Animal Protection > AR Interviews

FOOD FOR THOUGHT - The John Robbins Interview
By Claudette Vaughan. First published in Vegan Voice.

Every liberation movement produces its visionaries. John Robbins, the only son of the founder of the Baskin-Robbins ice cream empire walked away from a life of immense wealth to pursue deeper ideals and a society at peace with its conscience because it respects and lives in harmony with all life forms.

Robbins came into the public arena with the run-away success of his 1987 book, Diet for a New America. In his new book The Food Revolution he examines the real story behind genetically modified foods, mad cow disease, E. coli and the effects that giant agribusiness farming practices are having on our food supply and our environment.

John Robbins is considered to be one of the most powerful spokes-persons in the world for a sane, ethical and sustainable future. Vegan Voice caught up with him to ask for his views on living the holistic paradigm that he sought and sacrificed so much for. Enjoy.

Q. What does being a vegan mean to you?

A. To me, being a vegan means seeking to make your life a statement of caring and compassion. It means affirming that there is wisdom in the human heart, and this wisdom is born of our connection to all living beings. When we align our actions with our heart's wisdom, something profound happens. We exploit other beings less, and honour them more.

Q. What are your thoughts on the current raging debate over welfarism versus rights? Should they be separated in your view?

A. My focus is on alleviating suffering, and preventing it, more than it is on ideological purity. I think that both sides of this debate have a contribution to make to the healing we all seek. What keeps the dialogue from being healthy is when there is an effort to make one side right and the other wrong. I think both points of view have their validity and utility.

Q. In your view, why do so many environmentalists support the anthropocentric tradition? Is the intrinsic value of nature and of non-human animals too esoteric a concept to enter the political or legislative agenda?

A. Most people, not just most environmentalists, remain ensconced in seeing humans as the centre of everything. There was a time when people thought the Universe revolved around the Earth, but then we learned and realised a more accurate understanding of our dear planet's place in the Universe. Similarly, most of us have yet to learn, and be liberated by, the humility of recognising our role in the unfolding of life. The belief that humanity is the pinnacle and purpose of Creation runs deep in most modern cultures. But there were, and still are, many indigenous cultures that stand much more humbly before the Great Mystery.

Q. The antagonism between environmentalists and AR people is legendary and yet you are one of the few people who have successfully brought together these two warring factions without lessening the plight of the non-human animals. How did you achieve that?

A. I don't really see any difference, frankly. If we don't stop polluting and devouring the environment, every animal, including the human, will suffer greatly. The two movements have so much in common. I don't see much point in focusing exclusively on their differences. For example, species extinction is widely viewed as an environmental problem, and it is. But I believe species extinction is also fundamentally an animal rights problem. What rights do you have if you don't have the right to exist?

Q. Tell us about EarthSave.

A. I founded EarthSave after I wrote Diet for a New America, in order to channel the energy that the book had aroused into positive and sustained action toward creating a more healthy future. Although I resigned from the Board four years ago, and am no longer involved in running the organisation, I salute and support its efforts. EarthSave promotes food choices that are healthy for people and for the planet. EarthSave educates, inspires and empowers people to shift toward a plant-based diet and to take compassionate action for all life on Earth.

Q. How can we stop the ongoing devastation of our planet? What urgently needs to be done in your view?

A. So very much more needs to be done. We are nowhere near doing what is required. It has been very disturbing to me lately to see that even as it has become staggeringly apparent that US dependence on oil is geopolitically insane (as well as environmentally insane), the US government is still not throwing itself full tilt into shifting to a hydrogen economy, and reliance on non-polluting renewable sources of energy.

Q. How does your new book The Food Revolution differ from your other phenomenal success Diet for a New America?

A. I wrote Diet for a New America in the mid-1980s. So much has happened since then. To give just a few examples at that time, not a single acre had been commercially planted in genetically engineered crops. Today, we have 120 million acres. Back then, we had not yet heard much from E. coli 0157:H7, the pathogen found so often today in ground beef that is responsible for so-called "hamburger disease" that can kill people who eat undercooked hamburger. When I wrote Diet for a New America, no one had yet heard of mad cow disease. So much has happened in the intervening years. Medical research into the health consequences of different dietary patterns has advanced tremendously. I wanted to bring the themes of Diet for a New America into the 21st century. I wanted to bring all the information up to date. I wanted to see how things look now. And besides, by seeing how things have evolved in the past 15 years, we can see the patterns and directions that are at work, and thus get a much more finely attuned sense of where we are headed, and where we can act to have the most leverage.

