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I’m Alexander Heffner, your host on The Open Mind. Multi-million album-selling artist Moby, yes that renegade genre-defining musician joins us today. While occupying disparate musical terrain like our past musical guests Aloe Blacc and Macy Gray, Moby has a distinctive style attitude punch beneath his acoustic electronica blend of numbingly mind-altering music. As we immerse ourselves into the orbit of his political consciousness, particularly in terms of our environmental stewardship and challenges, I thought we might share some of Moby’s recent tweets on the subject.
Watching one million gallons of water going in the drains after a water main break, in response to Jon Oliver at Last Week Tonight’s segment on the tobacco industry, he asks, “How is this still a thing?” And on the question of evolution or climate change, he wonders, “How can we take Republicans seriously? It’s mind-boggling.” He goes on to quote from presumably two of his favorite historical figures from the 18th and 19th centuries respectively. “Until we stop harming all other beings, we’re still savages.” That was our third president, Thomas Jefferson. And then about a hundred years later, “The love for all living creatures is the most noble attribute of man,” and that was Charles Darwin. Moby also said it’s sad when people see music as a product or a means to an end, and I found that compelling, because he says music is perfect in and of itself, beautiful in and of itself. Now I ask certainly for the individual but what about for society, for someone who concerns himself so much with society. Moby, if it’s still capable of change, I wonder where is this generation’s “We Are the World” moment?
MOBY: The big question, um, and I think I can’t answer it without also looking at the effectiveness of the original “We Are the World.” I don’t really know what “We Are the World” accomplished, I’m sure it accomplished some things, but it seemed more just like this odd excuse for a bunch of public figures to get together in a room and I don’t know. Almost like spit in the ocean of unconquerable terrible circumstance…
HEFFNER: Whether it was in response to Haiti or in response to the tsunami in Southeast Asia, these moments of a unifying global consciousness, they really seem fleeting.
MOBY: Hm, not to sort of take the, I don’t know, almost like Marshall McLuhan meta view of it, but it seems like it says more about media and semiotic theory than about the events themselves. What I mean by that is and, and I don’t want to be glib or dismissive of the way that people respond to media, but I had this experience in 2004 when John Kerry was losing to George Bush in the presidential election and I and all my friends had worked very hard on the Kerry campaign and I was there with people from the DMC and from MoveOn and we were all gathered around a big-screen TV watching the election results come in and slowly realizing that we had lost the election and people started crying and people started getting so emotional, and I was upset but then I had this sort of quasi-epiphany and I realized ultimately right now we’re responding to pixels turning on and off and sound coming out of a small speaker, like and I had this thought which was, and I know this might sound a little odd, I was like one of the ways that we define mental illness is people who respond to things that are not there, you know, so when you see someone walking down the street screaming at the air, you’re like oh they’re crazy ‘cause there’s nothing in the air that they’re actually screaming at. They’re imagining things. And I think that again, from an almost like evolutionary semiotic perspective, the way that we respond to media is that, like we sit in front of a screen, like now, and you have a profound emotional reaction to pixels which I think future generations will look back at that and say like why wasn’t your sense of self, your worldview informed by direct experience as opposed to vicariously experiencing something through a screen, if that makes any sense. And now it’s even more debilitating because we have these screens with us constantly. And so people have a worldview and an emotional state based on these tiny little screens as opposed to the actual world around them, and it’s, I don’t know if it’s all that healthy but it’s really fascinating.
HEFFNER: Hm. It’s skewed, it’s warped, it’s accelerating technology that we’re inundated in. Um, for someone who achieves a level of, as I said in the intro, um, almost hallucinogenic, um, um, migration to another planet at least when I listen to your music, uh, a planet that I want to be on,
MOBY: Mm hm.
HEFFNER: Uh, how does that, how does that figure?
