Interview by Ariel Bleth, World Ark contributor

Author Frances Moore Lappé burst onto the scene 45 years ago with the debut of her now-classic book, Diet for a Small Planet. As a prolific author and thought leader, Lappé champions the argument that hunger is caused not by lack of food, but by the inability of poor people to access it. Her decades of work as a writer and advocate explore the causes and solutions to poverty, powerlessness and environmental degradation. She co-directs the Small Planet Institute with her daughter and fellow author, Anna Lappé.

WORLD ARK: You’ve said, “Hunger is not caused by a scarcity of food but by a scarcity of democracy.” What do you mean by this?

FRANCES MOORE LAPPÉ: By democracy I’m clearly talking about much more than the very thin, skeletal idea that democracy is elections plus the market. Democracy is really about voice, power and having a say in the creation of our own realities. The concept of democracy is everyone having an equal voice in creating the conditions for all of us to thrive. The scarcity and lack that is real in our world today is a lack of what I call living democracy. I add “living” in front of democracy for a number of reasons. One, for me, it connotes not just a way of government but a way of living, what we do every day. Two, it is also a set of values that infuses classrooms, family, businesses, economies, all dimensions of life.

Francis Moore Lappé
Francis Moore Lappé

What are the primary qualities of a living democracy?

Fairness, transparency, inclusion so all of us have voice, the dispersion of power and a culture of mutual responsibility: these are the characteristics that make a society thrive and to me are the heart of a living democracy. I also think of living democracy as something that is ever-evolving. It is like a living organism. There is no endpoint that, when fixed, it is finished once and for all.  Human beings are creatures always learning and evolving.

I love to quote the first African-American judge of this country, William Hastie: “Democracy is not being, it is becoming. It is easily lost but never finally won. Its essence is eternal struggle.” I used to resist this last phrase because I thought it would turn people off. But it is the good fight, the good struggle. Human beings thrive on having meaning and working for something that is challenging. Evolving democracy is just that. It requires the best of us to show up and call forth the best in ourselves and others.

My life has become very much about shining the light on examples of emerging living democracies. Humans can’t leave behind a failing system and walk into a void; we need to have a vision of where we are going, especially as human beings are social mimics, and we take our cues from other people.

What stands in the way of this?

While scarcity can be a lack of the physical resources that we need to thrive, such as food, water and energy, it can also be a presumption of the scarcity of goodness in human beings. Unfortunately, our media largely offers the most frightening and horrifying news, reinforcing this sense of lack of goodness in us. As you know, there are many fewer stories about our nobility, humanity, and our natural desires to help, to share and be compassionate, than there are about our brutal side. So the fundamental block to living democracy is this false presumption of lack that is built in to the scarcity mind — lack of goods and goodness which leaves people feeling frightened, competitive and in an ongoing, endless struggle over lack.

Democracys Edge
This book is both a guide and a rallying cry that aims to bring more people into the democratic process.

This feeling of “we’ve got to get ours” is like a giant game of musical chairs where there is never going to be enough chairs for everyone, or monopoly where we know that someone is going to end up with all the pieces and we better compete, compete, compete. So it is a very frightening way to think about life and deeply embedded in our culture, and that is what we need to break through. Ecology, more deeply understood, is the breakthrough. A primal fear for human beings is that there isn’t going to be enough food. Agricultural ecology shows us that if we realign with the laws of nature, there is more than enough for all of us and that we can, indeed, let go of that fear. I believe we are creatures of the mind and see the world through filters based on who we are, not on how the world really is. This is the theme of my new book, EcoMind. We can change those scarcity filters and become aware of how they are blinding us to solutions. I call it growing up as a species.

You talk a lot about the importance of challenging predominant assumptions and premises of who we are and how the world works. Why should we do that?

New breakthroughs in neuroscience and the science of ecology validate the idea that once we understand the laws of nature, including human nature, we know the solutions. We can create rules that bring out the best in us and keep the cruel part of us under wraps, and we know what those rules are. It is a freeing way of looking at life. I love to quote Albert Einstein, who says, “It is theory which decides what we can observe.” Or Aldus Huxley, who wrote Brave New World, said, “All that we are and will and do depends, in the last analysis, on what we see the nature of things to be.” So it is these core ideas about the nature of life that determine what shows up.

