A new book argues that, to solve the planetary crisis, we need to change our mental maps.
By Francesca Rheannon
I took the quiz -- have you? It’s the EcoMind Quiz devised by Frances Moore Lappé to go with her new book, EcoMind: Changing the Way We Think, to Create the World We Want.
The quiz tests your assumptions about what it takes to save our planet and, Lappé hopes, will get you thinking about alternate ways of framing that might lead to more effective action.
Lappé says that the greatest problem we face is not the looming crisis of climate change, environmental degradation, and resource depletion (“peak everything”), but “Thought Traps” that keep us from dealing with them effectively. And she says we all must develop our “EcoMind,” -- using skills and instincts we already have -- to leverage our collective power to effect real change.
Frances Moore Lappé will inaugurate a series about EcoMind in coming weeks here on Talkback. But to give you a sneak preview about her ideas -- and help you crib for the EcoMind quiz -- I spoke with the author about the book’s message:
Remaking Our Mental Maps
Francesca Rheannon: In EcoMind, you say that in order to create the world we want, we need to remake our mental maps. What do you mean by that?
Frances Moore Lappé: Each of us sees the world through a culturally formed filter. We see the world not as it is, but as we are -- none of us sees reality objectively. We each have a mental map; it can be very helpful -- or very destructive.
And you say our mental map is misaligned with the wider laws of nature. What is it we are not seeing?
Well, since the book came out, I’ve started using the phrase "perversely aligned," because we're having the opposite effect of what we want to have.
Take human nature. Instead of being aligned with human nature to bring out the best in humans, our social rules – rules about extreme concentrations of wealth, about secrecy and about cultures of blame – create a society that is actually structured to create conditions that have been proven throughout history to bring out the very worst in human beings.
And when we look at how we deal with Nature, whether we're talking about energy, food production or any other kind of production, we see that we're actually creating rules that fail to count in the externalities in our economic system.
So we end up with more waste and destruction than growth and production. Take meat production in our food system. It takes 16 pounds of grain and soy to create one pound of beef, which is wasteful and destructive of the groundwater.
So the theme of the book is that we end up creating economic rules that actually violate the laws of nature and end up undermining our ongoing sustenance. That's the crazy and tragic trap we're in right now. My goal in EcoMind is to encourage us to pull back and see these patterns.
Thought Trap 1: No Growth is the Answer
The heart of the book is the seven Thought Traps. Thought Trap #1 is “No Growth is the Answer.” Many in the sustainability community are saying we have to observe the “limits to growth” imposed by a finite planet by adopting a no-growth economy. You say there’s a problem with that frame.
There are two levels of response. One is with respect to language and metaphor. In a world in which most people are really suffering -- 71% of us live in societies where inequality is increasing and poverty is increasing in many parts of the world -- telling people that growth is the problem, that we have to stop growing, is a non-starter if we want to engage them.
Most people associate growth with something positive. We want our gardens to grow; we want our love to grow. Human growth has always meant “development” in a positive sense. So at this point in our human evolution, to think that we can make that into something bad when it comes to economics is unrealistic. And it's unnecessary.
The other part of my response is that to call what we are doing "growth" is to already confuse us, because the vast majority of what is going on in our economies is really waste and destruction.
Studies have shown that from 55 percent to 87 percent of energy in the U.S is wasted. In a typical power plant throughout the world two-thirds of what goes in is wasted in terms of the useful energy that comes out.
According to the U.N., a third of all the world's food is wasted and that doesn't even count the fact that 40 percent of the calories our children eat in the U.S. are empty.
In the first draft of EcoMind, I was still trying to defend the use of the term “growth.” But my readers convinced me that that was a stupid exercise. So let’s find words that express what everybody wants: “vital,” “healthy,” “life-serving” communities. So just drop the whole “growth” and “no-growth” frames because that language has been made completely meaningless.
Thought Trap 4: We Have to Overcome Human Nature to Save the Planet
Let’s take up Thought Trap 4: we have to overcome human nature to save the planet. What’s wrong with that idea?
That is foundational. There is a breakthrough in our understanding of human nature that is showing that we have just the pro-social qualities we need to make this turn toward the EcoMind: cooperation, empathy, a deep sense of fairness, a need for efficacy, creativity and imagination -- these are deep human needs. All these are just the qualities we need.
So we don’t need to change human nature, we need to say, “OK, why are we being so brutal to one another? And why are we allowing so much waste and destruction?” And my answer to that is that we know that under certain conditions, we behave pretty badly.
So this is where the EcoMind comes into play. The EcoMind says we are just like any other organism in the ecosystem: we respond moment to moment to the context in which we operate. We need certain stimuli to be healthy and thrive.
In the book, I describe three conditions that are shown to bring out the best in us:
- A continuous dispersion of power
- Transparency in human relationships
- An end to the blame game in the form of making mutual accountability the norm
I argue the problem is not human nature -- we have the good, bad and the ugly -- but to grow up as a species to do what we know is necessary to bring out the best in us.
Thought Trap 5: To Save Our Planet We Have to Override Humanity's Natural Resistance to Rules
Here’s another Thought Trap you pose: “to save our planet we have to override humanity’s natural resistance to rules.”
We’re so bombarded in this culture with the message that happiness is freedom from rules. And yet, when we really reflect on our own lives, it is the rules, like the rules we set from our religious faith or our marriage vows that give our lives structure, focus, and meaning.
There are rules to govern every aspect of life. What people love are rules that make sense and facilitate our lives, rules that we feel consulted on in their creation, not just imposed on us in some arbitrary sense.
Thought Trap 7: It's Too Late
The last thought trap is “It’s too late.” This is the one I feel the most. I’ve see a study showing that if we don’t start cutting our carbon emissions by 2015, it's game over for the planet. It’s not too late?
It’s true that it is too late to avoid the profound suffering that would not have occurred if we hadn’t been so trapped for so long. So, I am not saying that things are not in terrible shape.
But I am saying that what defeats human beings is when we feel futile, when we feel we don’t have a clue about what to do to be effective. This deep human need to be useful, to contribute -- that’s the key.
It’s not too late to figure out how to shift our own energy and the energy of others toward this incredible challenge. We can start now to build the spirit toward what we can do to make a difference.
Frances Moore Lappé’s series on EcoMind: Changing the Way We Think, to Create the World We Want will start on March 20, 2012. Stay tuned!
Frances Moore Lappé is a democracy advocate and world food and hunger expert who has authored or co-authored 17 books. She is the co-founder of three organizations, including Food First: The Institute for Food and Development Policy and, more recently, the Small Planet Institute, which she leads with her daughter Anna Lappé. In 1987 she received the Right Livelihood Award (a.k.a, the “Alternative Nobel.”) Her first book, Diet for a Small Planet, has sold three million copies and is considered “the blueprint for eating with a small carbon footprint since long before the term was coined”.