More than 700 people flocked to the auditorium at Hood River Middle School Wednesday night to hear food activist and author Frances Moore Lappe speak.
The presentation by Lappé, who rose to fame in 1971 when she wrote the bestseller, “Diet for a Small Planet,” was the finale of the week-long series commemorating 9-11, “From Ground Zero to Common Ground.” During her talk, however, Lappé never mentioned the events of 9-11 directly. Instead she focused on the politics and philosophies that she believes has landed “our species” on what she calls a “death march.”
“I believe it is an extraordinary time to be alive,” said Lappé, who recently coauthored a 30th anniversary sequel to her first book with her daughter, Anna, called “Hope’s Edge: The Next Diet for a Small Planet.” During book signings around the country, Lappé said, she’s continually asked whether she thinks things have gotten better or worse since she wrote her first book — which challenged Western assumptions about hunger and introduced then-revolutionary ideas about the social and personal consequences of people’s food choices.
“I always come back with a one-word response: both,” she said. “At the same moment that our species is taking our planet on a death march, we are also in the midst of an extraordinary awakening.” Lappé said she felt that acutely at the recent World Summit on Sustainable Development in Johannesburg, South Africa, where “85 percent of us — the tens of thousands of people gathered — were part of an emergent world view.”
Lappé said it’s difficult for people to comprehend that “we are headed in two different directions simultaneously.”
“It means that we are the first humans ever in our 40 or 50 thousand years of evolving to know that we have a choice,” she said. “We can choose death, or we can choose life.” The challenge, Lappé said, is that most people don’t realize they are making a choice.
Lappé told the audience that the “power of ideas” has helped create a world “we abhor.” Through the constant building of the “mental map” — the way people see themselves and their place in the world as a result of the mass media, advertising, and even language — people construct a collective belief system.
“We see what we expect to see,” Lappé said. “This is all well and good if our mental map is life-serving,” she said. “But what happens if we happen to be alive on our planet when the dominant mental map that’s now spreading globally is life-destroying?”
Lappé expounded on some of the things she thinks have created the current collective belief system. Topping the list was advertising.
“The amount that global corporations now spend on advertising, playing on our insecurities to get us to buy, is equivalent in dollars to the entire income of the bottom fifth of the global population,” said Lappé, adding that the average American is exposed to 25,000 advertisements a year. “Moment to moment we’re bombarded with these images telling us that we are nothing but selfish, materialist accumulators. This is the image of ourselves and our place in the world that we are bombarded with and that’s now going global.”
She said the “upshot” of the continual message that we need more is that “we live grounded in the presumption of scarcity.”
Lappé said that when she was doing research for her 1971 book, one-third of the world’s grain was being fed to livestock. Today, with “a billion” people lacking adequate food, nearly one-half of the world’s grain is being fed to livestock.
This “scarcity scare” has led to the rise in genetically modified foods, according to Lappé. “We’re vulnerable to the propaganda that new technology will release us from scarcity,” she said — even in the face of evidence to the contrary, such as a report released last month by the U.S. Department of Agriculture “acknowledging that genetically modified organisms are not even benefiting U.S. farmers.”
Lappé also cited the need to be “mindful of language” as it affects belief systems. She suggested the word “globalization” be put aside in favor of “corporatism.”
“Globalization can mean something extremely positive, about more international exchange of music and art and dance and Internet communication,” she said. But the term is more often associated with global economics.
“More powerful than our elected governments are the unelected corporations,” she said. “More than one-half of world trade is now just between corporations.”
Lappé told the audience that she didn’t want to put forth the notion that she and other activists are only “against” things.
“What are we for?” she asked. “What I have come to call ‘living democracy.’” She cited examples, set forth in her new book, of social movements around the world — such as one among indigenous peoples of Brazil — where communities are bucking what she calls the false notion of food scarcity, through knowledge, individual and community empowerment, and cultivating sustainable food sources.
“The idea that regular people like you and me can learn enough to make a significant contribution to whatever we care about — that it’s possible to have a truly living democracy — that is the idea that’s sweeping the globe,” she said.
Lappé called on people to have compassion in understanding how difficult it is to resist “going along with the tribe.”
“We’ve evolved to know that stepping outside the tribe is death,” she said. “Yet we are alive in this extraordinary time when going along with the tribe means death.”
She told the crowd that, in the few hours she’d spent with people in Hood River, she had learned “that you are showing it is possible to live in joy and know the misery (of others) at the same moment.”
“That is what your work here represents,” she said.
Lappé got a standing ovation after her talk, which was followed by a half-hour question-and-answer period in which she talked more about her experiences at the summit in South Africa and about GMOs.
Organizers of the week-long series commemorating 9-11, sponsored by the Columbia River Fellowship for Peace, were pleased with the community response to the speakers and events that began Sept. 3 and continued through Wednesday.
“We had a total of almost 2,000 people taking part in the nine days of events,” said Mark Nykanen, who helped bring many of the speakers to Hood River. “I think what really worked was having a wide variety of events for people to attend. We tried to offer a patriotic program that didn’t dwell on war, but on the accomplishments of peace, and I think we succeeded.” Nykanen said all the speakers who came were “amazed” by the quality and caliber of the event.
Paul Woolery, another organizer, said he was “very pleased with how well all of the events were attended and the reception given to (the) speakers.”
“Many people have told me that what they’ve appreciated most about the series of events is the increased sense of community it’s provided to them,” Woolery added. “A number of families attended the lectures and were delighted by the thoughtful dialogues they had with their children afterwards.” Woolery commended the more than 150 volunteers who helped organize the multiple events.