World Hunger 10 Myths
A rewrite of the 1977World Hunger: Twelve Myths, this book explores why so many go hungry even as the world produces an abundance of food.

Even in my recent adult lifetime, we’ve come to this understanding and have seen the way that thoughts change our bodies. Recent studies of meditators show that our thoughts actually create channels that either keep reinforcing us into neurosis or into calm, depending on what thoughts we entertain. The term that scientists use is neuroplasticity: our thoughts can actually change our brains. I find that incredibly encouraging and frightening as so many of the images we receive reinforce the scarcity scare. But the idea that we can actually take charge of the development of our own brains is pretty amazing.

Instead of “more for me and less for you,” you believe that growth in one person’s power can enhance the power of others. Can you share an example of this idea in action?

Recently I was in Andhra Pradesh in southern India, a region that had been considered the pesticide capital of the world. I visited a group of women who told me how, 20 years earlier, they lived in absolute terror, depression, hunger and humiliation. They used the word “dark” a lot. They were brutalized by their husbands and mistreated by the landlords. In only 20 years, they have gone from that condition to absolute food security and pride and joy in their lives. The living democracy piece that was key for them is this: the women came together in groups, called sangams, which met once a week in their homes. Together they made decisions and planned how to develop the fields. The soil, which when I walked on it I wouldn’t have thought anything could have grown there, gave yield to the whole mix of crops they need for a healthy diet — their protein crops, the lentils, the oil seeds, the greens and the grains, such as millet. In their communal gardens they also grow medicinal crops, and they have their own radio station where they share information on hygiene and agricultural practices. So it is an embodiment of every element I have talked about and the process of aligning with our nature, which desires power and voice.

Power that is transparent and shared, in which we are empowering each other rather than a single person elected to do for us. It is the group working together and dividing up the labor. In terms of empowerment, whenever a man in the village mistreats a woman, the whole group of village women now confronts him and demands that he change his ways. So there is a profound shift of power in the village. When I asked about the men, the women said the men are now very supportive because they see the success of this approach. They are living better, they work together with the women and also have their own marketing cooperative and own processing equipment so they don’t have to do so much hand processing. They are sharing what they are learning with other villages as well — they have a caravan that went to about 90 other villages last winter to teach how to save and share seeds.

Diet for a Small Planet
Still popular today, this 1971 bestseller includes vegetarian recipes and an exploration of the ways food policy contributes to world hunger.

How might any individual human being best positively impact the whole?

My emphasis is on courage and believing that humans are soft-wired for cooperation, for empathy, for a sense of fairness, which there is more and more evidence of. But we do have an extremely hard time speaking out, of breaking with our group. The rap on us is that we are individualistic and that this is our problem. I think that, really, our challenge is that we are so social and so embedded in a group. We evolved knowing that separation from the tribe meant death. So breaking with the pack, risking disapproval from people close to us, is a hard thing to do. So that is what we need to work on. The way I think of it is that the whole tribe is heading over the cliff, so separating from the pack, at this moment of the history of our species, means life, not death. My advice to myself, because I struggle a great deal with fear, is to recognize that fear can be just energy and not a verdict that we are wrong. It can be energy telling us that we are on our cutting edge of where we should be for our own, and the Earth’s, happiness.

In Hope’s Edge, which I wrote with my daughter, Anna, we describe a life-changing moment for both of us when we met a Kenyan minister who had been told that if he continued to preach with any message critical of the government, he would be killed. Despite this, he proceeded in his usual way the following Sunday. That night, assailants came to his home to kill him. As he thought he was dying, he began to give away to his assailants all of his treasures. I interrupted and said, “Fear is instinctive. I don’t understand, you are telling me that while someone was trying to kill you, you were able to be generous to them?” He said, “Fear is inside us, it is not out there in them. We can take that fear energy and do with it whatever we want. We can harmonize it and turn it into anything we want. We can use it for love. It is just energy.” As a result, his assailants realized he was a good man and took him to the hospital to save his life. Fear is just energy that can be used any way we choose.