Frances Moore Lappé's Recipe for Radical Renewal

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The Nation

Frances Moore Lappé's Recipe for Radical Renewal

by
John Nichols

Frances Moore Lappé has, for the better part of four decades, done her very best to guide the United States toward a more rational relationship with the planet and its inhabitants. It has not been easy work, and the current circumstance would suggest that it has not been nearly so successful as Lappé or the readers of her groundbreaking books would have hoped.

But the truth is that Lappé has succeeded, masterfully.

No popular intellectual has been so very successful in reshaping the character and content of debates about environmental and food policy as this remarkable woman. It is true that there are still deniers of the truths she advances. But they are increasingly isolated in the West Wing of the Bush White House. And their days are numbered.

The future belongs to Frances Moore Lappé -- who in on a national book tour that will take her to Burlington, Vt.; Madison, Wi.; St. Louis and Worcester, Ma., in coming days -- and to those who have been guided by her wise assessments of the most fundamental issues.

Lappé will always be known as the author of Diet for a Small Planet, the 1971 book that reshaped the debate about famines, food shortages and consumption. In it, the author argued that it was not patterns of over-population, bad weather or technological inadequacy that caused human beings to be denied the sustenance they required to survive. Rather, it was the unfair distribution of the world's resources and a deficit of democracy, which undermined the ability of citizens to make that distribution fairer and more responsible.

This simple calculus, which even now is neglected by many policy makers, was revolutionary. It returned the debate about how to deal with famines and related crises to the fundamental issues of inequality and inhumanity.

The response was unprecedented. More than three million copies of Diet for a Small Planet have been sold, and the 15 books Lappé has written in ensuing years have added nuance and perspective to her original arguments while taking the debate about the human condition to new and exciting places.

The value of Lappé's contribution is now broadly recognized. She has received 17 honorary doctorates from distinguished institutions, along with the global Right Livelihood Award and the Rachel Carson Award. "A small number of people in every generation are forerunners, in thought, action, spirit, who swerve past the barriers of green and power to hold a torch high for the rest of us. Lappé is one of those," says historian Howard Zinn. The Washington Post made the same point with the observation that, "Some of the twentieth century's most vibrant activist thinkers have been American women - Margaret Mead, Jeanette Rankin, Barbara Ward, Dorothy Day - who took it upon themselves to pump life into basic truths. Frances Moore Lappé is among them."

It would be easy to rest on such laurels.

But Lappé is not resting. She's out campaigning -- to renew civic and democratic values, to restrain corporate excess and governmental abuse, to stop fearing fear itself and to start embracing the radical responses that will make America and the planet as peaceful, as healthy, as humane and as fulfilled as our knowledge and our technology makes possible.

That's the "gospel" Frances Moore Lappé preaches in her terrific new book, Getting a Grip: Clarity, Creativity and Courage in a World Gone Mad (Small Planet Press), and on the national tour she's now on to herald its publication.

Lappé is saying what every presidential candidate should, and she is doing so with the boldness that is required if we hope to break with Bushism and shape a future worthy of a nation founded on revolutionary promise and a world that will only be set right if that promise is kept.

"I just want to go for it," Lappé asks in the introduction to Getting a Grip. "Why can't we have a nation - why can't we have a world we're proud of? Why can't we stop wringing our hands over poverty, hunger, species decimation, genocide, and death from curable disease that we know is all needless? The truth is there is no reason we can't. They say - whoever the "they" are - that as we age, we mellow. I don't think so. I'm getting less and less patient. Why? Because I realize that humanity has no excuses anymore. In the span of my own lifetime, both historical evidence and breakthroughs in knowledge have wiped out all our excuses. We know that we know how to end this needless suffering, and we have all the resources to do it. From sociology and anthropology to economics, from education and ecology to systems analysis - the evidence is in. We know what works."

Frances Moore Lappé is as right now as she has been in the past. It is time to go for it -- no half steps, no half measures. We have a name for the failures of the past: Bush. Now that the Bush era is ending, we need to name and claim the future.

John Nichols is a co-founder of Free Press and the co-author with Robert W. McChesney of TRAGEDY & FARCE: How the American Media Sell Wars, Spin Elections, and Destroy Democracy — The New Press.

© 2007 The Nation

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