Democracy and the Power of Connection: An Interview with Frances Moore Lappé

Frances Moore Lappé is a longtime food and human rights activist and the renowned author or co-author of 20 books about world hunger, living democracy, and the environment, including her influential bestseller, Diet for a Small Planet (1971), a 50th anniversary edition which was just released.

In 1987 Frances was a recipient of the prestigious Right Livelihood Award (often referred to as the “Alternative Nobel”) “for revealing the political and economic causes of world hunger and how citizens can help to remedy them.” She co-founded three organizations: the Oakland based think tank Food First; the Small Planet Institute (which she leads with her daughter, Anna Lappé); and the Small Planet Fund, which channels resources to social movements worldwide.  

Francis Moore Lappé was interviewed by Arty Mangan, Director of Bioneers’ Restorative Food Systems Program.

ARTY MANGAN:  In the fifty years since you wrote Diet for a Small Planet, there have been many positive trends in the food system, but the inefficiencies and flaws of industrial agriculture that you exposed in the book, are, in some cases, worse than ever, and yet your enthusiastic activism for a healthy, fair, and just food system has not seemed to wane. What keeps you going?

FRANKIE LAPPE: I don’t call myself an optimist, but I am a “possibilist.” I believe that all humans are creatures of agency; we need the sense that we have power. I think all humans need to get into action to feel that sense of agency, of possibility, to think that there’s at least some chance that their actions can make a difference in the world for the things they care about and can help connect them with others in that process. Power, meaning, and connection are what our species strives for.

And, despite the frightening trend lines, there is evidence that our actions do matter. It is not too late. That’s my orientation toward life. I love food because it’s a center-point of power; we can trace all of our choices about what we put into our bodies back to how it’s grown, how the people who harvest it are treated in the fields and what their experience is; we can trace all of that that back to ourselves. We can see the impact of the choices we make every day rippling out.

It’s that sense of power, meaning, and connection that keeps me going. In life, it’s not always possible to know what’s possible; therefore, why not strive for the world we want since there’s still a chance that we can make a difference and get closer to birthing that world, one that supports life in all its forms. That’s really what keeps me going on a daily basis.

ARTY: Talking about taking action to make a difference: in 2016 you participated in a Democracy Spring March. You were part of a group that walked 140 miles from Philadelphia to the U.S. Capitol building in DC, performed civil disobedience there, and got arrested. What was that experience like and what do you think it accomplished?

Frances Moore Lappé with fishing floats from Wake Island (photo courtesy of Francis Moore Lappé)

FRANKIE: It accomplished a great deal. In fact, your question just brought back that memory and made me tear up, because it was truly transformative.  Any time we do something we thought we couldn’t do, it can be life-changing. Afterwards I had that sense that maybe there were other things I could do that I hadn’t thought I could do. I had thought I was going be the little old lady who couldn’t even walk ten miles, and they would have to carry me off, but I was right up there; I wasn’t dragging in the back of the pack. And being part of that march, I met people I would not have known otherwise—an ex-banker from upstate New York, a teenager from LA, a professor from MIT. There was such a range of people, and that in-and-of-itself gave me hope. All these different people were drawn to the insight that democracy is the root solution.

The bonding with strangers made us feel that we are not alone. We were experiencing what I and Adam Eichen, my buddy who wrote Daring Democracy with me, call “the thrill of democracy.” Unfortunately, many Americans think of democracy as a dull duty, the blah spinach we push down in order to get our desserts of personal freedom, but the experience of that march was anything but dull duty. I experienced the thrill of feeling like an actor, a doer with a voice in democracy. It was truly thrilling. There were about a 100 of us by the time we got to DC, and the last few miles, when the dome of our Capitol came into focus, Adam and I both started weeping because we realized that the people in Congress work for us. Often we feel so powerless, we think those bigshots are in control, but, fundamentally, in a democracy, they work for us. So, the thrill of action, this insight about our own power, and then the bonding with strangers were all life-changing. We were arrested and taken to a detention center to be processed. I didn’t get out of there until midnight, so I was able to have long conversations with people I would have never met otherwise.

ARTY: For those who are not familiar with the fundamental food system flaws you identified and analyzed in Diet for a Small Planet, can you spell out why producing protein through feedlots is so inefficient?

