By developing an ecomind, an outlook in which we shed certain “thought traps” of environmentalism, we can better implement a plan to heal our ailing planet.
In EcoMind (Nation Books, 2011), Frances Moore Lappé — 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. Lappé 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. The excerpt below comes from chapter 1, “Our Challenge — Developing an EcoMind.”
You can purchase this book from the MOTHER EARTH NEWS store: Ecomind.
“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. 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.
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. 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.
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. 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.
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.
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. 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.”
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.
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 planet-wide 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.
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!
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.
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. In the one hundred years of the twentieth century, humans used ten times more energy than we did in the previous 1,000 years. 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.
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 to curb climate change
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.
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.
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. 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.
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. 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.
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.
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?
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. 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. 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.
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. In India, the government shifted from top-down forest management, enabling forest management by tens of thousands of village forest-protection groups. 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.
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. (One dead zone in the Gulf of Mexico is often as large as the state of New Jersey.) 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.
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. 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. 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.
Other evidence of possibility?
Compared to industrial farming, organic methods generate one-half to as little as one-third as many greenhouse gas emissions. 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.
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. 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.
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.
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. In part Brazil’s success reflects Bolsa Família, a cash bonus introduced in 2003 that goes to poor families that keep their kids in school and make sure they have medical care—a huge boon to families whose survival might otherwise depend on their children’s labor.
Whether in a poverty-plagued Latin America or in the big, rich USA, commonsense strategies have worked to make advances against hunger and poverty.
So yes, we are in big trouble, but it’s not for want of answers. This is the second reason I’m a possibilist. Solutions are known and are within our reach.
Three: It’s not all locked up
Surely one reason it’s easy to feel defeated is that we’re not hearing about striking advances like these. Yet another is a common perception that the global power balance is so skewed that, in effect, “it’s all locked up.” We can feel shut out by an intimidating global corporate stranglehold whose grip, not our actions, feel all-determining. With corporate logos slapped on everything from tacky T-shirts to treasured public places—think Dunkin’ Donuts Civic Center or Cisco Field—it’s easy to feel that our planet is now strictly in global, corporate hands.
Here, too, our sights widen to possibility if we consider that giant corporations are not the only players in our economies.
While it’s true, for example, that a handful of corporations—Cargill, ADM, and Bunge—do dominate the global grain trade, it is also true that more than 85 percent of the world’s food is consumed in the country where it’s grown, according to UN agricultural data. Often it is sold within the same region—much of it outside the formal market system. And it turns out that most of world agricultural production isn’t the work of agribusiness, but of half a billion small farms, says the UN Environmental Program. We can also thank pastoralists, hunters and gatherers, and let’s not forget the 800 million urban and near-urban farmers and gardeners. In Japan’s metropolitan areas, for example, there are 2.5 million acres of farmland plots annually producing food valued at $28 billion.
So, to conceive of small producers as “marginal” is quite a stretch. They play a central role in food production.
In Latin America, the street vendors, urban food growers, craftspeople, and service providers of the informal economy created 85 percent of the jobs in the 1990s and roughly 50 percent in the last decade. And in India, despite the media’s focus on high tech, nearly 90 percent of Indians work in this informal economy. By contrast, information technology and outsourcing employ only a few million people in a population that exceeds 1 billion.
To see the world economy from a more realistic and empowering perspective, also note it’s likely that more people are members of cooperatives— one person, one vote—than own shares in publicly traded companies, based on one dollar, one vote. Cooperatives also provide one-fifth more jobs worldwide than do multinational corporations.
My point is neither to glorify the Global South’s often harsh, even horrific working conditions nor to imply that small producers aren’t affected by global marketing and processing corporations. It is simply to remind us that our economies are not all sewn up by centralized corporate structures. Even in the US, businesses with fewer than five hundred employees still produce roughly half of the gross domestic product that is private and not from farming.
Four: And a lot of people care
Finally, our problem is not a disinterested citizenry. Hardly.
