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John Robbins on "The New Good Life - Living Better Than Ever In an Age of Less"

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As a teenager, I had read the writings of Henry David Thoreau, who challenged the relentless pursuit of money and social status. "I love to see anything," he wrote, "that implies a simpler mode of life and a greater nearness to the earth." Seeing people too often make themselves what he called "slaves to the acquisition of money and things," he suggested that "a man is rich in proportion to the number of things he can do without."


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Thoreau's books inspired me to think about topics that were never discussed in the household in which I grew up--issues such as the importance of contact with the natural world, self- reliance, personal conscience, and social responsibility. Meanwhile, I was living in a home with an ice cream cone-shaped swimming pool and a soda fountain that offered guests all thirty- one flavors. My father was proud of his Rolls-Royce and the many expensive classic cars he collected. His yacht was named The 32nd Flavor.

If money was all that was needed to make a person happy, I would have been jubilant. But I wasn't, and my distress kept growing stronger. I had the distinct impression that even though humanity now had the potential to live upon this earth with more ease and comfort than had ever been possible in human history, we were collectively moving farther and farther away from that possibility.

I thought that Gandhi was right when he said that there is enough for everyone's need, but not for everyone's greed, and so it pained me to see how often money was becoming the goal of our lives, rather than a tool in service to our ultimate goals.

It would be twenty more years before the hit film Wall Street would appear, in which the lead character Gordon Gekko, played by Michael Douglas, would fervently declare that "Greed is good." But it was already clear to me that the pursuit of a prosperity driven by voracious consumption was taking root, and that it beckoned the eventual destruction of much that is good in our spirits and our world. If these trends were to continue, I feared, the global economy would become gargantuan in its excesses and grotesque in its inequalities.

I was born at the pinnacle of the old good life with its promise of unlimited consumption, and was poised to champion it into a new generation. I could not have forecast the collapse of major financial institutions that predatory lending and unrestrained greed would precipitate in the economic crisis that began in 2008. But I knew that ideas and ways of treating people and the earth were spreading over the world that were socially unjust, spiritually unfulfilling, environmentally unsustainable, and morally bankrupt. It was dawning on me that I would have to change my life to the core.

And change you did. Can you tell our readers a little about how you financed your college education and your lifestyle for the first decade of your marriage?

I worked my way through four years of university by washing dishes 20 hours a week, and taking other odd jobs, while being a full time student. As well, I played a lot of poker and bridge, and winnings from card games helped, too. And then my wife and I moved to a little island off the coast of British Columbia, where we built a small one-room log cabin. We lived there for the next ten years, growing most of our own food. The little money we needed came from the yoga classes and retreats I taught. We made do. Mostly, we followed Thoreau's advice. We made ourselves rich by making our wants few.

You've had lots of experience living with less. In your book, you talk at greater length about your life style on that island off British Columbia. If I recall correctly, you spent something like $500 a year for the first five years and $1000 a year for the second five years. Those are numbers that are almost impossible to get our minds around. How did you know what you were doing? What was it like living like that? And, was it hard to live "without" so many of the fixtures of your former lives?

I don't think I could live on that little today. But it wasn't that hard then because our lives were so simple. We were doing a spiritual practice of yoga and meditation four or five hours a day, and between that and growing our food and just handling the basics of life, that was pretty much all we did. Yoga and meditation are free. So is gazing at the stars, singing, dancing, dreaming, and exploring our relationship. Plus we worked very hard. We were young, of course, and that helped a lot.

In your blueprint for moving toward mindful consumption, you offer a wide range of actions individuals can take, some more challenging (and surprising) than others. The one that most stands out in my mind is the Prius/Hummer and meat-eating/vegetarian paradigm. Can you please reprise that for our readers?

President Herbert Hoover famously promised a "chicken in every pot and a car in every garage." But as best selling author and health advocate Kathy Preston points out: "With warnings about global warming reaching feverish levels, many are having second thoughts about all those cars. It seems they should instead be worrying about the chickens.""¨Kathy Preston's comments appeared in an article that she wrote, provocatively titled, "Vegetarian is the New Prius." She wrote in the wake of a seminal report published in 2007 by the Food and Agriculture Organization (FAO) of the United Nations. Titled Livestock's Long Shadow, the report states that meat production is the second or third largest contributor to environmental problems at every level and at every scale, from global to local.

It is a primary culprit in land degradation, air pollution, water shortage, water pollution, species extinction, loss of biodiversity and climate change. Henning Steinfeld, a senior author of the report, stated, "Livestock are one of the most significant contributors to today's most serious environmental problems. Urgent action is needed to remedy the situation.""¨Comparing eating little or no animal products with driving a Prius, and likewise comparing eating meat with driving a Hummer, may seem farfetched. But this comparison, as striking as it is, actually understates the amount of greenhouse gases that stem from meat production.

In 2006, a University of Chicago study found that a vegan diet is far more effective than driving a hybrid car in reducing our carbon footprint. The scientists who did the calculations said that a Prius driver who consumes a meat-based diet actually contributes more to global warming than a Hummer driver who eats low on the food chain."¨ As Ezra Klein wrote in the Washington Post in 2009, "The evidence is strong. It's not simply that meat is a contributor to global warming; it's that it is a huge contributor. Larger, by a significant margin, than the global transportation sector."

Similarly, a 2009 report published in Scientific American remarked that "producing beef for the table has a surprising environmental cost: it releases prodigious amounts of heat-trapping greenhouse gases." The greenhouse gas emissions from producing a pound of beef, the study found, are 58 times greater than those from producing a pound of potatoes."¨Not surprisingly, the U.S. meat industry has protested that livestock production isn't to blame for global warming, and has tried to persuade the public, opinion leaders and government officials that the FAO indictment of meat is overstated.

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