Guilty as charged

The environmental movement is rooted in guilt. The idea is to effect change by making people identify with being a Good Person who Does Not Do the Bad Thing. Good people recycle, bad people do not. Good people do not litter, bad people do. Both of these have been very effective in changing behavior.

But then we get into the realm of food. In the US, the subject of food is practically boiled in guilt. The most common guilt is weight-related – will eating this tasty thing make me a hideous obese social outcast? But environmental food guilt is on the rise, particularly in regards to fish comsumption. Mark Powell has a thought-provoking post up on the role of desire in conservation:

I’m no expert on religion, but it seems like many environmentalists, and quite a few sustainable seafood advocates, make a big mistake in using guilt and expecting it to be strong enough to get people to fight their desires. When we use this approach, I think we risk marginalizing ourselves and we might even start to resemble a sad caricature of a preacher seeking religious converts by threatening fire-and-brimstone.

Threatening problems for people who fall off the straight-and-narrow path of sustainable seafood might work if the prize we have to offer is something really big like everlasting life, but it seems futile when the only thing we can promise is the reward of a bland but sustainable dinner.

Mark suggests trying to unite people’s desire for tasty food with their desire to do environmental good. This reminded me of message of the The Omnivore’s Dilemma – the food that tastes the best is the least processed and most sustainable. But then I was reminded of Sam’s falling-out with Michael Pollan. His new book, In Defense of Food, made her feel bad about eating:

But IDOF made me feel like a gluttonous pig contributing to the wasteful, nutritionally devoid, environmentally blighting indulgence of modern American culture, in the way that overweight people are encouraged to feel by diet books. And I don’t have to take that from a book!

So, TOG readers, is that how you feel when told not to eat something for environmental reasons? Do you think Mark is on to something with trying to encourage people to desire sustainable food, rather than berating them for desiring unsustainable food? Can environmentalists educate without using guilt? And, most importantly for me, should the marine biologists of the world be banned from engaging in dinnertime lectures education?


13 Responses to Guilty as charged

  1. Sam says:

    Since I’m being quoted, I should make it clear that In Defense of Food is explicitly not an environmental argument; it focuses on personal choices based on nutrition and health. That was exactly my issue with it, as opposed to The Omnivore’s Dilemma: there’s no actual morality associated with eating healthfully or unhealthfully, and yet Pollan managed to make me feel guilty for my white-flour-and-sugar consumption.

    Omnivore’s makes its argument much more successfully, in my opinion, because it’s less based on guilt and more on a) giving people information they didn’t have (for instance, how farm subsidies work and what slaughterhouses look like), and b) “encouraging people to desire sustainable food,” as you say.

  2. […] and Eric’s fabulous science blog The Oyster’s Garter continues my discussion of food politics. Make sure to see my comment, which hopefully clarifies the difference between IDOF and TOD: to […]

  3. Mark Powell says:

    Thanks Miriam for extending the conversation. Check out the poll on blogfish, most people think the sustainable seafood movement relies on guilt, but about half think that’s ok and about half think it’s bad (as I do).

  4. Good lord – I just realized that I forgot to put my own opinion in my own blog post. That’s what I get for rushing my blogging in order to do my actual work. 🙂

    Anyway, intellectually, I agree that guilt is not useful in converting people to the cause. But I use guilt on myself and others all the time, even though I recognize that it’s annoying. I just keep holding onto that old environmental chestnut that if people only KNEW the consequence of a particular action, then they wouldn’t want to do it.

    But I know that’s not true – for example, I love bacon, and I can’t find a sustainable source in San Diego. So I eat it anyway despite knowing that it comes from factory farms. Guilt doesn’t change my actions, it just makes me feel guilty. So anyway, Mark, I agree with you that in the end, guilt is not useful in changing people’s behavior.

  5. jebyrnes says:

    It’s funny, my mom has been trying to get a sustainable seafood initiative going where she works, and no one was on board…until the first dinner (which she fought tooth and nail for), where they served Marvesta farmed shrimp (a product of the USA, in greenhouses, closed loop, all a-OK) that were INCREDIBLY good.

    Suddenly, everyone became a convert.

    Even more interestingly, the caterer was psyched about getting the sustainable seafood movement at the aq going, while the staff that she had to deal with was the ones dragging their heals because they saw it as an annoyance, rather than something positive.

