Changing the Way We Think, to Create the World We Want


By Frances Moore Lappe

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In EcoMind, Frances Moore Lapp’ — a giant of the environmental movement — confronts accepted wisdom of environmentalism. Drawing on the latest research from anthropology to neuroscience and her own field experience, she argues that the biggest challenge to human survival isn’t our fossil fuel dependency, melting glaciers, or other calamities. Rather, it’s our faulty way of thinking about these environmental crises that robs us of power. Lapp’ dismantles seven common “thought traps” — from limits to growth to the failings of democracy — that belie what we now know about nature, including our own, and offers contrasting “thought leaps” that reveal our hidden power.
Like her Diet for a Small Planet classic, EcoMind is challenging, controversial and empowering.


Praise for EcoMind

”Powerful and inspiring, EcoMind will open your eyes and change your thinking. I want everyone to read it.”


“This book is pivotal in the most literal sense. As I read it, I find myself turning the crucial 180 degrees from frustration and fear to a sense of constructive possibility. Frances’s ability to express the most complex, existential yearnings is epic—matched only by her courage. Nothing I can say will do justice to how this book continues to affect me.”

—MOLLIE KATZEN, author of the Moosewood Cookbook

“Lappé’s effervescent enthusiasm still inspires.”

Publishers Weekly

“Frances Moore Lappé’s exceptionally thought-provoking book is a message of hope. It shows how change is possible, once we open our eyes, look around, and see that we depend on others and on nature. This book obliges us to re-imagine our world, brick by brick, by first re-imagining ourselves.”

—OLIVIER DE SCHUTTER, the UN Special Rapporteur on the Right to Food

“I have been a social worker for almost 50 years now and I am using EcoMind in my Social Welfare Policy Course because it is one of the most important books that has come out during the past half-century. EcoMind has many important features; however, one of the most important strengths of the book is that it provides a positive way of dealing with all the negatives in the world today.”

—DR. CHARLES FROST, Professor, Middle Tennessee State University

EcoMind reminds us that the most important resource for restoring a clean and healthy planet is the one sitting between our ears. Frances Moore Lappé brilliantly challenges the negative ‘thought traps’ of doom-and-gloom environmental messages and emerges with a positive, people-powered approach.”

—MICHAEL BRUNE, Executive Director, Sierra Club

“The concepts laid out in well-organized chapters are worth revisiting for veteran activists, or discovering anew for those who have shied from the subject . . . An accessible introduction to the psychology of this ‘historic challenge,’ providing an enthusiastic shove toward reflection.”

Kirkus Reviews

“Lappé shows how by seeing the big picture we can change it. It’s a clarion call in this rising age of rising despair.”

—PETER BARNES, author of Capitalism 3.0: A Guide to Reclaiming the Commons

“Frances Moore Lappé has done it again. As she has done so insightfully with respect to food, hunger, and democracy, Lappé now turns her sights on the contemporary ecological crises. Her accessible and provocative analysis demonstrates how the ways many people think and talk about these crises—especially the dominant narratives of scarcity—obscure the inequalities of power that lie at the root of these crises and inhibit rather than inspire the kind of effective movements necessary to confront them. EcoMind is a profound example of how analysis breeds not paralysis but rather informed and inspired action, and is on track to do so in the 21st century just like Diet for a Small Planet and Food First did in the 20th.”

—JOHN GERSHMAN, Clinical Associate Professor, Robert F. Wagner Graduate School of Public Service, New York University

“Frances Moore Lappé brings us yet another gift in EcoMind. She cautions us to avoid the mental traps that block our thinking. She awakens us to our immense possibilities and potentials. She invites us to release our latent energies to be the change we want to see.”

—VANDANA SHIVA, Ph.D, philosopher scientist, activist and author of Staying Alive: Women, Ecology and Development

“[EcoMind] provides a fine survey that presents evidence that human beings see the world through a filter of basic belief patterns—and believe that there’s not enough of anything. . . . a fine pick for a range of general-interest and science holdings alike.”

California Bookwatch

“Passionate and very thought-provoking. . . .[Lappé’s] idea of thinking about the world not by a scarcity of eco-systems but one of plenty is, quite frankly, breathtaking in its simplicity.”

