John Robbins is the author
of the bestselling Diet for a New America (Stillpoint, 1987, $14.95), in
which he detailed the horrific conditions for animals on factory farms and
the devastating costs to the environment and human health of intensive
farming. In his latest book, Reclaiming Our Health (H.J. Kramer, $24.00),
Robbins takes on the medical establishment's extraordinary efforts to
eradicate natural childbirth, midwifery, non-toxic cancer cures, and
alternative medicine, all the while sponsoring tobacco, radiation, and
personal attacks. Satya caught up with Robbins when he came to New York on
a speaking tour.
Q: Next month, America will be going to the
polls. What do you think we should be telling our politicians?
A: I think we need to
ask our politicians to be responsible for the greater good. The Iroquois
used to talk about the responsibility to the seventh generation hence as a
criterion for all their decisions. In our politics, our criteria generally
are next quarter's profit or this month's election. The result is
short-term profit, long-term disaster. The result is an economic policy
that's devastating the biosphere, violating the web of life, and rendering
the earth increasingly uninhabitable.
Q: These are large
concepts. But how do you go about legislating to create the mindset of the
A: One of the
problems that we have in our political structure is the degree to which
special interests dominate the thinking and the actions of politicians. I
find it stunning that Bob Dole's primary source of campaign revenue is
coming from tobacco. The tobacco industry obviously thinks that a Dole
presidency would be good for their business, and I think that they're
right. It's a frightening thought from the point of view of public health.
Q: Yet how can we realistically expect to make a difference
when we do not have the revenue (and thus access) of the tobacco
companies, the American Medical Association, or agribusiness
Cousins said that nothing is more powerful than an individual acting out
of his or her own conscience who's helping to bring the collective
conscience alive. I don't know that we can measure or grasp the power or
the impact of an individual's function connected to a core value.
You know, the media report a certain level of event and call that
news. But there are other things occurring that the media doesn't notice
or recognize, things that don't get validated in our culture that much,
but may be even more important in the long run.
If we are going to
survive, if we are going to transform our relationship to ourselves and
each other and the greater world, nothing is more important than each of
us taking responsibility for our lives and our actions and our choices.
Different ones of us have different fields of action in which we find
ourselves. Some of us may be in a position of more public exposure than
others. But we all interact with other people a great deal.
think that the fundamental unit of social change is the human heart.
Q: Living in a democracy, animal activists and vegetarians are
told we are entitled to our way of life. But when we try and persuade,
we're told not to preach. How do you square these two things?
A: People don't like to be
told that the way they are living is wrong. People don't like to feel
criticized. Yet the way we, as a culture, are living is wrong in that it
is ecocidal. As a society, we live without respect for other forms of
life. We live without a sense of our interconnectedness with the rest of
the Earth community.
We define success in material terms, as the
ability to acquire things and consume resources. Our motto should be "shop
'til the planet drops." We take pride in our ever-growing GNP, not
realizing that this means ever more gallons of gasoline burned, ever more
toxic waste produced, ever more forests converted into shopping centers,
ever more pollution and destruction of the life support systems.
I've had cynical moments in which I've thought that the U.S.
citizenry will only become concerned about environmental destruction when
it begins to interfere with their television reception. But, more and more
I sense that it will be the human health consequences that follow upon
ecological collapse that will awaken us. The depletion of the ozone layer
leads directly to higher rates of skin cancer and cataracts. Air pollution
causes lung cancer, emphysema, asthma, and other forms of respiratory
disease. Lead and other heavy metals spewed into the environment by
industry produce central nervous system poisoning. Pesticides and other
toxic chemicals cause birth defects, cancers, and autoimmune diseases. So
does nuclear radiation. Acid rain not only destroys our forests, it
damages all kinds of crop growth, and hence directly affects crop yields,
leading to more malnutrition and hunger. As the number of malnourished and
hungry people in the world rises, many infectious diseases become more
virulent, because these people are immune compromised, and function as
walking petri dishes.
Martin Luther King once said, "We will
either learn to live together as brothers," -- I would add, "and sisters,"
-- "or we will perish together as fools." He was prophetic, not just in
terms of social justice but in terms of modern immunology and the health
crisis of our time.
Q: Will the forces that make money from
keeping society pathological change?
A: It's true that the changes that are needed to
create a healthy planet run in a different direction than the prevailing
political and economic drift. But, as Bill McKibben says: "That does not
mean change is impossible. All it means is that our politics is,
temporarily, out of step with the chemistry and physics of the earth."
Life is change. We're all always changing. And people tend to
become very angry when they realize that companies and individuals have
made tremendous profits by activities that destroy the health of people
and the environment.
Q: We are seeing that with tobacco.
