Frances Moore Lappé – The Evolution of Living Democracy
Living Dialogues
Duncan Campbell

Episode 29 - Frances Moore Lappé – The Evolution of Living Democracy

Duncan and Frances cover a number of key transitions of the last four decades, and why we are again now in "the best of times and the worst of times", the opening lines of Charles Dickens’ A Tale of Two Cities. These are times of strife that require both a revolutionary and evolutionary shift -both of consciousness, and from that naturally- evolved action. ‘Frankie’ describes the awakening and shift that happened to her in her twenties that resulted in her writing what became the 1971 three-million-copy bestseller Diet for a Small Planet. In between that time and her sixteenth and just-published book Getting a Grip: Clarity, Creativity, & Courage, she and Duncan intersperse personal tales of inspiration from five continents, including their separate life-changing meetings with Nobel Peace Prize winner, Kenyan Wangari Mathai. Uncertainty and fear are revealed as pure energy that we have the power to transmute now into a new 21st century form of living democracy through inner and outer dialogue. More details on this episode go to



Frances Moore Lappé – The Evolution of Living Democracy

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Frances Moore-Lappe: I’m Frances Moore-Lappe, and being on Living Dialogues with Duncan, was quite a learning experience, and very different than anything I think I’ve experienced on radio, because I felt that we were in a conversation, which I was learning and having new thoughts, and not just repeating things that I have said before; so, what a joy!

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Duncan Campbell: From time immemorial, beginning with indigenous counsels and ancient wisdom traditions; through the work of Western visionaries, such as Plato, Galileo, and anaphysicist David Bohme: mutually-participatory-dialogue has been seen as the key to evolving and transforming consciousness; evoking a flow of meaning; a dia- (flow) of  logos- (meaning). Beyond what any one individual can bring alone. So, join us now, as together with you - the active deep listener – we evoke, and engage in, Living Dialogues. . .

Welcome once again to Living Dialogues. I’m your host, Duncan Campbell, and again I’m delighted to have as my guest, Frances Moore-Lappe: bestselling author of “Diet For A Small Planet,” and   more recently, “Getting A Grip: Clarity, Creativity And Courage, In A World Gone Mad.”

Frankie, as she is known both publicly and privately, has written sixteen books, which have been translated in to over twenty different languages, and used in literally hundreds of colleges and universities. She speaks widely to universities and other audiences; she co-founded The Institute For Food Development And Policy, known as Food First, now in its thirty-second year; as well as The American News Service from 1995 to the year 2000. With her daughter, best-selling writer Anna Lappe, she leads the Cambridge Massachusetts-based Small Planet Institute; and the affiliated Small Planet Fund.

She has appeared on many programs, including The Today Show, The PBS Now, All Things Considered, The Diane Ream Show, and on Living Dialogues. And I must say it’s a real treat, Frankie, to have you back here again on Living Dialogues!

Frances: Thank you, Duncan.

Duncan: And I think what would be most interesting to our audience, as a way to start this, is maybe to give us a brief story, since your book is replete with stories of ordinary people; citizens who are not born to wealth; not born to the quote ‘power elite.’ In living a truly Democratic community-connected lifestyle, in their own lives. And we can go all the way back to when you were in your mid-twenties, before your book “Diet For A Small Planet,” was published by Ballantyne Books. And by then your mentor, the great Betty Ballantyne – who really encouraged you to go further than even you dreamed you could go as a person in your mid-twenties. Let’s talk about your personal awakening, then, and how you sort of stepped forward, out of your ordinary, accessible life – in to putting out your ideas, and watching this book over time – become this three million book best seller, mainly by word of mouth.

