I found last week’s AP article about Maine’s rapidly warming coastal waters particularly alarming. The Gulf of Maine is heating faster than 99% of the earth’s oceans. Scientists and those in the commercial fishing industry see cod, herring and northern shrimp leaving in search of colder waters. As they migrate out, black sea bass, blue crab and particular kinds of squid best suited to warmer water are popping up in fishing nets. The rising waters in the Gulf also affect Maine’s signature lobsters. There are fewer baby lobsters in coves on the Maine coast. It’s as hard to imagine Maine without lobsters as it is to imagine Vermont without maple syrup.
With facts like these, it certainly feels like we’re doomed.
Best-selling author and longtime environmental and democracy activist Frances Moore Lappé wants us to jettison this fatalism. Lappé once directed the Center for Living Democracy here in Brattleboro, and she spoke in 2013 at the Strolling of the Heifer’s Slow Living Summit. She has spent her entire adulthood advocating for sustainable food systems and practices. Her multimillion-selling “Diet for a Small Planet” motivated many Americans to rethink their consumption habits. After reading this call to action, I also embarked on 13 years of vegetarianism. Although no longer a strict vegetarian, my food choices and those I make for my family are still informed by Lappé’s early work. I recently tuned back in to her career when I caught an interview with Lappé in which she discussed her desire to combat the hopelessness she feels permeates the environmental movement.
Her 2011 book, “EcoMind: Changing the Way We Think to Create the World We Want”, arose from a moment of despair. Lappé left an environmental conference in Washington, D.C.—a gathering of many of her heroes—feeling utterly defeated: “I walked out feeling like I was made of lead. I walked out paralyzed and I said, ‘Oh my God. This is not working.’” She then set out to find another way to think about our innumerable ecological crises—one that would not leave her feeling entirely stuck and would still remain “based in fact and not dreamland.” The key, she reflected, was to dramatically shift her frame of reference.
Forty years ago, as a grad student at UC Berkeley, Lappé challenged the conventional wisdom that we’d reached the planet’s limit in its ability to feed everyone. ”Diet for a Small Planet” offered another lens: World hunger is not a result of a lack of food or the capacity to grow food. It is caused by flawed and ineffective food policies and practices. Changing the way we eat—reducing our dependence on meat in our diets, for example—can dramatically improve the ecological landscape.
Now she urges us to re-frame our ideas about ecology and environmentalism by first identifying the “thought traps” that limit us in our solutions. She then encourages us to embrace the “thought leaps” that will enable more hopefulness, collaboration, and remedies. Referencing the work of German social psychologist and philosopher Erich Fromm, Lappé begins her discussion with “frames of orientation.” She explains, “[A] defining trait of our species is that we each see the world through culturally formed frames that determine, literally, what we can see and what we cannot—even including what we can see in our own nature, and therefore what we believe is possible for our species.“
One of the seven climate change “thought traps” she identifies is one that I’ve heard a lot: “It’s too late.” Lappé responds: “Too late for what?” Yes, she concedes, it is too late to prevent climate change; it is already here. She continues, “Erratic, extreme, and destructive weather is already with us. It is too late to prevent suffering. Terrible suffering is already with us.” But, she explains, “[I]t is not too late for life.” We are creatures who yearn to make things better, to create a world conducive to life. It is, she asserts, the very essence of being human, and this core does not change with the tide of climate chaos.
The constant dark cultural messages about humanity and our shortcomings—we’re selfish; we’re in a constant battle for diminished resources; we’re too driven by consumerism; we’ve lost our connection to nature—do nothing to slow global climate change or ameliorate its effects. Instead, we must change the way we think about ourselves, our abilities, our connections, and our potential to solve challenging problems. If our mental frame is flawed, she asserts, we will fail despite our effort or our deep commitment.
Lappé may be a deep thinker, but she’s no Pollyanna . She soberly assesses the many threats to our planet, but she remains, in her words, a “possibilist”. In an interview with Mark Karlin of “Truthout”, Lappé describes a new frame of reference that comes when “we see that everything’s connected and change is the only constant.” Once she accepts this position, she explains, “Something shifts for me. I can see that we’re all actually co-creating our future moment to moment—which feels like endless possibility.” Although she concedes that hope can potentially distract one from the present moment, she doesn’t believe hope is just wishful thinking. Instead, she asserts, “It’s a stance toward life—one of curiosity and humility.” If we can adopt what she calls “an eco-mind”, we understand that it’s simply not possible to know what’s possible.
It has been a very long time since I’ve felt hopeful about the environment and our future. Lappé has brought me home to possibility and connection. Moving forward with curiosity and humility is a great place to start.