Bestselling author, ardent social activist, and lifelong humanitarian, John Robbins is truly a force to reckon with.  I first became familiar with his work last year after picking up a copy of his (then) latest book, The New Good Life, and found I couldn’t put it down!  So inspired, I began delving into some of Robbins’ previous publications, of which there are many, and found myself wondering how this leading cultural influencer had remained outside of  my radar for so long.  I continue to be inspired by his passion, commitment and knowledge, and so I’m delighted to have the opportunity chat one-on-one.

John RobbinsJohn Robbins gave up a lot to pursue his true passion.   Once destined to reside among the now infamous 1%, Robbins was sole successor to the largest ice cream franchise in the world, Baskin Robbins. But the calling to a higher consciousness inspired him to walk a different path, one that lead John and his wife Deo to a life of true simplicity.  No frills and commercials-free, the Robbins committed to stick to  the basics and in doing so found a level of happiness previously unsurpassed.  The New Good Life describes their liberating journey and offers insight and solutions for breaking free of the cycle of consumption to forge a truer path.

In this season of hyper-consumption, John is the perfect go-to guy for inspiration and advice, so read on!

EB:  Your early choices required a level of courage many of us would find it hard to access.  How were you able to believe enough in yourself to walk away from a life of privilege and essentially live off the land without a safety net to fall back on?

JR:   I may have left a life of financial security but I didn’t feel emotionally secure until I did left it. It was just the opposite of what you would expect.   When you’re living a life to please someone else rather than the life you’re meant to live, there’s no emotional security in that.

EB:  It sounds like you learned early on that money doesn’t bring happiness.   I enjoyed reading about the lovely simplicity of your life with Deo on tiny Salt Spring Island (off the Coast of Nova Scotia) as a young couple.  What inspired you to choose Santa Cruz to relocate to upon leaving there?

JR:  We moved to Santa Cruz in 1984, and at that time our son Ocean was 10.  We were looking for a school that would be the right school for him.  He was an unusual child and we wanted to find the right fit for him, so we decided that wherever the right school was would be the right community for us.   I love Santa Cruz tremendously. I’ve been here for now 28 years and I’ve loved every minute of it.

EB:  What motivates you to remain so committed to your work?

JR:  I love life, I want to see it continue.

EB:  Your work is such a testament to that!

So the holidays are now upon us, and with it the shopping frenzy.  Any suggestion or traditions you can share to help the more mainstream among us to more sustainably meet our obligations?

JR:  Well as you know, it’s become a consumer mania.  It has nothing to do with the spirit of Christ at all. We have an opportunity for families to get together and share their caring and love for each other, buying to do that loses the spirit of the season.  In my family we give gifts, we have a rule not to buy stuff.

Instead we give massages, write a poem, take on some chores, give something of ourselves.  In fact at this very moment we’re in the kitchen making a big soup for a sick friend.  It doesn’t cost anything, which is the point. It’s not about the commercialization but staying connected to the relationships.

EB:  Great advice, which I’ll be both abiding and sharing!  In Diet for a New America (a personal favorite), you review a lot of the diet trends that have ended up wreaking health havoc on many followers of these extreme and unfounded regimens.  Are there any food trends you would advocate from a health perspective?

JR:  There are some good ones, such as moving toward organic, the movement to reduce environmental impact by buying locally grown food and getting to know the farmers and growers in the area.  Even if you’re buying food not sourced locally (and I’m guilty), you still have choices.  You can buy Folgers, where the CEO makes $35 million a year while the coffee growers that grow the bean s are paid slave labor.

Or you can choose organic and Fair Trade, which don’t cost that much more.  The money then goes to the growers who can feed their families, or gain access clean water.  You can choose to be in a conscious relationship within that framework, rather than working through a corporate middle man that only cares about profit.

EB:  Sounds like it’s really about making conscious choices.  You do a lot of public speaking, which requires a lot of travel – often a challenge for eco-conscious among us.  Do you have any tips you can share?

JR:  Yes, that is a big conundrum.  The carbon footprint of air travel is huge, yet here I am being invited to speak all over the world which can contribute to that.  So what we’ve done is created the ability to teleconference.  I started 3 or4 years ago when I was invited to a sustainability conference in Tallahassee Florida. Bill McKibben and I were invited to keynote.  Bill is on the East Coast so for him it’s not a big deal, but it’s a long trip from here.

As it turns out, there’s a facility at the Chaminade Conference Center in Santa Cruz that does corporate retreats and offers a nice video conference set up.  We ended up renting that room, so I was in the room and I had a monitor so they could see me and I could see them very well.  The people in Tallahassee had a huge 15 x 20’ screen where my presentation was shown real time.  When you’re in a big audience in person, people in the back often don’t see you well, but we didn’t have that problem with the videoconference.   I realized that I’d better shave that day the visibility was so good!  The feedback was terrific.   And it reduced the carb footprint of the event, plus I could charge a lot less, so they were able to charge people less for the conference.  It really felt like walking the talk, since it was a sustainability conference it made it all coherent.

I’ve been doing a lot of that since then.  There was an event in Edmonton in January that I wanted to be at so I did it via video conference.  Increasingly I’m getting invitations to speak in Singapore, Italy, Australia, all over the world – rather than thinking about all of the time, energy and cost  to get there, this has been a wonderful alternative.

EB:  You’ve got so much to teach people, newcomers may want to know where to get started.  What one message would you like people to glean from your work?

JR:  Who you are matters, how you treat people matters, how you treat yourself matters.

People sometimes say it’s too late, we’ve gone beyond our ability to reverse the damage,  the trigger effects of methane emissions are already out of control and if we cut our carbon emissions by 20% tomorrow we’d still be in trouble.

I’ve always taken the approach we don’t ‘know enough yet.  I read those reports and realize it could be true, but we don’t know.  I do know that  it’s never too late to love, it’s never too late to do your best,  Your choice and actions matter regardless of what happens.  If we believe that things will go a certain way regardless of what we do we can’t be inspired, we’re prisoners of circumstances, and there’s no freedom in that.  We can make a difference – what we do matters.

EB:  What’s next for you?

JR:  I have a book coming in out in March,  No Happy Cows: Dispatches from the Frontlines of the Food Revolution.  The dairy industry promotes that slogan, about happy cows in California.  I live in California; there are no happy cows in the factory farms here.   Factory farms create situations where extreme cruelty becomes the norm and it violates the animal human bond.

We have a responsibility to treat those animals with dignity.  We need to have respect for their basic needs.  I want to oppose that, want to wake people up so they won’t be inclined feed themselves at the expense of living creatures.

EB:  I’ll be looking forward to it!

Until then, learn more about John Robbins at http://www.johnrobbins.info/