Frances: Well, first of all, I never imagined myself writing a book. Having gotten a D on my first English paper in college, having never written so much as a letter to the editor, you wouldn’t be surprised to know that I didn’t set out to be a book writer (laughing)! But, the great thing that happened for me, the life-changing experience was that, there I was at the UC Berkeley School of Social Work, doing community organizing, and I realized that I didn’t know, how what I was doing, really related to the underlying causes of people suffering. And perhaps the most important decision I made in my entire life – other than having children, which I think is the most important decision we can make – was to stop. Was to stop trying to do anything to save the world, until I realized why I was doing what I was doing. And that put me in the state of a crisis. And I was scared to death, because I realized that I wouldn’t have an identity, I wouldn’t know what to do when I got up in the morning. I was so terrified that I made myself ill! And kind of hid away at home – my husband was a post-doc at Berkeley at the time – and then sort of found libraries where I could hide away. But the miracle for me, Duncan, was that for the first time in my life, I discovered that I had questions that I had to answer. I discovered my own curiosity!

And I’d grown up as a young woman – a girl then young woman – in a culture that taught me that I wasn’t very bright. I was a good plotter, but I never thought of myself as particularly bright. And so I just tried to please other people - my professors – and to try to make them believe that I was not really the dumb southern female that I knew that I was. So that was the beginning then, when I said, ‘No. I’m just going to stop, and ask the most fundamental questions, and see what happens.’ And then I discovered this passion, this curiosity, about hunger. Which seems so common-sensical, like: Here we are! The smartest species! And every species feeds itself, feeds its offspring, and we humans haven’t quite figured that out yet! (laughing) Like how to feed itself well. So I thought, ‘Well, why don’t I start with that question: Why are people hungry?’

And the experts were all telling us we’d reached the earth’s limits. That’s why people were hungry. And in my modest, following-my-nose research, I learned that we produce more than enough food to make the world chubby. And that’s when the light bulb went on; and I realized that actually is part of a thought-system, that put in place an economic system, that is actually creating scarcity, while we say, ‘Oh! We’re so afraid of scarcity!’ We are creating scarcity from plenty because we were funneling – and still are – such a huge portion of all our agricultural resources to livestock, that return such a tiny fraction to us; because we’ve created economic systems generating so much poverty that people can’t make direct demand for ‘the fruits of the earth’, so to speak. So that that then becomes the raw commodity at an artificially low price – a kind of raw commodity for the grain-fed meat production. So, that was the beginning of saying ‘Oh my God!’ and then ‘I’ve got to share this!’ So, it started with that youthful, intuition. Food was the beginning, and that I had to know the answer. And then once I found out, ‘Wait! We can’t blame nature! We created this economic system, we can change it! Nobody wants people to go hungry! I’ll just share this with my friends!’ And so, any insecurity that I had about being a writer, was immaterial! It wasn’t that I was a writer, I was just trying to share what was so fascinating, and revolutionary, to me.

And so, I created one-page hand-outs, and then I thought, ‘Well, you know, I should learn a little bit more about this before I go public with it!’ So it kept growing, and then as you know, it got in to the hands of Betty Ballantyne, one of the founders of paperback publishing.

Duncan: How did that happen?

Frances: Well, my husband Mark Lappe - a wonderful wonderful pathologist and very very brave environmentalist - he got it in to the hands of – I think it was through a friend of Mark’s – that somehow knew the Ballantynes and was on a trip to meet with them. That’s when they were working with Friends Of The Earth – David Brower – and collaborating with him. So, he sort of begged me – he’d ask me to be a sort of volunteer editor with this pamphlet, it was a booklet at the time – and he said, ‘Let me just show it to them!’ and I said, ‘Oh, gosh! I’ll be embarrassed, but sure. Go ahead. But make sure - ’ you know, I was just mortified at the thought of a publisher might look at this. And the next thing I knew, Betty Ballantyne was flying out to California, to meet with me and Paul Ehrlich (laughing)! You could imagine this twenty-something who had never written anything – the publisher of New York is flying out to meet with this already well-known scientist, Paul Ehrlich. It was quite something!

