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Opinion: Meat free week - a recipe for change

09 March 2018

By Jan Willem Bolderdijk

Climate change and animal welfare are a cause for concern for many Dutch people. They realize that their daily portion of meat isn’t really helping on either front. And yet we (and that includes me) have not signed up in droves for the National Meat Free Week. Are we perhaps not as worried as we make out?

Meat is intertwined with our economy. Eating animals is deeply anchored in our culture and customs. Despite all the rational arguments, meat is still the norm. The thing about norms is that they have a tendency to perpetuate themselves. Although most Americans consider climate change to be important, they underestimate the degree to which other people share their opinions because the subject is simply never raised. As a result, many concerned Americans ‘never’ or ‘rarely’ discuss climate change with others: they don’t want to deviate from the established norm and are therefore sustaining it by silent consent.

Back to meat. Increasingly more Dutch people are reducing their meat intake. In fact some polls claim that the majority of us are now flexitarians. But this social shift is not always visible. And that’s the crux of the matter. As long as I (whether rightly or wrongly) continue to think that I’m the only flexitarian at the table, I will stick to the established norm and order a steak rather than a vegetarian risotto. I don’t want to make my meat-eating companions feel guilty. In turn, my companions understandably conclude that eating meat is still entirely normal in 2018.

In other words, people tend to keep shtum as long as they mistakenly believe that they are in the minority. The real point of the National Meat Free Week is to break this vicious circle. It doesn’t really matter how many people physically take part. The main thing is that the initiative has attracted considerable media attention and sent out a clear signal: eating less meat is not deviating from the norm, but adhering to a trend that is becoming increasingly popular.

Some people don’t think that a meat free week is going far enough. What’s one week without meat in relation to a whole lifetime? In addition, a vegetarian week doesn’t alter the fact that animals are also suffering to provide us with eggs and cheese. However, we have learned that moralizing tends to irritate meat-eaters rather than inspire them. We would do well to remember this. As Tobias Leenaert says in his book How to Create a Vegan World: a vegan or vegetarian who wants to reduce animal suffering would achieve more by focusing on the question: ‘how can I convince others?’ than on: ‘how do I make the right decision?’ To sum up: if you really want to make a difference as an individual, serve your meat-addicted tablemates a delicious vegetarian quiche during Meat Free Week rather than moral arguments.

Dr Jan Willem Bolderdijk is Associate Professor in the Faculty of Economics and Business at the University of Groningen. As a psychologist, he is researching how people make environmental choices.

Jan Willem Bolderdijk
Jan Willem Bolderdijk
Last modified:01 February 2023 4.20 p.m.
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