Activist and author Frances Moore Lappé discusses how reviving democracy can aid the environment | News | Pittsburgh | Pittsburgh City Paper

Activist and author Frances Moore Lappé discusses how reviving democracy can aid the environment

"The environmental crisis is a crisis of democracy," argues Frances Moore Lappé in her 2008 book Getting a Grip. Lappé burst on the scene in 1971 with her anti-hunger vegetarian manifesto, Diet for a Small Planet. In later books, she has explored what's behind our more destructive values. 

The trouble, she contends, isn't that there's selfishness in human nature; it's that society's rules promote that selfishness rather than our other innate drives: toward fairness, cooperation and meaningfulness. Yet Lappé contends that such simple reforms as public financing of elections can lead us from what she calls our "thin democracy" to a "living democracy" of real people power. And that in turn would generate policy tuned to ecological principals -- and social justice -- rather than corporate profits.

(With the G-20 meeting of world leaders taking place in Pittsburgh in September, hear Lappe discuss why she thinks critics of 'globalization' should use different language to make their case. ['Stiglitz' is Nobel-winning economist Joseph E. Stiglitz].)

On Aug. 1, Lappé gives the keynote address at the Eastern Conference for Workplace Democracy, at Duquesne University. She spoke with City Paper from the Cambridge, Mass., offices of her Small Planet Institute. For a longer version of this interview, and an audio excerpt, see


Why do our rules foster greed?
The core idea that we inherit without thinking is the premise of lack. The fundamental premise [is] that there's not enough stuff -- [that] there's not enough goods or goodness -- so we're in this competitive struggle, some of us have to lose, and all you can really count on in human beings are selfishness and our materialism and our competitiveness. So I started with Diet for a Small Planet, pointing out that there was plenty, and there still is plenty.

What's "thin democracy"?
Thin democracy is just the idea that democracy is really something we inherit -- [that] it's a fixed structure. Because if you think of it as finished and done, then all we have to do is go to work and go shopping, and not break the law. If you think democracy is that plus a market economy, driven by one rule -- which is highest return to existing wealth, people who own the shares -- then you lead to such concentrated economic power as we see today. If you have such intense concentration of wealth, then it will infuse itself into the political process, which we have allowed because we haven't grown up believing that we are engaged and have a right to have a government truly accountable to us. 

So thin democracy can't work, because if democracy is about creating livable societies for citizens, and the structure is accountable to somebody else, a very narrow slice of the people, then it can't work. I call it "thin" because it's fundamentally feeble, and not vital.

And "living democracy"?
Living democracy starts with the realization that our current way of approaching democracy doesn't work. Part of that ... is saying "Wait, we don't have to tolerate privately held government. We can get money out of the system." In Maine, now, 80 percent of the legislators have run without corporate money.

[Living democracy is] a culture that's created by each of us in our daily acts: how  we raise our kids, how we organize our classrooms, how we operate in the workplace, how we structure the rules of our economy. All of that.

You approach this largely from a social-justice angle.
Aside from being fairer, [democracy] also works, it comes up with better decisions. For example, I looked at the World Economic Forum data on successful world economies. Of the top four or five, three or them were also countries with the largest percentage of economic cooperatives. The idea somehow that the entrepeneur, the single owner, the profit motive is going to be better is just not borne out.

[In the Aug. 1 talk,] I'm going to be giving examples like in India, where we hear all about the high tech, that's the great boom, the great success. But actually, more women working in dairy co-ops, in a network of a hundred thousand villages, more people have been pulled out of poverty by this dairy co-op of women than [by] the high-tech industry.

How could living democracy help the environment?
We see the enormous changes, like in Germany for example, where now 15 percent of the electricity is from renewables, or in Costa Rica, where it's almost a hundred percent renewabes. Very specific policy changes that came into place. And if we allow our environmental policy to be vulnerable to the interests of the fossil-fuel industy and nuclear, et cetera, then we can never get the rules in place that will turn the ship toward life.

Why have you criticized prominent environmentalists -- people like Wendell Berry -- for condemning the concept of economic growth?
I think that to call what we've been doing "growth" is a huge mistake. And this goes back to my first learning, with Diet for a Small Planet, that our system produces more waste and destruction. That we are feeding 16 pounds of grain and soy to get one pound of beef. And I could bathe for months on the amount of water that it takes to produce one pound of beef. [Research indicates] that for all the stuff that we mobilize in the U.S. to produce our consumer products, less than 10 percent ends up in products that we actually use, and most of that gets thrown out. Robert Kennedy's recent op-ed said that each American uses 300 pounds of packaging a year. That's about a pound a day -- that's not counting bottles. There's just so much built-in waste.

That should be the emphasis: To describe what we've been doing as waste and destruction, and what we need is real growth. Because -- especially with my new grandbaby -- growth is wonderful! And growth of love, and growth of plants. I think it's something very alien to the human spriit to say, "Oh, no, growth is bad." What's bad is waste and destruction.

What's our alternative?
I think we need to get the debate going about how do we align with nature's laws? How do we work with nature, so that the question of more or less is moot, in a sense. We now waste about half the food that is produced. What if we only wasted a quarter? Would that be OK? We've got to break away from the "more or less," becauswe that's not going to get us there. How do we align with nature so that everything is this fundamental idea of zero waste, so that everything becomes feedstock for something else. And that can't be captured in a more-and-less sort of freamework, which is fundamentally a mechanical framework, not an ecological one.


Frances Moore Lappé speaks 9 a.m. Sat., Aug. 1. Eastern Conference for Workplace Democracy, Bayer Hall, Duquesne University, Uptown. $15 ($8 students/low-income). 412-687-1234 or

click to enlarge "Goods and goodness": Frances Moore Lapp.
"Goods and goodness": Frances Moore Lapp.

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