Duncan: And then, Betty encouraged you to even go further – to develop some of your ideas…

Frances: Yes. Yes. Absolutely. I mean I have to say, I have to give credit where credit is due. Betty is the one who said I should add recipes! Because then, it was a book with only the concepts, and the whole theory, and she said, ‘We gotta take this right in to the kitchens!’ And then, I got my gram-scales, and started concocting recipes, and it was very much a collaboration with her. I’m very excited to tell you that now – what is it thirty-six years later – I get to honor her this December in New York City, on December thirteenth, at our big Gala party. There will be several hundred people there – our big fund-raising event – and I’m going to present Betty with an award my daughter is designing. And thanking her for taking a chance on this unknown (laughing)! And all the rest is history, in that cliché sense, that I was able to sort of bring my daughter in to the family business, she now is an author in her own right, and all of this has flowed from Betty’s trust and risk-taking.

Duncan: Beautiful. What a great story! And she was a mentor by example, and a mentor in making a relationship with this hitherto unknown young woman. And now as I suggested, previously – before we began this formal dialogue – it might be a great idea for this Small Planet Institute and Small Planet Fund – to honor other publishers, willing to take a risk; a much-needed risk in our intellectual climate – idea climate, today, where only a hand full of major major publishers have taken over the business; they’ve eliminated the role, often, of co-creative editors with authors; a great tendency to publish previously-known authors, that are block-buster sellers – like in the movie industry, we have Lethal Weapon One, Lethal Weapon Two and so on – and Betty, could, by example, in your life, win an award. You know, that this is how things evolved, and can come full circle, it’s really wonderful to hear you’re honoring her in the way you’ve described. And, the other thing that occurs to me here is, the insight that you had was really just taking another step out of what was your Education, you said ‘I know in my heart I was just a not-so-bright kid; a dumb Southern girl.’ And what happens with Southern girls is that a lot of it is about food; you’re educated to be a nurturer; food is central, people understand this. Not only is it not dumb, it’s actually a tremendous insight; that basically, the nurturing role, in any kind of social structure – and around food – is very very basic. And what you did was to actually see through the cultural paradigm – we might call it – in which, as you pointed out elsewhere: how much grain does it take to get one pound of - ?

Frances: -Sixteen. Yeah.

Duncan: Sixteen . . ?

Frances: Sixteen pounds of grain and soy to produce one pound of beef..

Duncan: -And how much water is involved in that?

Frances: I’ve seen estimates range from five thousand to eighteen thousand gallons of water – I calculated that I could bathe for months and months on that amount of water – for one pound of steak! And, of course, now, forty fossil fuel calories to produce one food calorie, in the form of beef! It is the least efficient system ever devised to feed humanity. And of course, not the healthiest! So, that was really really the beginning for me, and so everything has flowed from that. But, I think that when you were talking about that instinct as a young woman: I also recognized that food is that which links our bodies directly to the earth; links us in community, because breaking of bread has a universal symbol in reality for community. And of course, to the largest question of access to resources; so it’s very personal, it’s social, it’s a broader ecological question – all in the form of food.

Today, what’s so exciting to me is, to watch living democracy emerging through the food opening, and so many young people wanting to learn about organic gardening, and inner-city gardens popping up where young people in the poorest communities, are learning organic gardening, and making great food available. And school gardens, and farmers’ markets, multiplying two and a half times in ten years. I was just on the Massachusetts Turnpike a few weeks ago, driving at dusk, when there are lights flickering and all – and I thought honestly, I was hallucinating! Because I looked at the side of the road, and there was a big official looking road sign with lights saying “Farmers’ Market: Next Rest Stop” (laughing)! And I couldn’t believe it, because I expected only to see, you know, McDonalds and Wendys at the official Mass. Turnpike Stop. So, people are coming together and recognizing that re-knitting community, that Yes, food is a core piece of that. And bringing more life to small family farmers we now know are two to ten times more likely to be more productive than industrial farms..

