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EarthSave, Vegetarianism and Me

by Don Robertson

Like so many other small children, I was disheartened when I first learned, from my mother, that we kill animals so we can eat them. I found that news hard to reconcile with the notion that animals are our friends. I mean, you don’t kill your friends and eat them, do you?

But I balked at the prospect of challenging the wisdom of my parents at that age (around 3). And I ate the meat my mom cooked for me, and even enjoyed it.

Still, I held a special place in my heart for vegetarians. I admired their willingness to go out of their way to do something to help animals each day. And one day, as I witnessed the warmth, affection and powerful bond between a dairy cow and her young calf, I thought to myself, “Maybe one day I could be vegetarian.”

Another 33 years would pass before that idea became a priority for me. My wife and I, both animal lovers (with two horses, two cats and three dogs) became members of the Humane Society of the United States. And occasionally, we received literature and pictures that showed the conditions on modern intensive-confinement animal farms that produce nearly all of the chickens, pigs and veal calves raised for food in the U.S.

The pictures showed farms that didn’t look like farms. They looked more like filthy concentration camps. And the photos showed that the animals were simply being warehoused and crammed into tiny spaces, with little or no consideration of their natural impulses, preferences or needs.

And the more I learned about modern animal agriculture, the more I thought about not wanting to support that industry with my food purchases. So when my wife mentioned that she had gotten to know a vegetarian couple, I was eager to borrow some literature from them. I did some library research as well, and what I learned amazed me: Not only is a vegetarian diet better for animals, it’s healthier for people and for the planet, as well. The evidence is overwhelming.

In the 1980s, the U.S. Surgeon General and National Academy of Sciences each did independent studies on all of the nutritional research that had been done in the previous 50 years, and their conclusions were very similar. They pointed out the connection between the typical American high-fat, high-cholesterol diet and cardiovascular diseases, adult onset diabetes, obesity, kidney disease and several cancers. According to the Surgeon General, 68% of the deaths in this country each year are diet-related. And at the top of his list of recommendations was to eat more fruits and vegetables.

By far, the most common killer in this country, heart disease, as with other circulatory problems, is clearly understood to be caused by buildups on the walls of the arteries. These deposits consist of saturated animal fats and cholesterol. Plant foods, of course, are generally low in fat and contain no cholesterol. So it shouldn’t surprise us to see that the world health literature shows that heart disease is virtually unknown in populations with a plant-centered diet. But interestingly, we can see a marked increase in heart disease and other forms of degenerative illness when members of other cultures adopt the American way of eating.

Another key study is the massive Cornell/ Oxford/China Health Project. The New York Times called it “the Grand Prix... the most comprehensive study ever undertaken of the relationship between diet and the risk of developing disease... tantalizing findings.” The research involved repeatedly monitoring 329 health factors in each of the 6,500 participants. A nutritional biochemist from Cornell University, Dr. T. Colin Campbell, who directed the project, mentioned that the collected data strongly suggest that there are dietary links to those diseases already mentioned. And he added others to the list, most notably osteoporosis (brittle bone disease). And Campbell sees the consumption of animal protein, rather than total fat, as the chief culprit in these diseases of affluence.

He concluded that the study shows “that the vast majority, perhaps 80%-90%, of all cancers, cardiovascular and other forms of degenerative illness can be prevented, at least to a very old age, simply by adopting a plant-based diet.” And he further advises that the fewer animal products we eat, the healthier we will be.

The health and humanitarian issues were more than enough to convince me of what I needed to do in my own life, but I found an equally compelling reason to shift toward a veggie lifestyle when I found out how wasteful animal farming is. On cattle feedlots, 16 pounds of corn and soybeans are used to produce one pound of edible flesh. So, in comparing the resources used to produce meat to those required to grow plants (grains for human consumption), we see a huge disparity. The meat-centered diet requires 16 times the amount of resources. That means 16 times the amount of land, water, fertilizer, pesticides, herbicides and fuel for farm machinery, to mention just part of the waste.

The same piece of land currently required to feed one person on the standard American meat-based diet could feed seven on a totally plant-based diet. So you can begin to see the kind of implications this has for world hunger. A very famous vegetarian by the name of Albert Einstein said something that might help us put these issues into proper perspective: “Nothing will benefit human health or increase chances for survival of life on Earth as much as the evolution to a vegetarian diet.”

