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October 1996
John Robbins: A Man with a Plan

The Satya Interview



John Robbins

John Robbins is the author of the bestselling Diet for a New America (Stillpoint, 1987, $14.95), in which he detailed the horrific conditions for animals on factory farms and the devastating costs to the environment and human health of intensive farming. In his latest book, Reclaiming Our Health (H.J. Kramer, $24.00), Robbins takes on the medical establishment's extraordinary efforts to eradicate natural childbirth, midwifery, non-toxic cancer cures, and alternative medicine, all the while sponsoring tobacco, radiation, and personal attacks. Satya caught up with Robbins when he came to New York on a speaking tour.

Q: Next month, America will be going to the polls. What do you think we should be telling our politicians?

A: I think we need to ask our politicians to be responsible for the greater good. The Iroquois used to talk about the responsibility to the seventh generation hence as a criterion for all their decisions. In our politics, our criteria generally are next quarter's profit or this month's election. The result is short-term profit, long-term disaster. The result is an economic policy that's devastating the biosphere, violating the web of life, and rendering the earth increasingly uninhabitable.

Q: These are large concepts. But how do you go about legislating to create the mindset of the Iroquois?

A: One of the problems that we have in our political structure is the degree to which special interests dominate the thinking and the actions of politicians. I find it stunning that Bob Dole's primary source of campaign revenue is coming from tobacco. The tobacco industry obviously thinks that a Dole presidency would be good for their business, and I think that they're right. It's a frightening thought from the point of view of public health.

Q: Yet how can we realistically expect to make a difference when we do not have the revenue (and thus access) of the tobacco companies, the American Medical Association, or agribusiness corporations?

A: Norman Cousins said that nothing is more powerful than an individual acting out of his or her own conscience who's helping to bring the collective conscience alive. I don't know that we can measure or grasp the power or the impact of an individual's function connected to a core value.

You know, the media report a certain level of event and call that news. But there are other things occurring that the media doesn't notice or recognize, things that don't get validated in our culture that much, but may be even more important in the long run.

If we are going to survive, if we are going to transform our relationship to ourselves and each other and the greater world, nothing is more important than each of us taking responsibility for our lives and our actions and our choices. Different ones of us have different fields of action in which we find ourselves. Some of us may be in a position of more public exposure than others. But we all interact with other people a great deal.

I think that the fundamental unit of social change is the human heart.

Q: Living in a democracy, animal activists and vegetarians are told we are entitled to our way of life. But when we try and persuade, we're told not to preach. How do you square these two things?

A: People don't like to be told that the way they are living is wrong. People don't like to feel criticized. Yet the way we, as a culture, are living is wrong in that it is ecocidal. As a society, we live without respect for other forms of life. We live without a sense of our interconnectedness with the rest of the Earth community.

We define success in material terms, as the ability to acquire things and consume resources. Our motto should be "shop 'til the planet drops." We take pride in our ever-growing GNP, not realizing that this means ever more gallons of gasoline burned, ever more toxic waste produced, ever more forests converted into shopping centers, ever more pollution and destruction of the life support systems.

I've had cynical moments in which I've thought that the U.S. citizenry will only become concerned about environmental destruction when it begins to interfere with their television reception. But, more and more I sense that it will be the human health consequences that follow upon ecological collapse that will awaken us. The depletion of the ozone layer leads directly to higher rates of skin cancer and cataracts. Air pollution causes lung cancer, emphysema, asthma, and other forms of respiratory disease. Lead and other heavy metals spewed into the environment by industry produce central nervous system poisoning. Pesticides and other toxic chemicals cause birth defects, cancers, and autoimmune diseases. So does nuclear radiation. Acid rain not only destroys our forests, it damages all kinds of crop growth, and hence directly affects crop yields, leading to more malnutrition and hunger. As the number of malnourished and hungry people in the world rises, many infectious diseases become more virulent, because these people are immune compromised, and function as walking petri dishes.

Martin Luther King once said, "We will either learn to live together as brothers," I would add, "and sisters," "or we will perish together as fools." He was prophetic, not just in terms of social justice but in terms of modern immunology and the health crisis of our time.

Q: Will the forces that make money from keeping society pathological change?

A: It's true that the changes that are needed to create a healthy planet run in a different direction than the prevailing political and economic drift. But, as Bill McKibben says: "That does not mean change is impossible. All it means is that our politics is, temporarily, out of step with the chemistry and physics of the earth."

Life is change. We're all always changing. And people tend to become very angry when they realize that companies and individuals have made tremendous profits by activities that destroy the health of people and the environment.

Q: We are seeing that with tobacco.