Duncan: And, the food is actually healthy for you. The things that you pointed out in your recent book are – quite ironically and in a sense really a very unsettling revelation –is that our food is in many cases unhealthy. So here we are, the so-called the most advanced Western industrial nation in the world, actually producing food that we put in our mouths and in our bodies, it’s actually much less healthy than it was decades ago. And, this whole movement that’s coming back, or inspired or arising – is that re-connection to the land itself.

Frances: Yes

Duncan: I’ve had people with me about eating locally: the slow-food movement; the celebration of farmers’ markets; all of these kinds of things are really, I think, very much a matter of re-connecting ourselves to the wide universe that we live in. One of the major themes of Living Dialogues, throughout the last number of years, has been: the re-awakening of what I call the indigenous DNA that we all share that is our heritage as human beings from time immemorial, literally. As well as the experience of dialogue, so that we are in a flow: a dia-, with –logos. The intelligence of the cosmos itself as manifested in all that is.

When dialoging with Barry Lopez – on this program – the great nature-poet and writer. You know, I quoted from his “Arctic Dreams,” where he said, ‘Land itself is an animal which contains all animals.’ So, the land itself is alive, not only with the sound of music, but with the sound of life itself! And the land is where he have the soil from which all of the nurturing food grows; from which the trees which give us so many life-giving properties, arise. And ‘animal’ is a very interesting word to me too, because in its heart, it means ‘anima’: ‘soul’. And this whole cosmos is in soul; there is an anima mundi, that we can get in touch with, that begins to actually bring us back in to a wholeness.

And, from that perspective we may want to talk at this point about a common friend of both of ours, named Wangari Maathai; (she) won the Nobel Prize for Peace several years ago, and she in Kenya as a professor when the University re-connected her to the universe began movement that blossomed in to The Green Movement in Kenya, where she and other women would plant trees. And from that small beginning there are now, what, forty-three million trees that have been planted in Kenya; and in the process, the former dictator of Kenya, Daniel Arap-Moy was so threatened by the fact that two women (laughing) might get together around a hole in the ground to plant a tree, they might start talking; they might start dialoging. And that could be very subversive, so –

Frances: I think he was very smart actually to realize what a threat that was (laughing)!

Duncan: He was very very smart, because he then actually reacted an enormous degree by torturing her. When I met Wangari Maathai at The Earth Summit in 1992, we had breakfast together – that was in Rio de Janeiro – and it was just weeks before that she had been in prison, in Kenya, and tortured. And here I was, having breakfast with her, in a hotel room in Rio de Janeiro, and I had – the night before – video’d her giving a talk. And I said immediately to myself – like when I first heard Barack Obama – ‘Someone extraordinary is here talking. This is a eloquence that is a great gift to humanity.’ And as I heard her story over breakfast, it was just astounding! So I knew that this was someone who had taken a tremendous personal risk, and who was destined to do great things, and indeed, ultimately she got the Nobel Prize. But the main thing was, she started out in a very ordinary way. This was not someone who was already a part of the power elite – quite the contrary. And in fact, you might mention at this point that - with respect to Wangari Maathai – what she told you about how she was able to go forward in the face of this tremendous opposition that came down on her; and she had a very public and traumatic divorce because of the stance she took and so on..

Frances: Yes, yes. Yes, when I think of Wangari Maathai, and the people she has introduced to my daughter and me, I think of that moment of being in Kenya with her in the year 2000, as the whole depth of understanding how fear stops most of us, and how - to make this great shift – to make this great opening now available to us which I call living democracy – coming in to our fullness of our capacities; how it rests fundamentally on re-thinking fear and courage in our lives. And it was Wangari that really allowed me to see that. And hearing her story, as you described it – I read about it and she told us about it – and absorbing, yes, that depth of character that you feel when you are with her.