MOBY: These are really great questions, um, and I’m trying to figure out how to answer them without seeming like a completely self-involved former grad student. Um,
HEFFNER: [LAUGHS] We all are former grad students, I’m a former grad student too. [LAUGHS]
MOBY: Yeah. But uh, I mean essentially, and I’m sort of stating the obvious, the way in which we respond to everything is subjective, you know? Nothing in our experience actually exists outside of our perception of it, our cognition, so really the only thing there is… is cognition. You know, the world as it actually might be ontologically bears no relation to the way in which we perceive it. And to me that’s one of the things that makes music so powerful is it is, I mean ultimately music is just air molecules moving a little bit differently, you know, a truck backing up or I don’t know, the sound of a dog barking is very, is almost identical to the sound of a symphony, uh, or a punk rock band, it’s just air molecules moving a little bit differently, but yet it has this power to completely transform our subjective experience. And I think that’s probably why I’ve dedicated myself to being a musician, because of my own subjective response to other people’s music, but also the sort of ineffability of music, that it technically – it has no form or structure, it’s just, it’s basically just wind hitting our ear drums.
HEFFNER: You must be particularly cognizant of some of the environmental challenges facing the country and the world, being a Californian.
MOBY: One of the things that frustrates me most about our species is that we’re, we’re destroying our planet, that’s a given, but we’re not even enjoying it, you know? I mean like,
HEFFNER: [LAUGHS] What do you mean by that?
MOBY: We’re burning through all this carbon, we’re creating all this pollution and all this plastic, we’re you know, we’ve increased the rate of extinction by a million…
HEFFNER: But what do you mean by not enjoying it?
MOBY: And no one’s happy.
HEFFNER: Oh, uh huh.
MOBY: You know, like, like you could almost say like oh if we were burning all these fossil fuels and creating all this waste and if everybody on the planet was joyful, you could say well, eh, you know, at least people are happy. But the more we damage the earth, the more miserable we become. And what I mean is like, you look at like, prescriptions for anti-depressants, people going to therapy, um, rates of crime and recidivism, obesity, cancer, all these, like, all these symptoms of a miserable species, so it just makes no sense, it’s like we’re destroying our home and making ourselves miserable in the process and it just, it’s so asinine ‘cause almost every problem that we face, and I’m not being glib but we could solve with just a little bit of collective will, you know? Climate change could functionally end tomorrow, you know, there are so many choices that we think are intractable and they just aren’t, but we don’t have political leadership or corporate leadership or even in the public sphere people who are actually willing to sort of make the effort to sort of make these changes that would, I don’t know, make life more sustainable on this planet.
HEFFNER: I did a show not so long ago with Eric Liu, a leading civics advocate whose TED talk went viral, and he distinguishes between collectivism, a phrase to which you allude in the sense that we need a collective energy, a contingent, motivating us, uh, and communitarianism, um, building neighborhoods that are gonna gentrify, uh, gentrify uh, schools, gentrify municipalities broadly speaking, so what I’m interested in from, from you Moby is as, as a musician, um, Aloe Blacc said that his second album, third album he was trying to achieve social justice but ultimately, uh, philanthropy was his uh, cause where he saw resolving the problem of food deserts. Uh, what, what are you really trying to tackle?
MOBY: My, I guess broad, vaguely esoteric goal is to help people become more self-aware. And I know that sounds like sort of Southern California new age mumbo-jumbo, but, the problems that we face as a species are all problems that result from a lack of self-awareness. Like we don’t know ourselves, we think that eating terrible food is gonna make us happy, it just makes us fat and kills other creatures. We think that getting in giant gas-guzzling cars is gonna make us happy, it just pollutes the environment and separates, separates us from other people. So it’s, it’s whatever can be done to get us, to get, to know ourselves better collectively as a species and as individuals, and I think if we know ourselves better as a species, we’ll stop being so stupid. And stop making, like we’re still making caveman decisions, you know, we’re still responding to the world as if it’s this huge threat and we need to like, kill the other, eat as much fatty food as possible, and decimate our environment to be safe. But to state the obvious, the world has changed a lot in the last few hundred thousand years. Unfortunately, our response to it hasn’t.
HEFFNER: Hm. Self-awareness, so uh, how do you elicit that?
