Thirty years ago, Frances Moore Lappe proposed a diet for the planet that made her an international food expert. She blamed the world’s food shortages not on a scarcity of food, but a scarcity of democracy. Her new book identifies fear as the underlying cause of most of today’s environmental problems. She and Jeffrey Perkins talk with host Steve Curwood about their new project, “You have the Power: Choosing Courage in a Culture of Fear.”
CURWOOD: It’s been more than 30 years since a little-known student from Fort Worth, Texas dropped out of graduate school and proposed a diet for the planet that made her a best-selling author and an international food expert. Frances Moore Lappe’s book “Diet for a Small Planet” hit stands with a message that reached more than three million readers. “Hunger,” she wrote, “is not caused by a scarcity of food, but by a scarcity of democracy.”
Now, she and co-author Jeffrey Perkins have singled out the one underlying cause for not just the food problems of the world, but also for many of the environmental problems that plague the planet.
In their new book, they outline how fear is the main factor when it comes to dealing with our environment. Frances Moore Lappé joins me in the studio now to talk about her book, “You have the Power: Choosing Courage in a Culture of Fear.” Welcome to Living on Earth.
LAPPE: Thank you very much, Steve.
CURWOOD: Now, Jeff Perkins is going to join us later in the conversation, but first I’d like to put this book in the context of your life, Frances. Or, everyone calls you Frankie, right?
CURWOOD: So, let’s back up a little to the days before “A Diet for A Small Planet.” What led to this book?
LAPPE: Well, I was a desperate twenty-something. I really wanted to understand why so much suffering in the world. And this was the era, this was the late ‘60s, and the world hunger crisis had just sprung onto the international marquee, if you will. And I thought if I could just understand: why hunger? And then why hunger in a world of plenty? That that would begin to untangle the economic and political order that seemed so impenetrable. And I focused it on food and realized, in my own modest study, that in fact there was more than enough food to make us all chubby – and yet, millions and millions were going hungry. And that was really the awakening for me.
CURWOOD: So how did your book help address this?
LAPPE: Well it simply said, look, we human beings have created hunger out of plenty. We’re creating scarcity every day because hungry people can’t make a “market demand” for the food they need. So we have these artificial surpluses that we feed to livestock then in the U.S. to produce meat, we feed 16 pounds of grain and soy to produce one pound of beef. And so I wanted to just awaken people that it’s in our hands – we have the power, if you will, to solve this problem, that we can create a sustainable food system in which we all can eat. And that was the thesis of “Diet for A Small Planet.”
CURWOOD: And it sells millions of copies. What was the appeal?
LAPPE: I think the appeal is that the message of the book is that what’s healthiest for my body is healthiest for the earth itself. And it changed me very profoundly as well.
LAPPE: Because I realized I wasn’t alone. I mean, I was just a kid writing this book and then millions of people responded and said, “oh yes, I feel that way too. I want my choices to matter too.” And so I felt I was not alone, and I realized that most human beings want a better world. And so ever since then I’ve been asking myself how can it be? That not one of us, if we went out on the street today, not one of us could find someone who would say, “yes, I think it’s a great thing that 16,000 children are dying today of hunger.” And yet, millions are going hungry.
So the question that has pushed me on to this book is, how can it be that we as societies are creating a world that as individuals we abhor? And when I peel away all those layers, ultimately it does come down to our own fear. And that’s what this book addresses. That it’s fear of the unknown, fear of being different, of separating from the pack. Because we humans evolved in tribes over eons of time where we became hard-wired to understand that separating from the pack could mean death.
And so I would go so far as to say, and Jeff in my book says, that maybe the most important decision we have to make today is how we respond to fear. In fact, in some ways I’m kind of hoping that this book could help people feel a little bit of pride when they’re feeling those sensations of fear, because it may mean that they are right at their growth edge. They’re right where they need to be for their own happiness, for our planet’s happiness.
CURWOOD: Well I’d like to bring in your co-author Jeffrey Perkins into the conversation now. Jeffrey, welcome.
PERKINS: Thank you.
CURWOOD: Jeffrey, I’m wondering if you could read for me a section from your book? And I’m thinking of the time when you and Frankie were getting in a cab in Boston.
PERKINS: One spring day not long ago, the two of us hailed a cab in Boston. Noting the driver’s strong Russian accent, Frankie asked, “so what do you think of America?” Hesitant at first, he finally blurted out “you Americans are all afraid.” As we approached Harvard Square, two BMWs passed us. “Those people are the most afraid,” the driver said, gesturing at the cars. “They’re afraid they’ll lose it. In Russia, we feared the KGB. Here you don’t trust anyone. You’re all afraid of each other.”
CURWOOD: That rings true.
LAPPE: It does.
CURWOOD: In a profound way. And we’re going to be talking about how this affects people concerned about environmental change, and what they are trying to do, or not trying to do, about it. But first, I need to know more about your work, Jeff. What was it that was going on for you that hooked you in to this notion of courage in a culture of fear?
PERKINS: Well, I began to ask my friends, really, what it is that they were interested in. And I would hear all these great ideas, and the things that they were interested in, and then I would always hear why actually exploring them wouldn’t be prudent. And I began to ask myself, what is the result of all of these people -- well-meaning, and people who have great ideas – what is the price for our society of all of us stopping ourselves from actually exploring them? That is really what made me take this seriously, because I felt that so much more is possible if we’re able to re-imagine this pulling back as actually a signal that we are on the right track.
