"Hope Is Not for Wimps"

By Frances Moore Lappé

As a cheerleader in Texas in the late '50s, I can still remember the thrill--bouncing into the air with my bright orange pom-poms. I loved getting students off their seats with excitement, making the stands roar.

Now looking back, I realize that I took my job very seriously. It was, like my mom's, to keep everyone's spirits up, to focus on the possible. I kept at that task, but by the late '60s, I found myself trying the approach with something far, far more challenging than an always-losing football team.

Putting an End to Hunger

How about world hunger?

Lappé cites the success of microcredit in Bangladesh as a reason for hope  [Anna Lappé]

I sought to prove there were solid grounds for hope that we human beings could put an end to hunger. And, in a sense, I succeeded: I demonstrated what is still true, that there is more than enough food in the world to make us all chubby. Human beings are creating the very food scarcity we say we fear, I argued. So solutions are at hand: For starters, we can stop feeding so much grain to livestock, which return to us in meat on our plates only a tiny fraction of nutrients we feed them.

I was aware that without hope we human beings die, if not physically, certainly spiritually. So my self-appointed task of spreading hope seemed pretty important. It's taken me three decades, though, to begin to understand that hope is not about cheerleading or even about stacking up the evidence.

I didn't get here easily. Actually, I was forced against my will to rethink hope. What bad luck, I thought, to be born a cheerleader by nature and yet alive during an era, the first in human evolution, in which we can watch--we can even chart--our planet's decline. One-third of fish species are threatened with extinction; 10 million children still die each year from preventable disease; the horror of slavery is again spreading; more people are dying in violent conflict than ever before; polar ice caps are melting even faster than scientists had predicted.

Where's hope in that picture?

There's none. But, I found, it's not that picture to which we turn for hope. Hope isn't in any picture, in any static accounting. Hope, I learned, is more verb than noun. It is action. Hope is not what we find but what we ourselves become. But how?

The answer has become clear to me as a consequence of an extraordinary blessing: With my daughter/coauthor at my side, I traveled five continents to write the 30th-anniversary sequel to my first book, Diet for a Small Planet. Ours turned out to be a story book, stories of people in nine countries pushing the edge of hope, showing that it's possible to get at the root of our most staggering social and environmental problems.

The people we met are all very different; but they have one important thing in common. Each had experienced a "moment of dissonance," as we came to call it, in which they awakened to the disconnect between their inner lives--their deepest values and needs--and the outer world. They acknowledged that the world being created (notice the passive voice) is not the world any of us want.

In such a disorienting moment we each have a choice. Do we stuff those awful, sinking feelings and just go on? Or do we listen to them and choose anew? Do we go on in denial, or do we break free? Do we risk acting out of our deeper sensibilities, even if it means--which it usually does--disrupting comfortable routines and breaking with at least some people close to us?

For example, in Kenya we met Wangari Maathai. In 1977, she saw deforestation spreading and planted seven trees on Earth Day to fight the encroaching desert. Realizing that it would take a huge movement of villagers to succeed, she approached government foresters. "Oh no," they told her, "villagers don't know how; only foresters can plant trees." Well, that was 20 million trees ago, all planted by village women.

Women with the Green Belt Movement sort seeds at a tree nursery in Kenya

These women--part of the Green Belt Movement--like hundreds of others we met on our journey, had every reason for hopelessness. Wangari and Kenyan villagers faced political corruption and one of the country's worst droughts. They faced grinding poverty, made worse by the free fall in the world price of the export crop--coffee--the villagers we met have depended on for income.

Yet, these women were among the most hope-full people I've ever encountered. Their spirits sang along with their voices and their dancing feet. They were not only planting trees but reclaiming traditional African food crops to free themselves from dependency on the speculative world commodity market. In a culture where many women report being beaten by their spouses, they are standing up to their husbands. Many are choosing to have fewer children. Their T-shirts are emblazoned with the simple Green Belt slogan: "As for me, I've made a choice."

Perhaps most of us are looking for hope in all the wrong places. And maybe this is one reason the World Health Organization reports that depression is now the fourth leading cause of disability and premature death. In less than 20 years, it will place second. Maybe we've been looking for hope in evidence--in tallying up the positive and weighing it against the negative. Hope is something else. Hope is what we do.

My daughter and coauthor, Anna, loves to say that she used to think hope was for wimps, for people who couldn't face just how bad things are. Now, through our journey, we see the opposite to be true: Hope is not for wimps. It's only for the strong of heart. For it's what we become when we, like the Green Belt women, make a choice. When we choose to listen to ourselves, risk-and then learn to sing and cry at the same time.

Frances Moore Lappé is author or coauthor of 14 books, including the best-seller Diet for a Small Planet and its sequel Hope's Edge. She is the cofounder of two organizations that focus on food and the roots of democracy.