For the last 20 years, John Robbins has been a world-renowned authority on sustainable living. While many in the “green” movement gloss over the real inconvenient truths, Robbins works tirelessly to raise awareness of those truths. While most who claim to care about the environment have carbon footprints that are nothing to be proud of, Robbins and wife Deo started treading lightly on the planet back in the late 1960s.
Robbins became a household name after the publication of his book Diet For A New America, a groundbreaking work which lifted the lid on the cruelty involved in the factory farming industry and also the health and environmental hazards this industry has to answer for. The book went on to become an international bestseller. In the 2001 book The Food Revolution, he expanded on those themes, including the far-reaching environmental implications of the modern, meat-based, processed diet.
Here he talks to Sarah Best about the challenges facing our planet and the easiest steps each of us can take to ensure we are part of the solution not part of the problem.
For those readers who may not know your story, could you briefly describe your privileged upbringing and what led you to turning your back on that lifestyle in early adulthood and passing up considerable wealth in the process? My father and uncle started Baskin Robbins, the “31 Flavors” ice cream company, in 1945, two years before I was born. As I grew up, and it became the world’s largest ice cream company, my Dad groomed me to succeed in it. I was the only son – I had sisters but no brothers – and my father was an old-fashioned guy so his expectation was all on me. As a kid I worked in the company in many different departments learning all about it. We even had an ice cream cone shaped pool in our back yard!
By the time I was into my late teens I was starting to think for myself. I began to question whether the path my father had paved for me was in fact the right one for me. It was extremely appealing financially of course, but it seemed to me to run counter to my feelings about myself, the world and social responsibility.
So at 21 I not only walked away from the place waiting for me in the company; I also told my father I didn’t want to benefit from his wealth anymore. I knew I wasn’t strong enough then; that my values were not developed enough to withstand the temptation, so I had to make a clean break. I couldn’t be tethered to the ice cream company either through working there or through accepting my father’s money.
How did it come about that you moved so far in the other direction and started living the ultimate in sustainable lifestyles, decades before most people even had any concept of why that might be a good idea? I needed to separate myself from the Baskin Robbins empire and my parents’ expectations of me and how they wanted me to live. I wanted the opportunity to send my roots down into the earth and to live on, with and for the earth, appreciating the seasons and rhythms and the way those interconnect with the rhythms of our own bodies.
I met my wife Deo when I was 20 and she was 19. We’ve been married for 41 years now. We both grew up in cities and felt pretty divorced from the natural world. We had a desire to see if we could live a lifestyle that was truly sustainable and, if so, whether that could be fulfilling. So in 1969 we moved to an island off the coast of British Columbia and built a one-room log cabin which we lived in for 10 years. We grew 95% of our own food, everything we grew was entirely organic, and we lived very simply. It was very beautiful. Although the phrase “carbon footprint” didn’t exist back then, ours was very small.
We didn’t have a lot of land so we couldn’t graze cattle. We probably could have had some chickens but we didn’t want to; we wanted to experiment with a vegan diet. It was an experiment in a form of agriculture that was as non-resource-dependent as possible.
We were redefining what success meant. We didn’t use money to measure the richness of our lives. I would suggest that when you use money as the only way to do that, that is actually a deeply impoverishing way of experiencing life. A few years after leaving the island I wrote Diet For A New America and that book came out of my experiments in living sustainably.
Was your initial decision to experiment with a vegan diet for compassionate reasons as well as environmental ones? Yes. I’ve always loved animals. I connect beautifully with cats and dogs and any animals I get to experience. I have known animals who’ve felt like family to me and those relationships have enriched me as a human being.
Why is it that we call some animals “pets” and treat them as a member of our family and get so much back from them, and call others “dinner”? Why is it that if animals are on the wrong side of that arbitrary line we feel justified in treating them with any level of cruelty so long as it lowers the price per pound? It is a profound disconnect.