Publishers Weekly, Shelf Talker blog

“Brimming with useful information and analysis pertaining to developing renewable energy and eradicating waste, Lappé’s lucid extrapolation of the core lesson of ecology, that everything is connected, also offers galvanizing dissections of the intensifying influence of corporations on government and the derailment of democracy. Equally compelling are her insights into how accelerating wealth inequality contributes to environmental degradation as well as poverty and why struggling people support ‘policies that hurt them.’ Lappé’s recalibrated guide to becoming ecominded affirms our ‘capacity to rethink our world’ and provides many urgent reasons to do so.”


“The message of [EcoMind] . . . is still relevant.”

Santa Cruz Weekly

“In a nutshell, EcoMind is like Thomas More’s utopia, except that its utopia is achievable within the context of modernity, by just doing things differently, and by having a different mindset which looks at the whole integrated—and not fragmented—reality before taking a decision. Congratulations for a most readable book.”

—PUSHPA M. BHARGAVA, Founder-Director, Centre for Cellular and Molecular Biology and winner of the Padma Bhushan, one of the highest civilian awards in India

“I am using EcoMind to teach Introduction to Environmental Studies, and finding it a terrific resource . . . making a clear argument for an approach to saving the world that is hopeful as well as ecological.”

—JOHN C. BERG, Professor in the Department of Government, Director of the Graduate Program in Political Science, Suffolk University

“Frances Moore Lappé has long served as a powerful voice for food justice and a more sustainable future. Her new book EcoMind offers an insightful and inspirational ecology of hope, and is a must read for those concerned about the fate of the planet.”

—DR. DANIEL FABER, Professor of Sociology at Northeastern University and Director of the Northeastern Environmental Justice Research Collaborative

“Well organized and filled with quotable summaries and real-world examples, this book uniquely captures how our society views itself. . . .Valuable as a general work on self-perception and the motivation to action, and essential to those feeling powerless in the struggle to reduce our environmental impact. Strongly recommended.”

Library Journal

“[Lappé] is keenly aware of the need to weave rhetorical craft, emotional openness, and intellectual rigor into hard questions—this has been her approach since Diet for a Small Planet was first published in 1971 (a book that remains current 40 years later), and is the thread that connects her work in many areas, including international aid, democracy, empowerment, and of course food systems.”

—RICHARD L. WALLACE, Professor and Chair of Environmental Studies, Ursinus College

“The latest book from environmentalist Frances Moore Lappé—author of the bestselling Diet for a Small Planet—could not have been published at a better time . . . EcoMind should not be read once and stuck on a bookshelf. It should be shared with friends, discussed and challenged with others who are ready to make positive and enduring changes within their communities.”

—Ms. Magazine blog

Also by Frances Moore Lappé

Aid As Obstacle (with Joseph Collins and David Kinley)

Betraying the National Interest (with Rachel Schurman and Kevin Danaher)

Democracy’s Edge: Choosing to Save Our Country by Bringing Democracy to Life

Diet for a Small Planet

Food First: Beyond the Myth of Scarcity (with Joseph Collins and Cary Fowler)

Getting a Grip: Clarity, Creativity and Courage for the World We Really Want (2nd ed.)

Great Meatless Meals (with Ellen Ewald)

Hope’s Edge: The Next Diet for a Small Planet (with Anna Lappé)

Mozambique and Tanzania: Asking the Big Questions (with Adele Beccar-Varela)

Nicaragua: What Difference Could a Revolution Make? (primary author, Joseph Collins; with Paul Rice)

Now We Can Speak (with Joseph Collins)

Rediscovering America’s Values

Taking Population Seriously (with Rachel Schurman)

The Quickening of America: Rebuilding Our Nation, Remaking Our Lives (with Paul Martin Du Bois)

What to Do After You Turn Off the T.V.

World Hunger: Twelve Myths (with Joseph Collins, Peter Rosset, and Luis Esparza)

You Have the Power: Choosing Courage in a Culture of Fear (with Jeffrey Perkins)


“So where are we going? And why are we in a handbasket?”

SEEING THIS BUMPER STICKER ON MY WAY HOME ONE EVENING, I chuckled aloud. “Wait,” I thought, “that’s what I’m trying to figure out.” It sure seems like the question we’d all want to answer.

