Follow along with the transcript below for episode: How You and Your Kids Can Save the Planet With Dr. Dana Ellis Hunnes
[00:00:02] PF: Welcome to Episode 361 of Live Happy Now. This week, we’re celebrating Earth Day. So today, we’re going to ask not what our planet can do for us but what we can do for our planet.
I’m your host, Paula Felps. This week, I’m joined by Dana Ellis Hunnes, an assistant professor at the UCLA Fielding School of Public Health and author of Recipe for Survival: What You Can Do to Live a Healthier and More Environmentally Friendly Life. As you’ll soon hear, Dana is both passionate and knowledgeable about issues such as food security, climate change, and the health of both humans and animals. She’s here to talk about how we can create a healthier, happier, and more environmentally friendly life, and even get our kids involved.
[00:00:49] PF: Dana, thank you so much for coming on Live Happy Now.
[00:00:52] DEH: Thanks for having me. It’s a pleasure to be here.
[00:00:55] PF: It’s perfect timing because we have Earth Day coming up. So we wanted to talk to you. You’ve written such a thoughtful and well-researched book. To kick things off, I wanted personally to find out what made you want to write this book.
[00:01:10] DEH: Yeah. There were a few things that really compelled me to write this book. One of them was definitely the research I did for my dissertation in Ethiopia, learning all about climate change, food security, and the issues that people are living with in a country that really depends on the rain for their agriculture.
Then the second thing that really compelled me was giving birth to my son, who was so tiny, not even six pounds at birth, and looking down at him and realizing that we only have this one planet. The planet that he’s growing up in, it has some things that are endangering it. So really, I think the combination of those two things, just it was my way of dealing with all my concerns, to research and to write everything I put down in this book.
[00:02:01] PF: We get insulated because – Especially if you live in a city where your food is brought to you, you we’re almost like children being catered to by a very kind nanny. Everything is just brought to us. We can get everything that we need, and we tend to forget that the world doesn’t operate like that.
[00:02:19] DEH: Yeah. No, that’s absolutely true. I mean, in many countries around the world that are not nearly as developed as ours is, people live off the land, and they really do depend on the rain for being able to grow their food if they don’t have the agricultural inputs like irrigation and wells and things like that. So it really does put it into perspective. I’ll tell you, we have our own little community garden plot up on campus, and it kind of does make you appreciate just what goes into growing food.
[00:02:52] PF: Right. That’s a little tougher than walking over to the bin and picking the most attractive one.
[00:02:58] DEH: Correct, yes.
[00:02:59] PF: Well, and in your book, it’s really eye-opening and, frankly, a little overwhelming at times to see what we have created. I’ve had conversations with people who feel like we’re too far around the bend. So it’s like what’s the point of even trying right now? What is your take on people who have that mindset?
[00:03:16] DEH: I mean, I guess I would say that makes me a little sad to kind of just throw in the towel. Because I think if each and every one of us does try to do our part and make the planet a little bit safer or a little bit healthier for both ourselves and our children, I think if a lot of us take these little actions that I talked about in my book, I think really we actually can make a difference. I mean, it is an overwhelming topic. I do admit that. I will also admit, the first few chapters of my book are a little depressing when you read them.
But with that said, I mean, the second half of the book really is 21 things that we can all do right now to make a difference and to not feel so hopeless. So that’s what I want really people to take away is, yes, I understand. I get it. I’ve been there. It feels depressing. But if you do something, I tell you, you feel empowered. You feel like you’re making a difference, and it can make all the difference in the world.
[00:04:19] PF: Yeah. Even that process of starting to educate yourself about what’s going on a little bit more, like beyond just our little pocket of the world to start learning about it, that’s a huge step toward making change, isn’t it?
[00:04:33] DEH: It absolutely is. That’s one thing I’ve been very fortunate to be able to do is in my research and just in my own life, I’ve been able to see other places around the world and learn how are people living and what are they doing to make a difference or what are they doing that’s more environmentally friendly. So I do think if we get into our own little silos and just kind of put our blinders on, that can make things definitely tougher than if we try to look at a wider perspective on things.
[00:05:04] PF: So where do people start? Because I know there are people who are interested in preserving the planet. We got to take care of this. But then it’s like, “I don’t even know where to start.” There are so many changes they feel like they have to make. So what’s your advice on those baby steps?
[00:05:20] DEH: Yeah. I absolutely say if you had to just choose one thing because life is overwhelming right now, and there’s a lot we all have to take care of, whether that’s children or parents, if we’re in that sandwich generation. If there’s only one thing you can do, the most impactful thing you can do is look at your meals. Truly, there’s three, sometimes four or five, depending on how many meals you eat in a day, times a day that you can have an environmental impact and also a health impact. We all want to live more healthfully, too. So, absolutely, if you only have the bandwidth to try one thing, it’s really start looking at your plate and see where we can make practical adjustments. I do talk about that as well in the book.
