The Food Revolution: Once Upon a Planet, Part IV

Editor's Note: Continuing with our Food Revolution Series, today John Robbins has a side-splitting conversation with a representative of 'Lifestyles of the Rich and Famous'. Enjoy!

by John Robbins, an author widely recognized as one of the world's leading experts on the intimate link between diet and environmental and personal health. Amongst others, John is the author of the revolutionary book 'Diet for a New America', a book nominated for a pulitzer prize, as well as the updated 'Food Revolution' and 'Healthy at 100'.

The production of modern meat in factory farms and feedlots has enormous health, humanitarian, and environmental costs. I want all of us to become aware of these costs, but I cannot criticize people who are not aware of them and whose actions follow from what they’ve heard and learned. Thanks to the misinformation campaigns of the meat industry and its efforts to silence its critics, most people have no clue as to the greater impact of their food choices.

My complaint is not with people who act in accord with what they’ve been told. My criticism is with the industries that are damaging our planet and our future, while telling us how wonderful they are. And also with the media, which has a responsibility to tell us what’s really going on, but too often doesn’t.

In 1992, 1,600 senior scientists from 71 countries, including over half of all living Nobel Prize winners, signed and released a document titled “World Scientists’ Warning to Humanity.” It began with the words, “Human beings and the natural world are on a collision course,” and then continued,

“Human activities inflict harsh and often irreversible damage on the environment and on critical resources. If not checked, many of our current practices put at serious risk the future that we wish for human society and the plant and animal kingdoms, and may so alter the living world that it will be unable to sustain life in the manner that we know. Fundamental changes are urgent if we are to avoid the collision our present course will bring about. . . .

“No more than one or a few decades remain before the chance to avert the threats we now confront will be lost and the prospects for humanity immeasurably diminished. We the undersigned, senior members of the world’s scientific community, hereby warn all humanity of what lies ahead. A great change in our stewardship for the Earth and life on it is required, if vast human misery is to be avoided and our global home is not to be irretrievably mutilated.”

You or I might think the release of such a powerful and historic statement would have been front-page news. But when the “World Scientists’ Warning to Humanity” was released to the press, virtually every major newspaper in the United States and Canada deemed it “not newsworthy.” That day, the New York Times did, however, find space on the front page for a story about the origin of rock and roll, while the front page of one of Canada’s major newspapers, the Globe and Mail, included a large photograph of cars forming an image of Mickey Mouse. (66)

This is the kind of thing that gets me quite upset.

Similarly, just before the turn of the millennium, Worldwatch Institute released a report on ocean fisheries. It had just been discovered that overfishing was decimating not only the adult fish populations, but the juveniles as well, thus accelerating the destruction of the oceanic food web. The Toronto Star was all set to run a feature on the report but, due to a late-breaking story deemed to be of far more significance, had to cancel it. The story that was considered more newsworthy concerned a member of the Spice Girls, a pop singing group, who had announced she was leaving the group. (67)

It’s enough to make you despair. Yet every so often something happens to balance all this. Once in a while, the media steps up and does something you never would have expected in a million years, restoring your faith in humanity and suggesting there is hope for us humans, after all.

Waking Up in the Most Unlikely of All Places

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A few years ago, I got a phone call from a media person that I found utterly surprising. As a result, I was totally unprepared for how things developed.

I was sitting at home one day, more or less minding my own business, when the phone rang. There was an upbeat female voice on the line, though not one I recognized. She said she was with a television show, and they wanted to do a program on me and my work.

When Diet for a New America first came out, I had been eager to spread the message wherever I could, and had agreed to almost every request for an interview, no matter how large or small the publication, radio station, or TV show. After trudging out to tiny cable stations at 2:00 in the morning, and appearing on obscure local shows that reached viewers of the Home Shopping Channel at 3:00 a.m., however, I had become more selective.

“What’s the name of your show?” I asked.


“Never heard of it.”

“We’re in every major market in the country.”

Well, well, well, a national show, that’s interesting. Could be good. But then again could be very bad. The name Lifestyles sounded innocent enough, but you never know with these big networks. I needed more information.

“What time are you on in my area?”