And that’s really kind of what made me realize that perhaps it’s more cultural, you know? Our fear, as the cabdriver suggests, is really because of a culture which is kind of telling us to go along, even though we’re a democracy – you know, it’s kind of that balancing act. But I think it was really listening to the stories of other people and realizing that these are people who have so much to offer. When you know your friends and you know kind of who they are, you want them to get out there and do the most that they can do. And when they don’t, you kind of realize, what is this? You know, what is the real thing that’s holding them back here? So that was really what kind of got me going
CURWOOD: Now, this book seems to me that it could easily be shelved under “Self Help.” So Frankie, tell me, why do you also think it should go under, say, “Nature and the Environment?”
LAPPE: Well, let’s go back to this question of why are we -- as societies, and now a world community, in some ways – creating that which none of us as individuals want? I mean, none of us would want global warming, or the extinction of species, or air pollution that is now killing on average 200 Americans every day. So, to me, the environmental devastation that we’re experiencing is directly a result of people not being able to act on their own true heart’s desire. And that, then, relates very much to fear. And so what we talk about in our book, we tell stories – not just our own stories, but others.
And one of my all-time heroes in life is a woman named Wangari Maathai who, if she had simply responded in the hard-wired ways to fear, well, we would have missed out on a great deal. Because this woman planted seven trees on Earth Day in 1977. She was told by her husband, and then by the foresters in Kenya, no, no, no, you have nothing to offer.
Her plan was that to reforest Kenya would require tens of thousands of villagers planting trees, creating tree nurseries, and they said no, no, no, no, and really ridiculed her. And she kept walking and didn’t let the fear of rejection and ridicule stop her. And do you know what? That action has rippled, rippled, rippled now to 20 million trees that have been planted as a result of her not simply retracting with fear -- of criticism, of separation, rejection -- but walking with it.
So for me, the environmental crisis is very much connected to this misunderstanding of fear, that we are at a new point in our social evolution where we can consciously do something new and creative with fear, rather than simply – in our old hardwired way – simply retreat before it.
CURWOOD: Now Frankie, in your book you say that there’s anti-community that’s being formed in the world, and that there’s a corporate culture of anti-community that’s going global. Can you give some examples of this?
LAPPE: Well, certainly if we believe that the only way that we’re going to stay accepted by the tribe, and if we believe that there’s not enough to go around, then we will be driven by this narrow production more and more and more and more and more. Which, of course, is one aspect of why species extinction, air pollution, groundwater – now we’ve created a dead zone in the Gulf of Mexico, in part result of runoffs from agriculture – because of this production drive based on the scarcity myth. The point is that we’re driving more and more production, but it’s not connected to human need. And so it just keeps on spinning and creating more and more fear.
CURWOOD: Now, let’s look at your own process in doing this book. I believe you wrote that at some point, maybe halfway through the process of putting this thing together, that you guys froze up! You said, Ohhhhhhhh – fear, doubt, insecurity took over. And you weren’t sure if you were going to be able to finish this thing. Why? And what made you go on? Jeff?
PERKINS: Well, there was a time in the process where the book was called “Fear Means Go,” and what’s interesting is we actually found that publishers were – they told us people won’t buy a book called “Fear Means Go.” (LAUGHS) So we had to put it at the end of our title. But really what the truth of the matter is is I think we, in our own process, were dealing with these issues and saying, are we crazy here? Are we missing something? And I think that’s really a sign that you’re on to something.
We had to basically look back at our lessons, which we have to do all the time. And I think that’s the most important thing to recognize, is that Frankie and I have lots of fear, and it’s not that we’ve somehow graduated. I mean, I talk in the book about a time when I needed to speak on the work that I’d been doing around fear, and really feeling like I should be above it – like somehow I become the expert, you know? And instead, what it really became was to be humbled again and realize again, wow, this is such a powerful gut reaction that is so natural.
I mean, I think the most important thing in this book is to help people investigate this further. It’s not to say that in every situation you should ignore your fear or, you know, jump off the building. That’s not what we’re saying. What we’re really saying is, for too long we’ve ignored this most powerful emotion and its consequences, and what we’re really saying is, let’s look at this. Not only as an individual but as a culture, as a community.
LAPPE: Yeah, in my case, about six months before deadline I was diagnosed with cancer. And I thought, oh my goodness, how am I going to do this book? My radiation treatments are going to be right up to the very end of this deadline. And when three months before the deadline I was facing these radiation treatments, and I was just absolutely gripped with fear. I was very teary, and just felt alone in the world, and how can I possibly do this? And then I thought, Ah! You know, every once in a while it’s a good idea to listen to one’s own advice! (LAUGHTER)
And I started taking what we were writing to heart, and within, really, about a week, I transformed the whole experience of my radiation treatments. And I started imaging that actually this was an expensive spa that I had signed up for. And I started re-framing the whole experience for myself as an opportunity to really focus on healing, to focus on myself, to have a break from the deadline pressure. And within a week I started looking forward to going to these radiation treatments every day. And it was – I laughed so hard because at first, I completely forgot the message of our own book. And then when I started listening to my own advice I realized, yeah, it’s possible to re-frame our experience, to use our consciousness to re-frame.
CURWOOD: Frances Moore Lappe and Jeffrey Perkins are co-authors of the book “You Have the Power: Choosing Courage in a Culture of Fear.” Thank you both for joining me today.
PERKINS: Thank you.
LAPPE: Thank you.
[MUSIC: Govinda “Synthetic Beauty” EROTIC RHYTHMS FROM THE EARTH (Earthtone – 2001)]
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