What made you change your mind?

I’ve been pondering this lately, what makes you change your mind? Is it data? A well told story? Did you research and test hypotheses or something else? What eventually got you to accept that a view you held was not right?

A paper published in Science called When contact changes minds: An experiment on transmission of support for gay equality has been retracted. The idea was just talking to an actual gay person would significantly change a person’s opposition to gay marriage. Certainly dealing with a person in the flesh has some influence, but changing someone’s mind for “3-week, 6-week, and 9-month” time periods probably takes more than someone screaming epithets (wait that’s Twitter and Facebook).

For me, it took two well-researched well-written books: The Skeptical Environmentalist: Measuring the Real State of the World by Bjørn Lomborg (2001) and The Rational Optimist: How Prosperity Evolves by Matt Ridley (2010). Until then, I had listened to my tribe and followed their leads (with difficulty and cognitive dissonance), after these books I relaxed much more about the issues my tribe worried about.

I think the main point of [The Skeptical Environmentalist] was to challenge our notion that everything is going down the drain, and I don’t see any reason to revise that…I’m trying to recapture much of what the left stood for–when we believed in progress, when we believed that scientific understanding could lead us ahead and not just rely on tradition. … Unfortunately, I find that a fair amount of the left has turned towards a romanticized view of the world. –Bjørn Lomborg

So I left my tribe which had started down the romantic path. I started to concentrate on the issues that will make the world better. These are items that will help the most people with the limited resource of money (courtesy of the Copenhagen Consensus):

  • Micronutrient supplements for children (vitamin A and zinc) (Challenge: Malnutrition)
  • The DOHA development agenda (Challenge: Trade)
  • Micronutrient fortification (iron and salt iodization) (Challenge: Malnutrition)
  • Expanded immunization coverage for children (Challenge: Diseases)
  • Biofortification (Challenge: Malnutrition)
  • Deworming and other nutrition programs at school (Challenge: Malnutrition & Education)
  • Lowering the price of schooling (Challenge: Education)
  • Increase and improve girls’ schooling (Challenge: Women)
  • Community-based nutrition promotion (Challenge: Malnutrition)
  • Provide support for women’s reproductive role (Challenge: Women)

Have you changed your mind about what is important for humanity to tackle?


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Q & A with Maureen Ogle, Author of “In Meat We Trust”

I have the perfect gift for the foodie in your life: “In Meat We Trust: An Unexpected History of Carnivore America,” written by Maureen Ogle, it traces the origins of our food system and its meat-centric bias. “The moment European settlers arrived in North America,” Ogle says, “they began transforming the land into a meat-eater’s paradise.” Today, we Americans consume about the same amount as the colonists, an astounding 250 pounds a year per man, woman, and child in this country.

This book traces our food system from its colonial origins to today. It is a fascinating journey through crowded and noisy streets filled with pigs, sheep, and cattle, and slick and redolent with animal urine, feces and blood to today’s highly efficient system that is hidden from most of us.

You may want to dismiss her book as merely history, but if you ignore the real story she tells, the history, you allow storytellers to fabricate a mythical past that never was and preach “solutions” that will never be. As Ms. Ogle told me in an e-mail interview:

“Much of the discussion about our ‘broken’ food system is simplistic. Too simplistic, in that simplifying causes can (and in this case does) lead to simplistic and impractical solutions. I believe (and hope!) that if all of us take time to understand how and why we got to where we are—the actual complex history of that how/why—we can have a more informed, substantive conversation about agriculture’s future.

“An example of ‘simple’ is that mythology about agriculture in American history. Our myth revolves around the sturdy yeoman farmer, living off the land in perfect harmony with nature, etc. Many well-meaning critics of today’s food and ag systems want to return to that imagined past. But that past is just that: imagined and mythological. It can’t and won’t address the complex problems of feeding not just an urban nation, but large parts of the world, too.”

What was the impetus to write a book on meat in America?

“What links my four seemingly disparate books (plumbing, Key West, beer, meat) is my [historian’s] desire to understand what it means to be an American. In that respect, meat was a perfect vehicle to further my quest for understanding: as the cliché says, food and diet tell us much about a people. I believed that if I dug into our meat culture, I would learn more about the American character. And, hooray, I did!”

Many, such as food writer Michael Pollan and chef and organic advocate Alice Waters, believe that organically grown food would be much lower impact. What leads you to disagree?

“Pollan and company tend to regard ‘organic’ as a kind of silver bullet that will repair our (allegedly) broken food system. That’s both a misleading and overly simplistic way to view the situation. I’ve got nothing against organic, in the field or on the table. What I object to is the notion that switching to organic farming is a practical alternative to meeting demands. Organic farmers will tell you that it’s a hard field to till: the bugs and pests and blights are all out there and they’re gonna attack whether you want them to or not.