While, as noted above, the share of Americans who say they “worry” about climate change has fallen, survey after survey shows widespread concern and desire for action. Even as the economic crisis hit in 2009, four in ten Americans still ranked the environment as a top priority. Just a few years ago, nearly 80 percent of us said we were “ready to make significant changes to the way [we] live to reduce climate impact.” And about 70 percent of people polled in twenty-one countries agreed.
In 2010, a Stanford poll found in the US that 86 percent of respondents wanted the federal government to act to limit air pollution from businesses, and 76 percent wanted legislation to limit the greenhouse gases that businesses can emit. And even though almost half of us believe (falsely) that there’s a trade-off between economic well-being and our environment, two-thirds of likely US voters in early 2011 agreed that renewable energy is a better long-term investment for our country than fossil fuel. Finally, two-thirds of us agreed, in response to a 2009 survey by the Glaser Foundation, that “America must play a leading role in addressing climate change . . . complying with international agreements on global warming.”
This is the fourth reason I’m a possibilist. Despite hand-wringing about our political divide, there’s a lot of evidence, documented throughout this book, that Americans yearn to be part of the solution.
If answers seem to be right in front of our noses, and our global economic reality isn’t as locked down as it can seem, and many people do care, what’s our problem?
It’s that too many of us feel powerless.
This is what we really have to worry about—for what good are proven answers if we don’t have the power to manifest them? If we can’t see how our individual acts can possibly count, given the enormous clout of those invested in the current course?
Almost nine in ten of us feel “big companies have too much power and influence in Washington,” and lobbyists and political action committees don’t fare much better in the public mind. When it comes to media, two- thirds of Americans share a basic distrust. We feel overpowered, dismissed, shut out of our home—democracy.
If you’re with me to this point, the next question is pretty obvious: How do we become powerful? How do we discover and build our power to create democratic decision making that responds to us?
I approach the answer this way: To get a grip on what’s robbing us of power, I ask myself, Who or what could be powerful enough to keep us creating, as societies, a world that as individuals we abhor—a world violating our deepest sensibilities and common sense? Over the decades, I’ve become convinced that the answer is not “those bad guys,” whether they are officials in Washington with whom we disagree or those threatening us from caves in Afghanistan.
As you now know, I see only one force that potent: the emotional power of our own ideas to trap us or to free us. This human quality of seeing the world through a particular lens is perfectly fine, so long as the ideas shaping our reality serve life. But what if they don’t? What if today, as our planet faces unprecedented threats, several dominant ideas—like the once tenaciously held notion that the sun circles the earth—aren’t serving us well at all?
For me, these dangerous ideas, together making up a coherent worldview, begin here:
At their core is the premise of lack, the notion that there just isn’t enough—of anything. Not enough food or fuel, jobs or jungles, parking spots or pandas, laughter or love. In fact, modern economics, now a dominant world religion, defines itself as the science of allocating scarce goods. And, unfortunately, even many environmentalists reinforce this view. In a recent call to action by environmentalists I admire, I read that all the stuff we use is made from something “scarce” that came from the earth and is produced by “scarce energy” from fossil fuel.
But perhaps even more debilitating than the notion that there just aren’t enough goods for our well-being is a parallel assumption: There isn’t enough goodness either. Our culture seems to whittle the human essence down to a caricature: We are selfish, materialistic, and competitive. At least, that’s all we can truly count on, and the way we’ve always been. Thus, even in accepting the Nobel Peace Prize, President Barack Obama informed the world—while contradicting archeological evidence—that “war, in one form or another, appeared with the first man.”
So, the worldview we absorb everyday is driven by a fear of being without—without either the resources or human qualities we need to make this historic turnaround. Within this Western, mechanical worldview that we absorb unconsciously, we are each separate from one another, and reality consists of quantities of distinct, limited, and fixed things. I think of it as the three S’s: separateness, scarcity, and stasis. That’s our world.
And what does this worldview look like when, in pure form, it drives a society?