FRANKIE: In the late 1960s, people were terrified because we were being told we’d really hit the Earth’s limits. Friends of mine said, “I can’t ever have a baby because that would be immoral; there’s just not enough for everyone.” There was a book that came out in 1966 called Famine 1975.  We were being told that famine was just around the corner, and that some people wouldn’t make it. There was an essay called “The Lifeboat Ethic” that argued that we had to accept the notion that some people would just have to be “thrown overboard,” that some countries couldn’t make it and we shouldn’t try to save them. That was pretty scary. The Population Bomb by Paul Ehrlich also really freaked people out. The framing that I was hearing was that we’re running out of food. I was 26 and took that at face value, but I wanted to find out for myself.

Francis Moore Lappé in the 1960’s (photo Courtesy of Francis Moore Lappé)

When I did the research and put the numbers together in the UC Berkeley library, I realized that there was more than enough food to go around. We are creating the experience of scarcity out of plenty. In an anti-democratic system, if you don’t have money, you starve, no matter how much there is, but what was so shocking was that we humans ­, supposedly the brightest of species, were taking an abundant food supply and reducing it drastically in its capacity to feed us. I calculated the numbers, and at that time it took 16 pounds of grain to produce one pound of beef. Peer reviewed studies show for all the calories that enter a beef cow in the form of feed, we get 3% of the calories back in the beef that we eat. We devote about 80% of our agricultural land to livestock to get back to about 18% of our calories. I call it the “protein factory in reverse” and think it’s insanity.

I knew that I didn’t want to be part of that insanity and could choose not to be. I could choose a diet that’s better for my body and better for the Earth and all its people. I consider it an act of rebel sanity. To me it was exciting. I didn’t feel that eating less meat was a sacrifice, and besides the greatest variety of color, texture and taste is in the plant world anyway. It was a thrilling period for me. I was able to embrace the knowledge I was gaining and actually act on it in my daily life, and that was the beginning of my quest to always keep learning and going deeper and putting the pieces together in new ways.

ARTY: Has anything changed since your first analysis of meat production when you wrote the original of Diet for a Small Planet?

FRANKIE: The biggest thing is the climate factor. Back then, we were not talking about greenhouse gas emissions and climate catastrophe around the corner. I think the earliest that scientists were beginning to wake up to that was in the ‘70s, but I certainly didn’t know about it. The climate impact is therefore something new that I have included in the 50th anniversary edition, and it’s, of course, a major factor. If cows were a country, they’d be the 6th largest greenhouse gas emitter, by some estimates.

ARTY: How is the current food system decreasing the Earth’s capacity to feed a global population, and what do we need to do to reverse it?

FRANKIE:  A key piece of that is the way that we produce meat. Something like 80% of the destruction of rainforest in the Amazon is related to meat production, both feed and grazing, and the Amazon is the richest biodiversity “hot spot” in the world.

I recently wrote a short piece called “America’s Killer Diet.” We’ve reduced meat consumption somewhat, but the real dramatic change in our diet in the past century is the corporate driven processed degradation of the food we consume. Around 60% of the calories in the typical American diet come from processed products that give us lots of salt and sugar and virtually no nutrition. The shocking reality is that we’ve turned our food into a major health threat. We are undoubtedly the first species that’s purposefully made our food supply lethal. For the supposed brightest species, that’s not too bright. Over 40 % of adults in America are either pre-diabetic or diabetic. That’s just terrifying because we know that diabetes is a terrible disease and a lot of it is preventable. Many people live in areas where it’s very hard to get healthy food and many people don’t have enough money to buy healthy food, so systemic inequality and injustice are directly leading to this level of disease.

ARTY: In the book, you state that hunger isn’t caused by a scarcity of food, and that poverty comes with a sense of powerlessness.

FRANKIE: The United States has deeper inequality than most of the world’s monarchies. We are worse than about 100 countries. We’re more unequal than Saudi Arabia in the distribution of income and wealth according to World Bank rankings of inequality. It’s hard for Americans to get their heads around that because we think that everybody has opportunity in America, but getting a home that you can afford and living in a place that has access to healthy food is a challenge for most of us. Extreme inequity is an affront to democracy.

When wealth is that concentrated, it will infect the political process. In 1938 President Franklin D. Roosevelt said: “The liberty of a democracy is not safe if the people tolerate the growth of private power to a point where it becomes stronger than their democratic state itself.” That, in its essence, is fascism. We have hunger in America and worldwide. One in three people in the world cannot afford an adequate diet, despite the fact that since I first wrote Diet for a Small Planet, we have about 25% more food per person available globally now than we did then. One in five children below the age of five are stunted due to nutritional deficiency, and that has lifelong impacts. That statistic about children is the most devastating.

