Getting a Grip

Who cannot appreciate the intensity of Frances Moore Lappé’s vision “that ideas have enormous power and that humans are capable of changing failing ideas in order to turn our planet toward life”? Starting with Diet for a Small Planet (1971), she has written ten books describing democratic, humane, and enlightened solutions to hunger and social and environmental problems, empowering people both locally and globally. Inspirational and tireless, winner of the Right Livelihood Award and recipient of 17 honorary doctorates, she has founded a skein of organizations from Food First in 1975 to the Small Planet Institute in 2001, with daughter Anna Blythe Lappé.

Now, in Getting a Grip, she writes about “learning to see the killer ideas that trap us and letting them go.” Her purview is broad: environment, economic distribution, human rights, health, and election reform. According to Lappé, in a “living democracy,” problems become opportunities when approached positively through true participation. This contrasts with today’s “thin democracy,” in which most problems not covered by free-market economics are considered burdens to be left to others (and, as she says, if we have elected them, we feel off the hook). Readers feel the necessity for a shift from the narrow perception of democracy as a type of government in which people vote to a society in which the democratic values of fairness, inclusion, and accountability infuse all dimensions of our public lives.

A key to engendering participation is framing problems as opportunities for engaged citizens who have learned the art of democracy through interactive experience. Lappé provides a table of language alternatives, prompting readers to communicate more accurately and powerfully on topics such as democracy and social justice. For example, she suggests phrasing such as “membership dues for a strong, healthy society” instead of “burden” to describe taxes. Or instead of focusing on the absence of pesticides in organic agriculture, she suggests reorienting toward goals of increasing the quality of food and ecological health through farming.

Lappé presents a number of inspiring examples of people and organizations who promote democracy and take on issues of wealth distribution, ecological destruction and environmental justice, campaign reform, fair trade, corporate responsibility, and equity in general. Her writing style is anecdotal and personal and necessarily superficial. This is a help and hope (a word Lappé examines in some detail) book, not a compendium.

Who should read Getting a Grip? Someone on the verge of being overwhelmed by the enormity of these challenges, who is either burned out from working toward change or daunted by starting his or her involvement. Lappé quotes the motto of Conversation Cafes: “Tired of small talk? Try some big talk.” This book inspires those who are “tired of small or no action” to try some big(ger) action.

If the book has a shortcoming, it is the naive appeal to the perfectibility of humans. On the inside front cover is a diagram of the “spiral of powerlessness,” moving from the premise that “human nature is selfish, competitive, and materialistic” to the last step: “competition and consumerism intensify and our ecology collapses, all reinforcing the limiting premise.” On the inside back cover is the “spiral of empowerment,” starting from the premise that “within human nature are deep needs for fairness, cooperation, effectiveness, and meaning” and eventually arriving at the last step: “enabling progress toward resolving local-to-global crises and reinforcing their liberating premise.” The overall thrust of the book is that the second spiral will triumph from the grassroots up, and this will happen fast enough to avoid disaster.

This is not fast and universal enough. There comes a point (and we are there right now in the U.S.) when we need society-wide signals that reinforce our best interests, and these include sticks as well as carrots. For example, having watched America’s oblivious passage through the energy crisis of the 1970s to oil-addicted 2009, I find it impossible to imagine that even the best institutions with the most dedicated–but real–consumers can achieve a sane energy policy without pricing (via an energy/carbon tax or cap-and-auction plan) that tells everyone (both industry and householders) what energy really costs. Lappé mentions rewarding renewable energy with subsidies but does not cover increased price as a demand-modifying tool.

Getting a Grip is consistent with Lappé’s inspiring 38-year career, challenging and encouraging us to use clarity, creativity, and courage (her words) to do, and fight for, the right thing. She’s right: we all want to do that—most of the time. For the times that we lose track, or start to chafe because the guy next door is backsliding (and equity is one of her overriding themes), we need help and support. Read Getting a Grip, and light your fire…and use some of your zeal to push for an energy tax.

Read the new edition in March: Getting a Grip-2: Clarity, Creativity and Courage for the World We Really Want