A: Yes. And the next step is to realize that it's not just cigarettes that are polluting our lungs, but also the way we use our energy industrially, in terms of relying on oil and coal and other polluting sources rather than relying on renewable, non-polluting sources of energy. And that's one of the great challenges of the next decade to shift to renewable energy sources.

Q: What are for you the correlations between large corporations profiting from people's illness and the large corporations that create the American diet?

A: In modern agribusiness-dominated agriculture, we have systems of producing meat that treat animals as commodities, without any regard whatsoever to their natures. The conditions are a total violation of who these animals are. Every single one of their natural instincts is frustrated: they have no space to move around, the diets they are fed are deplorable from a health point of view as well as a humane point of view, and the whole thing is propped up with a tremendous amount of pharmaceuticals. We're the only industrialized country that implants our beef cows with artificial hormones; we now inject [recombinant] Bovine Growth Hormone into our dairy herd. The degree of reliance on drugs in modern animal products is really sad.

Similarly, in our medical system, the body is treated as a machine rather than a sensitive field of energy, possibility and awareness. Sick people are treated as a market from which to make money, rather than human treasures to cherish and serve. In Western medicine, health is defined merely as the absence of symptoms. So there is this treatment of the human being as objectifying and exploiting.

Q: You emphasize women's health in Reclaiming Our Health. Why?

A: Women bear the brunt of the medical establishment's self-interested approach to providing healthcare. We spend more money on what we call healthcare (it's really "sickness care") in this country than any other country in the history of the world. We're also number one in malpractice suits. But we're 25th when it comes to infant mortality and it's getting worse each year.

30 years ago, the cesarean rate in this country was only six percent. Now it's 23 percent! Nearly a quarter of women who give birth in the United States today have their babies surgically removed from them. And the same obstetrical establishment that's responsible for this trend at every opportunity denounces midwives and home births and free-standing birth centers all of which show better outcomes for mothers and babies.

It's women who give birth, and it's women who go through menopause. What our culture has done is to medicalize natural life processes, like menopause and birth. Birth is an incredibly important event, because if you violate the mother-child bond, if you remove a woman from her experience of birth as a sacred act of immense power and instead make her feel that she must rely on a physician to get her baby out for her safely, you have disempowered her in her relationship with her newborn at a profound level, and her relationship with her own body.

Q: Is there a specific plan that you would advocate for getting America out of the health-care mess?

A: America is the only fully-industrialized country in the world that doesn't guarantee minimum healthcare to every single citizen. There are 42 million Americans with no medical insurance, and another 30 million who are seriously under-insured. Those numbers are both increasing. It is a scandal.

Some form of national insurance, some form of universal healthcare, is inevitable in this country, and I think it's a good thing. The other side is that there are people who will say, "Well, I don't want to pay, via my taxes, for the medical care of somebody who's lifestyle is degenerate."

Q: I think that's something some vegetarians would say about paying for healthcare costs for meat-eaters.

A: If we had universal healthcare, then those people who don't take care of themselves and have very high medical bills in effect will be draining the public pool. Any good system will have incentives somehow built into it that encourage people to take good care of themselves.

I would like to see a form of universal coverage, but with a substantial deductible. The deductible would be based on income, so someone who's poor would have a much lower deductible than someone who's wealthy. The biggest cause of bankruptcy in the United States is medical care costs, whereas in Canada no-one ever goes bankrupt due to illness or injury. I think we can achieve that same level of compassion and have everybody covered for catastrophes, or emergencies, or serious problems, and yet, unlike Canada, build an incentive system, whereby you pay the first bit and then co-pay for a while after that. So you can't just merrily eat your bacon and eggs for breakfast and then take your cholesterol-lowering pills and think all will be well.

Q: Would you advocate anything like taxing beef and dairy manufacturers to pay for healthcare?

A: I would go further than that. I would start taxing heavily all those products and activities that have been shown to be damaging to human health and to the health of the planet. The environmental polluters would pay heavily, as would the tobacco industry. We should be heavily taxing those products that are damaging. I'd like to see a system where those activities that harm health are discouraged, so there'd be less of them taking place. There'd be less illness, less suffering, and lower medical costs. And because people would be paying, by virtue of their deductibles, for their maintenance care, they'd be in charge and could avail themselves of holistic alternatives, rather than being prisoners of their "benefits."

I think we've gone a little nuts expecting health insurance to cover our maintenance and day-to-day needs. We have car insurance: if you have a series of accidents there's financial cushioning for all that. But you don't expect your car insurance to pay every time you change your oil, and it would be insane if you did. Can you imagine the paperwork?

John Robbins
is the founder of EarthSave. To find out about EarthSave in your area, contact: EarthSave, P.O. Box 68, Santa Cruz, CA 95062. Tel.: 408-423-4069. To order Diet for a New America or Reclaiming Our Health, call: 800-DNA-DO-IT.


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