Moby on California Drought: 'The Way We're Living Is Stupid'

The musician and activist discusses how policy-makers are like record executives in the Nineties: ignoring inevitable change

Moby recently launched a petition to push for stricter water limits for agribusiness in California. Credit: Paul Archuleta/WireImage/Getty

Moby has long been known nearly as much for his activist stances — sometimes expressed in the liner notes of his hit albums — as those albums themselves. He's an outspoken vegan and animal rights activist, and has even edited a book of essays about the meat industry. Now, as a record-setting drought expands in his state, the California resident has taken an interest in another part of the food system: the way the state's increasingly scarce water supply is allocated to state agribusinesses.

You're partnering with Courage Campaign and Food & Water Watch to push a petition pressing Jerry Brown for a more stringent water budget, particularly through tougher limits on agriculture. Why respond to the drought in that way?
I grew up on the East Coast — in New York and Connecticut — where water was kind of an unlimited resource. Now that I live out in California, I realize water on the West Coast is a really limited, finite resource. It's stating the obvious, but that means it needs to be allocated responsibly. So I was, in kind of a cursory way, looking at where California water is allocated and I read an article saying that 20 percent of California's water goes to residences, and 80 percent goes to agriculture.

On the surface of things, that doesn't seem like it's too egregious. But then you realize that agriculture in California is important, but it only contributes 2 percent of California's gross domestic product. And then you dig even deeper and you realize that most of that water goes to just a few types of agriculture that use water incredibly irresponsibly and that contribute less than 1 percent of California's GDP: alfalfa, beef, almonds, cotton and then some others as well. A pound of beef can take up to 10,000 gallons of water to create, whereas a pound of broccoli takes 90 gallons of water to create. It just didn't make any sense to me that California would subsidize and facilitate irresponsible water use.

You've been outspoken and involved in food issues for a long time, but in the past you've been more focused on meat production. How has the drought influenced the way you think about other components of the food system?
I want to answer this without sounding like a crazy apocalyptic lefty, but basically as a species our approach to resources is to use them as if they'll always be there.

So let's say over the last 200 years we've been on a spending spree with regards to air, water, food, timber, petroleum, etc. We just have gone crazy using all these resources, thinking in the back of our minds that maybe the next generation will be the one to figure things out and deal with the consequences of this resource-spending spree. But now we're coming up against the consequences — and no one wants to admit that there are consequences.

Animal products are just egregiously unsustainable, from a resource perspective. It takes up to 500 pounds of grain to make one pound of beef. And it goes without saying that 500 pounds of grain is food that could be fed directly to people. It just doesn't make sense to funnel food resources through animals. It's a really irresponsible and inefficient way of using food resources.

One of the interesting things we're learning from this drought is how complicated our current system is and all of the unforeseen, difficult-to-trace impacts. There was this whole backlash against almonds, and then a backlash against the backlash, and people who are drought-shaming Californians without recognizing the California water that's inside the food in their refrigerator.
The way water is allocated in California is so complicated and so byzantine. A lot of legislators don't want to deal with it simply because it's complicated. There's a benefit from taking someone like me who can look at things in a more reductionist, simplistic way without being inhibited by the complexity of the situation. Because at it's core, it's really simple. And it's not an academic discussion; we're talking about a finite resource that's going away. And as is oftentimes the case, when people are confronted with a change that may compromise the status quo that they're comfortable with, most people are really resistant to that change.

But change is going to happen whether people are comfortable with it or not. And California, in a very realistic way, could run out of water — unless you take the 50 percent of California's water that's been used for alfalfa, beef, almonds, etc. and reallocate it.

I saw this very first-hand with record companies. In the late Nineties and early 2000s, record companies didn't want to acknowledge the change that was coming. So they all buried their heads in the sand and pretended that iTunes and Napster and downloading were not real, or they were fads and everyone was going to go back to buying CDs. They ignored that change, and the change still happened. And I feel like Governor Brown and the legislature are taking a similar tactic to water that the record companies took to Napster. They want to pretend that things are going to go back to a much easier, simpler status quo. But they're not.

This pattern has been going on for thousands of years. I'm sure all the manual elevator operators in the early Twentieth Century thought automatic elevators were a fad they didn't have to pay attention to. When people who worked in the silent film industry were confronted with talking pictures, they didn't want to acknowledge that the change was coming. But the change happened — and the same thing is happening with much more deleterious, serious consequences regarding water of California.

The legislators all want to stay in office. And a question I want to ask them is, "Who's going to vote for you if on your watch, California runs out of water?" Nothing's going to kill a politician's career faster than being the one who could have done something to preserve California's water and didn't. It's a huge problem, but it's also an opportunity to redress some of these issues: Rebuild the crumbling infrastructure and replace outdated, atavistic legislation about how water is allocated.

