| Reading Joan Gussow's books feels almost like having Joan for a good friend. She puts so much of herself and her own life in her books, and I think you'll find that the situations she faces are similar to what you deal with if you are a conscious eater. So in our interview, I asked her a few questions about her new book, Growing, Older.
Recently, the enormity of the environmental problems we face hit me hard. It was the Cancun climate summit that did it. As I listened to the news reports, I felt like I had just witnessed the death knell of the planet. I dealt with it by escaping for a month, reading Harry Potter books several times over instead of focusing on food. In four decades of food activism, you can imagine that Joan has hit the same brick wall of despair, which she describes in Growing, Older. So I asked her to share a little more about how she dealt with it, and her answer is below.
The second part of the interview included below also comes from her books. She compares life to The Matrix, in which Keanu Reeves is told he can take the red pill to understand life as it is, or the blue pill, to return to a state in which he was blissfully unaware of reality. Joan discusses the difficulties of taking the "red pill" in a "blue pill" world. I asked her for details, and her answer is below.
Reading what she had to say about interacting with "blue pill" people made me want to pour my heart out to her - and yet, I knew that I didn't have to. She already gets it. She's been there. And she's got decades of wisdom to share about how to handle it. I just love this woman :)
You can find previous segments of this interview here: Part 1, Part 2.
Q: One thing that I found wonderful and very applicable to my own life in Growing, Older is when you're constantly thinking about and learning about all of the things that are killing the planet and horrible, how do you keep from going crazy?
Gussow: [Laughs] Well, as you know if you've read the book, one of the things is, 20 years ago or so, whenever it was - I can't remember, probably 1975, so it was, how long ago is that? Thirty-five years ago, I guess. I had a kind of epiphany.
A student gave me an article to read and that really triggered my - it made me realize. It was by Johanna Macy. It was about her own grief from internalizing what might happen if we had a nuclear war. And I got to a certain point in the article and I burst out crying. And I couldn't stop crying.
And I realized I'd been teaching this stuff for five, six years at that point probably - probably longer than that - and I'd been teaching about limits to growth and food and population and all the problems out there in the food system. And I really had become convinced by what I'd read that we might have gone too far and that we might not be able to turn back in time to really save the world. But I had been so involved in trying to put it all together that I hadn't really accepted it. Macy's article did it! And it just destroyed me. I mean, I was really distraught. And I didn't even know at first what was wrong, and I realized, finally, what it was. That I was just grieving for the earth, you know, I was just grieving for the planet.
It took me a while to recover. As I say in the book, fortunately I didn't have to teach the following week because, knowing me, I would not have been able not to tell the students what had happened. Cause I would have probably started to cry, so I was glad I had a guest lecturer and I had some time to recover myself, 'cause I didn't feel I needed to dump my revelation onto the students.
But, having gone through that, it's like I haven't had any illusions ever since. You know, I'm very wary of - very, very impatient about the "we're gonna get back to normal any day" kind of mentality. And I read stuff about "in 10 years this" or "this is a 50 year plan" and I want to say "Yes, and you think we have that long?" But once you've - once you've taken that in, once you've really taken it in, I think it's much easier...
Here I am going to break from her answer to insert a bit I found rather poignant from Growing, Older on this same topic.
[Macy] asked a spiritual counselor whom she knew well what one could do when one no longer had hope. He replied, "You have possibilities." We know so little about what really produces change in our world, especially when Nature is involved. We know that human inventiveness can produce solutions as well as problems. To assume the worst will happen is almost as wicked as plunging ahead trying not to notice what is happening under our noses. That understanding has sustained me ever since. - p. 29
We now return to our regularly scheduled Joan Gussow...
I think I'm a genetic optimist. I mean, I think I'm just a basically cheerful person. And that's, in fact, what, I realized, in trying to understand why I didn't miss my husband when he died after I'd been married for 40 years. And it was that I'd had a very happy life. It just had much less to do with him than I thought. I had created a life for us, because basically I ended up supporting the family, him being an artist, and I had a wonderful career and a wonderful life, and I was a very happy person. And so, I think I am temperamentally a happy person...
