Genius of Common Sense + Getting a Grip: Clarity, Creativity and Courage in a World Gone Mad

Genius of Common Sense book review A\J AlternativesJournal.ca Genius of Common Sense \ Glenna Lang and Marjory Wunsch

How do you change the world? Where do you start, locally or globally? For inspiration and a way out of the paralysis that stymies so many of us, two remarkable­ women – Jane Jacobs and Frances Moore Lappé – offer some practical­ ideas.

Jacobs, the late, great thinker, activist and author, is the subject of a new book written for people aged “10 to 100.” It is the story of how Jacobs’ seminal work, The Death and Life of Great American Cities, came to be written, and what shaped and influenced her life.

Younger readers will enjoy meeting Jacobs as an inquisitive, fearless child who never lost her propensity to think independently until the day she died in 2006, just a week shy of turning 90. The book’s title, Genius of Common Sense, is not hyperbole. Jacobs’ observations about what makes cities livable ran counter to urban theorists in New York City, where she lived at the time. Lacking a university degree, she wasn’t taken seriously until she began writing articles and making her voice heard in neighbourhood protests.

Augmented with photographs and pencil illustrations, Genius of Common Sense chronicles Jacobs’ life from her early years in Scranton, Pennsylvania, to her family’s move to Toronto during the Vietnam War – revealing how her activism grew from the strength of her convictions and her political savvy. The deliciously subversive but common-sense lessons in this book prod us to trust our own observations, challenge conventional wisdom, and protest with verve and imagination – and to remember to feed the people you’re organizing. (Jacobs’ post-protest dinners were legendary.)

Frances Moore Lappé used food too, but as her entry point into politics. As a young social worker in Berkeley, California, in the late 1960s, she began asking basic questions. Why, for example, were so many children hungry in such a wealthy country? The “experts” were saying that globally there were too many people and not enough food. But Lappé’s common sense said otherwise. She investigated food and hunger, which led to her hugely successful first book, Diet for a Small Planet – a big seller to this day.

Lappé’s questions and observations spurred many more books and the founding of several organizations linked to food policy, journalism and democracy. Her 16th book, Getting a Grip, is aimed at those who yearn to create positive change, but aren’t sure how to start. It’s also geared for those who have tried grassroots organizing or direct action, and are now stuck and want a new approach. It asks this overarching question: “Why are we as societies creating a world that we as individuals abhor?”

Part psychological analysis and part how-to, the book examines the mental traps that paralyze us. We know how to end suffering and have the resources to do it. So why can’t we create the world we all say we want? Lappé suggests that our ideas hold us back: “Our ideas about reality determine what we see, what we believe is possible, and what we become.” So if we change, then the world can change. Can’t it?

Lappé is not politically naïve. She challenges us to hold two apparently contrary truths at once: we need to encourage positive change at the corporate level, while at the same time recognizing that “no matter how conscientious the economic giants become, their concentrated power and ability to buy political influence contradict democracy.” In other words, democracy has to be remade into what she calls “living democracy,” a concept at the core of her beliefs. So how do you do that? Begin with small steps, she suggests. Connect your passions with the world’s needs, free yourself from mind traps, and begin to see the world with “clarity, creativity and courage.”

She invites us to join the conversation either online or by hosting discussion groups at home. The book includes pages of questions for discussion and many recommendations for further reading and web links.

For two iconoclasts who differ in style and approach, Jane Jacobs and Frances Moore Lappé share much, especially a passion for grassroots democracy. Their formidable intellects were each shaped by the experience of raising families and an engagement with their respective neighbourhoods, where real life challenged academic theory. Most importantly, Genius of Common Sense and Getting a Grip both offer inspiration and proof that anyone, with commitment and the right frame of mind, can make a positive difference.

Genius of Common Sense, Glenna Lang and Marjory Wunsch, Boston: David R. Godine, 2009, 128 pages

Getting a Grip: Clarity, Creativity and Courage in a World Gone Mad, Frances Moore Lappé, Cambridge, Massachusetts: Small Planet Media, 2007, 208 pages

This review originally appeared in New Eco Books, Issue 36.3. Subscribe now to get more book reviews in your mailbox!

Reviewer Information

Victoria-based Heather MacAndrew writes and produces documentary films using common sense as much as possible. See asterisk.ca.

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