How comfortable are we? Are we comfortable with labels such as ‘success’ without truly knowing the meaning and connotations behind them? What if we fall short of living up to social definitions of success? Are there any consequences? You bet there are. My grandmother always told me to be grateful with what you have. Don’t envy what others have because you don’t know what they’ve endured to get it and you don’t know what they deal with to keep it. Take care of your needs first. Buy what is necessary. You’ll feel better. Here is an article that express the same sentiment.
|September 28, 2010
John Robbins on “The New Good Life – Living Better Than Ever In an Age of Less”
By Joan Brunwasser
My guest today is John Robbins, whose Diet for a New America, was a million-copy best-seller and the basis for a PBS series. His latest book, The New Good Life – Living Better Than Ever in an Age of Less, came out earlier this year. Welcome to OpEdNews, John. In a world of economic upheaval and uncertainty, our old ways of measuring success need some serious updating. Where did we go wrong?
Who’s the wealthiest person you’ve ever known? Most of us, when asked that question, think of the people we’ve known who were richest in monetary wealth. But what if you asked the question differently?
In terms of what really makes life worth living, who’s the wealthiest person you’ve ever known? Have you known anyone who has truly made the world a better place? Have you known anyone whose life is so filled with joy, who cares so deeply, who loves so richly that–whether or not they are financially abundant–their lives are a blessing to the rest of us?
When we say someone is a “success,” what do we mean? Do we mean that she or he is an emotionally balanced, loving human being? Do we mean that this person is creative and artistic and adds beauty to the world? Not usually. Instead, most of us reserve the word “success” for people who have made a lot of money.
This is how we impoverish ourselves. This is why we need a new vision of the good life.
In the twentieth century, Big Business made a critical decision to convert American citizens into consumers. Tossing out more traditional values in favor of rampant consumerism may have served short-term business interests, but it also left a huge vacuum behind. It’s unlikely that we’ll be able to easily shift Big Business (what’s left of it) back to a healthier paradigm any time soon. Nevertheless, you are encouraging about the possibilities for change. Why is that?
Our very language has shifted to reflect a preoccupation with consumption and spending. People in civilized nations used to be called “citizens.” Now we are identified as “consumers” (a term that means, according to the dictionary definition of “consume,” people who “use up, waste, destroy, and squander”). We now call that portion of our income that is not required to cover our basic needs by the phrase “disposable income,” as though there was something intrinsic to this part of our income requiring us to dispose of it. What if we called it “conservable income”? And we speak of consumer “goods,” as though items for sale possessed some intrinsic goodness. Wouldn’t it be more accurate to call them consumer “products”?
But I think the tide is turning. I think more and more people are seeing where “shop “til the planet drops” takes us, and want no part of it. More and more people are wanting to discover how to create lives of real quality that don’t depend on acquiring and using so much.
I believe there is a hidden blessing in the economic crisis, in the necessary return to reality from a make- waste society. Many of us know, at some level, that we have become caught up in something deeply out of balance, that we are going way too fast, that we are speeding past too many of the things and moments that could really matter. Many of us sense that life is too precious and too precarious to live the way we are living.
You had your epiphany a lot earlier than most of us when, as a young adult, you walked away from the opportunity to carry on the Baskin-Robbins name and tradition. What was it that was not ringing true for you and how hard was it to turn your back on that life and lifestyle?
I knew how high ice cream is in saturated fat and sugar, and I was coming to see the link with heart disease. An ice cream cone never killed anyone, but the more ice cream people eat the more likely they are to develop health problems, and the company naturally wanted to sell as much ice cream as possible. It was disturbing to consider that people might suffer more heart attacks as a result of the company’s meteoric growth.
In 1967, my uncle Burt Baskin, my father’s partner in the company, died of a heart attack. A big man, he was only fifty-four years old. I was overwhelmed with grief for the loss of my beloved uncle and increasingly troubled by the existential dilemma I was facing.
I asked my father if he thought there might be any connection between the amount of ice cream my uncle ate and his fatal heart attack. “Absolutely not,” he snapped. “His ticker just got tired and stopped working.”
It was not hard to understand why my father wouldn’t want to consider that there might be a connection. By that time he had manufactured and sold more ice cream than any other human being who had ever lived on this planet. He didn’t want to think that ice cream harmed anyone, much less that it had anything to do with the death of his beloved brother-in-law and business partner. But I could not keep from wondering.
My dad had groomed me since my earliest childhood to one day succeed him at Baskin-Robbins. The company was expanding rapidly, with annual sales in the billions of dollars. But despite the considerable lure of great wealth, I felt called to a different way of life, one whose purpose wasn’t focused on making the most money but on making the biggest difference. Every new generation has an instinct to step out on its own, but what was stirred in me felt somehow much deeper than a stereotypical father-son generational split.
