In this article reprinted from Integral Yoga Magazine, John Robbins, one-time heir to the Baskin-Robbins ice cream founder, writes about the journey that led him down “the road less traveled” and on to become one of the world’s leading experts on the dietary link to the health of our bodies and our environment. In addition to sharing his life journey, he graciously took time from his busy writing and speaking schedule to answer a few questions about the environmental impact of a non-vegetarian diet.
My father (Irv Robbins) and my uncle (Burt Baskin) owned, Baskin-Robbins (31 Flavors), which became the world’s largest ice cream company, with many thousands of stores worldwide and annual sales measured in the billions of dollars. We had an ice-cream-cone-shaped swimming pool in our backyard, my pets were named after ice cream ﬂavors, and I ate countless gallons of ice cream. It was my father’s dream that I would join him in running the business, and from my earliest childhood he set about grooming me to follow in his footsteps. Like almost every child, I loved ice cream. But when my uncle Burt Baskin was only 54 years old, he died of a heart attack. I understand why my father would not have wanted to consider the possibility that ice cream might have been involved. He didn’t want to think that ice cream was harming anyone, and not much was commonly known then, in the late 1960s, about the connection between ice cream and disease. But I saw the connection, as I did when my dad developed diabetes and high blood pressure, and again years later when Ben Cohen, co-founder of the ice cream company Ben & Jerry’s, needed a quintuple bypass procedure at the age of 49.
My father had achieved the American dream, but I was called forth by a different longing. I wanted to see if I could be part of making the world a healthier place. I wanted my steps to be guided by a reverence for life. I did not ﬁnd it easy, however, to explain my thoughts and feelings to my father. “It’s a different world now than when you grew up,” I told him. “The environment is deteriorating rapidly under the impact of human activities. Every two seconds, a child somewhere dies of hunger while elsewhere there are abundant resources going to waste. The gap between the rich and the poor is increasing. We live now under a nuclear shadow, and at any moment the unspeakable could happen. Can you see that inventing a thirty-second flavor would not be an adequate response for my life?”
I decided that the most courageous and life-afﬁrming thing to do was to walk away from the family business and to leave behind all connection to my family’s fortune. This felt like the most honest and liberating choice I could make. It was a choice for my integrity. I hated disappointing my father, but I had to be true to myself. In 1969, my wife, Deo, and I moved to a remote part of a little island off the coast of British Columbia, Canada, where we built a one-room log cabin in which we lived for the next ten years. We grew most of our own food, and our gardens were totally organic. The money we needed came from the Yoga and meditation classes I taught. We were ﬁnancially poor, in many years spending less than a thousand dollars, but we didn’t need a lot. We were in love and we were learning a lot about growing food, about healing and about ourselves.
In 1973, our son, Ocean, was born, at home and into my hands. As he grew up, what mattered was not whether he disappointed me, but that he not betray his own soul. Eventually we moved back to California, and several of my books about healing ourselves and healing our world became bestsellers. My father, on account of his diabetes and high blood pressure, gradually gave up eating ice cream or any other form of sugar, and he greatly decreased his intake of meat. As a result, his health improved dramatically. He liked reminding me that he was “not a card-carrying vegetarian,” but he was beginning to have far more respect for the lifestyle choices I had made and the work I was doing.
A year or so after my grandtwins were born, my parents, now in their mid-eighties, came to visit us and stayed for a few days. They saw our three-generation household living together in ways that they were not accustomed to. At one point, my father took me aside. “When you left Baskin-Robbins,” he reminisced, “I thought you were crazy.” “Yes,” I replied. “I remember.” “Well,” he said, speaking more slowly now and turning to face me, “I see that time has proved you were right to follow your own star.” Hearing him speak this way, I felt for the ﬁrst time his blessing on my life. And when the time came for them to leave, my mother, too, said something I had never before heard her say. “You may not be rich in material things,” she told us, “but it’s obvious that you are rich in love.” She took a deep breath. “And in the long run, that is actually more important.”
Integral Yoga Magazine (IYM): Why did you become vegan?
John Robbins (JR): I became a vegan 35 years ago for many reasons. I didn’t want to contribute to the suffering of animals. Also, I was aware of the massive amount of food resources that are wasted in modern meat production. I remember how I felt what I first learned that if the people of the US ate 10 percent less meat, the amount of grain we would save would be enough to feed 60 million people. That’s the number of people expected to die of hunger and hunger-caused disease on the planet this year. If we continue to devour more than our share of the planet’s resources without concern for those who are left without, then we will continue to cause harm, and we will continue to be haunted until our humanity awakens.
