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Original Essays | September 9, 2013 5 comments
Editor's note: Chris Bolton is not only a former Powell's employee, he was also once the primary writer for this blog. So we are particularly proud... Continue »
Getting My Gripby Frances Moore Lappe
The lesson of this implausible fact still pushes me on. Let me explain.
I was the quintessential child of the '60s, having been shaken awake by our government's deceit over the war in Vietnam. After working for a few years as a community organizer with welfare recipients in the ghettos of Philadelphia, I just stopped. I couldn't see how what I was doing addressed the root of their suffering. I vowed never to do anything else to "save the world" until I understood how what I was doing related to underlying causes.
I was terrified. I had no professional identity, no direction. (I feared I'd drift forever.) But I did discover something maybe even more vital. I discovered questions, my own not my parents', not some professor's but my own; questions I had to answer because they came from inside me. My questions sprang from a simple observation: every species first feeds itself and its offspring. Yet, we, the brainiest species, had not yet figured out how to insure that all of us could meet this primal need.
Food! That's it, if I could just grasp why people go hungry, that would unlock the seemingly impenetrable mysteries of the economic and political order. So I got buckled down and got started. After many long hours in the U.C. Berkeley agricultural library, I realized we certainly could not blame nature for rampant hunger. Though the experts claimed we were running out of food, in reality there was more than enough to make our entire species chubby. (And it's still true.)
But the "ah-ha" was more than this fact sinking in. I realized that, starting from the premise of scarcity, we humans were actually creating scarcity. We were taking the earth's staggering abundance and reducing its capacity to feed us now and in the future. One piece of evidence? We in the U.S. feed 16 pounds of grain and soy to cattle to get a one pound piece of beef on our plate.
Over the decades I have struggled to get a grip on why we humans are creating a world that as individuals we abhor. It dawned on me nobody, not even the most callous, gets up in the morning determined that another child dies of hunger! Yet fourteen thousand die daily.
But only in the last decade have I finally felt I have a clue as to why this happens. Almost that long ago I first read Erich Fromm's The Anatomy of Human Destructiveness. In it he writes: "It is man's humanity that makes him so inhuman." What was he getting at? The uniquely human trait of seeing the world through lenses of our own creation. In other words, the only thing powerful enough to keep us creating a world no one wants is the power of ideas.
In fact, ideas trump instinct, I came to see. If true, then, there is no more important task for survival ours and other species than to surface those big ideas, often called frames, through which we see the world; then to probe whether they are in fact life-serving and to make needed adjustments. Are we up to this heavy-lifting? Yes, I believe so.
In my case, it started, as I noted, with rethinking the premise of scarcity that underlies the dominant economic model. At first I saw it operating in relation to food. But soon I realized the scarcity scare permeates our culture a presumption of a lack of goods and goodness that shows up in our perceptions of lack of everything from energy sources to parking spots to caring hearts.
Living based on this presumption of scarcity of goodness in us, we distrust ourselves and believe we must turn over our fate to impersonal forces, especially the so-called free market, to decide outcomes for us. We feel ourselves increasingly disempowered.
Breaking free of the myth of scarcity and realizing there is enough both enough goods and enough goodness is the first step to discovering our own power. Consider, for example, that the sun provides daily doses of energy 15,000 times what humans use for all purposes. So much for energy scarcity! Or consider what scientists now confirm about our nature: that humans are hard-wired for empathy and cooperation and probably hard-wired to desire basic fairness as well. We have what it takes to create the world we want. So we can let go of our feelings of powerlessness.
But... moving beyond this era's destructive, scarcity-imprinted mental map requires work, deeply personal and scary work: for it means letting go of the familiar and risking separation from others. As we begin questioning the dominant frame, those close to us may not be there.
So such movement also involves rethinking fear. Fear, I have come to see, is in part just another idea we can work with creatively. It need not stop us in our tracks. Experiencing fear might mean not mean stop but "go" it might be telling us were doing just exactly the work we must to save ourselves.
Living fully has meant for me keeping my head out of the sand. But to do that, to keep my eyes open to the terrible, needless suffering in our world, I've had to keep asking why. I have had to keep believing that I could get a handle on root causes so that I would know what to do that could actually make a difference.
Getting my grip striving for sanity in an insane world has meant continuing to follow my curiosity. I discovered in the process what British historian Theodore Zeldin concludes: that curiosity is the greatest antidote to fear. Trusting it, we can, just possibly, gain the clarity, creativity and courage we need to rescue our planet before it's too late.
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Frances Moore LappÃ© is the author of sixteen books. Her first was 1971's Diet for a Small Planet. Just released is Getting a Grip: Clarity, Creativity & Courage in a World Gone Mad. Visit her website at www.smallplanetinstitute.org.