By Donna Strong
John Robbins is one of the most passionate and articulate activists of the real food movement in America. Since his first book, Diet for a New America was published in 1987, he has been a major contributor of vital information to expand our understanding of issues regarding food.
Food is sustenance, and it is one of the primary sensual pleasures of life. Our daily choices of what to eat directly affects not only our health, it also directly impacts our sense of well-being. Given that the U.S. population now numbers over 311 million people, our collective food choices also have a colossal effect on the environment.
For several decades now, John has been educating us about the individual and environmental effects of corporate food production, or what he calls the Great American Food Machine. He has been a tireless crusader, using information as a call to wake up, demonstrating both the consequences of our choices and pointing out much-needed course corrections.
John began by living the pinnacle American Dream — his father Irv was a founding magnate of Baskin-Robbins ice cream. Yet even as a young man living in a privileged situation, he listened to the inner call to quest for a deeper dream. Instead of following in his father’s footsteps, he settled onto a remote island in the Pacific Northwest with his wife Deo, where they learned to live from the land for a decade. This experience set the foundation for John’s life work, using food as a sustainable practice of living.
Over the decades, John has become one of our country’s foremost champions for expanding our social conscience and acting as a pivotal catalyst for transforming our vision of America. He is kindling awareness of the essential affinity we share with other forms of life and greening our perspective on how to live with greater compassion and care, wholeness and vibrancy. We are fortunate to have a wide-ranging discussion with John in this annual issue devoted to the Environment.
Awareness: As one of my favorite thought leaders, I would like to check in with you regarding some of the major trends you see converging and emerging in these intense times?
John Robbins: Honestly, I see a collision taking place. On the one hand, Wal-Mart is now selling 25 percent of the food purchased in grocery stores and supermarkets. Monsanto is seeking to increase their control over our food policies. Fast-food chains and industrial food systems are profiting while seeking to increase their dominance in the market. Along with that, you have an increase in genetically-engineered acreage.
On the other hand — and this is the collision taking place — there are increasing numbers of people who want their food to carry a decreased carbon footprint. They want locally-grown and healthier foods, not food that has been genetically engineered. They also want to have a food-production system that is sustainable — friendly to the earth, friendly to the consumer, to the farm worker.
There’s a growing awareness that food should be healthy, not a health hazard. So you have these two forces in our society and they are colliding with each other. They want different things, so they are in conflict and it plays out in everyone’s lives — at every dinner table, in every supermarket checkout stand and every restaurant.
It plays out on every farm and in our commodity programs. Are we going to have a greener diet that’s going to be more earth-friendly or are we going to have a greener diet in the sense that it’s going to the highest bidder so the decisions are defined by money?
McDonalds, Monsanto, Wal-Mart are on one side of this battle, and on the other side are people like me and Michael Pollan and Jonathan Safran Foer and Kathy Preston and Andy Weil and a whole lot of people including researchers like Dean Ornish and Caldwell Esselstyn and scientists like Colin Campbell.
A tremendous amount of evidence is surfacing about the health consequences of these two directions. One is leading to greater health for people and the other, to deteriorating health.
The industrial food machine is why we have the CDC (Centers for Disease Control) telling us one-third of our adolescents will develop diabetes. What’s at stake is our personal health and possibly the stability of our planet and the viability of civilization.
Awareness: You had mentioned in some of the information you sent me that there is a great deal of anguish in people. Is some of that anguish emanating from the issues you’ve just described?
John Robbins: Yes. I think everybody feels that “business as usual” is taking us over a cliff. They may not know exactly where the cliff is or what, if anything, they can do about it, but there is a sense of angst, and a sense of helplessness and fear. It’s warranted. There are trends in our society that are quite frightening.
Sometimes I think if you aren’t afraid, you’re not paying much attention.
I also think that the amount of fear we have is not a measure of whether we can get through this or not. If our passion is greater than our fear, if our commitment to connect with one another and with the power within ourselves that can see us through this adversity, then we will make it; we will turn the tide. We will generate healthy food systems and create ways of life that are sustainable and socially just and thriving.
Awareness: Do you feel in some ways that the standard American diet has derailed the American Dream?
John Robbins: I do. I think it has alienated us from our strengths in many ways. If you feed children junk food, they decrease their ability to concentrate and learn. They become anxious and agitated. Their self-image and self-confidence plummets. If you feed junk food to adults, the same thing happens.