After all, our earth is now warmer than it’s been in 650,000 years, and MIT scientists tell us that our planet’s future heating will likely be twice as severe as estimated less than a decade ago.1 So, in this century, higher water temperatures and melting ice caps could raise the sea level by nearly three feet. That’s enough to flood many of the world’s great coastal cities and to inundate much of Bangladesh. A rise of six feet—maybe more—is possible, and with superstorm Sandy, we already know what that feels like.2

But “warming” doesn’t really capture what’s happening. Our climate is becoming more chaotic. Think Los Angeles hitting a record 113 degrees in the fall of 2010, then a few months later Oklahoma’s wind chills sinking to 31 degrees below. Or monsoon rains swelling the Indus River in 2010 to forty times its normal volume, flooding one-fifth of Pakistan’s land and displacing millions.3 Or Australia in 2006 suffering its worst drought in 1,000 years, only to face flooding over an area the size of Texas just four years later.4

Making climate more chaotic, each year, from Africa to Latin America, burning and logging destroy forests that cover an area the size of Greece—with climate-disrupting emissions greater than those from all transportation.5 Partly as a result, we already may, or soon will, have wiped out enough species that the planet would need 10 million years to re-establish the extent of today’s diversity.6

Yet, worldwide we keep on releasing more, not less, climate-disrupting carbon, with coal—by far the worst offender—growing much faster than other fossil fuels.7

At the same time, we’re still reeling from a global financial crisis, with high rates of joblessness and worsening inequalities along with escalating food prices: In just one decade, the World Food Price Index has doubled, hurting the hungry the most.8 Even in 2009, Andrew Simms of the New Economics Foundation in London, worrying about his country’s dependence on imports, warned that “we could literally be nine meals from anarchy and we are still in denial.”9

And here in the US, all the above can feel more daunting when the share of us who say we “worry” about climate change has dropped in recent years, now to about half, and we seem too bitterly divided as a culture to act.10

Are you scared? I know I am.

But I realize that’s not the real question. The real question is whether we each can move ahead creatively with our fear because we believe that, in this pivotal moment, we have it in us to make a planetwide turn toward life.

I believe we do.

But don’t get me wrong—I am not an optimist. I am a staunch, hardcore, dyed-in-the-wool possibilist. I believe it is possible that we can turn today’s breakdown into a planetary breakthrough—on one condition: We can do it if we can break free of a set of dominant but misleading ideas that are taking us down.


Yes. The poetic observation often attributed to French writer Anaïs Nin that “we don’t see things as they are, we see things as we are” is precisely what scientists now confirm experimentally: For human beings there is no unfiltered reality. We are creatures of the mind who interpret experience through a largely unconscious mental map made up of the big ideas orienting our lives. Philosopher Erich Fromm called it our “frame of orientation,” through which we see what we expect to see. So, while we often hear that “seeing is believing,” actually believing is seeing.11

Revealing this deeply human trait is a silly but telling experiment in which psychologists instruct subjects to count basketball passes by players wearing white. In the middle of the game, a person in a gorilla costume appears and pounds her chest directly in the subjects’ line of vision; yet, a good half of them don’t register this unexpected antic at all. They’re focused on counting basketball passes!12

This trait—seeing only what we expect to see—even shapes how we perceive our own nature and our place in the universe and, therefore, what we imagine to be possible. I first grasped the huge import of this trait when, as a college senior, I was assigned Thomas Kuhn’s classic work The Structure of Scientific Revolutions. In it, Kuhn shows how difficult it is for humans to shed a reigning mental map. Even bright people clung to an earth-as-the-center-of-the-universe worldview for 150 years after Copernicus showed us that, no, the earth is not at the center, we revolve around the sun.

Once we see through a certain lens, it’s hard to perceive things differently, be they the most mundane matters or the most momentous. Yet, the hard fact of human existence is that if our mental frame is flawed, we’ll fail no matter how hard and sincerely we struggle.


To see what is in front of one’s nose needs a constant struggle.

