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Hope is what we become in action, by Frances Moore Lappé

I posted Derrick Jensen’s controversial piece on hope a few weeks ago. This week, I want to explore another person’s perspective on the subject. Adapted by the Center for Ecoliteracy, Hope is What We Become in Action is a fascinating interview with Frances Moore Lappé, author of Diet for a Small Planet and Ecomind. Lappé speaks of the need to rethink the way we communicate and perceive the ecological crisis on a foundational level. I’ll highlight several parts of the interview I found interesting:

Perpetuating a Culture of Fear

“The premise of scarcity creates a culture driven by fear. That puts us in a perpetual state of feeling we’re in competition over crumbs — creating a spiral that intensifies, as everyone feels that they have to get theirs before it all runs out. The message of “hitting the limits” is especially scary for people who are just at the edge of survival themselves, which is the case for most people on Earth… I’m very sensitive to messages that make people feel more fearful.”

Reflecting on her own experience, Lappé came to realize that the metaphor of a finite world is an ineffective frame with which to communicate the need for change. It’s an interesting and thoughtful take, and one I’m increasingly inclined to agree with: I can see messages of limits and scarcities, as potentially true and dire as they are, helping to reinforce an underlying cultural narrative of inevitable decline and collapse. Popular culture in the past decade is replete with stories of post-capitalism dystopias, futures where social breakdown is seen as an immutable law, broken worlds where nothing new is created and shambling husks of once men receive no compassion from scavengers who live by making morally disgusting choices. (I personally hate zombies and what they intentionally or unintentionally represent – This post, titled Why I’m not down with the whole zombie apocalypse thing, neatly sums up my thoughts)  The possibility that messages for change could contribute to this narrative saddens me, as selfishness, dehumanization, and inaction are all qualities that work against the cultivation of strong communities and ethical human beings.

 Good Growth, Bad Growth

I also don’t like saying that growth is the problem, because for most people, growth is really positive. You love it when your grandchildren grow, your love grows, your flowers grow. We should not bless what we’re doing now with the term “growth.” We should call it what it is, an economy of waste and destruction.

 The challenge is not, “How do we pull back?” but, “How do we remake our human-made systems to align positively with what we know creates sustainable and resilient communities?”

Lappé goes on to unpack the perception of growth. Environmentalists have long vilified growth while economists have sung its virtues as the solution to every major problem (This is a generalization, but a significant amount of discourse does exist at this level). But it’s important to note that not all growth is equal. Personal growth that leads to maturity and enlightenment? Probably a good thing.  Malignant biological growth that leads to dysfunction and death? Definitely to be avoided. Lappé touches on this necessary and critical distinction, differentiating between economic growth that is senseless and actively harmful to life, and a form in service of personal, societal, and environmental wellbeing. By reframing the issue, she makes a case for the need better and more purposeful form of growth by asking us to reflect upon our needs and construct systems that allows that growth to shape a more sustainable and resilient future.

 Enacting a Narrative of Hope

My fundamental realization when I wrote Diet for a Small Planet at age twenty-six — though I didn’t have the language then — was that we create the world according to the mental maps we hold. We hear the cliché “Seeing is believing,” but we should realize that “Believing is seeing.” I’ll quote Albert Einstein: “It is theory which decides what we can observe.”

As I wrote in the essay on Rambunctious Garden: Saving Nature in a Post-Wild World, human beings enact the narrative we are given. Lappé voices a similar sentiment here with her realization of mental maps. Given a story based on decline and scarcity, we hoard things in fear of their scarcity. We steep ourselves in despair. We search out others to blame for the predicament we find ourselves in.

Lappé wants us to adopt a new story, one based on empowerment, mutual accountability, and hope. Her definition of hope is “not what we find in evidence; it’s what we become in action.” In other words, hope to her is not a thing to be found, nor is it as Jensen believes, a longing for a future that robs one of agency and power. Rather it is the embodiment of a process built upon an acceptance of change, connectedness, and co-creation. One gains hope and becomes empowered through the acts of doing and becoming.

There’s a lot more contained within the conversation, especially at the end where Lappé discusses definitions of power and the idea of a living democracy. I invite you to check it out and share your thoughts. What do you think on the distinctions of growth? Do you think that communicating ideas of scarcity and limits is useful in affecting change? What do you think of Lappé’s definition of hope?

Related Ekostories:

Header image from wikimedia commons, by pro2.


  1. Lappe is on the same page as others who recognize that hope is not simply wishful thinking. Hope is ‘confident expectation in a change in direction’.

    Sherwin Nuland, is a surgeon, author and inspirational TED Talks speaker. Nuland speaks of moral imagination and the world as a patient in its original sense. We are the healers of the world through compassion, commitment, and persistence.

  2. Karen Wan says

    I agree with Lappe’s definition of hope, and think she (and you) are on the right track in moving away from fear-based narratives. Still, it’s difficult when there is a powerful mindset of so many people in the world struggling to survive. That’s why I have to read about the Findhorn’s of the world on a regular basis to motivate myself to keep moving into more hopeful action. Thanks for this thoughtful post, Isaac!

    • I think this line of thinking applies more to people who don’t have to worry about where their next meal comes from. It’s more to do with shifting the mindsets of those who have a large footprint and have the capacity to make change but are not doing it.

      As always, appreciate your thoughts Karen.

  3. I agree that in the popular media there are too many bleak “visions” of what the potential future holds in store for us and the planet. I do, however, feel that we have a gift for bringing into reality the world we imagine, but care must be exercised in what we anticipate.

      • Isaac, I’m not sure if I can stop at a little bit, but will try. What I value from the science fiction genre is its anticipatory function…imagining what the future holds for life in general. As you referenced, lately we are being flooded through film, television, and books with these extremely bleak visions of a ravaged, post-apocalyptic world where homo sapiens are struggling to survive against all the odds. Many of these shows are among our most popular. Can it be more than just entertainment or coincidence that these shows are appearing now? I wonder if there are themes that can enter the broader consciousness and play out like thought experiments that also act as dress rehearsals for the future? If we consistently imagine and believe the world will be an awful place…will it make it so?

        • Thanks for expanding on your thoughts, Al. I have wrestled with your questions as well. Here are some of my non-scientific thoughts:

          I think there have always been grim apocalyptic narratives throughout human history. But I think the popularity of narratives with specific elements (post-capitalism worlds, zombies, survivalism etc.) is not random. There is some basis for it, and I think it is primarily due to a lack of a solid and universally appealing vision for the future. It is much easier to imagine the breakdown of the familiar than it is to imagine the workings of something completely new.

          I want to stress that sometimes stories are just stories; it’s not always good to be too serious about extracting patterns and trends from things that are meant to be shallow entertainment. But it’s also important to be cognizant of the power popular culture has on our collective behaviour and attitudes.

          As for your last question, my gut says yes, but within certain limits. What those limits are, I don’t know. I have to give it more thought.

  4. This comment says it all: “Lappé’s wants us to adopt a new story, one based on empowerment, mutual accountability, and hope.” That’s how you effect change.

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