Are there other ways that you're pushing on this issue?
Of course every individual can do something. Like, I tore up all my grass and I put down drip irrigation, mulch and more drought-tolerant plants. I have low-flow showerheads and low-flow toilets, but if I ran my shower for a week straight I would still use less water than is involved in creating one pound of beef. Until there's agricultural reform, residential reform is relatively pointless.

What are the specific agricultural reforms you'd like to see?
The California water allocation system is so weird and complicated and outdated that I don't even know half the nuances of it. But the first thing would be ending subsidies to water. If farmers, especially the big agribusiness companies, had to actually pay fair market value for their water, they would stop growing alfalfa, beef and almonds. It's just that simple. Because it wouldn't make sense financially. The only reason it makes sense to grow alfalfa in California is because the water is subsidized.

The second step would be to raise the cost of water across the board. And then suddenly you would see people stop planting grass. I think some of the drought-shaming isn't such a bad thing. Golf courses, grass lawns: they're definitely the low-hanging fruit in terms of things that could be addressed and dealt with to make California more water responsible. But compared to agriculture, everything else is literally just a drop in the bucket.

But so far, agriculture has dodged the state's water restrictions.
Jerry Brown has said that farmers have suffered enough. But it's such a misleading generalization: There's clearly a big difference between the family farm that has 100 acres, as opposed to huge agribusinesses that have millions of acres.

And that's the other kick in the teeth about California's water policy: It benefits big agribusiness that, for the most part, ships their products out of state. So alfalfa, for example, is using 15 or 20 percent of California's water and it's all being shipped overseas. So in subsidizing alfalfa, California taxpayers are basically sending their money and water to China in the form of alfalfa.

You once joked about being in a recovery program for former sanctimonious jerks. There are certainly some people who have negative reactions in general to celebrity activism. I know you've seen that in the past, including some of the responses to liner note essays. How has your thinking changed over the years about the best or most productive way to get messages across?
One is, you sort of have to pick your battles. If you do anything in the public sphere someone is going to criticize you for it. And if there are people criticizing me for being opinionated and trying to improve things, that's really not my concern. I can't let my actions or my sense of self be affected by someone who hates their job in Brooklyn who's typing negative comments on Gawker.

But obviously your goal is for people to really hear and take into account what you're saying; the question is finding a way to speak that people will listen to.
I feel like, ideally, an activist is someone who just keeps doing what they're doing, and if your activism is falling on deaf ears it's either the nature of the activism or the people you're talking to. So then you try and change if you can. But there's also danger in people not saying something because they think they might run the risk of offending someone, or watering down their message to such an extent that it becomes ineffective. I want things to change, but I don't necessarily feel the need to accommodate people who are being critical for the sake of being critical.

Speaking of the need to pick your battles, are there some things that you would like to be more outspoken about, but it hasn't felt worth it?
Oh, almost everything. As humans, the way we're living is stupid, unsustainable and doesn't make anyone happy. So just pick anything: the way we eat, the way we build homes, the way we clean our homes, the way we educate our children. Very few of the things we do as humans actually create benefit for anyone. It would almost be forgivable, the way in which humans are destroying the planet and depleting all these resources, if anyone was actually happy. But it's like the more damage we do, the more miserable we become. Everybody's on antidepressants and anti-anxiety meds and going to therapy and cheating on their spouses and getting divorced and getting plastic surgery, but not necessarily changing the way they live.

In terms of an activist perspective, I try to pick either the things I'm most passionate about, like animal welfare, or the things that do seem the most egregious and most easily addressed, like California's water policy.

What about from an artistic perspective?
I make music. My music doesn't necessarily reflect my activism. There are some people that have been really good at it – I think of Joe Strummer, or Chuck D, or Bob Dylan, or Neil Young. But I've never been very good at writing message-oriented music. I've tried, but it's just not my strong suit. 

There are the issues — and some of them are very pressing and need to be dealt with — but there's also the basic question of humans understanding themselves and the world around them. I really believe that if we actually had a better understanding of ourselves, we wouldn't be so... I don't know how to say it politely. We wouldn't be as irresponsible in our use of resources or the way we treat each other.

What are you working on these days musically?
I just finished my last record and am hopefully putting that out in October. I love making records. I don't really expect too many people to buy them or listen to them. I just really like making them.

Will this record have any essays in the liner notes?
Possibly. Although, I don't know how many people will be buying CDs with booklets. There are other, more effective way of talking about the things that are important to me.