Donna Quesada: Well, firstly, good morning John! And from all of us at Awaken, we thank you for your time this morning.
And on a personal level, at the risk of giving away my age, I used to use the VHS version of Diet for A New America for my students in my community college class. And you have such a warm-hearted way to deliver this message of a meat-free diet. It puts everybody at ease and it puts everybody in a receptive mode and I want to thank you and tell you what a pleasure it is personally, to sit here with you today.
John Robbins: Well, thank you very much for that and I certainly try to include as many people in this invitation as possible because we all have a lot to gain by moving in a healthy direction… in the direction of a whole foods, plant-based diet, and we have a lot to lose if we don’t. So, a lot is at stake in our food choices that we don’t often think about. We think about what it tastes like. We think about what it costs. We think about how convenient it is. How quickly we can have it. We don’t tend to think as much about the impact on our body. On our life. On our longevity. But we are determining the quality of life we will have in our later years with every bite that we eat.
DONNA: There is so much to explore in terms of the relationship our diet has with the environment, to our health, to other creatures. And I want to take this time with you to make it really clear and I want to take this time to get a better understanding for those that might not be familiar with your work or with these issues. But first, if you’ll just indulge me. If we could just take a step back. We have a little tradition… I would just like to ask you from the perspective of where you are in life and as a teacher of global issues… what does it mean to awaken?
JOHN: What does it mean to awaken… I’m trying to find out. I want to awaken. I don’t know that any of us actually are. But I think there are certain components to it of a more evolved person. A higher frequency. A more awake person. One of them is humility. Recognizing that we are part of something so vast and so mysterious and so powerful. And we are literally ants in it. We’re so small and out of that humility we can experience awe… experience reverence for life. And then we can then find our place in the great web of life and start to take it more consciously, with more respect for life,in general… for all the other people on this earth… for all the other cultures… for other people that may be different from us… or, the color of their skin or a thousand other ways. We still bleed red. We all depend on a healthy eco-system for clean air and clean water to even have an economy, at all. And yet, we are all collectively trashing the environment. We are damaging the very thing that we depend on. The very life-support systems that our economy depends on… and our spirits depend on, to live full lives or any lives, at all. So, to me, to awaken is to recognize our interdependence. That we are part of the web of life. That we depend on it. That life is not a commodity to be bought and sold. Life is a community of which we are a part… to which we owe our lives… for which we have to care, if we are going to survive… if we are going to be able to share it with our children… the possibility of a real human life.
DONNA: So, to you, to awaken contains these elements of reverence of the earth, and the ability to be in awe.
DONNA: That’s beautiful.
JOHN: It does. The wonder… and to sense the mystery. We tend to think in our rational minds. that mysteries are problems waiting to be solved. We want to control and conquer and subdue nature. We want to be in charge. I think of mysteries more as wonders to be lived. Questions that we don’t have to find quick answers to. Questions that we can just live with and let them deepen in us. And let them lead us into new horizons, new possibilities and new opportunities. And to see, what are the ways of living as human beings that will bring us the most joy, the most creativity, the most connectedness to each other and the natural world? And the healthiest potential for the human experience… for the human impact on this planet.
We are very far from that right now. We are adapting policies… we are moving in directions that are counter to what I perceive as our highest possibilities. And what I understand to be our highest choices. But we are generally not making them. We are generally making lower choices. We are putting people in power who represent greed and narcissism and selfishness and short-sightedness and even hatred. When we do that, we jeopardize a great deal. I know a lot of people that are suffering from what you could call eco-anxiety. This feeling that the climate and many other realities of the earth are deteriorating rapidly under the impact of human activities. We know about the climate, but there are many species going extinct. And as that happens, the web of life starts to unravel and we depend on its strength.
DONNA: It’s heartbreaking. And I love the idea of the mystery. I’m thinking about what you said about being humble and the fact that we are never really told or taught to be humble, going through our educational system. Also, the other thing you said about having questions and delighting in questions. We are not taught that, either. We get a gold star when we have the answers, but it’s quite lovely to just wonder. And to wonder some more and to not have to have an answer right now, right here.
