John Robbins and Joanna Macy, both crusaders for a life-sustaining world, have been friends for thirty years. In this conversation, both intimate and visionary, they explore ways they have continued over these many years to move and inspire each other. A global authority on the food crisis, Robbins is a leader in the movement to reclaim healthy and abundant food for all. He is a much sought-after keynote speaker and is the author of the international bestseller Diet for a New America (New World Library, 1987), as well as a number of other books. His most recent, written with his son, Ocean Robbins, is The Food Revolution: How Your Diet Can Help Save Your Life and Our World (Conari, 2011). [www.johnrobbins.info]
Eco-philosopher Joanna Macy, a frequent contributor to Inquiring Mind as a much-loved interviewee and writer, is a scholar of Buddhism, general systems theory and deep ecology. She has written many books, most recently, with Molly Brown, Coming Back to Life: The Updated Guide to the Work That Reconnects (New Society, 2014), which offers ways to transform denial, despair and grief in the face of the social and ecological challenges of our time. (See review in this issue of Inquiring Mind.) [www.joannamacy.net]
In June 2014, Inquiring Mind editors Barbara Gates and Wes Nisker joined Joanna Macy in her home in Berkeley, California, for this uplifting exchange with John Robbins, who participated by phone.
Joanna Macy: Well, John, I am so glad to have a chance to sit and reflect with you about our history together and our work. I met you exactly thirty years ago at a workshop I led with my husband, Fran, when you were just launching your remarkable career of service, teaching our world how to understand and grow our food.
John Robbins: I remember that we met shortly after the publication of your book on awakening in the nuclear age, where you taught us all how to use our grief and fear to mobilize and restore our commitment. You showed us how to find our path of action instead of being depressed by our predicament. I remember thinking, That’s exactly what I’m talking about in a different area of the planetary anguish. I immediately felt a deep kinship with you.
JM: I had just come back from Australia, where John Seed and I invented the Council of All Beings, a ritual where people are invited to step aside from their human identity to let other life forms speak through them. In that ritual we not only conceive of but also experience our “ecological self.” I’ll never forget how you and your family waltzed into that weekend. I think your son, Ocean, who was eleven at the time, spoke in the Council of All Beings for a mouse.
I also remember that you had a strong connection with Fran as a kind of father figure and it led you to speak about your father—and now I’m almost choking up as I think about this—you told us about your amazing life journey and what you walked away from. Tell the Inquiring Mind readers a little about your own Siddhartha story.
JR: As some may know, my father and uncle founded and owned the Baskin-Robbins 31 Flavors Ice Cream company. I was an only son and my father always expected that I would take over and run the business. I was the heir apparent and he groomed me to succeed him. But when I was twenty-one, I said to him, “Look, Dad, we live in a different world than when you grew up. We live under a nuclear shadow and at any moment the unspeakable could happen. The environment is deteriorating rapidly under the impact of human activities. Wealth is becoming concentrated in the hands of ever-fewer people, and the rich are often becoming so at the expense of human rights and the earth. Do you see that, for me, feeling these concerns as deeply as I do, inventing a thirty-second flavor would just not be an adequate response for my life?” Whether he understood or not, I decided to walk away from that business and all of the money that was there for me. Baskin-Robbins was a multibillion-dollar company, but I knew I wasn’t strong enough in myself to withstand the pressure of that much money. By walking away from it entirely, I began to feel freer and more true to myself, and in a much more ethical relationship to my father.
JM: When we met during the Council of All Beings workshop, you were already immersed in writing your own first book, Diet for a New America. You let me read portions of it, and I was so honored that you asked me to write the introduction for that first edition. What I recall is an overwhelming sense of your compassion for the suffering of the animals. You spoke about the outrage that the chickens felt, and how when eating chicken we would be eating their anger, or when eating beef eating the panic of the cows. And so the widening circles of your soul journey started with compassion.
JR: Yes, very much. I have always loved animals and it pains me greatly to see cruelty toward them. I want to also say that the novel Siddhartha, Hermann Hesse’s telling of the story of the Buddha-to-be, was one of the most important books of my life. I read it when I was in college in Berkeley in the ’60s. I remember reading it in one sitting and then staying up all night walking the streets so inspired by the message of the book.
I honestly think that Hesse’s telling of Siddhartha’s awakening, leaving the palace of his father, the king, played a pivotal role in my journey. Seeing the power of that book and some others on my life, I started to believe that maybe books could change the world; maybe books could help us see where we’re out of balance with ourselves and where the greatest healing can take place if we redirect our lives.
JM: You were accurate in your assessment of the power of books but I can’t imagine you could have expected the huge, resonating impact of your own book, which suddenly catapulted you into a position where millions of people all over the world were listening to what you had to say. What do you think it was that touched so many minds and hearts?