Even if adults are choosing it and think it’s an expression of their right to eat what they want, it’s just as damaging. So the industrial food machine and factory farming and feedlot beef and the genetically-engineered and pesticide-laden foods are dividing us and separating us from our ability to respond fruitfully, creatively, spiritedly, joyfully, and effectively to problems that we have.
Awareness: I totally get you on that. Wonderfully said! One of the things I wanted to ask you about is becoming more inventive. You wrote about this quality in your book, The New Good Life, that addresses life in America after the economic collapse of 2008.
John Robbins: Yes. Becoming more creative, resourceful, resilient — it’s really what this is about, and that happens when we are connected with one another. We find what we value, what is our treasure, what really is our richness. The beauty we have is the ability to develop more love in the people you love and those who love you, to find the courage to love with your whole heart. That is where our richness lies. I don’t think it’s in the direction of accumulating more material things.
There is so much in our society that makes us want to eat high on the food chain and think that grain-fed beef is the reward of affluence and lentils are peasant food. We end up eating food that’s bad for us and bad for the earth and plays into the profits of the industrial food machine.
Awareness: Well said. I wanted to share a comment of yours, that food gives expression to the great heart within. Would you talk about what you’ve noticed when we change our diet?
John Robbins: It’s really beautiful, actually, when people change their diets and their bodies become more responsive to their spirits. They become more capable of expressing their inner intelligence. They become more emotionally stable. There’s more inner peace. There’s more sense of clarity in their thoughts. There’s more sense of connection to their dreams. There’s more sense of integration between the inner and outer aspects of their lives.
It’s really an extraordinary thing people can do when they step out of the industrial food machine and start to grow some of their own food or buy food from local growers; shopping at local farmer’s markets or getting involved in CSAs — community-supported agriculture — or being part of a co-op or any of the ways people start to inhabit their bioregion and get to know the food world that they live in.
Also, when people start eating healthier and make choices on behalf of their well-being, there’s a commitment that’s being expressed at a cellular level. They’re making the statement that they deserve to be cared about; they deserve to be loved; that their well-being is worth cultivating, and then it flowers.
Awareness: Continuing with the subject of food, I’ve been doing research for a couple of years on the Internet about all the ways in which gardens are springing up across the country. With the decentralized movement of people having more direct access to food, what do you see happening as people are putting their hands in the soil and literally bringing home their own broccoli?
John Robbins: I’m really glad to be seeing it. In the industrial food system, we have come to depend on very long supply chains. Carrots, and celery and strawberries all travel thousands of miles from the Earth to the consumer, and we take that for granted. That system has only made any sense at all — if it ever has — in the day of cheap diesel fuel, in particular, for trucks.
We need to be able to grow food where we are and not depend on the long supply chains that are vulnerable to disruption in many ways and completely dependent on the cost of fuel. Growing food in cities, on rooftops, replacing lawns — which really are very impractical in the first place — with vegetables, this is wonderful.
We could grow a great percentage of our fresh produce right where we’re living. It’s actually one of the nice things I am seeing. Every town I go to, people are growing more food.
Awareness: What are you noticing when people do that?
John Robbins: You know, they always say to me that they never knew how good a tomato tastes. The only tomatoes most people have ever eaten have been shipped a thousand miles or more, and they’re not bred for taste or nutrition, they’re bred to ship thousands of miles and still look a certain way on the shelf.
People are now finding out what a real tomato is, or a real carrot, or a real cabbage. They are beautiful things, and yet we look down on foods like cabbages, thinking, “Only the poor would eat that.” Well, we impoverish ourselves when we think that way. We’ve taken classism and used it to separate us from the Earth. Now many of us are restoring that connection, and growing foods is a terrific way to do that.
Awareness: That’s very well said. I wanted to thank you for the newspaper article you sent. I was deeply inspired by your family’s experience with your twin grandsons, River and Bodhi. I wanted to ask you about giving us some understanding about the wonderful ‘poise under pressure’ and ‘compassion in action’ that your family has been developing.
John Robbins: Well, thank you. It is not easy to raise special needs kids, and we have two. River and Bodhi are autistic and have severe developmental delays. It’s great that we have four adults here because it’s a tremendous challenge, frankly, to raise kids even under the best of conditions. With conditions like this, it’s much more demanding.