Maybe the biggest “Aha” I’ve had in my life was when I read a quote from Anais Nin: “Human beings don’t see the world as it is. We see it as we are.” In other words, we see the world through cultural lenses. Both a Hopi proverb and Plato say something akin to: “He who tells the story rules the world.” And I figure if both Plato and the Hopi said it, it must be true. So, then, I asked myself: “Well, what is the story?” That question oriented my whole life, because I realized the story of scarcity being told when I was becoming an adult was the dominant frame. It was based on the idea of limits, that scarcity is everywhere and we’re all separate. It really put people in this competitive fight over lack. There’s not enough, so I’ve got to fight for mine. And the dominant theme today is still that there’s not enough to go around and therefore we have to scramble to get ours, but I realized that the reality is there is more than enough, if we shift our worldview from separation to one of connection. This was the heart of what I call the eco-mind, moving from the three Ss of scarcity, separation and stasis to the three Cs of connection, change and continuous co-creation.

In a chapter in the new book, I quote a new friend, German physicist Hans Peter Duerr, who said: “In biological systems, there are no parts, there are only participants.” I think that’s true in any system: we are all in relationship. If we can see it that way, then we can get out of fear mode and realize that we can adopt norms that bring out the best in our species and allow everybody to thrive, but when we see the world through a fixed frame, our beliefs form what we can and cannot see. The dictum “seeing is believing” actually has it backwards as far as humans go. For most of us “believing is seeing.” Albert Einstein saw this clearly in his field of physics: “It is theory which decides what we can observe.” In other words, if it doesn’t fit into the prevailing theory, we are likely to be blind to it. I kind of get teary at this point because that’s really what my whole life has been about—trying to help people put on a whole new set of lenses to see all these connections so that they get unstuck, understand that they can make a difference, and act.

Francis Moore Lappé at the Democracy Spring Rally (photo courtesy of Francis Moore Lappé)

ARTY: He who tells the story rules the world. We’ve been told a story about the free market, how it’s going to serve our needs, how it’s going to lift everybody up economically. What’s the fallacy of that story?

FRANKIE:  That’s a story that took hold pretty early in my adult life, with Ronald Reagan’s election. He said that government is the problem and viewed the market as magical, a reductive misreading of Adam Smith’s very sophisticated philosophy. Smith was actually a great moral philosopher (and an anti-monopolist), but modern capitalism distorted his ideas to serve their interests. The point is this: Human beings are not just selfish little monads; we are relational, but the idea that we can’t trust ourselves because we’re so selfish and competitive and materialistic (and if we can’t trust ourselves, we can’t trust our neighbors) really took hold here in the 80s. That’s why we fall for this notion that we can’t fiddle with the market because individually we are flawed, but somehow the market magically balances out all our selfish impulses and leads to the best collective outcome. That was the dominant story that led us to where we are today.

The irony is that a mindset of unquestionable faith in a magical market actually kills the market, because a “free” market only works if it’s genuinely competitive. We’ve been killing it because we’ve allowed it to turn into a highly concentrated system in which just a handful of companies dominate in every major industry, certainly in the food industry. In most major industries, we have an oligopoly, not a competitive market, and anti-trust laws are no longer enforced. In the ‘70s or before, there were about 50 or more meat companies competing for farmers’ business. Now it’s just a handful. I believe it’s four that control most of that market. Every market has rules; our market has one rule, and that is do what brings the highest return to existing wealth. That’s why we end up with inequality greater than the world’s monarchies, and we end up with three billionaires controlling as much wealth as half our country’s population.

That myth of a magical market is a huge obstacle. We need to replace it with the idea of a democratic market. We need to “democratize our economy” just like we need to democratize our democracy. That means everything from building up cooperatives, protecting the public’s interest, enforcing anti-monopoly laws, and removing obstacles for unions to grow in power and hopefully follow Germany’s example of workers sitting on councils that having a say in major corporate decisions.

ARTY: There’s another foundational story we’re told, the one about the unbridled freedom of the individual. How does that affect democracy?

