From H-Bombs to Animal Cruelty: Cognitive Dissonance and the Future of Civilization

His father’s trade was the design and fabrication of enormous bombs for the purpose of incinerating whole citiesful of innocent people as they slept in their beds. Cleverly conceived and handcrafted things. One-off, each of them. Like vintage Bentleys.
~Cormac McCarthy, The Passenger

The cognitive dissonance of the smartest men on Earth dedicating themselves to the craft of building precise, beautiful machines dedicated to the wholesale slaughter of millions of people put me in mind of all the animal lovers I know, including one of my own children, who continue to eat meat, despite their recognition of the cruelty associated with meat cultivation.

A 2019 poll found that almost 70 percent of respondents supported ending all animal cruelty and suffering; four years earlier, another poll had found that almost a third of Americans said they believed animals should be given the same rights as people. Yet in 2018, meat consumption reached a record high in the United States; the average family of four ate 197 animals. The reasons for this cognitive dissonance are complicated, an obvious one being that change is hard. Eating meat is not unlike all the other ways in which we destroy our own ideals; we forsake our principles when it is convenient to do so.
~Elizabeth Barber, “Standing Trial,” Harper’s Magazine, October 2022

I myself sometimes buy treats I like in environmentally-offensive packaging (looking at you Dare Foods and Leclerc). I fly to places I want to go, and I sometimes drive my car when I could ride my bike, even though I know these activities are contributing to the climate emergency. So I am not immune to cognitive dissonance.

As with any individual activity, we consistently hit the population-multiplier effect. While people may understand they should curb a specific habit for the betterment of society and the planet, why should they, when everyone else is doing it? And I am just one person. To quote loosely from A Tidy Armageddon: it’s just one plastic spoon.

But the reward for conscience is deprivation.

I maintain that cog-dis impulses could be mitigated through legislation. While I don’t in all cases advocate for prohibition, I do believe in disincentivization through taxation. Make products in bad packaging more expensive, add fees to fuel to increase the cost of personal vehicle use and air travel. This solution has a triple effect:

  • reduces harmful consumption, beacause harmful activities become more expensive,
  • incentivizes manufacturers to seek less damaging solutions, e.g., more eco-friendly packaging, to keep their products affordable,
  • allows for the collection of revenue which can in turn be used to fund solutions to mitigate those harms.

The population-multiplier effect is what gives us civilization: pooling our resources allows us to do things we cannot do as individuals, such as build roads, railways, ports, hospitals, power plants, art galleries, stadiums. But it’s a double-edged sword: the population-multiplier effect also amplifies individual destructive behaviours.

We must have the wisdom to promote the positive effects of collectivism, and resist the negative.

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