After she told me the particulars, I put the phone down and fetched a newspaper to check if the show was in my local listings. This seemed like a straightforward thing to do, and not one likely to cause problems, but when I found the spot, I was shocked. For what it said, right there in front of me, in my own local newspaper, was Lifestyles of the Rich and Famous.

Hardly believing what was happening, I returned to the phone, and told her what it said in my paper.

“Well, yes, that’s the full name of our show.”

I probably should have been diplomatic and tactful. My efforts in that direction, however, were not very effective. “I hate your show,” I told her. “You glorify the shallowest parts of people. You exalt conspicuous consumption. Your motto should be ‘Shop ’til the planet drops.’”

“I’m sorry you feel that way,” she replied, seemingly unfazed, “but on our behalf, let me say that we are a positive show. We don’t put people down, the way other shows like Current Affair and Hard Copy do. We try to be positive.”

I wasn’t impressed, and took the occasion to tell her so. When every religion and spiritual lineage known to humankind has taught that happiness cannot be attained through material acquisition, what kind of television show is it that preaches just the opposite? With the world ecology teetering on the edge, what kind of show glorifies an orgy of unsustainable consumption?

“I can’t believe you’re calling me,” I said, finally. “I’m the total opposite of everything you’re about. Are you sure you aren’t looking for the author Harold Robbins?”

“No, John Robbins, author of Diet for a New America.”

“Well that’s me, but I can’t understand why in the world you would be calling me.”

“Let me explain,” she said. “Once a year we’re allowed to do a different kind of show. Once a year we do a show on philanthropists who donate to humanitarian causes. On people who use their wealth for the good of their fellow human beings.”

“That’s very nice,” I replied. “I wish you did that show every week, and once a year you did your stupid show.”

She laughed, which confused me all the more. I was totally serious. Twenty-five years earlier, I had walked away from the kind of lifestyle her show made such a fuss about, to live a far more simple and Earth-friendly life. As far as I was concerned, her show had no place in a world that is groaning under the weight of our out-of-control consumption.

Then it occurred to me what must be happening. She must be assuming I was still connected to Baskin-Robbins, and that I was rich. That’s it, I thought, that explains why she’s calling me.

I tried to be patient as I told her that I had walked away from all that years before, had been totally on my own ever since, and had no connection to any of the Baskin-Robbins money.

Telling her this, I thought, would take care of the matter. But I was wrong. To the contrary, she now seemed if anything to intensify her efforts to talk me into being on the show.

“Well, you could have been rich,” she said.

Right, I thought, “Lifestyles of the Could Have Been Rich and Famous.”

I decided to make one more stab at straightening things out. “Could you just tell me one thing? Why in the world would you want to do a show on me? I’m not rich, and quite frankly, I find your show disgusting.”

She sighed, but she persisted. “Well, yes, I understand, but you see, some of us on the staff here have read your books, and we think they are the most important books we’ve ever read, and we want to use the program to get your message out to a large audience of people who otherwise might never be exposed to it.”

So this was why she had called! Now it made sense, and I must admit I was flattered. But, still, even though she meant well, it seemed hopeless. I tried to explain to her how we lived. Our home was small, so tiny in fact that the room my wife and I slept in was also our living room and kitchen. Our only car was a fifteen-year-old Datsun station wagon that had been driven more than 200,000 miles, and looked it. It ran, and we were happy, but our lifestyle was quite a far cry from anything I thought they would ever be interested in filming.

“That doesn’t matter,” she assured me. “We’ll find a way to make it work. We’ll think of something.”

I’m not sure what came over me, but I said okay, and we made a date for them to come.

When the time arrived, we cleaned up. Not that it took that long. You could vacuum the whole place in about ten minutes.

And then it happened. Outside, on the street, a gigantic van pulled up. On its side, in the gaudiest possible script, were the words, “Lifestyles of the Rich and Famous.” I knew because I was peeking through the blinds. My first thought was, “What will the neighbors think?”

The van door opened, and out piled an entire crew, who I later learned included people to work the lights, the cameras, and the sound equipment, plus a producer and a director and someone they called a “gopher,” whose job it was to go get hamburgers for them at lunch time. Plus what seemed like mountains of equipment. I looked around our living room/kitchen (we had put the bedding away) and concluded there was no way, no way at all, that all those people and their stuff could fit.