As a teenager, I had read the writings of Henry David Thoreau, who challenged the relentless pursuit of money and social status. “I love to see anything,” he wrote, “that implies a simpler mode of life and a greater nearness to the earth.” Seeing people too often make themselves what he called “slaves to the acquisition of money and things,” he suggested that “a man is rich in proportion to the number of things he can do without.”
Thoreau’s books inspired me to think about topics that were never discussed in the household in which I grew up–issues such as the importance of contact with the natural world, self- reliance, personal conscience, and social responsibility. Meanwhile, I was living in a home with an ice cream cone-shaped swimming pool and a soda fountain that offered guests all thirty- one flavors. My father was proud of his Rolls-Royce and the many expensive classic cars he collected. His yacht was named The 32nd Flavor.
If money was all that was needed to make a person happy, I would have been jubilant. But I wasn’t, and my distress kept growing stronger. I had the distinct impression that even though humanity now had the potential to live upon this earth with more ease and comfort than had ever been possible in human history, we were collectively moving farther and farther away from that possibility.
I thought that Gandhi was right when he said that there is enough for everyone’s need, but not for everyone’s greed, and so it pained me to see how often money was becoming the goal of our lives, rather than a tool in service to our ultimate goals.
It would be twenty more years before the hit film Wall Street would appear, in which the lead character Gordon Gekko, played by Michael Douglas, would fervently declare that “Greed is good.” But it was already clear to me that the pursuit of a prosperity driven by voracious consumption was taking root, and that it beckoned the eventual destruction of much that is good in our spirits and our world. If these trends were to continue, I feared, the global economy would become gargantuan in its excesses and grotesque in its inequalities.
I was born at the pinnacle of the old good life with its promise of unlimited consumption, and was poised to champion it into a new generation. I could not have forecast the collapse of major financial institutions that predatory lending and unrestrained greed would precipitate in the economic crisis that began in 2008. But I knew that ideas and ways of treating people and the earth were spreading over the world that were socially unjust, spiritually unfulfilling, environmentally unsustainable, and morally bankrupt. It was dawning on me that I would have to change my life to the core.
And change you did. Can you tell our readers a little about how you financed your college education and your lifestyle for the first decade of your marriage?
I worked my way through four years of university by washing dishes 20 hours a week, and taking other odd jobs, while being a full time student. As well, I played a lot of poker and bridge, and winnings from card games helped, too. And then my wife and I moved to a little island off the coast of British Columbia, where we built a small one-room log cabin. We lived there for the next ten years, growing most of our own food. The little money we needed came from the yoga classes and retreats I taught. We made do. Mostly, we followed Thoreau’s advice. We made ourselves rich by making our wants few.
You’ve had lots of experience living with less. In your book, you talk at greater length about your life style on that island off British Columbia. If I recall correctly, you spent something like $500 a year for the first five years and $1000 a year for the second five years. Those are numbers that are almost impossible to get our minds around. How did you know what you were doing? What was it like living like that? And, was it hard to live “without” so many of the fixtures of your former lives?
I don’t think I could live on that little today. But it wasn’t that hard then because our lives were so simple. We were doing a spiritual practice of yoga and meditation four or five hours a day, and between that and growing our food and just handling the basics of life, that was pretty much all we did. Yoga and meditation are free. So is gazing at the stars, singing, dancing, dreaming, and exploring our relationship. Plus we worked very hard. We were young, of course, and that helped a lot.
In your blueprint for moving toward mindful consumption, you offer a wide range of actions individuals can take, some more challenging (and surprising) than others. The one that most stands out in my mind is the Prius/Hummer and meat-eating/vegetarian paradigm. Can you please reprise that for our readers?
President Herbert Hoover famously promised a “chicken in every pot and a car in every garage.” But as best selling author and health advocate Kathy Preston points out: “With warnings about global warming reaching feverish levels, many are having second thoughts about all those cars. It seems they should instead be worrying about the chickens.” Kathy Preston’s comments appeared in an article that she wrote, provocatively titled, “Vegetarian is the New Prius.” She wrote in the wake of a seminal report published in 2007 by the Food and Agriculture Organization (FAO) of the United Nations. Titled Livestock’s Long Shadow, the report states 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 a primary culprit in 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. Urgent action is needed to remedy the situation.” Comparing eating little or no animal products with driving a Prius, and likewise comparing eating meat with driving a Hummer, may seem farfetched. But this comparison, as striking as it is, actually understates the amount of greenhouse gases that stem from meat production.
