I'd been preparing for a speech by devouring literature about the global environmental catastrophe—50 species disappearing daily and ice caps melting way faster than experts had predicted.
The messages were tough: Hey, you Americans, the party's over. Be more responsible and less greedy. Give up your toys and wake up to the disaster happening around us. “Power down” and stop trying to get your status from acquisition. Remember, you've had it easy compared to the rest of the world.
Inside I'd felt tight, frightened, and guilty.
Then I got a call from Helen Whybrow, host of the Mad River Valley, Vermont, event at which I'd been preparing to speak. All she really wanted was reassurance that I understood the nature of the event. “Each fall our Center for Whole Communities puts on a Harvest and Courage Celebration,” she explained.
That was it. All it took were these few words, and my body eased and heart lifted. In my mind's eye, I could already see hundreds of Vermonters (among whom I will always count myself, having been one during the '90s) filling a huge barn to share steaming bowls of soup, homemade bread, and pies. Together, we'd dig deep for answers to our global crises and take strength in our common search.
I've spent much of my life focused on learning that, in regard to world hunger, fear and guilt don't truly motivate systemic change. Sometimes they have the exact opposite effect. Telling people “no” can intensify our craving, our grasping for even more before it's all gone.
Yet many impassioned, well-intentioned environmentalists believe that now we must sound the shrillest possible alarm, for Americans are asleep—unaware of the now near certainty that unless we cut carbon emissions by 80 percent by 2050 or earlier, the consequences of climatic disruption will be catastrophic.
But what if many of our messages are themselves trapped in mechanistic and moralistic thinking that helped get us into this mess in the first place? And what if, to make this historic turn seem possible—even compelling—we changed the way we talk and think about it?
Instead of scolding people for being wasteful, we encourage ourselves and others to shed a belief system that denies us power and happiness, and keeps us on a treadmill wasting the Earth's plenty. In that inefficient system, only 6 percent of the material extracted and processed actually ends up in products we use. Rather than “power down” we can offer ways to “align with the Earth's answers.” After all, the sun provides daily doses of energy 15,000 times what we currently use from fossil sources. The message might also shift from “simplify” to enrich and diversify as we make new connections in our heads and in our communities, as we learn new skills and ways of being. The challenge becomes less about restriction and more about trusting our common sense and curiosity.
For its event, the Center for Whole Communities links “harvest” with “courage” with “celebration.” For me, the three words capture it all: We can harvest the abundance that is our home if we have the courage to break away from the dominant culture of waste and destruction and to walk with our fear of the unknown and of being different. These natural fears are the dark side of our beautifully social nature; but we can tame our fear of separation as we make new connections in communities of common purpose—instead of common purchases. Then we can celebrate. For—who knows—we may just be able to make this historic turn.
Frances Moore Lappé is a YES! contributing editor and author of many books, most recently Getting a Grip.