One rather heavyset fellow, who I later learned was one of the cameramen, approached the door first. He knocked, and I answered. “Excuse me,” he said. “Sorry to bother you. But we’re looking for the home of a John Robbins, and we seem to have gotten lost. Your house number is the same as his.”

Oh God, I thought. I knew this was going to happen. But at this point I figured I had better make the best of it.

“That’s me,” I said cheerfully. “Come in and make yourself at home.”

His face dropped. “This,” he said doubtfully, “is where you live?”

“Yes,” I said. “Please come in.”

He turned toward the van and the others. “This is the right place,” he shouted. Then he laughed. “Doesn’t look like the places we go to, usually.”

As they entered, I attempted to be a good host. “Have a seat,” I said to the cameraman, gesturing toward our only chairs. We had four vinyl-covered chairs that had been purchased several decades before as a Sears dinette set. Over the years, one of our cats, a brown Siamese named Brownfellow, had decided that these chairs were his personal scratching posts, and had lacerated the vinyl. At first I had tried to stop him, but it was to no avail, and I had eventually given up the effort. He had enjoyed himself shredding the chairs, so that by this time there was more stuffing showing than vinyl. I had come, over the years, to look upon the chairs as a kind of art form, the artist in this case being a cat.

That did not seem, however, to be the way the cameraman saw things. “No thank you,” he said stiffly. “I’d rather stand.”

Perhaps his reluctance was because Brownfellow chose that particular moment to add something of his own creation to one of the chairs, something that indicated rather clearly that he had not been enjoying his food as much as I might have hoped.

Before long, they were all inside. It wasn’t easy, but they and their equipment somehow managed to fit. Then I met the woman who had made the original call, a delightful woman, actually, and before long we were underway.

They interviewed me quite a few different times over the next few days, and also filmed an EarthSave fund-raiser where I spoke, plus got footage of the EarthSave office. Whenever I introduced them to colleagues or friends of mine, I always got a look that said, in no uncertain terms, “You don’t really expect us to believe that these people are from that show, do you?”

After the first morning of shooting, it was time for the gopher to go for lunch, but they decided, and I think it was quite respectful of them, to all go “veggie” for the days they would be with us. My wife, Deo, made us all a fabulous lunch each day, with fresh organic vegetables from our garden and from the local farmer’s market. A cameraman told me that he’d been with the show for years, filming all kinds of palatial estates, private islands, and mansions, and he’d never before been invited to have lunch with the people they were filming. Not once. I told him I thought that was sad, but I was glad, at least, that he was having a different experience now.

As time went along, I talked a good deal on camera about the environmental situation, and how our ethic of consumption was damaging the world and the future of all life. I spoke about the urgent need for all of us to create lifestyles and public policies that helped us to walk more lightly on the Earth, that did not create so much waste or use so much energy. I pointed with dismay to the ever-widening gap between the rich and the poor. And of course, I talked about a plant-based diet, and its many wonderful benefits.

When the time came to say good-bye, I realized how much fun it had been. The entire crew had indeed remained veggie for our time together, and had been much more than respectful toward me. The cameraman and other crewmembers told me they had enjoyed themselves very much, learned a great deal, and were going to eat far less meat in the future. The woman who had made the original call was ecstatic, and told me I had no idea how much this had all meant to her. She hugged me, and while she was at it, she told me that doing this show was one of the highlights of her life. “I’m so happy and proud,” she said.

I was moved, and the feeling lingered for a while after they all left, until it dawned on me that I had no idea what in the end would appear on television. They had, after all, taken hours of footage and would create a show out of it all by cutting and splicing in the editing room. I had no idea what to expect.

It was therefore with some trepidation that I turned on the television the day they first aired the show. But actually, they did a marvelous job, and the program, which turned out to be one of their most popular ever, has since been aired thousands of times on stations all over the world. Robin Leach called me “the prophet of nonprofit.” I rather liked that, especially considering some of the other things I’ve been called. There was one thing that I was sure they would cut, but they left it in—me saying that I admire Thoreau, and quoting him, saying, “I make myself rich by making my wants few.”