You know, adversity happens in everyone’s life, whether as health or economic issues — there are so many ways that adversity can appear. Some people respond to adversity with self-pity, with distraction, with avoidance. They don’t feel capable. Yet there’s another path in which we respond to adversity by becoming open to powers of response that we might otherwise have never known we had access to.
There’s something about adversity — if we face it fully together using our strengths, then it’s as Hemingway said, we become “stronger in the broken places.” How we respond to adversity says a tremendous amount about the kind of people we are becoming.
Awareness: I would agree with you, and it feels like one of the things that your family did was to draw from your core values of care and compassion.
John Robbins: When our grandkids were born, they were extremely premature and had all these difficulties.
You know, are we going to respond with compassion or without it? My fundamental belief is that when we live by love’s guidance and let love govern our lives and teach us and shape us and direct us, then we become not only better people, but we become more true people. That’s my path, and it’s my choice and my prayer.
Awareness: It struck me how you’ve worked with facing pain and adversity on a deep personal level, and you’re able to address how we move from these disconnected places that are very painful…
John Robbins: Yes. It is the ability to overcome what divides us. Sometimes we project our shadow onto other people and then we demonize them or fear them. In that fear, we give power to the differences, rather than empower our ability to connect despite the differences or to even celebrate the differences.
Someone doesn’t have to think like me, or come from the same economic or cultural background, or have the same religious beliefs for me to find something worthwhile in them; my goal is to find something to respect and appreciate. My definition of a successful person is someone who brings out the best in other people.
Awareness: That’s an excellent definition! I’m going to be quoting you on that.
John Robbins: In society, if you say someone is a successful person, generally what is meant is that the person has acquired a lot of money, and I think that by defining success so materially, we impoverish ourselves, we lose touch with where our real richness lies.
So I have redefined a successful person as somebody who brings out the best in others; one who adds beauty to the world, or love or caring or happiness by the way they are with other people and the planet.
Awareness: I’m so with you, because everybody has that power within.
John Robbins: I think so. I think we’re happiest when we’re adding to the happiness in the world. The truth — I think we’re much more connected with one another than we normally realize. We’re part of each other’s dreams. We’re part of each other’s hearts and how we treat each other — the level of respect that we live with for one another and ourselves really determines the quality of life that we’re going to generate as a society.
When I hear “greed is good” from certain economic or polit-ical philosophers, I think they are missing the boat entirely. Greed is not good. Greed takes us away from our sense of sufficiency, our sense of peace, out of which our generosity arises; out of which we care for one another without feeling we are sacrificing or depriving ourselves.
Awareness: Then comes a real sense of abundance.
John Robbins: Yes. Truly, the sense of abundance that we all look for — a sense of prosperity and thriving, and richness that we all seek — it’s wonderful that we seek it. It’s just that we’ve been taught to look for it in the wrong places. Instead, we need to look at how abundantly can you love or care, how abundantly can you honor others, rather than thinking of abundance as having a 14,000-square-foot home or some stupid thing like that. In the food world, we can eat simply so others may simply eat. We don’t have to eat high on the food chain and consume an extravagant amount of calories and resources in the process.
Awareness: Yes. I think you’re clearly making the point that people are faced with the choice of whether they’re going to keep going down the route of compensatory pastimes or find real growth and pleasure from eating more authentically.
John Robbins: Yes. Think of all the addictions that we so easily succumb to. Often it’s because we’re avoiding a sense of loss and pain that’s part of our experience as human beings. If we can find in ourselves, with the support of one another, the ability to face the loss and disappointment, the betrayal, the anguish, and work through it, then we become stronger, more committed, more passionate and genuine people, then we’re people of the Earth instead of people of the lie.
Awareness: Food itself is such a gift from the Earth and it’s a gift from the divine. When we have a sense of that, our lives are very full.
John Robbins: Yes! I love what you said, “Food is a gift from the Earth.” It reminds me of the power of gratitude and humility — of being receptive to these gifts, and how differently it feels to live as a human being with gratitude versus with entitlement. To experience food as a gift of the Earth just creates a whole different vibration, a whole different frequency of consciousness.
John will be speaking at the Health Freedom Expo in Long Beach Sunday, March 4 at 2pm
in Room 102C.
For more info on John’s events and books, see www.JohnRobbins.info
Donna Strong is a writer and creative catalyst with a passion for flowers and flourishing. Donna’s book, Coming Home to Calm, shares her perspective on creative spirituality, of bringing our soul’s creative capacity into human life. For more information, visit www.donnastrong.com