What's a sustainability idea you became fascinated with but that ended up taking you off track?
When I first started researching the environmental impact of meat production, I was very much convinced of the dangers of the environmental and ecological problems that were caused by industrial food production. Of course there was a lot of supporting work going on around me to kind of confirm what I was coming across on my own. I never would have predicted this, but as I started reading extensively on all facets of meat production, I did wander into the animal rights literature—the literature that suggest that animal have rights that we as humans have a moral obligation to consider. Much to my surprise, I found myself convinced by many of the anima rights arguments, and that led to a radical transformation in my own diet. And as you may know, now I'm a quite vocal and committed advocate of veganism.
Who are three people you'd put in a sustainability Hall of Fame?
When I think about people who have influenced my own work, it's usually people who are very close to home and people I admire through their example. The first person is Wayo Longorria. 30 years ago, Wayo bought an old meatpacking plant in Austin, Texas, and turned it into a vegan macrobiotic center for health and nutrition. Through the food he serves at his restaurant, Casa de Luz, he has radically transformed the amount of control consumers have over their diet.
The second person I would mention is John Mackey, who is another Austinite and a friend. Through Whole Foods, he has revolutionized the way many Americans shop. Whole Foods by no means is a perfect model of sustainability, but it has taken enormous steps, very important steps, in that direction, and most importantly it has become a model for other grocery stores to follow. We're never going to have a moment where the vast majority of Americans buy their food from farmers' markets, but we can have a moment where the vast major of Americans buy their food from grocery stores that resemble Whole Foods.
The third person is somebody named Gilbert White, who wrote a fabulous little book in the 19th century called The Natural History of Selborne. He basically walked into his backyard and wrote about it beautifully. I think sustainability comes from an ethic that is derived from our appreciation of the natural world around us, and I think that Gilbert White has done a remarkable job of encouraging us just to observe.
What other field or occupation did you consider going into?
You know, I still think maybe part of me wishes that I did do this, but I'm very interested in the field of entomology, and actually wrote a book on the history of entomology in the U.S., providing evidence that this is a field that I haven't really been able to fully let go of. I find insects to be absolutely fascinating creatures and maintain an amateur interest in them to this day. When I visit my entomologist friends, I usually leave feeling deep envy of their jobs.