[00:06:04] PF: Yeah. Can we dig into that a little bit more? Because a lot of times, when people are talking about changing their meals, it’s for diet reasons like, “I want to lose weight,” or, “I want to be healthier.” But you say it really makes a difference in the earth if we start in our own homes, and now you’re breaking it down even further like, “Start on our plate.” So what does that mean? What’s that going to look like for us?
[00:06:25] DEH: Right. Well, the nice thing about that, looking at your plate, is not only is it beneficial for the environment, and it absolutely can be, but it’s also incredibly beneficial for our health. So the lovely thing about it is we’re really packing a one-two punch. We’re doing two things simultaneously, and I absolutely agree. A lot of people do look at their food on their plate as, “I want to be healthier. I want to maybe lose a few pounds.”
Then the great thing about what I’m talking about, this plant-forward, plant-based diet, is that it really can reverse certain diseases like heart disease, diabetes, even obesity, and/or prevent a lot of these diseases, while at the same time being more environmentally friendly. You’re not producing as many emissions. You’re using less water. You’re using less land. You’re preserving habitat around the world. That’s the beautiful thing.
When I say a plant-forward or plant-based diet, what I mean is pack your plate full of vegetables, full of whole grains, full of fruits, nuts, and seeds. Then you won’t even notice you’re missing the standard American fare of meat or chicken or things like that.
[00:07:37] PF: What is the difference environmentally with plant-based and meat?
[00:07:40] DEH: Well, I’ll put it into perspective this way. On one acre of land, you can grow about 10,000 times more calories of plants than you can if you were growing a cow or beef on that land. I mean, that’s a humongous difference. In terms of emissions, you’re saving about 90% of the emissions if you’re plant-based versus if you’re eating like a standard American diet full of meat and dairy products.
In fact, if everyone on the planet went primarily plant-based, we would only need about one-quarter of the land that we do right now to feed everybody. So that would mean we could feed millions, billions more people on the planet. Not that I’m saying we should. I’m just saying we can.
[00:08:29] PF: When we’re talking about being able to use this land, how can that change our ability to feed ourselves and our communities?
[00:08:36] DEH: Right. Well, I mean, if you’re taking kind of like a world view, when we’re talking about how are we going to feed the growing world population, because right now we’re nearly eight billion people on this planet. By the end of the century, we’re expected to be close to 11 billion people. If everybody on the planet eats like we do here in the United States and other Western countries, no, I don’t think the land, as it stands, will sustain us because people will want to eat more meat in these other developing countries.
The way we grow food today, I don’t believe that is sustainable. So that’s why it really is critical and so important that those of us who eat far too much meat do really pare back so that we can grow enough food to feed everybody because when you feed an animal, it’s a middleman. You’re feeding an animal thousands of calories, and you’re only getting a few hundred calories out. So it’s completely inefficient, and it wastes so many resources that could go to feeding humans.
[00:09:40] PF: But it’s kind of a hard sell for – I lived in Texas for many years. Before that, I grew up in Nebraska, and both of those are very fond of their beef. So it’s a pretty tough sell to tell people this is the way we’re going to be healthier and improve the planet. How do you kind of present that? What’s your best marketing pitch, basically, for helping us give up some of this beloved beef and switching instead to more plants in our lives?
[00:10:07] DEH: I mean, that’s a really a great question, and I try to frame things to people as I don’t want you to think about what you’re giving up. I want you to think about what you’re adding to your life. So for a lot of people, I know it’s kind of hard to have a long-term approach to things. But if we really do cut back on our consumption of meat and dairy and add lots of fruits and vegetables and all of these whole grains and legumes that I was talking about earlier and maybe some of these plant-based meats that are out there, if we’re really craving that flavor or texture, we’re adding things rather than necessarily thinking about what we’ve taken away.
For people who think I’m telling them, “You have to be vegan,” that’s not what I’m saying. I’m not telling people you have to be vegan. But I am telling people, look, if we want to have a habitable, sustainable planet that will feed our children and their children, that’s not a hothouse Earth that maybe we can’t grow enough food. I think we all need to be more thoughtful and considerate about what we are putting on our plates.
[00:11:17] PF: That’s well-said. As we become more mindful of that, what kind of changes would we see in the environment, and how is that going to start helping the Earth?
[00:11:28] DEH: Right. Well, I mean, immediately, we would see that we require less water to grow feed for animals. That water instead could be used to replenish the aquifers and the water table that has been depleted. So I think, hopefully, we would see that the Earth would be a little bit moister. There’d be fewer wildfires. Of course, this would take time. It’s not like it would happen overnight, but it would be a slow progression.