  6. Gila says:

    My two cents:

    Screw the guilt. I give myself more than enough of that for the extra 16 kg I am carrying around. If my problems with my dating life and my wardrobe have not gotten me to lay off the processed foods (and they have not) a guilt trip based on geeky science stuff or vegetarian stuf or whatever… has not a chance in hell.

    On the other hand, if it happens to taste good? Hey! I am all for it!

    Actually, here I tend to buy local stuff and stuff in season-cheaper and tastier.

  7. Hao says:

    I think you make the excellent point that guilt has worked successfully in modifying certain behaviors (such as recycling). However, I think people enjoy food too much to be really motivated by guilt induced by sustainability arguments. What we probably need is a combination of economic incentive (raising the price of unsustainably-caught food beyond free-market set prices) and social ostracism (of the Irish plastic grocery bag type).

    There are numerous examples of “tragedy of the commons” where guilt is not incentive enough to cause behavioral change. Recycling is easy to induce, probably because you can find recycling bins everywhere, and there is no real cost associated with it to the end-user.

  8. Anonymous says:

    I think what has been successful for pollan is the health argument. The best part of In Defense of Food is the destruction he wreaks on nurtitionism and food science in general. If you decide that much of food and health research is bunk, you’re forced to reconsider your eating options. and it made sense to me that whole foods (lower case) are better for me than processed food, and cheaper, which led me to cut many processed foods out of my diet.

    But what’s happened to my thinking wasn’t guilt – it was health concerns.

    how can environmentalists approach peopple’s fears about their own health?

  9. Eric Wolff says:

    Ooops – that was me, not logged in.

  10. Tom says:

    I’d actually tend to say that the trouble with a guilt-based approach is that it is too likely to be based on “common sense” notions of morality and not on science.

    I’m skeptical of those arguments that resonate most strongly with our basic sense of right-and-wrong.This may be because I’m annoyed at many moralizing tendencies regarding food, whether it be a tendency to value temperance (why the hell would that be a good thing?) or the tendency to speak of food in terms of purity (Whole Foods anyone?) and contamination.

    Most people I hear talking about local foods talk not so much in terms of the reality of cost/benefit as in terms of morality. First, the local food argument resonates with the common-sense idea that technological advances are evil and should be paid for. Second, our sense of morality tends to atavistic, so we feel like anything that brings us “back to our roots” should be good. i.e. the same people that has people sticking to 2000 year old religions has people believing that eating local is good.

    If it happens to be true that local produce is better for the world than produce shipped across the globe, fine, but the fact that it rings “true” with my common sense actually makes me more skeptical, not less.

  11. Sam says:

    Tom, this is really interesting — it’s true that we with our Puritan heritage have a lot of nonsensical morality surrounding food and the horrors of indulging therein.

    It all comes back to looking at the factual arguments, I guess. Local food is better because it uses vastly less fossil fuel to transport (thereby conserving a dwindling resource and decreasing pollution). Local also tends to mean “small farmer,” which is better for another host of reasons: more real, decently-paying jobs; fewer chemicals (small farms need to be more diverse in order to compete in the local-food farmer’s market/CSA economy; vast monocultures decrease disease resistance; hence, small farms don’t need to use as many chemicals to keep their crops healthy), etc.

    I could go on. 🙂 But the point is, these needn’t be emotional arguments. There are solid, practical reasons why these choices are better — no need to go to “we’re getting back to our roots, man” or “those people are all dirty hippies and/or Puritans.”

  12. jebyrnes says:

    Eric, I’m really curious about that point – how do we connect health consciousness and environmentalism? To me the linkage is obvious – eat local non-organic today rather than organic chilean produce, and you have less global warming, better air quality (and hence better lung-quality), more money in your local health care system (because of the potential for an increased tax base) tomorrow. Better still is local and organic, but, you see my point.

    But, in many ways, as I think about it, local non-organic v. distant organic may well be a zero-sum game in the long term.

    However, people rarely make health and nutrition choices based on long term consequences. They are more likely to think about tomorrow rather than ten years from now. I think that’s the shift in thinking that has to occur, and is starting to happen every so slowly.

    Then again, I’m also willing to bet that a lot of local produce that people are shouting “HEY THIS IS LOCAL!” about may well also be organic, which changes the balance of things even more.

  13. Heya.
    I was thinking about adding a link back to your blog
    since both of our sites are based mostly around the same topic.
    Would you prefer I link to you using your website address: or website title: Guilty as charged | The Oyster’s Garter.
    Please let me know! Thanks

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