MOBY: We seem to only be willing to change when we’re, excuse me, confronted with consequences. Um, like,
HEFFNER: So Armageddon. [LAUGHS]
MOBY: Um, hopefully it won’t come to that but like for example, someone who smokes cigarettes, they’re really only gonna quit when they go to their doctor and their doctor says oh you have emphysema, or you have cancer. And the hope with someone who’s sick is that they’re able to quit and sort of undo the damage as opposed to be killed by the illness, and I sort of feel like we collectively are at that place, like we’ve created an illness here on this planet and I hope I don’t sound like a hippy, it just seems kind of obvious that we have, that like, the planet is very, very sick. The hope…
HEFFNER: Well just think about anti, bacterial-resistant diseases, you’re, you’re not exaggerating.
MOBY: Mm hm. And so the hope is that we can sort of be confronted with the consequences of our ac—of our actions in a way that will sort of compel us to change as opposed to be destroyed by the consequences. Um, and that, that’s honestly my biggest hope.
HEFFNER: But that, that takes, that takes, that’s your hope, that takes environmental, um, external factors,
HEFFNER: That uh, may or may not present themselves in a, in a radically fast-paced way.
MOBY: I think it’s largely up to the individual and it, but for some reason it made me think of, and I’m not a doctor, but it made me think of friends of mine who work in emergency rooms. And the first thing they have to do is sort of like stop the terrible stuff. You know, like figure out, like if someone comes into them, like are they able to breathe, you know? Is their heart going, you know, are they, are the basic functions happening? And so I feel like we as individuals sort of need to look at ourselves and simply ask that question — what’s not working, you know? To imply clear-eyed empiricism to our own lives and our own choices and our own actions and say like – is it working? You know, is spending four hours a day on Facebook and eating junk food, is that working? You know, is smoking cigarettes and getting in your SUV to drive to Starbucks to not talk to the people next to you in line, like is that working? You know, like is going to the office 90 hours a week to make tons of money and then have a heart attack, like, is that working? And the simple question is no it isn’t, so then that’s the first step is like, identifying what’s not working and then looking around and saying well, are there any people on this planet either now, or in the past who have sort of figured things out and who seem to be able to live happier, more sustainable lives? And maybe look at the choices they’ve made and to some extent emulate them.
HEFFNER: So who’s made it work?
MOBY: Uh, who’s made it work, good question. I like to think of like some of the people, like I’m not a Buddhist, I’m not anything, but um, I mean on an ontological level I clearly am not anything, but um, you look at the Buddha for example and for the first part of his life he had everything but he was miserable and it didn’t work, and then he went out and “renunciated” if that’s a word, um, got rid of everything and that didn’t work, and then he found this middle way which did seem to work, a way of like empirically supported pra—practical, impracticable sustainable life, and I see it, I feel like it’s up to each individual to do that and not constantly get so distracted by all the stimuli and all the noise and all the choices that aren’t benefiting us as individuals or benefiting us collectively. And luckily there are people studying, you know, on a small level, cultures who have figured out a way to thrive, um, I think there was a book, uh, called Blue Zones, um, and the author went around and found cultures where people routinely live to be a hundred years old and took a step back and said like what are they doing differently? And the commonalities between these blue zones were they had close-knit communities, um, they were primarily vegetarian, they had a lot of physical activity, and they had a purpose to their lives, and that they didn’t spend time, they didn’t spend ten hours a day online. Uh, so it’s looking at these examples and saying how, how can we sort of implement change, either on a local level, on a state level, on a nation-state level ‘cause the thing with change, and again I feel like I’m completely stating the obvious, we either choose to change or change is forced upon us. And we are at a precipice which is an overused, um, metaphor, but we’re on this precipice and like things are about to get terrible. And we can either for like summon the political will to try and change things before they get too terrible or at least ameliorate some of the terribleness or the change is gonna destroy us.
HEFFNER: Huh. And are we ever really aspiring to be ethical citizens if we’re only responding to the chaos, mayhem, um, horror that uh, results if we don’t listen to your admonition here?
MOBY: Mm hm.
