Ironically, cognitive bias is perhaps the most insidious overlord of all. It limits objectivity by filtering information through our own experiences and preferences, valuing only that which supports (rather than challenges) our pre-existing ideas about the world around us. It’s alarming to see distrust in authority unite both those who lean left and those who lean right in the propagation of misinformation. But it isn’t just the allure of elaborate rabbit holes (think QAnon) promising ‘proof’ of nefarious powers holding humanity hostage that both distracts from and impedes the necessary work of confronting entirely scrutable injustices. We need only examine the societal norms our individual lifestyle choices prop up on a daily basis to recognize the extent to which we harbor cognitive biases that are holding back progressive change.
The reality that ongoing ecosystem destruction and global meat consumption foreshadow future zoonotic disease pandemics is such an important case in point. Most of us continue to eat animals and/or their by-products, even though doing so is entirely unnecessary for those of us with the privilege of choice, and we’ve been warned that our collective survival depends upon rapidly reducing the kind of GHG emissions and biodiversity loss increased by supporting animal agriculture. Social psychologists tell us that it is human nature to gravitate towards ‘group think’. So whether that means upholding the status quo for our personal gratification, or uniting with others to expose what we perceive to be problematic activities (in either a rational or irrational way) we are bolstered by the experience of ‘consensus’ through community.
Peter Carter, MD – an expert reviewer for the IPCC ((Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change), also a founding director of CAPE (Canadian Association of Physicians for the Environment) and the founder of the Climate Emergency Institute – knows how difficult it is to prompt people to think outside their comfort zones. No one likes to hear what he has repeatedly stated in no uncertain terms: if we don’t do everything within our power to address climate collapse, the not so distant future facing humanity will include widespread crop failures leading to mass starvation. But the flip side of this daunting reality check is what the scientist also referred to in a recent interview with Extinction Rebellion as ‘the COVID Lesson’. The fact that GHG emissions dropped substantially – and fast – when business as usual ground to a halt made clear that it is well within our power to effect change for the better, given the political will. Carter added that the “most effective, definitely effective, immediately effective” action so many of us can take is to go vegan. “In theory,” he says, “we can all do that. If we do that, emissions drop immediately.”
So what, pray tell, is stopping us?
Cognitive bias is doubling down to protect vested interests in the world of animal agribusiness. For example, when Alison Penfold, former chief executive of the Australian Livestock Exporters’ Council, warned producers this week that the industry’s social license is in serious jeopardy as climate campaigners expand their focus to include meat and dairy, she was met with defiance. Josie Angus, whose family runs 35,000 head of cattle in Central Queensland, insisted that ranching provides a necessary food source existing in “harmonious relationship” with native animal and plant species. Dismissing outside critiques that beg to differ, she says, “that gives us the greatest social license on the planet and we actually just need to keep letting people know that.”
There is plenty of confirmation bias echoing Angus around the world, satisfying those reluctant to give up their absolutely unnecessary habit of consuming animal products. The popular Netflix film, Kiss the Ground, is only the latest manifestation of a related myth – that it’s ‘not the cow, but the how’ when it comes to the very serious problem of ongoing livestock production. The idea that rotational grazing can actually make a positive impact by sequestering carbon on any beneficial scale has been thoroughly debunked by scientists, and yet it persists, even within the supposedly well-educated environmental community. Such greenwash is dangerous. Not only is it stalling the necessary abandonment of animal agribusiness in favour of re-wilding vast acreages and the reallocation of government subsidies better spent on far more sustainable and humane food production. It also provides the illusion of progress and therefore, an unrealistic sense of safety. As folks like Dr. Peter Carter, Greta Thunberg and yes, even Dr. Bonnie Henry are trying to help us understand, it’s not about their cognitive biases trumping ours. It’s about the science.
Originally published in The Transition Kitchen
“Perspective” -Dec., 2020