Why Do Some Environmentalists Keep Eating Meat?
The “meat paradox” describes how people continue to eat meat despite their concerns with how meat is made. Previous research has explained this paradox by attributing it to cognitive dissonance, or an inconsistency between someone’s beliefs and their behaviors. When an omnivore experiences cognitive dissonance, they may change their views about meat consumption in order to justify their eating behaviors (for example, they may claim that eating meat isn’t that bad, or they might criticize veg*ns).
However, what about people who already know the harms of meat consumption and can’t distance themselves from the behavior? As an example, many environmentalists continue to eat meat despite being aware of the environmental impacts of the meat industry. In this study, the authors hypothesize that rather than showing cognitive dissonance, omnivore environmentalists have consistent reasons for their eating habits.
To test their hypothesis, the authors developed a list of 30 statements that may be used to justify meat consumption from an environmental perspective. From there, they interviewed 42 environmental researchers from a university in Spain. Participants were asked to review each of the 30 statements and rank them according to which ones were most, and least, similar to their own views about eating meat. The authors engaged all participants in conversation during this process in order to get context around their responses.
Overall, the participants’ views could be grouped into four themes. The first theme, “optimistic,” describes statements that place the onus on technology to solve the problems associated with animal agriculture. Environmentalists with optimistic viewpoints continued to eat meat because they believed they’d be able to stop in the future, or because technology would make the harms of meat consumption obsolete.
The second theme suggests that the problem with eating meat is systemic, rather than individual. Environmentalists with a “system” focus claimed that changing their own behavior would not make a difference unless the political climate changes. They also tended to believe that the impact of meat production is exaggerated.
The third theme was coined “complexity” because it was not clear to the authors why people who fell into this group continued to eat meat. During interviews, environmentalists with complex viewpoints took personal responsibility for eating meat, acknowledged its harms, and believed that individual changes are important. However, many reported that the issue is not black and white.
The fourth theme was labeled as “feebleness.” Environmentalists who shared these viewpoints accepted that they should stop eating meat and accepted personal responsibility for not doing so. However, they lacked the desire or the willpower to stop. They believed that personal action can make a difference, and though they admired veg*ns, they didn’t see this as something they could personally accomplish.
Rather than demonstrating cognitive dissonance, the authors argue that the participants in this study repeated several commonly-held viewpoints in environmental and sustainability science. As a result, their justifications for eating meat weren’t contradictory, but rather aligned with their pre-existing beliefs. For animal advocates, this means that cognitive dissonance may not be the answer to veg*n advocacy, at least where environmentalists are concerned. Because of this, awareness campaigns and guilt-tripping messages probably won’t cut through the noise for this target audience. Instead, it’s important to find ways of convincing them that reducing one’s individual meat consumption makes a difference and that there are easy, attainable ways of doing so.