Monday, November 03, 2008

Cognitive Dissonance (Rebuttal)


The post I made a few weeks ago about cognitive dissonance struck a bit of a nerve in a few readers. After reading the responses, I realized that there was a certain fatalistic black-or-white thinking revealed within what I wrote. I asked if I could post the comments here; David Kimball said "yes". [I have added some formatting, including emphasis].
I'd like to respond in two ways: Cognitive Dissonance and Sustainability.

First for Cognitive Dissonance. In order to maintain our sensibility and equilibrium, we need to alter our concept of the choices involved in this Cognitive Dissonance issue. It is NOT binary. It is not to be one thing or another. It is not to be "use energy" or "don't use energy". It is not to eat meat or not to eat meat. It is not to invest or not to invest, etc., etc.

These issues are to be considered on a spectrum with two extremes, but with sane reality lying somewhere in between these two extremes. It may be important to identify the extremes, but only to give a point of reference of where we want to or should be. If we identify our change in terms of an extreme, we cannot fail but disappoint and frustrate ourselves. That is not Cognitive Dissonance, that's Emotional Dissonance. And as you have reported to experience, it will drive you crazy. Most things in life are to be approached as a spectrum rather than polar, binary opposites. We experience life much more analog-ically than we do digitally.

The problem with meat isn't meat or no meat, but how much meat is too much meat? (Otherwise you get into the rabbit hole of fish? dairy? leather shoes? etc. etc.) The same with transportation. You shouldn't expect your decision to be that of Thoreau with no gasoline. Moderation in all things should be the cry of the day. As an MBA student, I'm sure you're very familiar with cost/benefit analysis. Thinking of going to Net Impact in Philadelphia [I will be there]? I'm sure you're not walking. But what will the benefits be? What happens when you weigh those benefits against the cost of petrol? If the benefit is there, go for it with a clear conscious. If the benefit isn't there, then don't go. Your thought processes should be spent on the cost-benefit performances rather than the ideology of total conservation. Which brings me my second point - Sustainability.

Perhaps you need to consider the difference between Sustainability and Conservation. Conservation, to me, seems to be a binary decision - either we conserve or we don't conserve. But Sustainability may be an approach which utilizes certain Conservation principles, but it's mission is not to Conserve. It's mission is to be Sustainable - or to operate in a Sustainable manner. What is Sustainability? To have our behavior today such that we will be just as viable 50 years from now as we are today. That doesn't mean that we Conserve as much as we can today to a ridiculous level. Just as the aspect of Sustainability that deals with reporting, Triple Bottom Line Accountability, is a three-legged stool, so Sustainability issues must be addressed in a complex fashion rather than a simplex fashion. It doesn't do a company any good if they Conserve to the point that they fail economically. That is destructive rather than constructive. So Sustainability issues must be answered again with a cost/benefit analysis approach and considering all factors, not just the Conservation factor. You will always be able to find more and more ways to conserve, but they won't always be the best Sustainable decision.

I was talking to a person today about the slash and burn indigenous societies of both Africa and Asia where they will slash and burn a clearing for farming and living. But they will live there only ~15 years (Asia) to ~30 years (Africa) before the tribe will move on to create another "home". But by moving around and around, they allow their previous "homes" to re-grow and to become fertile again. This actually is a means of Sustainability as 50 years from now their entire "homeland" will be just as viable as it is today. Yet when looked at from the microscopic lens of "today", it's a system that sounds and seems abhorrent to a lot of people. But Sustainability MUST take the bigger picture.

So don't suffer from paralysis by analysis by looking at these issues through a microscope. Remember that a beautiful rose leaf will look very ugly under a microscope. (You'll see dirt, insects, torn petals, etc.) Look at the larger picture and I will guarantee that you will sleep better at night.
Thank you.

1 comment:

Caleb said...

I must take issue with certain elements of Mr. Kimball's assessment. While I will wholeheartedly embrace his assertion of non-binary decision variables, I am highly suspect of any way of presenting an issue that happily lends itself to a tepid, highly compromised response. Take the matter of meat eating, for instance: "The problem with meat isn't meat or no meat, but how much meat is too much meat? (Otherwise you get into the rabbit hole of fish? dairy? leather shoes? etc. etc.)" --if we are talking about meat eating from a sustainability perspective, Mr. Kimball will be hard pressed to demonstrate that it is more "Sustainable" to eat one ounce of meat--he seems to acknowledge this. The question of "how much meat is too much meat" is an interesting one, if we understand that, at the rate of increasing consumption in places like China, any amount of meat consumption on our behalf is just throwing the equation further out of balance. An appeal for moderation, in this instance, seems to be highly imbalanced.
The problem here is not so much with the idea of meat eating or me being a "vegangelical," but the equation that Mr. Kimball has prepared. He seems to feel that 'no meat' is extreme, but if hundreds of millions of people can do it, and live as much as an avg. of 10 years longer, it can't be too "extreme." I submit that, if we are concerned with sustainability, his scale shouldn't have meat or no meat on either side, but highly UN-sustainable consumption and highly sustainable consumption on the poles. In this way, we have the TV Dinner, BBQ lifestyle on one end, and primitivism on another.
Vegetarianism seems, in this more holistic calculus, to be pleasantly moderate, doesn't it?
It's all about how we load the scale and how we ask the questions--as Sartre was fond of observing, the WAY you ask the questions and the PEOPLE you choose to ask, shape the question and winds up delivering exactly the answer you would have wanted (if you choose to ask a drinking buddy about skipping class you'll get one question, ask your professor you'll get another). The manner in which a question is parsed informs us of the manner in which you want it answered: if I like to physically assault people, I can load a scale with mass-murder on the far end, and now my aggravations seems fairly tame and moderate.
Where is "sane reality" in this equation?

I am here inclined to rebut the "moderation in all things" thinking--in a world where the degree to which we are destroying our own conditions for existence are mind-numbingly EXTREME, the balancing response is not one of mainstream moderation ("your silence will not protect you"), nor is it one of individual extremeness (Earth Liberation Front, primitivism)--it is one of unswerving reform on a full, human scale.

Moderation in all things, including moderation.

I fully agree with Mr. Kimball's indictment of "first cost economics," otherwise the logical solution to one's own co2 production and consumption is to head off the whole thing and commit seppuku. If traveling to a conference costs the earth 2 units of sustainability, and the effect of your attendance improves it 3 units of sustainability, it is a net gain and a worthwhile undertaking--I would be interested to see a similar case drawn up for meat eating.

I have to get going, but I will close by appreciating Mr. Kimball's interest in 50-year viability, but the delay in the world's feedback loops are such that I really think we need to add another 0 at the end of it.

"If you plan for one year, plant rice. If you plan for ten, plant trees. If you plan for one hundred years, educate mankind" -Kuan-Tzu