Same thing with the Amazon, we would see they would not need to cut down so much of the Amazon rainforest. So it could regenerate, and the water cycles could regenerate. That beautiful, lush forest that provides us with so much oxygen and water vapor and helps kind of control the climate in a way would regenerate. Because when you leave nature alone, it has this amazing capacity to kind of come back to its natural state.
[00:12:28] PF: Yeah, that’s interesting. I had the good fortune of being able to go to Antarctica on a ship, and one of the people on there was Dr. Steve Running, who won the Nobel Peace Prize for An Inconvenient Truth research. He talked about that. I said, “Well, talk about what’s going on with our planet.” He said, “The Earth will find a way to survive. She may need to get rid of us first.” That I think was a really strong statement but a big wake up call for me. Like if we don’t take care of our planet, she will find a way to survive, but we might not like what it means for us.
[00:13:01] DEH: No, and I completely agree with that statement. Absolutely. I mean, the planet will survive beyond us. My biggest fear is, yes, how will we go down and how many other species will we take with us.
[00:13:14] PF: Yeah, yeah. So changing mindset is so huge because we have these grassroots people that are doing it. There’s people like yourselves. There’s a lot of people who are working toward this, but it’s not the majority. How do you get it to a tipping point where more people are saying, “All right, yeah. We want to work on this. We do want to save our planet. We want to live healthier, longer lives.”?
[00:13:35] DEH: Yeah. No, I mean, that’s a really great question. My argument would be I disagree that it’s not the majority because if you look at some research out of Yale, two-thirds of Americans do actually believe in climate change. Maybe not two-thirds believe it’s urgent, but two-thirds do believe in climate change in that it’s a problem. So I think if we depend on the government to solve this for us or world organizations like we saw at COP26 in Glasgow, and we wait for these big groups to take this on, I agree. I think it’s not necessarily going to happen.
That’s why at this grassroots level, individuals really do need to do something, in my opinion, whether it’s eat more plant-based or buy clothing that’s made out of natural materials like cotton or hemp or things of that nature, just because every little bit counts. Every little bit counts when you’re talking about the planet and the environment.
[00:14:38] PF: That’s great because I think so many of us think we have to take extreme steps. We have – It needs to be extreme measures because we are in kind of hitting a dire situation. So I love the fact that you say like every little bit helps because we don’t always feel like it does.
[00:14:53] DEH: No, and it’s true. That’s another thing I do talk about a little bit in the book is I say, look, try one thing today. If you’re be successful at it, which I think you will be and can be, maybe try something else tomorrow or next week, and build on what you’re doing. It doesn’t have to be one and done, and it doesn’t have to be none and done. It can be one today, “Oh, my gosh. I saw – I was very successful of that. Let’s see what I can add on tomorrow.” Yeah, baby steps can really empower you and help you realize that you are making a difference.
Then educating others, which I talk about a lot as well. If people don’t know, it’s hard to care, and it’s hard to make a difference, and it’s hard to take action on something you may not really understand or be aware of.
[00:15:37] PF: Yeah. So educating our children too is a huge part of this, raising them up with that mindset. How do parents start doing that?
[00:15:45] DEH: I think, in our house, it’s just part of the natural lexicon. We just talk about it kind of all the time. I mean, really, we get our son involved. We were up at the community garden this morning, and we were out there picking arugula from our garden, and he was down fetching water because apparently the irrigation was turned off. So we did. We had to go fetch water and take it back up to the plot. So I think if you get your children involved from an early age and don’t make it feel onerous, make it into a fun family activity, it does come more naturally, and they will kind of almost autonomously and automatically become little environmentalists themselves.
[00:16:31] PF: We love that. I also love that you brought up the community gardens because you talk about CSAs and community gardens and the role that they play in improving the environment. So talk about what they do because I think community gardens are just the coolest thing. I hadn’t really thought about how beneficial they were.
[00:16:48] DEH: Right. Well, so we belong to both. We joined a CSA, which stands for Community Supported Agriculture. So every week, we get this giant box, I kid you not, of vegetables and herbs and other greens from a local farm that’s maybe 20, 30 miles away here in Los Angeles. It’s just – I mean, you’d be spending three times as much in a grocery store to buy this amount of greens. It’s just beautiful. So not only are you supporting your local farmers and contributing to the local economy. You’re also getting really super healthy farm fresh produce delivered right to your door without the use of plastic.
Then as far as community gardens are concerned, a lot more urban areas are having them now. So you can join, and you basically are putting in what’s called sweat equity, which means you work on the garden. But in return, you get to choose what goes in it. You also get to reap the rewards of what you have sown literally. You get to eat what you’ve grown.
[00:17:53] PF: In addition to getting all this fresh food and being able to be with your neighbors, you say there’s a lot of other benefits to having community gardens or growing our own food. So can you talk about what some of those benefits are?