I once said to somebody, "I don't know how to deal with... the schism between my personal happiness and my existential despair," and he said, "Joan, if you don't seem like a happy person, why would anyone want to pay any attention to you?" And I think that's true. I think if you try to confront reality, and you've really confronted it, if you're honest about it, then I think if you show that you can have joy - even though you know - and you try to live responsibly...
I think the harder part is being part of an irresponsible society - I mean, I know people who travel all the time. And I want to say, "Where's your life? You know, is your whole life spent getting what you think of as novel experiences? What does it do for you? What are you then going to do with those? Is that going to help you live better, or be responsible toward the planet, or any of those things?"
And you know, the other thing is that I suspect, as I say in the book, I'm one of those people who took the red pill [a reference to The Matrix]. You know, I understand, I think I understand what the world is like. And I try very hard to live the best I can within a flawed society. But it is hard. I mean, we have no reasonable public transport from where I live to where I have to go when I teach and so when I go into the city I always drive - which, now it isn't even once a week in the spring, because I don't teach. And I don't think I ought to drive into the city but I can't do anything about that. But, you know, in every other way, I really try very hard to live in a way - and I don't travel much. I mean, the California trip was very rare... When I get asked to go someplace and give a talk, I think about whether I should do that. It's, I don't know, it's taking lemons and making lemonade, right?
A little later in the interview, she added:
When I sent my book into Chelsea Green, and I was having a conversation with Joni, the editor. And she said, "Well, we gave it to a young person in our shop, and she read it, and she came back and said, 'Well I love the way she writes but,' she said, 'You know, she's gonna die! What am I supposed to do?'" I thought that was so funny. So I told Joni, "OK, I'll do what I can." And so I went back and I changed some things where I had said "I'm really glad I'm not gonna be here in the next 40 years," you know, that kind of thing. And I think there's one of the chapters where I put at the end that there's youth and hope and all that stuff and these young people are so wonderful and all that, which I really believe. But, yes, I know that's a real problem"
Q: How do you take the red pill route in a blue pill world and interact with people without alienating them?
Two things, I would say. One is, I've written these two books, and most of the people I know have read them. Because they know me, and so they read them. So they know how I feel. And it doesn't seem to change anything at all. Once in a while, they'll say something like, "Oh I know you don't think we should be going to Vermont every weekend." You know what I mean? They'll acknowledge it. But I'm a sort of pleasant person and I have a good sense of humor, so I think they like my company more than I make them uncomfortable.
But I do sometimes speak up as I - I think it's in This Organic Life that I talk about having gone out to dinner with a friend and they had salmon and I had just read about how much other fish it took to feed salmon and I had just gone through this whole thing and I just said to myself, "Do I say anything, or do I not say anything? Do I ruin her meal or not?" And I joke with people that I'm the kind of person who ruins people's dinners.
What I find really rewarding - and I say something about that in this last book - was when I read about about how bad everything is in terms of greenhouse warning, and then I get this call from my friend Jennifer, who says, "I'm sort of relieved." And I realized I was too, and I was relieved because you now can talk about global warming, and people at least hear you. And many of them are equally concerned because they see the weather changing around them. And so I find it easier than it used to be.
It used to be - as I think I mentioned in the book - I put a session on energy into my class, and a chapter on energy and food was in The Feeding Web [Gussow's first book, based on lectures and readings from her class, Nutritional Ecology], which was put out in 1978. A whole chapter about energy and the food supply. Because I had intoxicatingly found this issue of Scientific American which came out on energy, and I just absorbed it, I inhaled it. It was a wonderful issue that told all about energy flows and all this stuff. So I had incorporated the topic into my class and a lot of people were looking at those issues in the '70s because there was an energy crisis at that time...
And so I had confronted all those things long ago. But when Reagan came into office and oil prices went down and everything was supposed to be terrific, it got much, much, much harder for a while to talk about anything... I even dropped the energy session from my class, and just folded it in with something called "The True Cost of Food," which was about all the fallouts, you know, from hog farms and animal confinement feeding operations, and all those things. Because it didn't make any sense to anybody. I mean, "Why would you talk about energy in relation to food - it's so cheap. I mean, energy's so cheap. Why are you worried about it? We have plenty" kind of thing. In those years, it was much harder. Now, it's at least sort of on the table. Don't you think?