HEFFNER: I wonder how vegans look at meat-eaters, I’m not a particularly passionate meat-eater, but I am curious generally on your disposition towards, towards meat eaters.
MOBY: Well I’ve been a vegan now for 27 years, and when I first became a vegan, I was a jerk, you know, I would look at meat eaters and I would judge them and criticize them, keeping in mind, a few years before that I had been a meat eater. Um, and then over time I realize it’s not my place to judge anyone. It’s my place to talk about things that are important to me, but not in a way that criticizes other people or judges them, and um, sorry I got distracted, there was a dog behind the camera. [LAUGHS] But um, it’s, it’s not my place to judge, it’s my place to perhaps draw attention to the ways in which we’re living that don’t collectively, and now the dog is bouncing up and down. [LAUGHS] That’s amazing.
HEFFNER: Well you know what? At least the dog is not behind you when we air this, right? That would be a strong deviation from The Open Mind’s history, a dancing dog on top of your head. [LAUGHS]
MOBY: Um, so, so yeah it’s not my place to judge, it’s not my place to criticize, all I can do is try and draw attention to the choices that we’re making that aren’t serving us well and I would say that the way we eat is clearly an example of something that’s, like you look at the rates of heart disease, diabetes, cancer, diverticulitis, all these problems that stem from a poor diet.
HEFFNER: What I find interesting, Moby, is, there’s a whole current and there has been developing over many years of, of a cancer-fighting regime…
MOBY: Mm hm.
HEFFNER: Um, and in turn, we’ve made steady strides on certain fronts but in general, our approach has not been that environmental factors are prevalent in contributing to how we die.
MOBY: Mm hm.
HEFFNER: And how we die of cancer specifically.
MOBY: I’ve actually been in communication with a few people like Mark Bittman, Michael Pollan about advancing a food policy that actually makes more sense, you know, a food policy that’s not written by the people who sell food.
MOBY: You know, ‘cause a lot of our national food policy was written by the Beef and Dairy Council, you know, which not surprisingly, beef and dairy figured pretty prominently in the food pyramid. But it would just make sense if we could all step back and simply look in a clear-eyed objective way at the way in which food, food production, and food consumption is destroying us. I mean like all these medical organizations – whether it’s Johns Hopkins, Harvard Medical, The Lancet keep coming out with reports saying that cancer, heart disease, diabetes, there is a congenital component to these, but for the most part they come from lifestyle choices. And…
HEFFNER: Well you’re here too, and I’m sorry, your ground zero of uh, the fight for organic food, what has California taught you about this movement so far?
MOBY: What I’ve learned is largely from the drought. Um, I’ve tried to lobby our governor, who I have a lot of respect for, about water use. Um, to put it in perspective, it takes 10,000 gallons of water to make one pound of beef. It takes a hundred gallons of water to make one pound of beans. It begs the question, in a state that has exceptional drought, why are we funneling water literally and figuratively to livestock, to cows, to chickens, to pigs, to sheep. We don’t, in California we don’t have a water problem as much as we have an agriculture problem and, so what I’ve come up against time and time again, I even had a conversation about this with Al Gore years ago before he became a vegan, and I asked him, I said in An Inconvenient Truth, why didn’t you talk about animal production? ‘Cause according to the United Nations, 25 percent of climate change comes from animal production, that’s more than every car, bus, boat, truck, plane on the planet and Al Gore didn’t mention it and he was so honest, he looked me in the eye and he said that’s because it’s too inconvenient of a truth for most people.
MOBY: And I keep coming up against that as like environmentalists, progressive people who care about the earth still want to hold onto these old actions that are destroying the earth. And you can’t do both, like you can’t be – you can’t campaign against lung cancer and smoke cigarettes. And you can’t be an environmentalist and eat meat, I’m sorry but it’s just the two are really like egregiously inconsistent.
HEFFNER: So do you think it’s the severity of the drought that propelled activists into the mindset that you’re describing, albeit maybe a temporary one?