FRANKIE: It’s a sad reflection of the idea that we all are ultimately alone, but in fact the preamble to the U.S. Constitution states that the reason for creating that document and the nation was to promote the general welfare, and one of Teddy Roosevelt’ core beliefs was that government had a right to regulate business for the common good. If we could just pause for a moment and engage with each other, we’d rapidly realize that if other people aren’t concerned about our well-being and we’re not concerned with theirs, then we’re all going to be doomed. I used to have a bumper sticker with a quote from Paul Wellstone, the late senator from Minnesota that said, “We all do better, when we all do better.” We have to reframe these destructive ideas about the unbridled freedom of the individual.

We evolved as hunter/gatherers. We’re the most profoundly, intuitively cooperative species. The go-it-yourself and screw the other guy mentality is really alien to the way we evolved over eons of time. When the hunter went out and made the big kill, it wasn’t just that hunter and that hunter’s family, everybody got to eat the meat. That’s who we were. Our species could never have evolved if we hadn’t been a highly cooperative species. That’s how we got to be where we are, and we should appreciate that and nurture it.

In my trilogy of human needs, I say that we need: a sense of agency, a sense of meaning, and connection. It’s true that those needs can sometimes be met in terrible ways–in extremist terrorist groups, in gangs or cults, in warfare, etc., but the only way we can meet those needs in a mass society in a way that nurtures life is through democracy, which I define as requiring three conditions: diffusion of power (so we all have voice); transparency (so everyone knows what’s going on, because human beings can behave very badly if nobody’s watching); and mutual accountability. Rabbi Joshua Heschel said: “Some are guilty, but all are responsible.” I like to say that if we’re all connected, we’re all implicated, and therefore we all have to take responsibility. We cannot just point fingers. Those three conditions of inclusive power, transparency, and a culture of mutual accountability define democracy for me. We need those three conditions to be able to meet the three needs of power, meaning, and connection. That is the essence of the democratic vision for me.

Frances Moore Lappé and Anna Lappé at a Climate March, 2014 (photo courtesy of Francis Moore Lappe)

ARTY: My last question is about courage. It’s a wild world, and there are numerous historical challenges to survival, not only to our species, but all species. These kinds of circumstances can be absolutely frightful. How do you deal with fear?

FRANKIE: For me it began with a “dark night of the soul” experience. Everything kind of fell apart all at once in my life a little more than 20 years ago. During that experience and coming out of it, I had some of the most singularly powerful, beautiful moments in my life, including traveling the world with my daughter, Anna Lappé and writing a book with her, which any parent would have to say would be an over-the-top glorious experience. We were interviewing some of the most courageous people on Earth and traveled on five continents over a year.

On that journey, Anna and I interviewed a friend of [Noble Peace Prize winner] Wangari Maathai’s, a reverend who had been threatened by the then dictator of Kenya. He articulated for us that fear can produce pure energy. He got up and acted out a scene of when a lion sees a prey. It doesn’t just jump. It recoils and organizes its energy, and then chooses action. So, the idea that fear can generate energy is something we can all work with. That idea that we can transform fear into rewarding, meaningful action was planted in us during that trip to Africa.

Then I had kind of a funny moment, in a situation in which I knew I had to kind of break from my pack. I was in a lecture hall, and I knew what I was about to say [to Al Gore] would really not be in tune with all my friends who were sitting next to me. When I started to put my hand up, my heart started to pound with fear that I’d make a fool of myself, or feel they would be upset with me for saying what I was going to say. When I realized my heart was pounding with fear of looking like an idiot, or fear of judgment, I said to myself, “you’re the great re-framer, Frankie. Why don’t you reframe that?” So, I reframed it as my inner applause going off.

We’re taught that when we get that fear energy, we can either freeze, fight or flee. When our animal nature tells us that those are our three choices, we can choose to say no and realize that it’s pure energy and that we can do with it what we want. That was a glorious moment for me. I try to really live by that as much as I possibly can because of course I still have moments of fear from time to time, even though, in general, I have a very blessed life.

Another way to become more courageous and transform fear energy into generative action is through social connection. I always say that if you want to become gutsier, hang out with people who are more courageous than you. The more we hang out around courage, the more courageous we can be. That’s why on that over 100-mile walk and then sitting on the Capitol steps waiting to be arrested, I didn’t feel that I had to be courageous because I just felt so held by all the others in the group. There was a spirit of “we’re all in this together, so there’s nothing to fear” and we joked with each other, even as they were arresting us. Change is always difficult, but change is essential and inevitable in every aspect of our lives. We just have to accept that it’s scary and think: “OK, so what if I’m afraid; I can do it anyway” and to know that when you’re acting righteously and in community, your fear will melt away. That’s been my experience.

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