“If we can figure out how to create an intensive organic agricultural system using the same amount of land and labor that we use now, well, go for it. But the reality is: we can’t. It seems to me that organic is more a smokescreen than a practical alternative; by offering up organic as the solution, critics can avoid dealing with hard questions.”

What was your biggest “aha!” discovery about our food system?

“Frankly, just how complex it is. I suspect that I’m like most Americans: I take food for granted. It’s everywhere I want to be and then some. But I’d never thought about the logistics of feeding a big nation, or the complexities involved when the majority of a society is urban and farmers are few in number. And that despite having lived in an agricultural state (Iowa) my entire life. So my ‘aha!’ moment was: Wow. This. Is. Complicated.”

* * *

Maureen Ogle, author of In Meat We Trust

To sum up, this book, “In Meat We Trust” tells the true story of our food system. Our system evolved for rational reasons that still apply today. “We may not agree with the decisions that led to that state of affairs,” Ms. Ogle says, “and there’s good reason to abhor the consequences, but on one point we can surely agree: real people made real choices based on what was best for themselves and their families.” That is a real American story.

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Book Review: The Rational Optimist: How Prosperity Evolves

Let me recommend a startling book to you, because whether you read a book a week or you haven’t picked one up since you discovered the wonders of the internet, this one deserves your attention. The book is The Rational Optimist: How Prosperity Evolves (438 pages) written by Matt Ridley and published by HarperCollins ($26.99). Ridley, a Brit, used to write for the Economist magazine and knows how to make abstract concepts accessible.

In this book Ridley challenges the precepts of most environmentalists. He argues that the less independent and less self-sufficient we become and the more we rely on others (people, companies, nations) for our needs, the better off we (humans, plants, animals, land, ecosystems) all are, and will be, forever. He says we are living better, living longer, and the planet is healthier because of our interdependence.

Arguing that life is improving, for us and earth’s biomes, is a tough sell. I know this from experience. Last April, I wrote a post (Happy 40th Anniversary Earth Day) about what has happened in the forty years since the first Earth Day; how we now have less pollution, more food, and fewer people in abject poverty. The post has a poll about whether the reader was now more optimistic, more pessimistic, or ambivalent about the future. Overwhelmingly, people were (and apparently are) pessimistic about the future of the earth. Mind you, this is a tiny sample and completely non-scientific, still I suspect it is pretty close to representative of the population. In fact, a 2010 CBS News poll reveals 57% of Americans believe the world’s environment will deteriorate further in a generation.

The reason circumstances have improved for us and our world is that we’ve moved from being hunter-gatherers needing lots of land, to being specialists needing much less land. And the big reason for this specialization was the invention of exchanging one thing for a different thing. No other animal on earth trades one thing for something else with an unrelated animal. Trade is quite different from reciprocity, which is “you scratch my back, then I’ll scratch your back.” Trade involves exchanging things that are different at the same time. And trade has allowed all who do it to specialize and be better off. You can now trade things you know how to make for things that you don’t know how to make or cannot make.

Trading meant that we no longer had to be good at a lot of skills; we only needed to do one thing. Of course, by doing only one thing we need to rely on others to do those other things. Ridley argues that self sufficiency is poverty and that interdependence is a good thing. “In truth, far from being unsustainable, the interdependence of the world through trade is the very thing that makes modern life as sustainable as it is…suppose your local wheat farmer tells you that last year’s rains means he will have to cut his flour delivery in half. You will have to go hungry.” Instead, you benefit from a global marketplace, “in which somebody somewhere has something to sell you so there are rarely shortages, only modest price fluctuations.”

Because he is a libertarian, Ridley is predisposed to look favorably on commerce. He believes in small government and free markets of goods and services with few rules. Critics pounce on this and point out when he was non-executive chairman of Northern Rock, his bank’s policies of high-risk lending and high risk borrowing contributed to the economic bubble that caused the major recession that much of the world is still dealing with. It’s a fair point: How can he be a rational optimist if he participated in, what in hindsight was, irrational exuberance?

I found Ridley’s ideas and arguments compelling. Trade and commerce make everyone richer, as long as someone is willing to pay for a service there is no such thing as unproductive work, and that in a generation we will be richer still and the earth in better shape. “The rational optimist invites you to stand back and look at your species differently,” writes Ridley in his book, “to see the grand enterprise of humanity that has progressed–with frequent setbacks–for 100,000 years. And then, when you have seen that, consider whether the enterprise is finished or if, as the optimist claims, it still has centuries and millennia to run.”

I dare you to be rationally optimistic.

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