JR: The main message was that by eating lower on the food chain and eating less industrial meat, factory-farmed meat, we could do a lot of good things at once. Our bodies would be healthier. Our cardiovascular systems would be healthier. Our immune systems would be healthier. Really we would be more vibrant and resilient people. We would also be making a statement of significant compassion for animals, because animals are primarily raised today in confinement and in misery. If we take seriously that we are here to alleviate suffering or prevent suffering, and if we include in our circle of compassion the animals of this world who draw breath from the same source as we do, then by eating less meat or no meat or pulling away from factory-farmed meat, we have the opportunity to spare animals tremendous suffering while making ourselves healthier. We will also be lowering our ecological footprint, causing less air pollution, water pollution, soil erosion and deforestation—a tremendous benefit to the planet. So it is a win-win-win.
As we see in the world today, as people start to become a little more affluent, they want to eat more meat. That means using an extravagant amount of our food resource base to grow grain to feed the animals so that we, in turn, can eat them. But there is not enough rangeland on earth to produce the amount of meat that people want to eat. So it’s got to be done in feedlots and that means feeding them grain. Frances Moore Lappé revealed that it takes sixteen pounds of grain to make a single pound of feedlot beef. It’s a very inefficient feed conversion ratio. If we eat the grain or plant foods directly, we can feed a whole lot more people.
JM: I remember, John, how shocked I was to learn from you how much water is used to create a pound of meat.
JR: Yes, just think that if you took a shower every day for a full year, you would use about the same amount of water as it takes to produce a pound of beef. So do you want to shower every day for the entire year or do you want to eat a hamburger, a pound of beef?
Now people are being asked to install low-flow showerheads and low-flow toilets and turn off the water when brushing their teeth. These are all good measures, and I’m not putting them down in the slightest. But it turns out that those steps are of minimal significance compared to the dramatic impact of eating less beef, which leads to the conservation of enormous amounts of water. It also leads to the conservation of topsoil and the reduction of air pollution and greenhouse gas emissions. Our system of producing industrial meat is an ecological nightmare.
JM: As I look at your work, John, I find myself seeing its similarities to the work I’ve been engaged in over these decades. We call it the Great Turning, by which we mean the transition from an industrial-growth society to a life-sustaining society. What has been helpful to us and the many people we work with is to see that the Great Turning involves three dimensions. The first is to block what’s destroying us and resist such policies and practices as those that corrupt our food system and cause hunger and illness. The second is bringing in new ways of doing things, including new ways of food distribution, encouraging community-supported agriculture and permaculture, and fostering sustainable and socially just patterns of food production and food choices. The third dimension brings us back to where we started with the Siddhartha story: it’s the shift in consciousness that lets us see ourselves and our planet in a new light. That is where we came together, John, and where we all come together, in the deep ecological work where we feel our inter-being with all life, including our animal brothers and sisters.
But the first dimension of the Great Turning is resistance, and I have a victory to report. I was just in Jackson County, Oregon, where a group of dedicated volunteers gathered signatures for a referendum to ban genetically modified seeds and operations. Their region was being colonized by Syngenta, the Swiss biotech firm, and they decided to launch this campaign as an educational tool. They didn’t think they had a real chance to pass the referendum. Syngenta came in and spent millions, but the activists got the farmers to come into Medford. The whole main street was lined with their tractors. And when I was planning to come to give a workshop, I was to make time to meet with the volunteers to cheer them up because they were surely headed for a defeat. But they won! Truth won.
JR: I know. I know, that’s very exciting. We won despite being outspent badly by money that came in from out of the state. Monsanto put money in there. Dow put money in. These agroscience, agrochemical and biotech companies really wanted to defeat that bill because it prohibited the planting of GMO seeds in the county.
JM: What struck me was what had happened to the one thousand volunteers involved in the campaign. I heard them say, “It’s great that we won, but we’ve discovered something else.” It turns out that they fell in love with each other, in love with life. They now feel as though they are in league with the seeds and with Mother Earth herself, and that their lives are now imbued with a luminous sense of meaning, a kind of exhilaration that nothing can stop now.
JR: Yes, it’s a marvelous feeling. I remember seeing a poll many years ago where they asked children how they felt growing up in the nuclear age where there was a bomb that existed that could destroy civilization. Some were pretty despondent about that fact, others weren’t. When they probed, they found out that the more actively engaged the parents were, the more hopeful the children were. It’s a very sweet thing. We just don’t have time to wallow in self-pity or other contractive, stagnative states of mind when we give ourselves over to the work, to the passion. Great power arises when we do that, and especially when we do that with each other. I don’t think that we humans really have found out yet how strong we can be when we work together.