Q. Spirituality occupies a pivotal role in your worldview. What does the term "spirituality" mean to you? Has your journey been one of struggle, or a gradual unfolding?

A. To me, there is something truly awe-inspiring about the power of the human spirit. I see it in the innocence and purity of every newborn baby. And it stands in dramatic contrast to the horrors and disasters we humans have so often visited upon ourselves, each other, and the rest of existence. I believe there is something inside us yet to be made manifest, something far more loving and connected and humble than we have yet seen played out on the world stage. There is much to grieve for, and yet I believe there is also much to celebrate.

There is a question that I have long lived with. How, in the midst of so much suffering, can we keep from feeling overwhelmed, can we keep our hearts open and our minds calm? My life is a quest to answer this question, because I believe we are here to bring the possibility of love and compassion to what is wounded and broken.

My journey has entailed a great deal of struggle and suffering, as I believe most authentic human lives must. At the same time, it has also been a gradual unfolding of understanding, made possible, I believe, by my willingness to confront and embrace the shadow side of myself. I can see that I was born with certain gifts and potential, but my struggle has been to bring them to fruition and maturity. For example, I had a lot of rage when I was growing up. I was a very angry young man. Rather than allowing this rage to consume me, I have worked to channel it into hopefully constructive directions, specifically into my effort to expose the cruelty and destruction of modern meat production.

The inner work never ends. Each day, each breath, brings new opportunities to understand myself and the workings of life on Earth more deeply.

Q. There is a tendency in the AR Movement to downplay our own species' uniqueness in favour of emphasising our evolutionary kinship with non-human animals. Is this wise in your view?

A. Yes, I think there is that tendency. The paradox is that we are both utterly dependent on and embedded in the web of life, and yet utterly unique in our type of consciousness. To see both sides unflinchingly is an act of maturity. To embrace the paradox is an act of wholeness.

Q. Are you frustrated with our lack of progress?

A. Sometimes, certainly. The task is to convert our frustration into fuel for positive action.

There are two sources of strength in our world. One is the force of hatred, of those who are unafraid to kill. The other and greater strength is the force of love, of those who are unafraid to die. This was the strength behind Gandhi's marches against the oppression of the British Empire, the strength of Dorothy Day's tireless work for the poor on the streets of New York, and the strength of every successful effort to bring more justice, health, and beauty into the world.

I succumb to frustration when I fall into the trap of seeking to fix everything. I am not here to perfect the world, but to express my love for it.

Q. In The Food Revolution you speak at length about genetic engineering. Do you perceive a time when the possibility of a genetic holocaust could result from the reduction of genetic diversity?

A. Yes, that is certainly a possibility. How likely is it? I think that depends totally on choices we as a species have yet to make. If we don't wake up and take responsibility for the impact we are having on other species and on the whole Earth community, including the less materially fortunate members of our own species, we will continue sowing seeds of tragedy.

As I write in The Food Revolution, I don't believe we are on a one-way road to oblivion. Maybe we're standing at a crossroad, facing what may be the most important choice human beings have ever faced, a choice between two directions. In one direction is what we will have if we do nothing to alter our present course. By doing nothing, we are choosing a world of pollution and extinctions, of widening chasms and deepening despair, a world where humanity moves ever farther from achieving its highest aspirations and ever nearer to living its darkest fears.

At such a crossroad, the steps that we take that help us to learn to live with respect for life are important, both for the ground they cover and for the direction in which they lead. Each step makes possible the next step, and the next. We will not, of course, turn things around merely because we do a few convenient things to save the Earth or reduce the suffering of our fellow beings. But as more of us do the things that matter, as more of us lead by example, others will find themselves pulled along. One step always leads to the next. As more of us find ways of expressing our compassion, others will be swept up in the power of our caring and the integrity of our example.

I am aware how strong are the forces of ignorance, greed and denial in our society. I know it is possible that we won't make it. But I am also aware of how strong is the longing and the love of life in the human heart. And so I know it is possible that we will make it, that we will create a sustainable economy that protects the living systems of the Earth, that we will come to be part of the world's repair. I know that the power of darkness in our world is great, but I do not believe it is as great as the power of the human spirit. It is always possible for us to learn to provide for our needs while cherishing this beautiful planet and all its creatures. It is in our nature to honour the sacredness of life.

What is at stake today is enormous; it is the destiny of life on Earth. At such a time, walking a path of honouring the Earth community and ourselves is our responsibility as citizens of the planet, but it is something more, as well.

It is also a joy, and a privilege. Web site: www.foodrevolution.org