In our country, in just one generation it has emerged in a philosophy that denigrates the public sphere—as in 1981 when Ronald Reagan, “the Gipper,” declared in his first inaugural address that “government is the problem”—while it celebrates individual self-seeking. Recall Gordon Gekko’s infamous “greed is good” line in 1987’s Wall Street? It captured for many Americans the spirit of the era, just as soaring sales of Ayn Rand’s me-first novels do today.
A result is an accelerating concentration of wealth, becoming so extreme that by 2005 Citigroup had named our economy a “plutonomy” because 1 percent of households control more wealth than the bottom 90 percent. government itself
The worsening stress and deprivation brought down on the majority of us only lend further credence to the worldview’s core tenet: lack.
This philosophy—fed today both by dominant political voices and by constant commercial messages—encourages us to see ourselves in endless competitive struggle, without the innate capacities to come together in common problem solving: in other words, lacking what democracy itself requires. While reversing our downward trajectory demands effective, responsive government more than ever, we’ve been absorbing the notion that government itself—not the forces making it less and less accountable to us—is our problem. In sum, this worldview turns us not only against each other but against an essential tool we have in common to meet our common needs.
Once we distrust government, it then makes perfect sense to privatize everything we can—from schools to prisons to many aspects of war.
It wasn’t always this way. Growing up, I learned in public high school in Texas that democracy entails the coming together of differing perspectives to deliberate over what is best for all and then compromising until a path is chosen. In a 1964 poll, when asked whether they trusted the federal government to do the right thing all or most of the time, three out of four Americans responded positively.
Soon, however, a take-no-prisoners politics took hold that is the logical extension of a worldview of endless competitive struggle.
In it, the democratic process is without intrinsic value. It is a means to further one’s pre-set ends—discarded when it gets in the way: as in early 2011, when Michigan passed legislation permitting the governor to declare a municipality in financial crisis and to appoint a manager to “act for and in the place of the governing body.” One approving lawmaker called it “financial marshal law.”
The goal of politicians, in this view, is not to win a public debate or “make a deal” to achieve a legislative solution; it is to destroy the other side. “Politics is war conducted by other means. In political warfare you do not fight just to win an argument, but to destroy the enemy’s fighting ability. . . In political wars, the aggressor usually prevails,” writes David Horowitz in “The Art of Political War,” a pamphlet first distributed by Republican congressman Tom DeLay to his colleagues in 2000, later turned into a book, and updated most recently for Tea Party activists.
And, sure enough, politics has become more and more warlike. In this frame, blaming the other becomes standard public discourse; compromise is treason.
Just as predictably, the public’s view of government reflects its ongoing denigration. By 2008, to the polling question above concerning one’s view of government, less than a third of us expressed trust, a drop of about 60 percent over four and a half decades. And by 2010, a CNN/Opinion Research survey found that 56 percent believed the federal government “poses an immediate threat to the rights and freedoms of ordinary citizens.” Now, that’s harsh! And among Independents and Republicans, about two-thirds held this damning view.
These extreme attitudes appear to some as only the latest partisan political trend. But central to the thesis of EcoMind is that they actually reflect a much deeper set of assumptions that extend across political boundaries and affect virtually all of us. They help to explain why many accept or even endorse policies that hurt them and benefit only those at the very top of the economic ladder, such as massive cutbacks in services and the refusal to tackle the environmental crisis. My hypothesis is that many of us fall in line because the “it’s my money” and “the individual is king” messages “click” neatly into a preformed emotional mind-set, one grounded in an assumption of lack and separateness.
It’s tempting for environmentalists, including me, to imagine that we’re untouched by this dominant frame of lack of “goods and goodness” with its presumed endless competitive struggle.
But we’re not. In EcoMind I explore seven widely held environmental messages and related ideas—some of them largely unspoken assumptions—that now shape our culture’s responses to the global environmental and poverty crises. In each case, I challenge their limiting premises because I believe they are still trapped in the dominant frame of lack and separateness, and I offer a reframing that I believe can help free us to find our power to create the world we really want.