MOBY: Uh, it’s funny ‘cause they’re, like the drought, other issues that we face, there are relatively easy solutions but they’re inconvenient, you know, if, and I’m not gonna sound, I don’t want to sound like a crazy vegan animal rights activist but if tomorrow we all collectively on this planet stopped using animals for food, deforestation in the rainforest would end. Climate change would be reduced by 25 to 30 percent. Rates of heart disease, cancer, diabetes, et cetera would be reduced by about 50 percent and there’d be enough water on the planet for everyone. Also, there would be enough food for everyone, ‘cause it takes 300 pounds of grain to make one pound of beef, and it takes one pound of grain to make one pound of bread. So in one fell swoop, we could fix all these problems but the collective response is, well people like hamburgers.
HEFFNER: Or that you’re painting the picture of a utopia that might never be accomplished?
MOBY: It’s just, it’s just so frustrating because utopia is an inch away from us, like it’s within our grasp, we don’t even have to make a huge effort, like it’s utopia is there and it’s easily attainable, it’s just no one seems to be, we don’t seem to be collectively willing to make that step, like we’re more attached to tradition and habit than we are with a better way of doing things.
HEFFNER: Right. Well it was out of California that Congressman Waxman in collaboration with uh, Massachusetts Congressman Ed Markey, now Senator Ed Markey,
MOBY: Mm hm.
HEFFNER: Developed a carbon tax platform that in the wake of the health care reform passage, uh, fell flat on its face.
MOBY: It’s a lot easier to prevent a problem than fix a huge problem once it happens.
HEFFNER: Where do you want your mark to be?
MOBY: Um, uh, it’s, well I kind of maybe on my tombstone, when and if I die, um, maybe if it just says here lies Moby, he was the prophet of the blaringly, or the glaringly obvious,
MOBY: You know, I mean I don’t think that my perspective is terribly insightful or even terribly well-informed, it’s just obvious. Like when in 2012, the, the Mayan apocalypse was supposed to happen and it might not have happened, seems like it didn’t, but my hope if the apocalypse did happen or will happen, my hope is that like for the future, we just stop being stupid, you know, we have that capacity, like we’re doing remarkable things, we have the Large Hadron Collider, we have the Hubble, you know, space telescope, we can do remarkable, remarkable things but we’re still so dumb on our, in terms of our personal choices and our orientation towards the world, like the example I always use is like we have this amazing supercomputer in our heads. You know, our brain is so complicated and can process so much information and do so much stuff, it still thinks that a stick is a snake, you know, so we kind of need to be patient with ourselves, to just make every effort to just stop being so stupid.
HEFFNER: I would imagine as we uh, close now that the vaccination debate which we thought was concluded, uh, after polio, uh, and, and certainly other diseases were eradicated, uh, that to you, an example of uh …
MOBY: For me it’s an example of humans liking being, rather humans being very unhappy with complicated situations. Like GMOs is similar, like I can’t say I’m 100 percent pro-GMO or one hundred percent anti-GMO ‘cause I think it’s complicated. The same thing with vaccines, it’s hard to make this sweeping generalization that vaccines are all good or vaccines are all bad. I’m sure there are lots of instances where vaccines clearly, empirically have proven to be great. There are probably also instances where vaccines are not that great. I think there can be like, I think that we are all hopefully sophisticated enough that we can hold two seemingly contradictory ideas in our heads in a dialectic and work towards like a complicated sort of synthesis between these two ideas. It doesn’t have to be this black and white monolithic thinking. So that’s my thought on vaccines, it’s like what it says about us as a species is we’re really uncomfortable with complexity.
HEFFNER: Moby, thank you today for joining us on The Open Mind and thinking about from a musician and activist, a thoughtful leader’s, uh, arts leader’s perspective, how we, how we shape uh, our environmental future. It’s been a pleasure to have you on the show.
MOBY: Oh thanks, thanks for having me.
HEFFNER: And thanks to you in the audience. I hope you join us again next time for a thoughtful excursion into the world of ideas. Until then, keep an open mind. Please visit The Open Mind website at Thirteen.org/openmind to view this program online or to access over 1,500 other Open Mind interviews. And do check us out on Twitter and Facebook @OpenMindTV for updates on future programming.