It became very clear to me that this information was powerful stuff, something that could make a huge difference for all life on Earth. So I continued to read and attend lectures and conferences on vegetarian nutrition and animal agriculture. And I talked; I talked with anyone willing to listen, and to a great many who weren’t. And I know now that I made a nuisance of myself. But I had “seen the light.”

I gradually discovered (it actually took me about five years) that preaching to people was not an effective way to spread my message. What I was doing was not working! My first marriage had recently ended and the rest of my life wasn’t going all that well, either. So I decided it was time to stop focusing on others and work on myself.

I enrolled in a series of personal growth seminars and learned a lot about myself. One of the best things I learned was that good communication is a lot more about listening than talking. And I got more in touch with my emotions and discovered the value of listening from the heart, rather than the head. The people we talk with don’t always want solutions; sometimes they just want to be heard.

As I continued to learn about myself and about life, it became clear that educating and inspiring others about healthier and more compassionate lifestyles was one of my greatest desires. And I thought my musical, writing and speaking abilities were a good fit, so I continued to learn about vegetarianism, on my own and by attending some of the national veggie conferences. At these events, I always felt the most in tune with the speakers who represented EarthSave, such as Dr. Michael Klaper, and EarthSave’s founder, author John Robbins.

Robbins’ “Diet for a New America” is one of the most inspiring books I’ve ever read. In his thorough and extremely well-documented Pulitzer-nominated work, he turns our attention to the health, ecological and humane problems stemming from the profound turn our society (and developing nations that follow our example) has made toward dependence on animal products for food. And with a kind and gentle voice, he points to a better way for America and for us all.

“Diet for a New America,” published in 1987, was so well-received that he got 50,000 letters, many from people who wanted to know how they could help spread his important message. And that is what led Robbins in 1989 to form the nonprofit educational group EarthSave.

EarthSave’s mission is to “promote food choices that are healthy for people and for the planet. We educate, inspire and empower people to shift toward a plant-centered diet and take compassionate action for all life on Earth.” There are 28 active chapters across the U.S., and several in other countries, including Australia, Canada, England and Germany. Most chapters are operated by volunteers and offer monthly vegetarian potluck meals that feature a speaker or video.

The Baltimore chapter, which my wife, Ginny Robertson, and I started five years ago, is going strong. We have vegan potluck lectures at our home in Lutherville the second Saturday of every month, which usually attract 30 or more.

But EarthSave is far from being a club for vegetarians. We make a special effort to welcome anyone who would like to learn a healthier way of eating. EarthSave’s focus is on a direction, not perfection.

My point is that the improvement that could be achieved for our world through the absolute purification, or perfection, of every vegetarian or near-vegetarian is minuscule compared with the good that would be served by just a 10% average reduction of meat consumption. It is estimated that such a reduction could free up enough land, water and other resources to feed 100 million people—the approximate number now threatened by starvation.

So we at EarthSave Baltimore go on with our work. We welcome many new people to our events, including many nonvegetarians. Our volunteers notify 200 people by phone and another 300 by e-mail for all events. The potluck meetings offer free literature, a bookstore and a library for members. Also featured are awards for the favorite dish of the evening. The lecture topics usually involve either vegetarian nutrition or the psychology of making lifestyle changes. Those who attend tell us they find the events enlightening, inspiring and fun.

I also enjoy providing free EarthSave information at various fairs, and frequently offer my services without charge as a public speaker. I really appreciate the opportunity to inform people about the power of our plates.

As I look back, I can see that my decision to go vegetarian and, a year later, vegan were huge steps toward bringing my actions into alignment with my beliefs. And what it took for me, more than anything else, was information that served as a reminder and helped me get in touch with what I already knew on a very deep level. Vegetarianism is a wonderful way to acknowledge my connection with all of life. And it has affirmed for me that I’m not alone. I’m not separate, as I once thought. We’re all in this life together, connected and supported in ways we’ve hardly imagined.

Shifting toward a plant-centered diet is a powerful, powerful way to love this planet and all those who share it. Perhaps it could be your way.

Don Robertson is the founding director of EarthSave Baltimore. He recently retired after 30 years in auto assembly with General Motors, and lives in Baltimore with his wife, Ginny, who plays a strong supporting role in the EarthSave group. Don is available for speaking engagements, contact earthsaverdon@hotmail.com.