowed me to see how we have created a world according to the ideas we hold, and that the ideas we accept determine what we believe is possible.
I am a ‘possibilist’ with a new mantra—it’s not possible to know what is possible. This mantra has stirred a bold sense of humility within me that’s led to a deeper understanding: We don’t have to prove an idea is possible before we begin to explore its possibilities.
Because we have enough experience to understand the social norms that bring forth the best and the worst in people, we no longer have to go on merely hoping that by some miracle, human nature is going to change. We are free to come up with new ideas and investigate them together, to dissolve anonymity by building community with face-to-face relationships, and to recognize our own mighty power for good.
There is tremendous evidence across many fields of study that supports the fact that humans are hardwired with a need to enjoy cooperation, to experience a sense of fairness in society, and to feel useful and have meaning in life. Getting a Grip reminds us that when we view the world through an ecology of democracy, we recognize that we are not living independently in a changing world; rather, we are all connected and creating meaningful relationships, moment-to-moment.
We know that our individual well-being depends on healthy communities. Public engagement is part of this good life! Only in public engagement can we fulfill our need to connect with others in common purpose, to express our values and make a positive difference.
We also know in our deepest selves that the real problems facing Planet Earth can only be met by the ingenuity, experience and buy-in—the contagious engagement—of billions of us. I believe that in embracing the principles of a Living Democracy, centered on individual citizen involvement, we can locally solve global problems, together.