You don’t have to be a vegetarian nor even a particularly compassionate human being to be appalled at the level of cruelty that is involved in modern meat production if you actually see it. You don’t have to be a wild-eyed animal rights activist to just cringe from it. It is a violation of the human-animal bond. It is a violation of something in our spirit. We are more connected to the web of life than we realize and when we do that to our fellow creatures, it does something to us too. Very few people actually favour animal cruelty. Yet each time we buy something we are sending a message to the producer that we approve; we are saying “Do it again”.
Isn’t it also interesting that the ethical arguments around not eating meat are so strong yet the environmental ones are equally strong? Neither needs the other to prop it up; each stands on its own as reason enough to follow a plant-based diet. Yes, and they are also totally congruent. It is rare in life that something is this clear; usually there’s at least some trade-off. But what’s best for animals is also best for us and for the planet. The whole discussion regarding the environmental impact of modern meat production was something I brought forward in Diet For A New America and have been working to raise awareness of ever since then. It has had quite a boost in the last few years.
In 2006, the Food and Agriculture Organization (FAO) of the United Nations released a report entitled Livestock’s Long Shadow. It looked at the direct impact of meat production and also at the impact of the feed crop agriculture required for meat production.
The report stated that meat production is the second or third largest contributor to environmental problems at every level and at every scale, from global to local. It is responsible for land degradation, air pollution, water shortage, water pollution, species extinction, loss of biodiversity and climate change. Henning Steinfeld, a senior author of the report, stated, "Livestock are one of the most significant contributors to today's most serious environmental problems. Urgent action is required to remedy the situation.”
Al Gore, in his documentary An Inconvenient Truth, ignored this whole issue completely. He hasn’t changed his position since, despite the UN coming out with this massive report. When is Gore going to get it?
The FAO report is considered the most definitive, comprehensive and reliable assessment we have. And it states that livestock production generates a staggering 65% of the nitrous oxide produced by human activities, and this greenhouse gas has an even more staggering 296 times the Global Warming Potential of carbon dioxide. The FAO concluded that overall, livestock production is responsible for 18% of greenhouse gas emissions, a bigger share than that of transport. What that means is meat production contributes more to global warming than all the trucks, cars and planes in the world combined.
The Live Earth concert handbook stated that “Refusing meat is the single most effective thing you can do to reduce your carbon footprint.” Even Environmental Defence, a group which has justifiably been called Bush’s favourite environmental group, calculates that if every meat eater in the US swapped just one meal of chicken per week for a vegetarian meal, the carbon saving would be equivalent to taking half a million cars off the road.
In 2006, a University of Chicago study found that a vegan diet is far more effective than driving a hybrid car in reducing carbon footprint. “Vegetarianism is the new Prius” is a phrase I heard recently. But it’s actually more effective than driving a Prius. If you’re going to drive a car a hybrid vehicle is the way to go, there’s no doubt about it. But as the FAO report stated, all the SUVs, Hummers, trucks, ships and planes in the world contribute less to the problem than meat. The meat-eating Prius driver has a bigger carbon footprint than the vegan Hummer driver, not that there are probably too many of those!
So there you have the first third of the interview. John also addresses the question of whether the labels "organic", "free-range", "grass-fed" and "locally-produced" put animal products into the ethical/sustainable category (the answer is no and he explains why) and whether eating fish is a sustainable choice (ditto). Other topics John shares his wisdom on:
- Despite these urgent warnings, worldwide meat production is increasing at an alarming rate: he explains what is driving it and why it can't continue
- The link between meat consumption in affluent countries and starvation in poor countries
- Why your personal decision to live your life consciously has a greater impact than you think
- Besides eating a plant-based diet, John shares the other things he and his family do to ensure they are living as sustainably as possible
To download the newly-released Summer 08 issue instantly or order the print version for immediate dispatch, go here. You will also find a full list of other features in the issue. Alternatively that can be viewed here on the blog, in yesterday's entry.