Frances Moore Lappé takes on big issues in big ways with important results. In her mid-20s, she set out to understand why there is hunger in the world. The result was Diet for a Small Planet, which sold millions of copies. It challenged the notion that hunger comes from scarcity, presciently explained the ecological problems of food production, and put solutions and choice within the reach of ordinary people. Not content with explaining the problem and suggesting solutions, she cofounded the Institute for Food and Development Policy (Food First) to conduct analysis separate from government and industry, to advocate for policies that emerged from that analysis, and to support others in similar efforts. Within four years, the pattern was set for a career of important contributions to public discussion and social change: big questions; a radical approach that cuts through the mythology that passes for answers and seeks to go to the root of the problem; leadership that nurtures mechanisms for holding accountable those in positions of authority; and support of innovation by those who step forward to take action. Successively, and somewhat simultaneously, Lappé has addressed poverty, democracy, and now, in this book, the environment with the same bold, insightful, and radical perspective that marked her first work on hunger.

Lappé begins EcoMind with a central question: “Is there a way of perceiving the environmental challenge that is at once hardheaded, evidence based, and invigorating—one that welcomes us to become engaged problem solvers?” Three premises lead to this question. First, our ability to solve a problem relates to how we perceive it, “how we frame it.” Second, our current thinking about our environmental challenges creates thought traps that suck the hope out of those concerned about the problem. And third, “if we believe there is no hope of overcoming a problem, many of us assume an uncaring posture to protect ourselves” (p. xi-xii). This question and its premises hold obvious importance for the readers of this journal. Lappé searches for a way through the problems—not around them—to a place where we can get our arms around some of their parts and wrestle them into submission. In many ways, Lappé deals with the analysis of paralysis, a recurring human problem.

Lappé explains our paralysis in terms of thought traps: core assumptions, lenses, frames, paradigms, and mental constructs “behind the dire media messages and texts” (p. xii). She takes on friends, such as Herman Daly, and the foes who advocate unfettered capitalism in order to expose seven thought traps. She counters these traps with “thought leaps” that are qualities of ecomindfulness. She provides many examples of ecomindfulness to make clear that she is not advocating sterile or abstract theory and analysis. Table 1 shows how we might shape and align these elements of her argument.


Richard A. Couto and Richard Morin/Solutions
Table 1

When Lappé assumes that how we frame a problem influences our hope of addressing it, she means not some nebulous or executive “we,” but the “we” as in “we the people.” She also goes deeper than other prescriptive analyses to examine the connection of power and knowledge. Even here she is different. Lappé is a possibilist. She sees hegemonic power as just another thought trap. In spite of the connection of knowledge and power, human beings have the possibility to reflect on the likely unsavory consequences of current trends, to set aside the overwhelming analysis of those trends that trap and disempower us, and to choose new ways of acting and thinking.

This is the point of the multiple examples of change that she provides. When we examine them, what do we find that makes change possible? First and foremost, change requires an emphasis on assets, rather than deficits. A fundamental deficit of democracy, manifest in the concentration of social power, underlies the current environmental crisis (p. 149). This leads to another thought trap, which Lappé implies, namely, that we don’t have the power to do anything about the problems we face because those who are powerful have all the power. Lappé places this self-fulfilling prophecy among the “premises of lack”—a deficit approach that obfuscates and undermines the assets, in this case power, that “we the people” do have. This asset approach needs to couple with the other factor needed for change: what Lappé calls civil courage. Civil courage “is the capacity to do what is right regardless, even if we have to stand alone…Extraordinary actions [such as the protests that brought down the Berlin Wall] depended on the courage of the first few willing to step up, to be different” (p. 188). Lappé lays down two markers for the success of civil courage. First, we need to believe that everyone has it within them. Second, we need a theory of how to tap it.

Lappé begins her theory of civil courage with the work of social psychology that explains that our desire to belong can create a fear of being the only one to differ with the apparent unanimity of a group. On the other hand, the desire to belong may also encourage us to join others who may express differences before we do. Similarly, research shows that when we have companions our estimation of a task is less onerous than when we do not. Finally, Lappé cites neuroscience and its findings that our brains experience courage when we observe others acting courageously and others experience it when they observe us acting the same way.

We might develop this theory further if we examined two other thought traps, one that Lappé implies, about power, and another that she does not deal with, leadership. If we align these as we did earlier, it would look like Table 2.


Richard A. Couto and Richard Morin/Solutions
Table 2

Nothing occupies Lappé’s attention more than power. The index entries on power, empowerment, and variations exceed those on ecology and environment combined. The myth of power, in Lappé’s estimation, strips us—the “we” of “we the people”—of power. So what is the “hardheaded, evidence-based, and invigorating” perception of power that enables ordinary people to engage in solving problems, even the problem of power? It is the plethora of examples of what Lappé calls co-creating power. It is the capacity within everyone to understand that they have the gifts and ability to take an initiative on behalf of the shared values and common benefit of human happiness aligned with a sustainable ecosystem.

Conspicuously absent from Lappé’s treatment is leadership. Clearly, however, her thoughts on civil courage and co-creating power exemplify a new paradigm of leadership that contrasts sharply with conventional views of leadership, thought traps, linked to hierarchical, organizational forms and coercive power. This new paradigm separates coercive power, personal traits, and positions of authority—the attributes of leaders—and places emphasis on power with and within, collaboration, democratic processes of decision making, and non-constituted authority. Lappé extols all these characteristics. Leadership in this paradigm emphasizes action more than position, leading more than leaders.

This new paradigm of leadership occurs most frequently in the civic leadership found in civil society and provides some of the material for a theory of civil courage and co-created power for which Lappé searches. In many ways, Lappé’s work is a reflection upon civil society and the civic leadership we find there. It is the space of political life where ordinary people decide who they want to be and resist the encroachments of the state, the market, or their combination. Civic leadership, found in those who exercise civil courage and co-create power, contains the boundaries of the state and the market and, especially, their overlap, where politics and civil society may be commodified by economics or economics and civil society co-opted into an authoritarian state. In the space of civil society, we find challenges to the thought traps of the state (thin democracy) and the market (one-rule economies) as well as to those within civil society itself (the protection of individual rights and the common good). Civil society permits people to imagine new arrangements of political and economic power and new forms of representation and participation in the decision making of both the state and the market. In sum, the space of civil society, which defines civic leadership, has some degree of autonomy from government and economic actors. This means people have the freedom to envision and practice democratic forms of increased equality, representation, and participation in decision making on public matters.

We know the role of civil society from the countless radical and reform efforts in which it plays a central role. Lappé talks about some of these large and dramatic recent efforts, such as the velvet revolutions of the Soviet bloc and the Arab Spring. She is mindful of smaller and less dramatic examples, such as Save Our Cumberland Mountains and Kentuckians for the Commonwealth—two groups with whom I’ve worked—that carry on their efforts over years to the benefit of local areas. Regardless of size or issues, these efforts extended the mantle of dignity, made from the fabric of human and civil rights, to those denied it by social, economic, and political arrangements. Lappé makes dignity central to her argument about the link of democracy and ecomindfulness. “For me dignity is the most democratic of sensibilities… Because it carries within it the assumption of ‘voice’” (p. 170). In the space and history of civil society we find the continuing voice for dignity, material for a theory of civil courage and co-created power, and the grounds for the possibilism that Lappé seeks to share with us.


Richard A. Couto

Richard A. Couto is Distinguished Senior Scholar of Ethical and Creative Leadership in the interdisciplinary PhD program of Union Institute & University. He was a Kellogg National Fellow from 1982–85....

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