One: Endless growth is destroying our beautiful planet, so we must shift to no-growth economies.
Two: Because consumers always want more stuff, market demand and a growing population drive endless exploitation of the earth.
Three: We’ve had it too good! We must “power down” and learn to live within the earth’s limits.
Four: Humans are greedy, selfish, competitive materialists. We have to overcome these aspects of ourselves if we hope to survive.
Five: Because humans—especially Americans—naturally hate rules and love freedom, we have to find the best ways to coerce people to do the right thing to save our planet.
Six: Now thoroughly urbanized and technology-addicted, we’ve become so disconnected from nature that it’s pretty hopeless to think most people could ever become real environmentalists.
Seven: It’s too late! Human beings have so far overshot what nature can handle that we’re beyond the point of no return. Democracy has failed—it’s taking way too long to face the crisis. And because big corporations hold so much power, real democracy, answering to us and able to take decisive action, is a pipe dream.
These seven “thought traps” are offered not as a definitive list but to encourage all of us to examine, and to reshape if appropriate, the stories we tell ourselves and others. Perhaps you’ve heard some or all of them stated explicitly or implicitly. You may agree with them, at least in part. If so, I invite you to suspend judgment for just a moment and to consider that even seemingly commonsense ideas can be dangerous—if they come across in ways that trigger self-defeating emotions, if they evoke fear and despair.
Or ignite guilt.
“Like all outlaws, we’re now being punished for our transgressions— and climate change is just the scariest of the retributions that may be visited upon us,” writes Jonathon Porritt, called by the UK’s Guardian “the most influential green thinker of his generation.” In a similar morality frame, many see the cause of the environmental crisis as the “insatiable consumer” or our “age of irresponsibility.” Unfortunately, such metaphors not only make us feel blamed but fix attention on character failings. They don’t help us to identify patterns of causation and the rules that create those patterns.
Dominant metaphors of much of contemporary environmentalism— like “power down” and “we’ve hit the limits”—coupled with our culture’s more subterranean assumptions about our separation from nature—fail to crack the worldview of “lack of goods and goodness.” They can feed instead the fear and division that sustain this disempowering worldview.
Moreover, they fail to offer emotionally compelling alternative ways of seeing challenges and their rich, positive possibilities. This is a huge shortcoming, since we humans are creatures of meaning: We don’t jump into a meaning void: We must see a new path in order to leave the old.
An ecological lens.
Fortunately, there is another way of seeing now opening to us and, through it, a new pathway. We can see the world and our place in it through the lens of ecology. Ecology is, after all, simply the relationships among organisms and their environment.
With this lens we leave behind any fixation on quantities of limited things. We see that ours is not a finished, fixed world of distinct entities but an evolving and relational world. Through an ecological worldview, we realize that everything, including ourselves, is co-created moment to moment in relation to all else. In the words of visionary German physicist Hans-Peter Dürr, “There are no parts, only participants.”
At its deepest, this insight lies at the heart of ancient wisdom traditions as well as the newest thinking in physics, biology, and neuroscience.
Despite literature in the field of experimental neuroscience still “dominated by ‘top down–bottom up thinking,’” our brains are “feeding back to and directly linking regions that were not known to communicate with one another,” report University of Southern California professor Larry Swanson and colleague Richard Thompson. They are discovering, instead of top-down control, something more like “vast networks such as the internet,” where there is neither top nor bottom.
Echoing their insights is Oxford physiologist Denis Noble in The Music of Life. In biological systems, he writes, “there are no privileged components telling the rest what to do. There is rather a form of democracy [involving] every element at all levels.” The shape of life, Noble explains, emerges through the interactions of all of the components of the system with each other.
Separateness is therefore the illusion; notions of “fixed” or “finished” are also fanciful. Mutually created and ever changing—that is reality.
In the dominant coherent, yet self-defeating, way of seeing, the “environment” is something outside of ourselves that needs help, really fast. From this standpoint, one perceives oneself as joining and enlisting others in an environmental movement to rescue the planet.
