Saturday, September 6, 2008

Getting Edgy 1: Hope

I had been looking at the newer books of Frances Moore Lappé and recently decided to get a couple out of the library and read them. I remembered there was one about 'Democracy' and one about 'Hope' and at least one of those books had the word 'Edge' in the title. But was it Democracy's Edge? Or Hope's Edge? Well, as it turns out, it was both.

Hope's Edge was written with Frances Moore Lappé's daughter, Anna Lappé. It's billed as 'The Next Diet for a Small Planet' and was released on the thirtieth anniversary of Diet for a Small Planet, the book that made Frances Moore Lappé famous. But while Diet for a Small Planet was mostly about world hunger and protein, with a lot of recipes (in some ways practically a cookbook), Hope's Edge is about people challenging the food system and it has more information and stories than it has recipes. It certainly does have recipes, however, with one or two following most chapters and a slew of them at the end of the book, most by classy chefs and restaurants, as well as famous cookbook authors Mollie Katzen (The Enchanted Broccoli Forest), Laurel Robertson (Laurel's Kitchen), and Anna Thomas (The Vegetarian Epicure).

Hope's Edge begins with a chapter on 'Maps of the Mind' which concludes with what the authors call, "Five Thought Traps": "One: The enemy is scarcity, production is our savior; Two: Thank our selfish genes; Three: Let the market decide, experts preside; Four: Solve by dissection; and Five: Welcome to the end of history." (The last one is a reference to Francis Fukuyama's book, End of History and the Last Man. The idea is that capitalism is triumphant and there are no more alternatives--from this point on it's capitalism forever.) The Lappés will debunk these 'traps' in the book's final chapter.

The second chapter of Hope's Edge is devoted to organic food in the Bay Area of California: from a expensive restaurant to an 'Edible Schoolyard' to a 'Garden Project' that has transformed prisoners and police. The fourth chapter is a short piece on Belo Horizonte, a Brazilian city that decided "food security" was a human right--and the ways they make sure that everyone gets enough to eat.

But most of the chapters are devoted to emerging movements and well-known activists around the world: MST in Brazil, Muhammad Yunus and the Grameen Bank in Bangladesh, Vandana Shiva and Navdanya in India, Wangari Maathai and the Green Belt Movement in Kenya, José Bové and the Confederation Paysanne in France, GreenPeace France, Susan George and ATTAC (world-wide), the Food Alliance in Oregon, USA, Organic Valley (also US), Home Grown Wisconsin (again US), and the Fair Trade movement from its origins in the Netherlands to its impact around the world. I'd heard a bit about many of these activists and movements before but Hope's Edge goes into detail about them as the Lappés travel the globe meeting the people involved.

There's a chapter on the Movimento dos Trabalhadores Rurais Sem Terra, the Brazilian Landless Worker's Movement--also known as MST. (Starhawk also devotes a good part of a chapter to MST in her book, Webs of Power, which I mentioned briefly in my post on Starhawk as a political theorist, 8/17/08.) Through much of the chapter, the Lappés, who are in Brazil meeting with leaders and members of MST, probe the organization to see how much of their cooperative stance is about real choice and how much is coercion by the Movement. They find that forty percent of the people who organize the settlements MST acquires choose to have completely private plots, a small percentage incorporate as cooperatives, and the rest mix the two by having a large common area as well as private plots. Apparently one of the reasons for the small numbers in cooperatives are suspicions that the small farmers 'won't be as free' in co-ops. But, as one farmer in the cooperative said, "...many want to come back because the cooperative is working." The Lappés note all the experimentation and self-education going on and conclude "...this creativity offers the most pursuasive evidence that coercion in the Movement is low. In my experience, coercion and creativity don't mix." They also note the influence of Paulo Freire on the education done within MST--encouraging critical thinking--as well as the influence of César Chávez on the organizing of the workers. They include numerous statements from the MST organizers that this is a movement about more than land and farming. One woman points out "...that every aspect of life has to be included--health, gender, education, leadership, philosophy..." while a man who is one of the leaders in the Movement claims the dominant culture tries to convince us that "...people are happy and important when they consume, and when they project their egoism and individualism. They tell us all we want is to consume." Then he says, "Human beings need something more to be happy." (I hope to learn more about MST and include it in a future post.)

In a similar way, the two women probe the Grameen Bank in Bengladesh (Bangali for "village bank") and its idea of "microcredit". Muhammad Yunus began Grameen by making very small, very low-interest loans to impoverished women as a way for them to get out of their poverty. As the Lappés note, Grameen "flipped banking on its head" with the owners of the bank being the members, the decisions about who gets loans being made by the village women, and using trust of the borrowers as the collateral. The goal is ending poverty and part of the process has become the 'Sixteen Decisions', which are pledges that the borrowers must take. Among them are keeping their family small, educating their children, growing vegetables all year round, and one that reads: "We shall not inflict any injustice on anyone, neither shall we allow anyone to do so." These pledges came from discussions with the borrowers. But while the Lappés appreciate Muhammad Yunus when he says things like his hope that someday "poverty will be seen only in a museum", they are concerned Grameen is not only moving people out of poverty, but creating consumerism. Anna Lappé devotes a sidebar to wondering whether lipstick sales in Bengladesh are a sign of progress or not. They end the chapter with mixed feelings about the 'evolving capitalism' at work here.

