Veg Origins: Pt. 1 John Robbins
(This is a Re-Post from The Vegan Training Table, during the Vegan Mofo marathon. The theme of vegan origins and influences fits in better here.)
My appetite and actual food consumption have not quite caught up with food production in the Plant Powered Performance Lab. So I mined the great list of writing prompts the Vegan Mofo HQ devised to help everyone get through the month and picked the most obvious one: My Origins.
Anyone who chooses a vegetarian or vegan diet or lifestyle has instantly begun to swim upstream. Unless you live as a hermit, you immediately face resistance. We are a naturally social critter, and despite the complexity of society, a big part of our psychology is bound up in being accepted by others. Challenge any of those beliefs, even minor ones, and you will feel the resistance from others. How do we make that choice? What changes us? What allows us to continue when we know it upsets others?
First comes the most basic, obvious question:
The usual answers are well known and sometimes understood, even by omnivores:
No surprise there. But this essay isn’t so much about why I believe those are sound enough reasons to swim upstream, but more about how I reached the conclusion to clean my plate of animal products. In my origin myth there are two themes that seem inseparable and somewhat obscured by the mists of hairspray from the Big Hair 1980s. They are John Robbins’ seminal work Diet For a New America and my interest in Eastern philosophy, which often includes a vegetarian lifestyle.
Those who have been around the veg world for any length of time certainly know of John Robbins and his many books, and those lucky enough to hear him speak know what a great ambassador he is. I first heard of John Robbins in a cover story interview in the Sep./Oct issue of Yoga Journal. His book came out a few months later and his name stayed as his message spread. I first read Diet for a New America in 1989. I was immediately changed. I knew that there was no way I could continue as an omnivore. It was one of those genie in the bottle moments. Just like you can’t put the genie back into the proverbial bottle, certain things cannot be unlearned once learned. The realities of an animal based diet were forever engraved in my brain from that one book by that one man. Even when I quit, the experience of that book haunted me. Those three veg themes were so clearly put forward in the book that I found it impossible to rationalize eating meat any longer. (Although I did in fact do that on occasion, always with guilt)
So with a couple of months to prepare myself, I chose New Year’s Day 1990 as the day to become vegetarian. Many would think, and I am sure that many did at the time, “just another New Year’s Resolution, dead by February.” Except that it didn’t die. It lasted 6 1/2 years until June 1996. Why it stopped is another story, and surely the more important one. Later.
For those long time vegetarians who can remember the 1980s, it was a different time back then. There were not as many resources available. There certainly was no internet and the vast sharing we can do now. Definitely no Vegan Mofo! There was the Moosewood Cookbook, which was my bible, Yoga Journal, which had some veg articles, and the now defunct East West magazine that had a macrobiotic perspective. Vegetarian Times was out there somewhere, but I don’t ever remember seeing it. There was no Whole Foods Market, and while not required, most of us shopped at least some of the time in funky little health food stores that had a distinct counter cultural vibe. But despite the paucity of information and isolation, John Robbins and THE BOOK as it came to be known by those who were spiritually minded or into alternative health care, was everywhere. As much as it was possible in such a small world, John Robbins was a celebrity. For me, he was a role model.
There was a serious benefit for me in the fact that this lifestyle was so minor and small. I had to learn to cook. Vegetables. Whole grains. Legumes. The healthy stuff. There wasn’t much processed vegan convenience food then. It was a real DIY mentality. But there was a drawback. I had never even heard the word “vegan”, and the thought of eliminating eggs or dairy never really occurred to me. That part of the message never came through to me reading Robbins’s book. I rationalized very easily that dairy and eggs were acceptable because the animal wasn’t killed. I wasn’t “eating death” as many yogis like to describe it. I did not realize at the time that egg laying hens and dairy cattle live just as brutal a life as any animal destined for slaughter. But just giving up meat seemed so radical at the time, I rationalized that eggs and dairy didn’t matter, especially for my health.
But while I can look back on the choices and rationalizations now with some regret, at the same time I am very proud of myself for even asking the questions. I am even more proud of myself for answering those questions in such a way that I could live with the difficulties and resistance such a lifestyle naturally engenders. The reason John Robbins seemed so radical was simply that very few people ever asked questions about where their food came from.
John Robbins opened my eyes to the realities of our food choices long before Food Inc., Super Size Me, Forks Over Knives, or Michael Pollan. Even before Dr. Dean Ornish published proof that a veg diet can reverse heart disease, John Robbins showed eating animal foods has serious detriments to our personal, physical health. I’ve always been interested in health and fitness, even though I was not a successful athlete. But I wanted to enjoy my physical self, so Robbins spoke to me. My favorite sports have always been outdoor sports, and at the time surfing was my passion. Surfing brings you into very close contact with the environment, and often, nasty human made pollution. Robbins spoke to me about how our food choices affect the natural world that I love to play in. I grew up always having pets of some kind. Loving animals of certain species while blithely ignoring the suffering of other species no longer made sense because Robbins spoke to me.
But mostly John Robbins showed a beautiful interconnectedness and symmetry where health exists on many planes that all intimately connect to each other. Years later I would encounter this thought again from the Vietnamese Buddhist teacher, Thich Nhat Hanh who created a neologism to express this, interbeing. We are all in the act of being, and we be in a way inter-connected to each other, to other animals, and the larger web of life on earth. Our personal physical, emotional, and spiritual health depends on all those other beings. The health of all those other beings depends on our personal health. John Robbins showed this to me in 1989.
Thank you, John.