Another diet for a newer America

Author and activist John Robbins on the financial crisis, going back to the land and the Department of Homegrown Security

John Robbins’ new book explores the relationship between money, happiness and consumerism.

John Robbins’ new book explores the relationship between money, happiness and consumerism.

Photo Courtesy of John Robbins

John Robbins co-hosts a screening of Bold Native with the Sacramento Vegan Society on Friday, March 4, 7 p.m. at 1000 La Sierra Drive; $5 donation. RSVP required at
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“Warning: It is dangerous to your apathy.” It sounds like a catchy tag line, but that’s just the way John Robbins describes Bold Native, a film about an animal liberator that he’s co-hosting a screening for this week in Sacramento. Robbins is known for turning down being the heir to his father’s ice-cream empire, Baskin-Robbins, and has authored several books on the negative impacts of modern food production, including his most recent, The New Good Life, which addresses the value of money in society. Inspired by the economic downturn, which affected Robbins and his family directly: He invested his life savings into what turned out to be a Ponzi scheme. He lost “95 percent” of his net worth.

In The New Good Life, you talk about re-evaluating one’s relationship with money. How did you personally re-evaluate after your loss?

We had to work very hard since then to regain some semblance of financial footing, and we have. The effort to build a life that has quality of life is different than to obtain a higher standard of living. … Standard of living is generally how much money you have and how much stuff you own, but quality of life is very different than that, and is actually more important.

But it’s been ingrained into the American psyche that money equals success. What does it take to get over that?

It’s going to take the economic conditions that we’re going to be experiencing in the coming years; they are very different than the ones that have prevailed in, say, the last 40 years. During this last decade, we’ve made excess into a status symbol.

And resourceful people who reuse or recycle are looked down upon.

Yes, exactly! … One of the things that’s defining of this moment in history is that we’ve come to a point where it’s now obvious that the kind of economic success that we’ve come to depend on is unstable: It uses up resources at a rate that is unsustainable. … It produces pollution that the Earth cannot absorb, it produces greenhouse gases at a level that destabilizes the climate and is stealing the possibility of a stable climate for our children.

In Diet for a New America, you wrote you’d “shake the foundations of the industry.” But how do you respond to those arguing that workers will lose jobs if you shut factories down?

The jobs in slaughterhouses, the jobs in factory farms are abysmal jobs, and they pay very little. The turnover rate is among the highest in any occupation in the country. If we had more family farms, if we had less industrial agriculture and more sustainable agriculture, if we had more organic agriculture, then the jobs would not involve farmworkers picking fruit in pesticide-laden fields, and their children wouldn’t have birth defects and [they wouldn’t be] getting cancer in their 40s. The shifts to a more family, more organic farm-based agriculture would provide us with many more good jobs and far fewer of the worst jobs. We would have a less poisoned world, a less polluted world, we’d have healthier food and we’d have healthier communities.

What of the mini back-to-land movement taking place the last few years?

I don’t know if you can go back to the land. There isn’t as much land and there are more people. A lot of the farmland had been paved over. A lot of the orchards have been torn up and converted into condos. And farming has become far more industrialized. …

We should tilt it in the right direction. For example, we should tax white bread and use the revenue to subsidize and lower the price of whole-wheat bread. I think we should tax junk food, soda pop and candy, and use the revenue to lower the price to the consumer of fresh fruits and vegetables. I think we should tax pesticides and use that revenue to subsidize and lower the cost of organic food. There are a lot of examples I could give you of this tax shift, and they all are revenue-neutral; they don’t end up costing anyone anything. But what they do is make it easier for people to make healthy choices, and then that will make for a healthier society and lower our clearly out-of-control medical costs. … We have the Department of Homeland Security; I think we should have a Department of Homegrown Security.