A: Yes. And the next step is
to realize that it's not just cigarettes that are polluting our lungs, but
also the way we use our energy industrially, in terms of relying on oil
and coal and other polluting sources rather than relying on renewable,
non-polluting sources of energy. And that's one of the great challenges of
the next decade -- to shift to renewable energy sources.
are for you the correlations between large corporations profiting from
people's illness and the large corporations that create the American
A: In modern
agribusiness-dominated agriculture, we have systems of producing meat that
treat animals as commodities, without any regard whatsoever to their
natures. The conditions are a total violation of who these animals are.
Every single one of their natural instincts is frustrated: they have no
space to move around, the diets they are fed are deplorable from a health
point of view as well as a humane point of view, and the whole thing is
propped up with a tremendous amount of pharmaceuticals. We're the only
industrialized country that implants our beef cows with artificial
hormones; we now inject [recombinant] Bovine Growth Hormone into our dairy
herd. The degree of reliance on drugs in modern animal products is really
Similarly, in our medical system, the body is treated as a
machine rather than a sensitive field of energy, possibility and
awareness. Sick people are treated as a market from which to make money,
rather than human treasures to cherish and serve. In Western medicine,
health is defined merely as the absence of symptoms. So there is this
treatment of the human being as objectifying and exploiting.
You emphasize women's health in Reclaiming Our Health. Why?
A: Women bear the brunt of the
medical establishment's self-interested approach to providing healthcare.
We spend more money on what we call healthcare (it's really "sickness
care") in this country than any other country in the history of the world.
We're also number one in malpractice suits. But we're 25th when it comes
to infant mortality and it's getting worse each year.
ago, the cesarean rate in this country was only six percent. Now it's 23
percent! Nearly a quarter of women who give birth in the United States
today have their babies surgically removed from them. And the same
obstetrical establishment that's responsible for this trend at every
opportunity denounces midwives and home births and free-standing birth
centers -- all of which show better outcomes for mothers and babies.
It's women who give birth, and it's women who go through
menopause. What our culture has done is to medicalize natural life
processes, like menopause and birth. Birth is an incredibly important
event, because if you violate the mother-child bond, if you remove a woman
from her experience of birth as a sacred act of immense power and instead
make her feel that she must rely on a physician to get her baby out for
her safely, you have disempowered her in her relationship with her newborn
at a profound level, and her relationship with her own body.
Is there a specific plan that you would advocate for getting America out
of the health-care mess?
America is the only fully-industrialized country in the world that
doesn't guarantee minimum healthcare to every single citizen. There are 42
million Americans with no medical insurance, and another 30 million who
are seriously under-insured. Those numbers are both increasing. It is a
Some form of national insurance, some form of universal
healthcare, is inevitable in this country, and I think it's a good thing.
The other side is that there are people who will say, "Well, I don't want
to pay, via my taxes, for the medical care of somebody who's lifestyle is
Q: I think that's something some vegetarians would
say about paying for healthcare costs for meat-eaters.
A: If we had universal
healthcare, then those people who don't take care of themselves and have
very high medical bills in effect will be draining the public pool. Any
good system will have incentives somehow built into it that encourage
people to take good care of themselves.
I would like to see a form
of universal coverage, but with a substantial deductible. The deductible
would be based on income, so someone who's poor would have a much lower
deductible than someone who's wealthy. The biggest cause of bankruptcy in
the United States is medical care costs, whereas in Canada no-one ever
goes bankrupt due to illness or injury. I think we can achieve that same
level of compassion and have everybody covered for catastrophes, or
emergencies, or serious problems, and yet, unlike Canada, build an
incentive system, whereby you pay the first bit and then co-pay for a
while after that. So you can't just merrily eat your bacon and eggs for
breakfast and then take your cholesterol-lowering pills and think all will
Q: Would you advocate anything like taxing beef and
dairy manufacturers to pay for healthcare?
A: I would go further than that. I would start taxing
heavily all those products and activities that have been shown to be
damaging to human health and to the health of the planet. The
environmental polluters would pay heavily, as would the tobacco industry.
We should be heavily taxing those products that are damaging. I'd like to
see a system where those activities that harm health are discouraged, so
there'd be less of them taking place. There'd be less illness, less
suffering, and lower medical costs. And because people would be paying, by
virtue of their deductibles, for their maintenance care, they'd be in
charge and could avail themselves of holistic alternatives, rather than
being prisoners of their "benefits."
I think we've gone a little
nuts expecting health insurance to cover our maintenance and day-to-day
needs. We have car insurance: if you have a series of accidents there's
financial cushioning for all that. But you don't expect your car insurance
to pay every time you change your oil, and it would be insane if you did.
Can you imagine the paperwork?
Robbins is the founder of EarthSave. To find out about
EarthSave in your area, contact: EarthSave, P.O. Box 68, Santa Cruz, CA
95062. Tel.: 408-423-4069. To order Diet for a New America or Reclaiming
Our Health, call: 800-DNA-DO-IT.