JOHN: I think that is one of the keys to a healthy life. You know, the word “humanity” has the same root as the word “human,” and as the word “humus,” as in healthy soil. There is an old saying: “healthy soil, healthy food, healthy people.” That’s the direction I’m wanting us to go. But on the other hand, there is another direction that we are often taking, which is, “unhealthy soil, unhealthy food, unhealthy people.”
DONNA: So, John. For those that might not know your story. You were being groomed to follow in the footsteps of the Baskin and Robbins empire. If you could share a little bit about your story, and in particular, was there one single event that sparked your decision to take another path?
JOHN: Well, my dad, Irv Robbins, and my uncle, Bert Baskin, founded and owned the company Baskin and Robbins, the ice cream empire. And I’m an only son. So, as my dad’s only son, I was the one he groomed to succeed him, follow in his footsteps and one day run the company. As a kid, I enjoyed it. I liked eating ice cream. I loved all the flavors. I loved inventing flavors. I invented Jamaica Almond Fudge. A best seller. I remember one day I was driving home from the office with my dad, and we had just that day come to some people in marketing, and we had come to a decision about our advertising slogan… was going to be that year. It was going to be the basis of the radio ads and billboards and tv. And the slogan was “We make people happy.” And the marketing team was really thrilled with that slogan. My dad loved it. There was consensus minus one. I was the one. And I was talking to my dad about why I didn’t think it was so great. And it was the slogan that year. I didn’t have the power to veto it. But I didn’t like it and I said to my father, “we don’t make people happy. We sell a product that provides momentary pleasure. That’s what we do.”
There is a difference between immediate gratification and long-term happiness. Happiness. Philosophers have debated how you achieve it and whether it’s possible. I think it’s a difficult thing. It’s a complex thing and maybe it’s a product of how we treat other people. And how we live our lives and the attitudes we bring to challenges that confront us over the course of our lives and the difficulties we face. It’s not something you can buy or sell. It’s not something that’s in an ice cream cone. Human happiness is just too challenging a thing to trivialize like that.
That’s what I said to him. And he did not care for my way of thinking. He said, “it’s just an advertising slogan. You are trying to be a philosopher. Don’t go there. We’re trying to sell ice cream. That’s what we do.” And I said, “exactly, we sell ice cream. That’s what we do, but we don’t make people happy, and that’s not a very good slogan.” So, there was this difference between us. We had different ways of looking at life. And that started to become more and more apparent. That was one example of it. That moment. My dad was a friend of and supporter of Richard Nixon. I followed and loved Dr. Martin Luther King, and was deeply inspired by him. You can imagine in our household, my dad with Nixon and me loving Dr. King. We had some disagreements.
DONNA: A house divided.
JOHN. Very much so, but when Dr King was killed in April, 1968, I felt so devastated. I felt so broken hearted on behalf of our country, and world, and myself. All of us. And I thought, business as usual, creating another flavor, opening stores worldwide, making more money… It just seemed empty. It just seemed pointless, in view of what I was feeling with Dr. King’s death. It’s so rare that someone with his spiritual stature rises to political significance in our society. I saw him, rightly or wrongly, as a man with tremendous moral stature and ethical understanding. And beauty. Just a beautiful man. And this apostle of non-violence was killed in a violent way. It just felt so bad to me. I don’t know how many of your listeners remember that year, 1968. It’s now more than 50 years ago. At the time, Dr. King was killed in April. There were primaries going on that spring to determine who was going to run for president in the democratic party. And the anti-war movement and the civil rights movement which I was deeply a part, has basically embarrassed Lyndon Johnson, and he said, “I am not going to seek re-election.” And Bobby Kennedy was seeking the nomination and was looking like he was going to get it. He won the California primary in June. And then he was murdered immediately after that primary. He was assassinated. So, in two short months, Dr. King and Bobby Kennedy, who again, rightly or wrongly, we saw as a true anti-war candidate. We saw him as carrying the possibility of a bright and vibrant future.
DONNA: Well, King was a special man influenced by the easterns, Gandi and Thich Nhat Hahn, the Buddhist monk he nominated for the Nobel Peace Prize in ’67. So, he was a treasure and indeed an apostle for non-violence.