George Orwell, “In Front of Your Nose,” 1946

The central problem this book addresses is that, sadly, much of humanity today is stuck in precisely this “hard fact”—trapped in a mental map that defeats us because it is mal-aligned both with human nature and with the wider laws of nature. So, the question is, Can we remake our mental map? And do it much faster than those early astronomers?


Before exploring this central question, let me share four observations that bolster my cockeyed possibilism.

One: We’re living an aberration

It’s not always been this way. Much of the systemic destruction we’re now experiencing is a great and brief aberration.

If all human history were squeezed into one week, and the clock started on Monday, our industrialized world—spanning only about seven generations—would emerge at three seconds before midnight on Sunday.13 In the one hundred years of the twentieth century, humans used ten times more energy than we did in the previous 1,000 years.14 In fact, 60 percent of the increase in atmospheric carbon dioxide levels now threatening our planet has occurred just since I was a high school freshman in 1959.15

So what we are experiencing may be horrific, but it is not the norm of human experience. It is not “conventional” or “business as usual.” Let’s banish the terms. It is rather a huge and failing experiment, a sudden, radical detour.

Two: We already know how

Solutions to our crises—from global climate chaos to global hunger—are largely known. Consider this quick scan of four of our biggest challenges.

Starting with the energy-and-climate crisis . . .

While planet-heating coal now supplies about half of US electricity, renewable energy—wind, solar, geothermal, bioenergy, and hydropower—has the “technical potential” to provide more than sixteen times the electricity the United States needs now, concludes the Union of Concerned Scientists’ “blueprint” for getting to a green economy. In fact, the study tells us, any one of three green sources—wind, solar, or geothermal—could meet current electricity needs.16

So, by tapping even a portion of this potential, we could replace coal.

Just two quite doable steps—raising fuel-economy standards and improving home and industry energy efficiency—could, over a twenty-five-year period, save the United States more than 3 billion barrels of oil a year, the same report notes. That’s nearly half what we consumed in 2009.17

In a different 2004 study partially funded by the Pentagon, physicist Amory Lovins explains how it’s possible to wean the US economy off oil in a few decades, mainly through greater efficiency and a shift to green energy sources. He shows that by investing an average of $18 billion a year over the course of a decade—that’s less than 14 percent of what we were recently spending on average in Iraq and Afghanistan each year—we’d realize a net savings of $70 billion a year by 2025.18 Plug in 2011 oil prices and our projected savings would soar.

These projections also show that along the way, we’d revitalize industries, create more jobs, and make the US more secure than we would if we’d stayed the fossil fuel course to its bitter end.

One reason, Lovins persistently reminds us, is that saving a barrel of oil is a whole lot cheaper than buying one. At this writing a barrel of oil costs about $100, but saving a barrel costs only $18.19

Getting off oil in just a few decades? Have Americans—or anyone—ever moved this quickly?

The answer is yes.

Even if Americans began saving energy at only two-thirds the pace we achieved when reacting to the oil price shock from 1977 to 1985, we could be off oil in thirty to forty years, Lovins estimates.20 Other countries are already speeding along this path. Consider Sweden. By 2009 it was already getting more of its energy from biomass—plant material—than from oil.21

Costa Rica—which discovered oil but in 2002 placed a moratorium on its exploitation—now gets 95 percent of its electricity from renewable sources—hydroelectric, wind, biomass, and geothermal. But Costa Rica isn’t satisfied. It is rushing to become the world’s first carbon-neutral country in time for its bicentennial in 2021, says Minister of Environment and Energy Roberto Dobles. Four other countries are close on its heels: Monaco, Norway, New Zealand, and Iceland.22

When mulling over what’s possible, I also feel fortified by noting that countries now emitting vastly less carbon per person than the US are at the same time great places to live. Shouldn’t the fact that Germany releases half as much carbon dioxide per person as we do strengthen our confidence that we can get there and beyond?23

Plus, note that even the experts have way underestimated what’s possible: A recent survey of nearly fifty forecasts in Europe and around the world discovered that “nearly all of them had underestimated the future increases” in renewable-energy generation we would in fact achieve.24 A few years ago, for example, the International Energy Agency set an ambitious goal for world wind-energy capacity for 2020—a goal we surpassed more than a decade early.25 One reason is that, by 2009, the US (led by Texas!), China, and Germany had together installed more wind power than the rest of the world combined.26

And deforestation . . . do we know how to stop it?

