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Brattleboro Reformer (Vermont)

People Creating Change


This is a year filled with as much possibility as peril for our nation.

However, what needs to be remembered is that the presidential election in November will not change anything by itself.

We had a chance recently to talk to author and democracy activist Frances Moore Lappé, who is busy these days spreading the word that, as she puts it, "hope is a verb."

That means that if you want to renew civic and democratic values, rein in corporate excess and governmental abuse and create a world that's peaceful, healthy and humane, get ready to do some work.

"I call myself a 'possiblist,'" she said. "It's not possible to know what's possible to achieve, and when you know that, you're free."

Lappé, who ran the Center for Living Democracy and the American News Service out of Brattleboro in the mid-1990s, has a new book out called "Getting A Grip: Clarity, Creativity & Courage in a World Gone Mad." In it, she outlines an alternative way of approaching this turbulent time.

One problem, she says, is that in the United States, "democracy boils down to just two things -- elected government and a market economy ... there isn't much for us to do except show up at the polls and shop."

Lappé calls this "thin democracy," and it assumes that people are selfish, materialistic and incapable of coming together for the common good. With more public trust put in markets rather than government, the markets call the tune and do what markets do best -- concentrate wealth and power into the hands of the few.

Carried to its logical extreme, Lappé believes that thin democracy's ultimate result is a "spiral of powerlessness," where people become fearful, depressed and violent and the world hurtles toward economic and ecological collapse.

Real democracy, or "living democracy" as Lappé likes to call it, is the antidote. That means asking ourselves a simple question -- how do we tap into the goodness that is in our nature, the urge to connect, cooperate and work with others in common purpose.

Lappé envisions a "spiral of empowerment," where democracy becomes an evolving, values-driven culture created by the people. Once political decision making is freed from the influence of wealth, and more people have a greater say in their governance, they will feel connected and hopeful instead of feeling powerless and fearful.

Lappé believes Vermont is better positioned than most places to practice true democracy, namely because democracy is so engrained in our daily lives here.

"In a hyper 'me first' culture that emphasizes the private sphere, democracy can't survive," Lappé said. "Vermont teaches us the value of what a culture of democracy can accomplish. Vermont still values the public sphere and those values are transmitted in so many different ways, from town meetings to community suppers to farmers markets and CSAs."

That's due to a simple principle that is often forgotten. Government is not "them." It is us.

Lappé said if every person realizes that they have a voice and something to contribute, and every person is given an opportunity to connect their passions with the world's needs in ways that really add up, we can reclaim our sanity as well as our planet and build a better world.

The cynic may say this is unrealistic, pie-in-the-sky thinking. But Lappé and her daughter, Anna, are working to make this happen. They lead the Small Planet Institute, a collaborative network for research and education to bring democracy to life. And Lappé's book is filled with examples of how people power created change.

Democratic social movements worldwide have drawn inspiration from Frances Moore Lappé's work. It's hard to imagine any one person who has done more to reshape the debate about environmental and food policy than the woman who wrote "Diet for a Small Planet," the 1971 bestseller that shifted the debate about famine and related crises.

Just as Lappé suggested nearly four decades ago that fundamental issues of inequality and inhumanity were more responsible for famine than overpopulation, bad weather or technological inadequacy, she is saying to today that our shortage of democracy is more due to inequality, inhumanity and the many deep-seated fears that keep us from recognizing our individual and collective power.

"You have to go for what you believe and let the chips fall where they may," she said. "I never would have thought that out of George Bush we'd get Barack Obama."

Copyright © 2008 MediaNews Group

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