But as we rethink the premises underlying this worldview, we move to a different place altogether—a place where we experience ourselves and our species embedded in nature. We discover, for example, that not only do we exist in a habitat, we are a habitat. In our mouths alone live more than seven hundred species of bacteria, pioneering biologist E. O. Wilson informs us. And thankfully so, as they help fend off pathogens. In fact, Wilson reports, “most of the cells in our bodies are not human but bacterial.”
With an ecomind, we move from “fixing something” outside ourselves to re-aligning our relationships within our ecological home.
Of course, I’ll understand if you have big doubts about whether we humans are capable of remaking our mental frames, especially since they often lie beneath our conscious awareness. So, as a reminder of our capacity to shift perspective and its consequences, I invite you right now to try a little experiment.
Lift one hand in front of your face, palm toward you, and let your fingers part slightly to allow a bit of space between them. Focus close in, just on your palm and fingers. When I do this, I see mostly my hand, and that’s it. Now, ask me to observe the room without moving my hand, head, or eyes. Suddenly, I realize I can. Even with my hand in front of my face, I can see the entire room by merely shifting my focus, if I choose.
Similarly, we as a species may be able to shift our focus and choose a new context for viewing our world. We can see the environmental catastrophe within a vastly bigger “room”—one that connects us with all around us.
But is such dramatic change possible?
I believe we’re capable of gigantic shifts of perception, including some very sudden ones. Even as I write in early 2011, Westerners’ long-held perception of Middle Eastern autocrats being in firm control shattered in a matter of weeks. But what really allows us to believe in the possibility of remaking core assumptions is, of course, our own direct experience.
Sometimes it takes a huge jolt. When I was twenty-six, newspaper headlines and world hunger experts everywhere were showering us with the scary news: Human numbers were hitting the limits of the earth’s capacity to feed us. Massive famine was around the corner.
Were they right? I had to know. So I began contrasting these pronouncements with the data I was digging up. And soon I sat in shock: What? Scarcity isn’t the cause of hunger? It seemed impossible to believe, but yes, food was then, and still is, abundant. Redrawing that piece of my mental map led to new questions and more shifts of perception.
Today, I believe the majority of us are experiencing psychic dislocation, or what psychologists call cognitive dissonance, that unsettling feeling that one’s world just doesn’t fit together anymore. Perhaps never in human history have such waves of shock, threat, and hope—from global climate disruption to financial collapse to democratic revolutions—arrived simultaneously for so many. So my hunch is that if there were ever a moment in which big, society-wide change might be possible, this is it.
At moments like these, some long-standing assumptions suddenly seem inadequate, even useless. Imagine poor Greenspan, once the revered head of the US Federal Reserve, whose seeming ability to foresee changes in the financial markets had earned him the nickname “Oracle.” In 2008, confronted with one of the greatest financial free falls in American history, he had to acknowledge a “flaw” in his view of how the world works. What cracked, said the New York Times, was Greenspan’s “resolute faith” that those participating in financial markets would act responsibly.
A moment of dissonance can be terrifying. But it can also be a great gift—a liberating whack. As long-held blinders fall away, we can see what in “normal” times was hidden. We can choose to freeze in fear and retreat. Or we can see ourselves and the world with fresh eyes. As we make big “leaps of thought,” we can move from disempowerment and despair into an upward spiral of empowerment and honest hope. With new clarity, suddenly we have real choice—maybe for the first time.
So, in EcoMind, I probe and challenge the seven thought traps above. My hope is that this exploration can help us all to realize the most stunning implication of an ecological way of seeing: endless possibility. Now, to feel the freedom of an ecomind in our bones, let’s probe those thought traps holding us back, take some big leaps—and then explore the ground on which we land.
This excerpt has been reprinted with permission from EcoMind: Changing the Way We Think, to Create the World We Want by Frances Moore Lappé and published by Nation Books, 2011. Buy this book from our store: EcoMind.