Felling and burning the earth’s forests massively accelerates the pace of climate disruption. But compared to the 1990s, the next decade saw the earth’s net loss of forest—though still horrific at 13 million acres annually—drop by more than a third. Even Indonesia, with one of the worst rates of deforestation during the 1990s, reduced its rate of loss.27 In India, the government shifted from top-down forest management, enabling forest management by tens of thousands of village forest-protection groups.28 Its forests improved and expanded, and over the last decade, India ranked among the world’s top ten countries by yearly net increase in forest area. In 2005 it also led the world in area reforested.29

Or take food and farming.

We know how to get that right, too, even though we’ve gotten it really wrong for sixty years: Extractive, destructive agriculture has created more than four hundred oceanic dead zones worldwide, where farm-chemical runoff is devastating aquatic life.30 (One dead zone in the Gulf of Mexico is often as large as the state of New Jersey.)31 And today, the global food and agriculture system—largely due to its increasing chemical intensity, the growth of the grain-fed livestock industry, and forest clearing for farming and grazing—generates roughly one-third of the climate impact of greenhouse gas emissions.32

At the same time, evidence mounts that we don’t need to wreak havoc to feed ourselves well. Think jubilant farmers in Mali, using nonchemical practices, who in 2009 won a prize for rice yields more than double the world average.33 And a number of studies now confirm the exciting promise of these farmers’ ecological approach.

An extensive 2007 University of Michigan study, for example, estimates that moving globally to organic, ecologically attuned farming practices could increase food output significantly.34 The shift is already saving and transforming the lives of millions, even in ostensibly resource-poor areas: In twenty African countries, more than 10 million farmers have on average doubled their yields by adopting agroecological approaches such as composting, mulching, and careful intermixing of crops, according to recent research sponsored by the UK government’s Office for Science. Their farms cover an area more than half the size of the UK.35

Other evidence of possibility?

Compared to industrial farming, organic methods generate one-half to as little as one-third as many greenhouse gas emissions.36 In a decade organic agricultural land has tripled, and by moving worldwide to organic practices in two decades agriculture could be carbon neutral—releasing no more than it’s absorbing—says the UN Environmental Program.37

Finally, we know how to end hunger and poverty too.

Here at home, we were well on our way from the late 1940s to the early 1970s. Over these few decades, the poorest fifth of Americans saw their real family income jump 116 percent, the biggest leap of any income group.38 Achieving this striking progress were pretty straightforward poverty-fighting strategies: taxation based on ability to pay, a labor movement covering a third of private workers, high rates of employment, public support for veterans’ education, a minimum wage packing 25 percent greater buying power than it does today, and more. They all added up. In just over one decade—the 1960s through the early 1970s—we cut our poverty rate in half.39

The US has since gone backward fast—with almost 11 million more people sinking into poverty over the last decade and child poverty rising to 20 percent. Others have not. Seventeen years ago almost one-third of children in the UK lived in poverty. But the Brits raised child welfare benefits and kept their minimum wage much higher than ours. These and other efforts slashed the child poverty rate by more than half, to 12 percent.40

Even more dramatically, in the Global South, Brazil in just six years—from 2001 to 2007—cut poverty by 25 to 40 percent, depending on one’s measuring tool. Similiarly, Vietnam cut its poverty rate from 58 percent to 16 percent in less than two decades using public investment in jobs, education, housing and more.41


On Sale
Sep 13, 2011
Page Count
320 pages
Bold Type Books

Frances Moore Lappe

About the Author

Frances Moore Lappe is the author of seventeen other books including Diet for a Small Planet, which now has three-million copies in print. She is the cofounder of three organizations, including Food First: The Institute for Food and Development Policy and, more recently, the Small Planet Institute, a collaborative network for research and education, seeking to bring democracy to life, which she leads with her daughter Anna Lappé. They have also cofounded the Small Planet Fund, which channels resources to democratic social movements worldwide. Lappé appears frequently as a public speaker and is a regular contributor to Huffington Post and Alternet. The recipient of the Right Livelihood Prize and the James Beard Foundation’s “Humanitarian of the Year” Award, she works in Cambridge, Massachusetts.

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