John Robbins says filmmaker Foster Gamble, a friend of his, is "naive" about the political consequences of his new film 'Thrive.'

Last fall, the acclaimed environmentalist and nutrition guru John Robbins was invited to the home of his friends Foster and Kimberly Carter Gamble, near Santa Cruz, to view the Gambles’ just-completed film, Thrive. Robbins, who makes a brief appearance in the film, says he was “overwhelmed” by what he saw.

“There were parts I liked, but there were other parts that I just detested,” he recalls. “I didn’t want to be rude—we were there with our families—so I just didn't say anything.”

Thrive, which was released online in November and had its theater debut at the Del Mar last month, is an uncanny hodgepodge of pseudo-science, Utopian fantasy and veiled right-wing conspiracy theory. Strangely, it also includes onscreen interviews with a number of bona fide progressives, environmentalists and spiritual leaders.

In addition to Robbins, author of the groundbreaking Diet for a New Americain 1987, the film features conversations with Deepak Chopra, the superstar self-help author; Paul Hawken, the green entrepreneur and environmental economist; Elisabet Sahtouris, the evolutionary biologist and philosopher; Duane Elgin, the futurist and author of Voluntary Simplicity; Vandana Shiva, the physicist and advocate for sustainable agriculture; and former astronaut Edgar Mitchell.

In the months since the film’s release, Robbins says, he has been in communication with all of these folks. He wasn’t surprised to find that many of them agreed with his assessment of the film.

While they might have hoped the film would just disappear, Thrivehas become something of a Web cult phenomenon—by  some estimates it’s been seen by more than 1 million people. And now they have decided to speak out.

In a just-released statement, Robbins, Chopra, Hawken, Sahtouris, Elgin, Shiva and Mitchell write that they have “grave disagreements” with some parts of the film.

“We are dismayed that our participation is being used to give credibility to ideas and agendas that we see as dangerously misguided. We stand by what each of us said when we were interviewed. But we have grave disagreements with some of the film’s content and feel the need to make this public statement to avoid the appearance that our presence in the film constitutes any kind of endorsement.”

Update, April 13: Two more progressives who make appearances in “Thrive” have added their names to the letter denouncing the film: Amy Goodman, the host of public radio's “Democracy Now,” and John Perkins, author of “Confessions of an Economic Hit Man.”

Talking about Thrive last week, Robbins enumerated a long list of complaints. Much of his critique is centered on the film’s politics. 

“Foster says he’s not advancing a political agenda,” Robbins says, “but his sources certainly are.”

Robbins is particularly galled by the presence of G. Edward Griffin and David Icke—both of whom who are featured prominently in the film and on the Gambles’ elaborate website (thrivemovement.com). Griffin is a prominent member of the ultra-right-wing John Birch Society, while Icke has one-upped the world’s most ambitious conspiracy theorists with his notion that the world’s secret rulers are actually descended from a hybrid species of evil half-human “Reptilians.” (Ironically—or hypocritically—neither of these facts is revealed in Thrive.)

Both Griffin and Icke have long defended themselves against charges of anti-Semitism with needle-threading arguments pointing out that while the enemy is decidedly Zionist, it is only coincidentally Jewish. Similarly, although his movie echoes Joseph Goebbels’ The Eternal Jew, Gamble insists in Thrivethat the conspiracy he describes “is not a Jewish agenda.”

But Robbins isn't buying that. He says that in private correspondence, he learned that his friend was being influenced by the ideas of Eustace Mullins, whom he calls “the most anti-Semitic public figure in U.S. history.”

Foster Gamble did not respond to an email request for an interview to respond, but there is certainly evidence in Thrivethat Mullins’ views influenced him. One of the central features of the film is the supposed revelation that the Federal Reserve Bank is a criminal enterprise; Mullins is the man who gave birth to that theory, in his 1952 book  The Secret of the Federal Reserve.

The following year, Mullins published his most notorious tract, “Adolf Hitler: An Appreciation,” which praises the Fuhrer for his crusade against the “Jewish International bankers” who were attempting to take over the world. In subsequent books, Mullins argued that the Holocaust never happened and that the Jewish race is inherently “parasitic.” Incredibly, Mullins also insisted until his death that he was not an anti-Semite.

Robbins does not in any way accuse Gamble of bigotry—but rather of dangerous naievete. “Foster isn’t anti-Semitic,” Robbins says, “but he is listening deeply to and promulgating the ideas of Eustace Mullins.”

 

Privilege and Responsibility

In issuing their statement distancing themselves from Thrive, Robbins and his colleagues point out that they are “dismayed” that the Gambles refused to let them know what the film was about until the time of its public release. In interviews with the Weeklyseveral weeks ago, Paul Hawken and Elisabet Sahtouris both said Foster Gamble misrepresented the film when he asked them to participate.

Robbins says it’s clear that Gamble used him and the others to draw people to Thrive. He is distressed that the film weaves progressive ideas into its paranoid, radical libertarian narrative. But he stops short of accusing Gamble of deliberately deceiving his audience.

“Foster is extremely naïve about the political consequences of his film,” Robbins concludes.

But how could someone be so naïve? Robbins says he is in a unique position to be able to answer that question.

“The bubble of entitlement that he has lived in is almost impossible to understand if you haven’t lived in it.”

As it happens, John Robbins and Foster Gamble have lived uncannily parallel lives. Robbins was born heir to the Baskin-Robbins ice cream fortune, and Gamble was born heir to the Proctor & Gamble cosmetics fortune. Both men rejected the destinies their families had chosen for them, and both moved to Santa Cruz.

Although the men would later become friends, a couple of crucial decisions set them on very different paths. In the early 1980s, Robbins decided to disinherit himself from his family’s wealth. After his Diet for a New America, which wedded personal and environmental health, was nominated for a Pulitzer Prize, he went on to live a very public life, writing books and heading organizations advocating for the environment and a plant-based diet. His newest book, No Happy Cows: Dispatches from the Frontlines of the Food Revolution, was published April 1.

Gamble also walked away from his family’s business, but chose to accept his inheritance—and use it to go on the personal quest which led him to the series of extraordinary conclusions documented in Thrive.

Robbins points what he sees as a crucial error in Thrive, which he believe is the result of a blind spot caused by Gamble’s “bubble.”

“Foster wants us to follow the money, and leads us to a group of obscenely wealthy families using their extravagant wealth for ill,” he says. “But nowhere in his film does he mention the Koch brothers.”

Robbins points out that David and Charles Koch, the multi-billionaire heirs of the second-largest privately held company in the nation, who are using their vast wealth to bankroll the radical right, espouse the same libertarian agenda promoted by Thrive.  (He also points out that their father, Fred C. Koch, was one of the founding members of the John Birch Society.)

Like many progressives, Robbins sees the Koch brothers as two of the most dangerous men in American politics.

“If you want to follow the money, it leads to the Koch brothers,” he says, “If Foster had gone after them. I’d be right there with him.”