IYM: How can our diet save our lives and our world?
JR: That’s a huge question. I’ve written eight books to try to answer it, and I think I’ve just begun. It’s striking to me how often the food choices that are best for us personally, that give us the least susceptibility to degenerative diseases like heart disease, cancer and diabetes, that give us the strongest immune system and thus the least vulnerability to infectious disease, are also the kindest and most humane because they cause the least suffering to animals and also cause the least amount of environmental destruction. The key is to eat lower on the food chain. When we derive our nutrition primarily from plants, our bodies will thank us for the rest of our lives. And so will the animals. And so will the rainforests and the world’s hungry.
IYM: What would a diet for a new America during an Obama administration look like?
JR: There are a lot of ways government policies can be used to support people eating more healthfully. To give a simple example, what if we taxed white bread, and then used the revenue to subsidize (and thus lower the price of) whole grain bread? What if we taxed junk food products and used the money to subsidize fresh vegetables? What if we taxed agrichemicals and used the money to support low-input sustainable agriculture, organic agriculture and local farmers’ markets? Right now, many people find it easiest and cheapest to eat foods that are high in fat, salt and sugar but low in many essential nutrients. If we were to shape policies so that it was the healthiest foods that were the least expensive, the savings in medical costs alone would be enormous. And think of how much happier and healthier our lives would be.
There are different ways we could go in the years to come. We could go toward ever more chemicalized and processed food. We could go toward agribusiness-dominated factory farms, where animals and workers are treated with disdain for their needs, where water is poisoned and topsoil lost. We could go toward ever more artificial ready-to-eat foods. We could feed ever more of our grain to livestock, while ever more of humanity is malnourished—or we could go toward real contact with ourselves and each other and the natural world that makes our lives possible in the first place. We could go toward farming systems based on respect for the lives of the people and animals involved. We could eat food grown on living soil, with respect for the vast ecological web that underlies all that has ever been human. We could eat a plant-based diet that is healthier for us, for the earth, and for the millions of people, who then could, because we ate simply, simply eat.
IYM: You wrote a book, The Awakened Heart: Meditations on Finding Harmony in a Changing World. How can we find that harmony?
JR: Maybe we aren’t 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. Our other choice is to actively engage with the world and all its suffering. On this path we work responsibly and intentionally to make our lives and our societies into expressions of our love for ourselves, for each other and for the living Earth.
IYM: What can we, as individuals, do?
JR: 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 Defense, a group which has been called Bush’s favorite environmental group, calculates that if every meat eater in the USA swapped just one meal of chicken per week for a vegetarian meal, the carbon savings 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. But, as the Food and Agriculture Organization (FAO) report stated, all the SUVs, Hummers, trucks, ships and planes in the world combined 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 many of those.
IYM: Where can we find more information about this environmental impact?
JR: In 2006, The FAO of the United Nations released a report entitled “Livestock’s Long Shadow.” It is considered the most definitive, comprehensive and reliable assessment we have. 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 found 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.”
Al Gore, in his wonderful documentary, An Inconvenient Truth, ignored the meat issue completely. He recommends changing our light bulbs. Meanwhile, the FAO report sees meat production and consumption as the primary culprit. It states that livestock production generates a staggering 65 percent 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 report concluded that overall, livestock production contributes more to global warming than all the cars, trucks and planes in the world combined.
IYM: Please share with our Yoga community any words of inspiration.
JR: The truth, as has been said countless times, will set you free. But what is said far less often is that sometimes it first will make you confront habits of behavior and thought that might be limiting you, so that you might attain the awareness to use your freedom for the benefit of your greater self and all of life. I have a deep and abiding gratitude to the entire Yoga community. My friend and colleague Dean Ornish, MD, has often spoken of his respect and appreciation for Swami Satchidananda. The contribution that Yoga has made to my life is incalculable.
John Robbins is the author of the international bestseller, Diet For a New America: How Your Food Choices Affect Your Health, Happiness, The Food Revolution and Healthy at 100, among other books. John’s life and work have been featured in an hour-long PBS special entitled, Diet for a New America.” Many of the nation’s leading authorities on alternatives in health and ecology have called John’s work among the most important events of the century. Considered to be one of the most eloquent and powerful spokespersons in the world for a sane, ethical and sustainable future, when John spoke at the United Nations, he received a standing ovation. For more information, please visit: foodrevolution.org.