Over the last decade or so, says Dutch researcher Annick de Witt, the media have slowly but steadily fed the public information “about the staggering impact of our meat-eating habits on the environment, and on climate change in particular”.
One recent study, for example, found that a global transition toward low-meat diets could reduce the costs of climate change mitigation by as much as 50 per cent by 2050.
From scientific reports and articles in magazines, to viral Facebook videos to documentaries like Cowspiracy and Meat the Truth, the news about the exorbitant contribution of a carnivorous to the greenhouse problem is clearly spreading.
However, despite all these messages, new research by my colleagues and myself shows that most people are still not aware of the full extent of meat’s climate impacts.
Writing as a guest blogger for the Scientific American, de Witt said she and her team had examined how citizens in America and the Netherlands assess various food and energy-related options for tackling climate change.
We presented representative groups of more than 500 people in both countries with three food-related options (eat less meat; eat local and seasonal produce; and eat organic produce) and three energy-related options (drive less; save energy at home; and install solar panels). We asked them whether they were willing to make these changes in their own lives, and whether they already did these things. While a majority of the surveyed people recognized meat reduction as an effective option for addressing climate change, the outstanding effectiveness of this option, in comparison to the other options, was only clear to 6% of the US population, and only 12% of the Dutch population.
That is remarkably low! Considering that climate change is one of the greatest challenges of our time, wouldn’t we want people to know the power of a simple solution that is in their own hands?
In terms of communication efforts for behavioural change, de Witt says, the outstanding effectiveness of reducing meat consumption could be a game-changer: knowing that it makes such a big difference may motivate people to change.
This is particularly so, because the research results show a direct relationship between this knowledge and people’s willingness to consume less meat as well as their actual meat consumption.
But changing behaviours as intimate and culturally engrained as people’s daily dietary habits demands a careful consideration of psychological and cultural dynamics.
Most communications around meat and climate change create guilt, shame, and stigmatisation among committed carnivores, and activate psychological mechanisms of denial and downplay, de Witt says. Stating that eating meat is “bad” therefore doesn’t seem to be effective in changing behaviour.
De Witt therefore advises against finger-pointing communication tactics, particularly for people with more traditional and modern worldviews, who generally don’t identify as environmentalists or hold strong green values.
The adoption of a healthy diet would generate over a quarter of the emission reductions needed by 2050, she says.
The invitation for people is thus not to give up their delicious steak and become vegetarian (something they may consider ‘extreme’), but rather to do something that serves themselves: eat a little less meat and get healthier. Become ‘flexatarian’, as people call this new trend. For a world that is also struggling with obesity and many other health problems, the news couldn’t be better; address two massive problems for the efforts of one.
In addition, this meat-reduction option fits seamlessly with an era in which the ‘consciousness movement’ increasingly influences mainstream culture. People pay more attention to the origins of their food, value their connection with nature, and generally show more concern for their health and well-being, including food habits and body awareness.
We see this for example in the countless yoga studios popping up in big cities, the ‘hipness’ of organic food, the super foods that are nowadays also found in conventional supermarkets, and struggling fast food corporations like MacDonald’s.
It also resonates with the ubiquitous search for ‘balance’. This means that the cultural evolution of society is moving in the right direction: we have the Zeitgeist, the spirit of the times, working in favor of us.
De Witt echoes the argument of others who say the greatest potential for a shift towards sustainable lifestyles is through a change in culture and worldview.
Developing a range of approaches around the health and weight loss benefits, or around what it means for animals and our connection with nature, could be an effective way to speak to a wide range of people.
No studies have been done to scientifically examine such approaches, de Witt acknowledges. But “considering what is at stake, it is certainly worth the experiment”.
Then, policy makers and environmental organisations could start to tap into and reinforce the changing culture to acclerate the change that is needed “to create the world we want”.
* Annick de Witt is a researcher at TU Delft, the Netherlands. She is also co-author of the book “Sustainability from the inside-out. How a new, sparkling consciousness is changing the world.” Her website is http://www.annickdewitt.com