JOHN: The death of these two guys just set me off. And shortly after that, I told my dad that I wasn’t going to do Baskin/Robbins. I’m not going to follow in your footsteps. You set me up for this, and I appreciate it, and I even had this feeling… why did he get me? 99.9% of young men at the time would have jumped at the chance. He trained me to do this. It’s a billion-dollar company. My dad is extremely wealthy. This is a path paved with gold. And instead of taking it. I walked away from it. And to be in integrity with that choice and integrity with my relationship with my dad, I felt I needed to say to him… “Not only am I not going to work at Baskin/Robbins, but I don’t want any access to your money. I don’t want to depend on the money for my life with the money from this ice cream company. If I’m going to disappoint you like I am, then I should make my own way.”
And I did. And he thought I was crazy. He didn’t understand a choice like that. From my point of view, it was a choice for integrity. It was a choice to be in alignment with my spirit. And in alignment with my father in a way that I wasn’t continuing to be dependent. Therefore, I had an opportunity to be truer to myself.
DONNA: Now, in those years, I imagine you didn’t have the background on environmental issues that you do now. What was it that made you feel so at odds? Was it the juxtaposition of what’s happening over here, politically, and how trivial this is over here? A new flavor! Or, your natural tendency to be a philosopher? I teach philosophy, so I very much understand this pondering of the notion of happiness…
JOHN: It was all of those things. In those days. In all the Baskin/Robbins stores, there used to be large photographs on the back wall. Brown and White of Guernsey and Holstein dairy cows grazing in beautiful Wisconsin pasture. They were gorgeous and they spoke of closeness to nature and you see these cows living a beautiful life. And as a kid, working in the stores, I thought those pictures were beautiful. I believed them. Surely, that is where the milk comes from, that makes the ice cream that we are selling and manufacturing… And then, one day I went to a farm with my dad where we bought a lot of our dairy products. It was nothing like the pictures. Nothing. First of all, there was no grass anywhere. Second of all, the cows are all in confinement. They are basically imprisoned and they have very little space. And they are standing knee deep in their own manure. And they are feeding out of a trough, and I go towards the trough.
I’m a kid now, probably 13 or 14 years old, and I walk towards the cow with love in my heart. I’m a boy. And I’m hoping, I suppose, to pet the cow. Or at least look into its eyes. I just want to make contact. And I approach slowly, and as I approach, the cow gets really frightened and agitated. And I’m thinking, cows are placid creatures. What has that cow endured, that it is frightened when a small boy approaches it? What has it endured? What’s been done to it? And I investigated that. And I found out how these animals were treated and it was so opposite to the images portrayed in those pictures. And that type of green-washing or humane washing continues to this day.
The California Milk Producers has an ad campaign. They revive it every couple of years and they broadcast it nationally. And they spend a lot of money on it. And the tag line is “Great cheese comes from happy cows and happy cows come from California.” They are trying to sell California cheese nationwide, by saying that the cows in California are happy. Well, the photos and images that they use in that ad campaign are of cows in New Zealand. They couldn’t find a pastured cow in the state of California to advertise their BS. It continues to this day.
To me, when I saw that cow and felt its fear of me, something in me wanted to feel the hypocrisy. And I love animals, most people do… at least respect and appreciate them. We have this kind of size attitude in our society, where we have dogs and cats that we are companions with. And we love them and we feed them. We give them names; we often sleep with them on our beds. They are part of our families. We love them, they love us back. It’s beautiful. And then there are other animals that draw breath from the same place… that we call “livestock.” We call them “dinner.” We want to eat the flesh of their bodies. We put them in a different category. And we don’t protect them. It’s legal to treat them with any manner of cruelty, as long at it lowers the price per pound. As long as it’s conventional farming practice. You can do things legally to a cow, to a pig, to a chicken… that if you did that same thing to a dog or a cat you would be in jail. It would be a felony. And yet, it is par for the course in factory farms and industrial meat production.
So, I didn’t want any part of it. I wanted to oppose it. I wanted to challenge it. I wanted to expose it. And I thought, I had been given this privilege to grow up in a family… First of all, there was great wealth. That’s a privilege. And second of all, I got to see how ice cream was made from the inside. I was part of it. And I got to see how the great American food machine was working. What it was doing to animals. And something in my heart said, “I am here not to perpetuate this and not to derive income from it, but to expose it, so we all can have a chance to create a food system that is healthier for us, healthier for the animals involved, and healthier for the planet. And that is still my work.
Continued In Part II Here…
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