They used a special lens to make the room look larger. At one point, the camera is sweeping across the room, and there, before you, are the chairs. Robin Leach announces, and to this day I have no idea where he got this, that “every stick of furniture in their house is recycled.”

And then, at the end, they bring up on the screen for everyone to see the beautiful picture of the Earth from space. I’m sure you know the photo. Our precious blue-green planet, suspended among the stars like an exquisite jewel. Our beautiful Earth, more perfectly spherical than a billiard ball, a geometric marvel. Our world, with no political borders, just oceans and continents, so achingly fragile and beautiful. They leave this photo up there for a long time, instead of jumping from one image to the next every microsecond, as is so often done on TV today, and they have beautiful music behind the image of our gorgeous planet. And then Robin Leach, of all people, says something I can hardly believe I am hearing on this of all shows: “This man’s life goes to prove that whoever believes, ‘He who dies with the most toys wins,’ doesn’t see the whole picture.” And here’s the picture of the whole Earth from space.

I don’t want to make too much of this, because I know it was just a television show. But I was moved by what transpired, because there’s something in this that speaks to me of the paramount issues of our times. If a show like Lifestyles of the Rich and Famous could, even for a few minutes, broadcast these words of sanity, words that Americans so deeply need to hear, then maybe we have reason to hope. Maybe we won’t have to wait until the last river has been poisoned, the last acre of fertile ground has been paved over, and the last forest has been converted into a shopping mall, to learn that we can’t eat money.

Maybe the day is not that far off when we will honor those who excel at giving, not those who excel at getting. Perhaps it won’t be long before we recognize and appreciate the many courageous people who work day in and day out, not just to make the biggest buck, but to make the world a better place.

Maybe soon we will be giving our esteem and attention not just to those who make the most money, but to those who grow food that is healthy for our bodies and the Earth, and to those who repair damaged ecosystems and preserve endangered species.

Maybe the work so many people are doing to create a thriving and sustainable way of life for all might actually be taking root—even in some of the most unlikely places.

Like blades of grass bursting through a crack in a thick slab of concrete, something is seeking to break through the walls we have put between us and our kinship with the Earth. It is the awesome power of Creation itself. It is the same force that turns the tides, brings rain to parched earth, entices the bee to the flower, and ignites new life in countless species.

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. (68)

Our other choice is to actively engage with the living world. On this path we work responsibly and joyfully to make our lives, and our societies, into expressions of our love for ourselves, for each other, and for the living Earth. In this direction we honor our longing to give our children, and all children, a world with clean air and water, with blue skies and abundant wildlife, with a stable climate and a healthy environment.

If you live with fear for our future, you are not alone.

If you live with dreams of a better world, you are not alone.

We all live, now, with both the pain and the possibility we carry in our hearts, both the despair and the hope that we may yet learn to live in harmony with our precious and endangered Earth. There is not a person alive today who does not, at some level, know we are facing these two directions, and understand how much is at stake.

At such a crossroad, the steps that we take toward an Earth-friendly lifestyle are important, both for the ground they cover and for the direction 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. 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 love for the Earth, 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. The power of darkness in our world is great, but it is not as great as the power of the human spirit. We can learn to provide for our needs and limit our numbers while cherishing this beautiful planet and its creatures. It is in our nature to honor 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 honoring ourselves and the living planet is our responsibility as citizens of the planet, but it is something more, as well.

It is also a joy, and a privilege.

Editor's Note: Continue to Reversing the Spread of Hunger, Part I 


66. Suzuki, David, The Sacred Balance: Rediscovering Our Place in Nature (Vancouver BC: Greystone Books, 1997), pp. 4–5. 67. Ayres, God’s Last Offer, p. 171. 68. The words in this paragraph were written by Neal Rogin, in a document summarizing six months of ongoing discussions that had taken place among a small group of dedicated people, including Neal, myself, Vicki Robin, Tom Burt, Lynn Twist, Richard Rathbun, Joe Kresse, Catherine Parrish, Catherine Grey, Mathis Wackernagel, Ocean Robbins, and Tracy Howard.

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  • Posted on Nov. 14, 2007. Listed in:

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