The chapter on India's Navdanya (it means 'nine seeds') movement begins with a brief interview with Vandana Shiva, a very busy woman fighting for water rights and biodiversity. She tells the Lappés that Gandhi's symbol for India's independence and liberation was the spinning wheel. Her next statement is: "So I asked myself, what's our spinning wheel?" Her answer was "the seed". With that the Lappés go on to visit Delhi, the Himalayan foothills, and the Punjab (which they describe as "the Indian version of our Midwest breadbasket"). In each place they meet with representatives of Navdanya and learn about their attempts to preserve agricultural diversity and restore organic farming in the face of an onslaught from agribusiness, biotechnology, chemical fertilizers, and pesticides--the whole Green Revolution package. The Lappés remain skeptical but are impressed when they meet a former pesticide/fertilizer salesman who changed because he was developing breathing problems and allergies from the chemicals he sold. Now he works with Navdanya. Frances is also impressed when she finds a poster extolling 'Living Democracy', the exact wording she used when she created the Center for Living Democracy. And they contrast with the work of Navdanya with meeting a government bureaucrat who brags about India's grain surplus, which they intend to export, rather than use to feed their starving people. "We already give too many subsidies to the poor," he says.

From India, the Lappés travel to Kenya where they meet with Wangari Maathai, Nobel Peace Prize winner and founder of the Green Belt Movement. On Earth Day, 1977, Wangari Maathai planted her first trees. The Green Belt Movement has planted more than twenty million trees since then, reversing decades of 'desertification'. (Wikipedia claims 30 million in 12 African countries.) But the Green Belt Movement has gone beyond planting trees--and is now teaching 'household food security: traditional gardening of sweet potatoes, arrowroot, pigeon peas, cassava, millet, and sorghum. They also teach civic education, using workshops on 'wrong bus syndrome', pointing out how people can be misled by others and the necessity of making choices. Toward the end of the chapter, Frances Moore Lappé asks the question, "If we're all on the wrong bus globally, how do we get off?"

From Africa, it's off to Europe, beginning with a chapter on the origins of the Fair Trade movement (and conversations with Dutch Fair Traders, Guatemalan coffee farmers, and the manager of a Nicaraguan coffee cooperative). Then in Brussels, Frances Moore Lappé talks with one of the creators of a Europe-wide sustainable development network who is helping to create "viable local answers to globalization". He introduces her to the term "multifunctionality" --which she describes as a 'clunky way' to talk about the many facets of agriculture: nutritious sustainance, preserving the environment, and reviving rural ways of life. Anna Lappé uses one of her sidebars to talking about how multifunctionality works in Poland where Jadwiga Lopata has created a network of organic farms that she is helping to preserve through 'eco-tourism'. The Lappés visit a French farmer who is part of the European sustainable agriculture network that is rejecting imported cattle feed, partly because it's grown in countries where people are starving. The women meet with a spokesperson for the Confederation Paysanne. (José Bové, one of their leaders, who became famous for his attack on French McDonald's, is in India with Vandana Shiva fighting the seed corporations--but the Lappés will meet him later in Wisconsin.) Confederation Paysanne is a farmers' union and represents a fifth of all French farmers--they are also a part of Via Campesina, a world-wide agricultural movement that also includes the MST in Brazil. The focus of Confederation Paysanne is on quality farming, an approach that includes concerns about food safety and environmental awareness, and which is contrasted with what they refer to as 'productivism', the industrial approach to farming. When they return to Paris, The Lappés are surprised everyone tells them they need to talk with the Greenpeace folks. They, like me, associate Greenpeace with protests against whaling and nuclear testing--but one of the current foci of Greenpeace's work is educating people about the risks associated with Genetically Modified Organisms (GMOs). Greenpeace has been successful in France in getting the government to oppose the cultivation of genetically modified Seeds. (Unfortunately, the Lappés also note that the US government actually has been helping introduce GMOs into our agriculture and is one of the few industrial countries that doesn't require labeling of GMO products.) Finally, they meet with Susan George, cofounder of the Association for the Taxation of Financial Transactions for the Aid of Citizens (better known by its acronym, ATTAC) which endorses a 'tiny tax' on foreign trade transactions worldwide (and since there is well over a *trillion dollars of these transactions *daily, these taxes could amount to a hundred billion dollars a year) to aid the poor and slow down speculative trading.

Finally, the Lappés return to the US to meet with Wisconsin farmers who are raising their cattle on pastures, not grain, and stopping the use of pesticides. One farming couple survives because they run their farm as a CSA (see my post of 7/24/08, Feeding Ourselves in the Future). They finally get to spend some time with José Bové (see the last paragraph), and visit the Willy Street Food Co-op in Madison where they learn about Organic Valley (also in my Feeding Ourselves in the Future post), the Food Alliance (which has a label for products where food companies demonstrate their concerns for the environment and their workers), and Home Grown Wisconsin, an organic farmers' co-op that sells their produce to Madison and Chicago restaurants.

But wait, there's more. Next: Ideas!

Quote of the day: "This kind of hope isn't clean or tidy. Honest hope has an edge. It's messy. It requires that we let go of all pat answers, all preconceived formulas, all confidence that our sailing will be smooth. It's not a resting point. Honest hope is movement." - Frances Moore Lappé
Word (or phrase) of the day: Normative
Hero(es) of the day: Sylvia Rivera

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