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John Robbins


John: No. Optimism for me tends to wane very quickly, and it fluctuates with pessimism in a cyclical manner. If I depended on optimism for my work, I would burn out very rapidly or feel like a hypocrite.

David: What do you depend on then?

John: [Long pause] Love. Look at the human being. We can produce a Hitler, but we can also produce a Mother Theresa. The moral spectrum of humanity is vast. You begin to feel, “Well, if I don’t take responsibility, who will? My parents? Bill Clinton?” (laughter) We’ll all die waiting.

Rebecca: What are some of the less obvious environmental consequences of the meat and dairy industries?

John: It takes thirty-nine times more energy to produce a pound of protein from beef today than it does to produce a pound of protein from soybeans. It takes twenty-two times more energy to produce protein from beef than from corn or wheat. So people who are deriving their protein from plant sources are in effect consuming far less energy than those who derive their protein from animal sources.

The average pound of beef in the United States takes 2,500 gallons of water for its production. That isn’t to say that the animal drinks that much, but it’s involved in the watering of the crops that the animals eat, and the animals eat a lot more crops than we would if we were simply eating plants ourselves.

In California, which is a relatively dry state by national standards, the situation is worse. The average pound of beef there requires 5,214 gallons of water, according to the agricultural extension of UC Davis. In the same study they also analyzed how much water it takes in California to produce other agricultural crops. Apples take 49 gallons per pound, lettuce takes 23 gallons. Over half the water in California goes to beef and dairy production, and they still have to import most of their beef from other parts of the country.

And we’re told to turn off the water when we brush our teeth or when we’re shaving! (laughter) But if these aren’t just little gestures to make ourselves feel better–like wearing a “Save the Whales” button–we have to ask, “Where is our real leverage here? Where can we save the most water?”

In California it takes 5,214 gallons of water to produce a pound of beef. Now, if you were to shower seven days a week and your average shower used two gallons a minute and you took seven minutes per shower, you would use roughly a hundred gallons of water a week. This comes out to 5,200 gallons of water a year. This means that in the state of California, you would save more water by not eating one pound of beef than you would by not showering for an entire year.

Rebecca: And roughly how much beef does the average meat-eater eat a year?

John: In the United States, the present per capita consumption is sixty-three pounds of beef a year.

Rebecca: You’ve written about how some of the chemicals and hormones presently used in dairy and meat production take a generation for their effects to be fully realized, and you cited incidences of premature sexual development in children. What do you think we have to look forward to as a species if we don’t change our eating habits?

John: We’ll end up in the direction we’re headed. (laughter) You’re referring to the earlier and earlier menarche of females. In traditional cultures, girls get their first periods at around 16 or 17 years of age; in the United States, on average, girls begin menstruating at the age of 11.

Early menarche has been shown to be related to animal-fat consumption, which throws off the estrogen cycles in the body, and it’s also been related to the hormones in the animals products. The statistics show that the earlier a girl begins to menstruate, the more likely she is to have breast cancer, ovarian cancer, or uterine cancer. The earlier a young man enters puberty, the more likely he is to get prostate cancer. These are all hormone-related cancers.

The reliance of agriculture on pesticides is the equivalent of crack addiction. There’s an immediate rush. For the short term it feels better, but in the long term it’s reinforcing a destructive cycle. The first time that the farmers sprayed the infested plants with DDT, it seemed like a miracle. The first time someone shoots heroin–oh my God, the relief! It seems like a panacea. But the wisdom is to learn what the longer-term consequences

We found that the bugs develop resistances very rapidly. Meanwhile, you’re scorching the soil and destroying the microbial population, which leads to soil erosion and to poisoning everyone who partakes. The average breast milk in the United States is so contaminated with pesticide residues that it would be confiscated by the FDA if you tried to ship it across state lines.

Rebecca: There seem to be a lot of people who abuse their bodies and eat junk food, and nothing seems to happen to them; they still function reasonably well. Do you think there could be some adaptation going on to the environmental pollutants?

John: No, I don’t. I think a lot is happening to those people. People who are breathing very polluted air are very challenged and stressed by that. Their immune systems, kidneys, and livers are doing everything they can to detoxify, but there are limits to what the human being can handle. They may not have cancer yet, but their whole appreciation of the human experience is a fraction of what it could be.

David: Have you ever had an experience with psychedelic plants that influenced your perspective?

John: I was a child of the sixties, and I definitely participated. They say that if you can remember the sixties, you weren’t there. Well, I have wonderful memories of the sixties, I took LSD for the first time in 1965. I had never had any psychoactive substance before, and it changed my life. It showed me that I was an ant, and it made me humble.

It also showed me that what we take into our bodies–even if it’s just a few micrograms of a chemical–can change our consciousness dramatically. It also made me an environmentalist. I saw that everything is connected.

I didn’t take LSD very much, because it was so overwhelming. Shortly thereafter, I took mescaline a few times and had wonderful experiences in nature.

In the early eighties a friend of mine talked to me about MDMA. I had had concerns about LSD. I had seen some people get very scattered, and I felt that it sometimes forced a premature opening on a psyche that wasn’t ready for it. MDMA seemed to be kinder. I was a practicing psychotherapist at the time, and I began to use it in my practice. I administered it to hundreds of people–while it was legal. After it was made a Schedule I drug, I couldn’t justify the risk of continuing its use.

David: What kind of results did you achieve with MDMA?

John: Oh, it was incredible! I saw extraordinary transformations. What a terrible shame that a tool so valuable to people was taken away! When a couple were fighting and stuck in a pattern that both were in despair about but neither could change, suddenly they had the ability to see and go beyond that pattern. They’d have to work it all through, of course–the drug alone didn’t do anything. But it gave them the will to change.

It made me feel that our policy toward drugs is criminal. I see the drug war as a serious erosion of our civil liberties. We don’t have freedom of religion, because some of these substances genuinely do activate religious experiences and are true sacraments.

Rebecca: Your experience as a therapist must be useful in dealing with the resistance to your present work.

John: Yes. Self-inquiry is indispensable to social action. If you want to have an impact on the outside world, you have to go that far inside, too.

David: What do you think happens to human consciousness after biological death?

John: I think it celebrates.

David: What is your perspective on God?

John: Well, I’m not into the old man with the white beard. The sense of spirit that enables us to be more present and more honoring of our interconnectedness–to me that’s the action of the divine. The surrendering of the individual self, the ego self, into the greater universe is my spiritual practice.

Some people find th is type of discipline restrictive, just as some people find being a vegetarian a limitation. I find it an honor. And when we learn to honor ourselves fully, we end up honoring each other. It just turns out that way.

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