And so, I was just so curious because I myself was experiencing a lot of fear at that time in my life. I try to explore that with her. And what she came back to us with, was something so simple, and so real, with a metaphor of: ‘I just keep walking.’ There was no heroics, there was no grand-scheme; it was just the notion that truth that you feel in your heart, allows you to just keep putting one foot in front of the other. And she smiled in this just beautiful infectious smile: ‘Some times, you have to jump!’ and I knew exactly what she meant! But she also introduced us to a colleague of hers in the pro-democracy movement – because this was still under the dictatorship – a reverend Timothy N’Jouya. And the night she introduced us, he told us his life story, which she’d asked him to do. And that story had an absolutely life-changing effect on my daughter and me, because this man was a minister who had been told not to preach by the Moy government. And when he spoke and was critical, from the pulpit - or at least implicitly critical – he knew that his life was in danger. And sure enough, that night, assailants came to attack him, and he described how they started to slice him up, and just brutally assault him. And, at one point he believed he was going to die, because his intestines were spilling out of him.
His body at that point, he began to give gifts – his Bible, to them; his library to another – at that point I said ‘Reverend N’Jouya, stop! stop! stop!’ my heart was pounding, I said, ‘I don’t understand: fear is hard-wired! How could you possibly respond with benevolence when you are being attacked!’ And he said, ‘No no no! You don’t understand. Fear is pure energy. It is inside of us. It’s not out there in what we think it is, like an assailant attacking us. Fear is pure energy. And we can do with it what we wish. We can either make it in to paranoia, or we can turn it in to joy. We can do with it whatever we want to.’ And that night my daughter and I lay awake for hours talking about the implications, if that is true – if we’re not controlled by fear, if we can walk with it, and can transmute that energy – that anything is possible! And so, from then on, whenever I try to take this message, this lesson, and I feel the fear in my body, I try to say, ‘Oh! That’s interesting energy and information! Maybe it’s telling you that you are doing exactly what you need to be doing!’

And so, in my latest book, when I did have quite a lot of fear – last summer when it was really clear that I jumped off the diving board of publishing this book – I said, ‘Yep! There you are! I guess you’re really at a new growth-phase for your life! (laughs) So, it really has changed my life, to think of fear as pure energy – as information, not a verdict..

Duncan: Beautiful! Well, you know, I’m still hanging wondering what happened to him..-

Frances: The punchline is that by his reaction, his assailants said to themselves, ‘My goodness, what a good man he is!’ and they rushed him to the hospital and saved his life.

Duncan: ..The very people that had cut out his intestines..

Frances: Yes. Rushed him to the hospital, sewed him up, and he lived. And he looked extremely healthy when we met him! So, it was his capacity to transmute that energy of fear - that energy of love – that brought forth that salvation in a sense. And I’m not saying that we’ve all got to be as brave as Reverend N’Jouya in that sense, or to have mastered fear to that degree, but I think there’s something there that each of us can take.

Duncan: Definitely! Well, it’s a huge miracle story. I remember hearing a similar story; this is really even more powerful, the one you’ve told me now, but as Shakespeare says, ‘Comparisons are odious’; they’re all different stories, each with its own power of example, and each with its own message that we can then take in to our own lives, the important part – which you told us how you now deal with fear as energy.

That story that comes to my mind now is to do with Bishop Desmond Tutu. In the days of apartheid, who was preaching in his church, and a very intimidating thing happened to everyone quite deliberately by the powers that be: that many soldiers came in and lined the walls of the church with their sub-machine guns, and created a climate of tremendous fear. And instead of caving in to that, Desmond Tutu then called attention to it – called attention to how intimidating and fear-producing this was – and said, proclaiming that love is a greater force than fear. And when he said those words – I’m getting a little choked up talking about this – the entire congregation let out a big cry of ‘Amen!’ that had such power to it, that literally the soldiers themselves were penetrated by this, and they slunk away and left the church.

Frances: Oh, my goodness.

For full transcript, please contact Duncan Campbell