[00:18:05] DEH: I think some of those benefits are really both. Spending time in nature has proven psychological benefits on well-being. Working with others on a common goal also has really wonderful benefits for your emotions and just for connections, connecting with other people. Then, of course, being physically active while working on the garden has many health benefits, cardiovascular, fresh air.
Other benefits of community gardens include just understanding and being one with nature, and understanding how food is grown, and realizing that, yes, it shows up at the grocery store. But when there are supply chain issues, that can be a major problem. So if you have the ability to grow some of your own, then that kind of gives you a little buffer. Then in areas that are food deserts or food-insecure, if you have the ability to grow some of your own produce, then that can be a little bit of an economic buffer for you.
[00:19:06] PF: You can even do it indoors. Like if you’re even in an apartment, you can have your tiny little inside garden. You don’t have to have live on acreage to be able to have your own garden.
[00:19:17] DEH: No. That’s very true. In fact, we live in a condo, and we don’t have land. So on our balcony, we have like three four large pots that we’ve grown basil in, and we’ve grown tomatoes, and we’ve grown other herbs, and we’ve made meals out of it. We’ve made our own pesto without the cheese because we don’t eat cheese in our house, but it’s delicious. When you get it literally that moment from your own little garden, I mean, it can make a meal.
[00:19:48] PF: Yeah. I think a lot of people during the pandemic, and it has continued. I don’t know if we’re done with it yet or not anyway. Because we use the term post-pandemic but are we? I don’t know. But people suddenly became aware in a very uncomfortable way how much we depend on the grocery store having what we need, and it didn’t always happen that way. So did you see an increased interest in, say, growing your own food because of that?
[00:20:16] DEH: I definitely saw an increased interest in making your own food. I know a lot of people went on the make your own sourdough bandwagon, including my own husband. Yeah. I know other people who were more interested in the community gardens because not only did it get them out into nature when, otherwise, perhaps they had to be in lockdown. But also, just I think people are kind of craving that oneness with each other or with nature. Just something they can interact with.
[00:20:51] PF: The gardens certainly do both of those things. Yeah. Like you mentioned earlier, I know we’re getting close on time, but you had mentioned earlier, and this really is a striking book because it is two parts. The first part is a horror story. It’s like, “Here’s where we’re at, and here’s what we’ve done, and here’s what’s going to happen if we continue down this path.” But then the second part is like, “Tada, happy.” It’s very optimistic, and it gives actionable advice. What is it that gives you the most hope and optimism about the future of our planet?
[00:21:26] DEH: Yeah. I think what gives me the most hope about the future of our planet is that people are more aware now than they were. I mean, it’s taken time, but there is so much activism now about the environment and climate change. It’s constantly being discussed. Maybe not perhaps in the way I talk about it in the book and particularly not with some of the actions I recommend for what we can do because a lot of the talk is still about, oh, reducing your use of oil or reducing the amount of electricity you use.
I mean, those are worthy causes, too. But I think what people need to realize is there are actually more impactful things that we can do, even beyond that, which does in some ways require government action, versus what we can do as individuals. So I think that’s what gives me the most hope is that there is an interest for what can I do and what can I do now to make a difference.
[00:22:28] PF: What is it that you hope that people most get from reading your book?
[00:22:32] DEH: Right. If I had to choose what I would want people most to take away from this book is that, really, you can make a difference, and you don’t need to feel despondent. You don’t need to feel overwhelmed on what feels like an overwhelming topic because it really can feel overwhelming. I’ve been there. I know what it feels like. In a way, this is a memoir to me because it’s, well, all the things that I have done to make a difference, and it’s all the things that I encourage others to do to make a difference.
But it’s a recipe. It’s step one. It’s step two. It’s step three. It’s step four. You don’t have to feel alone in this. There are plenty of other people interested, wanting to do good. So I think that’s what I want people to take away.
[00:23:19] PF: That’s terrific. Dana, I appreciate you taking time to sit down with me today, talk about this. Like I said, we’re going to tell people how they can find you and how they can learn more because this is an important conversation and, obviously, one that we need to keep having for years to come.
[00:23:33] DEH: Well, thank you so much. I’m grateful for your very thoughtful questions and appreciate your time as well.
[END OF INTERVIEW]
[00:23:45] PF: That was Dana Ellis Hunnes, author of Recipe For Survival: What You Can Do to Live a Healthier and More Environmentally Friendly Life. If you’d like to learn more about her book, follow her on social media. Find out how you can get a free copy of her book. Visit our website at livehappy.com and click on the podcast tab.
That is all we have time for today. We’ll meet you back here again next week for an all-new episode. Until then, this is Paula Felps, reminding you to make every day how happy one.