JM: I feel that so deeply. We are very lucky to be alive at this time because we have a chance to link up with each other for the sake of life, a connection that will not only make life more possible for the future ones, but imbue our daily lives with a lot of warmth and excitement and steadiness. The Lord Buddha talked about the causes of suffering as being greed, hatred and delusion, and it has become clear that what we’re facing in the industrial-growth society are institutionalized forms of greed, hatred and delusion. And you’ve been battling organized forms of greed in dealing with the industrial food giants.
JR: Yes, because the industrial food giants have created the most addictive and most nutritionally inferior food in the world. They keep making it cheaper and more addictive. Some companies actually have scientists on their staff who are called “craveability experts.” That is their language. I couldn’t make that up. So they hire these so-called craveability experts whose job it is to tweak the food—not just the flavors but also the ingredients that trigger metabolic and physiological responses of the human body in order to make people crave that food. They are literally building addiction into the food. We saw this with tobacco. Eventually people recognized that the tobacco companies were intentionally selling an addictive product and wanting it to be addictive, because that was their business model. Big food today is doing the exact same thing.
Right now I and my son, Ocean, and the Food Revolution Network are all working very hard to require labeling of genetically engineered foods in this country. That is part of our effort to stop Monsanto, a company that wants to control the world’s food supply. We feel that if we could get labeling of genetically modified food required in the United States, what would happen is that people wouldn’t buy it. Why? Because after all these years the giant agrochemical companies haven’t been able to produce a single genetically engineered food that has any benefit to the consumer. No better taste, no higher nutrient profile, no enhanced protein levels, no nothing. But what they have been able to do is produce genetically engineered plants that can withstand massive doses of the toxic herbicides that they sell. Farmers are buying and using Roundup, this toxic herbicide, in incredible quantities, and Monsanto is making tens of billions of dollars on it and using the money to buy up the world’s seed companies.
Up until very recently, nobody on earth ever ate herbicides. Farmers had to spray herbicides carefully around the plant to kill the weeds, but they couldn’t get it onto the plant itself, because it would kill the plant. Now, with genetically engineered plants, they spray entire fields of corn, soy, canola, cotton and sugar beets with herbicides such as Roundup, again and again and again throughout the growing season. The plants literally soak it up and yet it doesn’t kill them, because they’ve been genetically engineered to tolerate massive amounts of herbicides. So now, for the first time, herbicides are in the food supply and in all of our bodies. Scientists are finding glyphosate, which is the active ingredient in the herbicide Roundup, in umbilical cord blood, in the blood of newborns and in the blood of pregnant women. They’re finding it in the bloodstreams of humans everywhere on the planet. So we’re poisoning ourselves and the wildlife of the planet, all for the profit of a company that wants to control the world’s food supply. This is counter to everything that I believe the human heart yearns for on earth.
JM: So for you and the Food Revolution Network, this is the “resistance” work, the first dimension of the Great Turning, which in this case is about revealing the horrific practices of these agrochemical companies, shining the light of truth on what is taking place.
JR: And the second dimension that you mentioned, Joanna, has to do with new ways of doing things and engaging people in sustainable and healthy practices. That is already happening everywhere, with farmers markets and the sales of organic and non-GMO food. Just to give one example, Whole Foods Market reports that if a food product adds “non-GMO certified” to its label, sales of that product go up 15% to 20% immediately. That means people are waking up and saying, “I don’t want to buy GMOs. I don’t want to eat them. I don’t want to support the companies that are making these things. I don’t want Monsanto or McDonald’s or Burger King or Coca-Cola to dictate what I consume, what I think, or what I am allowed to know.”
You see it in purchases. People go to Starbucks and ask for fair-trade coffee. There is a growing recognition that we are part of each other, and we don’t want our success or prosperity to be built on the backs of others, or built on exploiting other people or the suffering of animals or ecosystems.
JM: You are talking about people waking up, John, and that indicates that we are in the third dimension of the Great Turning, which involves a shift in consciousness.
JR: Many people are becoming more conscious. They are debating. They are arguing about how much raw food you should eat. Should we be vegan or just plant-strong; should we be eating any dairy? Underlying all of those conversations, there is a churning going on. There is a recognition that we must move away from big food, industrial meat, factory farming and GMOs. We need to move toward locally sourced, sustainably grown, fair-trade, socially just foods—in order that our spirits can be fulfilled on earth, in order that we can be part of the Great Turning. Whether enough of us will awaken in time to turn the tide, that’s yet to be seen. The forces—the Koch brothers and Exxon and Monsanto—they’ve got a lot of power. But there is a power they don’t have and that’s the power of the human soul. What we’re going to find out is how much power we do have collectively when we really live from our souls and connect with each other at a soul level. And then, however it plays out, we’ll be in an optimum position to love each other and love ourselves through whatever happens.
JM: Oh, John, thank you. What deep good news that is. You are speaking out of your work with your son, Ocean, and your family, and you’re speaking for me and the readers of Inquiring Mind. It is a call to wake up to who we really are and our capacity to love and care for our earth so all of that life can bloom through us.