In 2006, a University of Chicago study found that a vegan diet is far more effective than driving a hybrid car in reducing our carbon footprint. The scientists who did the calculations said that a Prius driver who consumes a meat-based diet actually contributes more to global warming than a Hummer driver who eats low on the food chain. As Ezra Klein wrote in the Washington Post in 2009, “The evidence is strong. It’s not simply that meat is a contributor to global warming; it’s that it is a huge contributor. Larger, by a significant margin, than the global transportation sector.”
Similarly, a 2009 report published in Scientific American remarked that “producing beef for the table has a surprising environmental cost: it releases prodigious amounts of heat-trapping greenhouse gases.” The greenhouse gas emissions from producing a pound of beef, the study found, are 58 times greater than those from producing a pound of potatoes. Not surprisingly, the U.S. meat industry has protested that livestock production isn’t to blame for global warming, and has tried to persuade the public, opinion leaders and government officials that the FAO indictment of meat is overstated.
But in 2009, the prestigious Worldwatch Institute published a landmark report that made the FAO report seem ultra conservative in comparison. This thoughtful and meticulously thorough study, written by World Bank agricultural scientists Robert Goodland, who spent 23 years as the Bank’s lead environmental advisor, and Jeff Anhang, an environmental specialist for the Bank, came to the staggering conclusion that animals raised for food actually account for more than half of all human-caused greenhouse gases.
Eating plants instead of animals, the authors conclude, would be by far the most effective strategy to reverse climate change, because it “would have far more rapid effects on greenhouse gas emissions and their atmospheric concentrations — and thus on the rate that the climate is warming — than actions to replace fossil fuels with renewable energy.”
I’m still having a hard time getting my mind around the fact that eating meat, even if it doesn’t come from CAFOs [concentrated animal feeding operations], is such a huge contributor to the degradation of our planet. While I digest that fact, what simpler and easier suggestions do you have on how we can become more respectful inhabitants of the world?
I know, it’s hard for many people to comprehend. But the data is consistent and convincing that our addiction to cheap meat, like our addiction to cheap oil, is literally costing us the world.
One of the reasons I wrote my latest book, The New Good Life: Living Better Than Ever in an Age of Less, is to provide people with simple, easy and inexpensive suggestions on how to raise their quality of life while lowering their cost of living, and at the same time lowering their ecological footprint. The book is filled with hundreds of ideas, many of them counter-intuitive.
Learning to live with respect for ourselves, respect for others, and respect for the whole earth community is no easy task in a culture that has become as out of balance as ours has. We have literally become out of phase with the deepest needs we have as people and as citizens of our dear planet earth.
So true. Do you have any final thoughts for our readers, John, before we wrap this up?
There is an old proverb that says: he who forgets the language of gratitude can never be on speaking terms with happiness.
We who are alive, with breath in our bodies and love in our hearts, have so very much to be thankful for. With all the pain and challenges life can bring, let us never lose track of that.
credit: Adelia Mostar
Amen to that! It was a pleasure reading your book and doing this interview, John. You’ve given us all a lot to think about.
Joan, you are most welcome. It’s been fun.
And, if the challenges seem too big and too hard, readers, just take a gander at John’s picture directly above. If this is what it looks like to be in harmony with the world around us, I’ll have what he’s having!
Author’s Bio: Joan Brunwasser is a co-founder of Citizens for Election Reform (CER) which since 2005 existed for the sole purpose of raising the public awareness of the critical need for election reform. Our goal: to restore fair, accurate, transparent, secure elections where votes are cast in private and counted in public. Because the problems with electronic (computerized) voting systems include a lack of transparency and the ability to accurately check and authenticate the vote cast, these systems can alter election results and therefore are simply antithetical to democratic principles and functioning. Since the pivotal 2004 Presidential election, Joan has come to see the connection between a broken election system, a dysfunctional, corporate media and a total lack of campaign finance reform. This has led her to enlarge the parameters of her writing to include interviews with whistle-blowers and articulate others who give a view quite different from that presented by the mainstream media. She also turns the spotlight on activists and ordinary folks who are striving to make a difference, to clean up and improve their corner of the world. By focusing on these intrepid individuals, she gives hope and inspiration to those who might otherwise be turned off and alienated. She also interviews people in the arts in all their variations – authors, journalists, filmmakers, actors, playwrights, and artists. Why? The bottom line: without art and inspiration, we lose one of the best parts of ourselves. And we’re all in this together. If Joan can keep even one of her fellow citizens going another day, she considers her job well done. Joan has been Election Integrity Editor for OpEdNews since December, 2005. Her articles also appear at RepublicMedia.TV and Scoop.co.nz.