Nation Books, 2011
Reviewed by Marian Van Eyk McCain
When she was researching for her landmark book Diet for a Small Planet back in 1970, Frances Moore Lappé realized that it is we human beings ourselves who create the problems, such as scarcity, that we find so troubling. “While most of us think that ‘seeing is believing’… no, for human beings ‘believing is seeing.’ Our core ideas about how the world works determine, literally, what we can see and what we can’t.”
This new book is based around a list of problematical core ideas in our contemporary culture—ideas that stop us from dealing effectively with today’s environmental and social issues. These are ideas that are so firmly fixed in our minds and in our public discourse that they prevent us from seeing or seeking solutions that are right in front of our noses. She calls them ‘thought traps.’ She then takes these same ideas and reframes them in a way that an ‘eco-mind’—i.e. a mind that thinks in terms of connectedness and continuous change—might rethink them. In doing this, she creates what she calls ‘thought leaps’.
For me, the most impressive transformation from ‘thought trap’ to ‘thought leap’ was the one about growth. Like so many other ecologically aware people I too have preached the evils of a growth economy and the importance of replacing growth with sustainability. Lappé doesn’t believe in unbridled economic growth any more than I do. But she approaches the whole matter in a totally different way. As she points out, except when we are talking about cancer the word ‘growth’ has always had happy, green connotations. Children grow, gardens grow…
“I agree strongly that today’s economic ‘growth’ is not working,” she says, “ but to define what we’ve been doing as ‘growth’ risks blessing our current practices with a term that sounds positive to most ears. That’s a problem. Plus, ‘no-growth’ can look downright scary to the jobless, who understandably see economic growth as essential to putting bread on their tables.” So by arguing against growth we are actually shooting ourselves in the foot. No wonder so many people are not listening to our dreary ‘no-growth’ arguments.
I have often used the word ‘sustainability’ as an antonym for growth. But I admit that it is really not a very sexy word. As this author says, “‘to sustain’ suggests ‘bearing up’ or ‘keeping on,’ and I want more. And I think most of us do too…’growth’ is a word I personally don’t want to give up. I want my tomatoes to grow, and my friendships.”
The point is that growth, in traditional economic terms, has always meant expansion. It is a quantitative measure. But we are drowning in stuff. And we are wasting stuff and destroying the planet with our waste products. Whether it is thrown-away food (at least a third of the world’s food is thrown away) or the 50% of all generated energy that is wasted as heat into the atmosphere, the scale of waste is absolutely staggering. Once we realize that what the economists have been describing as growth is actually not that at all but a highly inefficient economics of waste and destruction, we can move right out of the growth/no-growth debate and take the discourse to another level.
At this new level, growth becomes qualitative, not quantitative. It is re-defined as that which enhances and encourages ecological diversity, vitality, resiliency and so on. In these terms, to grow means to flourish. And that is the sort of growth we need. Like the growth and flourishing of renewable energy sources for instance. Or the growth in human connectedness that will enable local economies to flourish and communities to diversify and evolve into self-sufficiency.
Lappé enables her readers to re-frame each of the primary ‘thought-traps’ on her list, ending with the seventh one: the belief that ‘It’s Too Late.’ And I believe she is right. It is not too late to make the all-important change in our thinking and learn, as she describes it, to ‘think like an ecosystem.’
The amount of background information – facts, statistics, examples, anecdotes—that was collected for this book is really impressive and on a worldwide scale. One cannot help but think the author must have employed an army of researchers to amass this much material. And indeed she did, but not in the way you might assume. She turned to what has lately been termed ‘crowdsourcing’ and, as she explains in her Introduction, made the public—the readers of her books, the people who attended her talks and seminars etc—her ‘research team’. Thus the book became a massive work of collaboration: a truly co-operative venture, organized through the Small Planet Institute which she leads, along with her daughter Anna.
Written with her usual brisk thoroughness, her book sparkles with energy. Lappé is a positive thinker but she is no Pollyanna. She is all too aware of the perils facing our world at this time. But she is one of those people who, instead of sitting around and wringing their hands, roll up their sleeves and says “OK what needs doing?” It is an attitude that invigorates the reader and I challenge you to read Eco Mind and not feel much more inspired and empowered by the end of it than you were at the start.