A Mind Is A Beautiful Thing To Change

We talk about mindsets all the time. What do we mean?

Sudden wave or steady flood? (Photo by Christopher Foss)

[Warning: The following might be uncomfortable to read. There are some graphic passages, among other challenging bits. I hope you do read it, because I think it’s a conversation worth having, but I wanted to give you a heads up.]

When was the last time you changed your mind? What made it happen?

I keep asking myself these questions as I listen to the rhetoric about climate change — the wake up calls and calls to action. I ask not because I think the rhetoric is overblown — if anything I think it’s understated — and not because I don’t think action is required since I believe unprecedented action is required, at a scope, scale and level of urgency we are only just beginning to fathom.

Rather, I ask because suggesting we deal with this strikes me as being less about climate change per se and more about mind change, since we know that our mindsets — our beliefs and our worldviews — are what largely define our behaviors. If I expect others to change their mindsets about climate change in a way that modifies behaviors and therefore outcomes, I might do well to first look at when and why I have changed my own mind before.

Mind changing comes in different forms

It turns out I’ve changed my mind in a big way a few times over the years, and these fundamental shifts fall neatly into two camps.

There is the kind of mind changing that comes uninvited, based on abrupt and startling circumstances — a new version of reality that hits like a rogue wave. And then there is the kind of altered understanding that seeps in as a gentle trickle of awareness, slowly but surely over time flooding one’s mind completely. I have experienced both of these mental watersheds and they resulted in my seeing the world around me differently, and in changing my behavior accordingly.

Rogue wave and young driver collide

An example of the first type happened to me in relation to road safety. I was a fairly casual — perhaps even naïvely irresponsible — young driver, not thinking twice about speeding, feeling secure in my little cocoon of hurtling sheet metal as I’d play my favorite mix tape and wear my uncomplicated, youthful outlook on my sleeve. I travelled on this proverbial road into my early 20’s, until that moment on the (unfortunately not proverbial) road when the car in front of me collided with an on-coming car. I pulled over, as did a few others on this remote stretch of highway, and became part of the melée that tried to help out until the emergency crew showed up.

The two drivers — total strangers to one another — had suddenly found their fates irreversibly connected by a few brief seconds of bad decisions including speeding in winter conditions. A 16-year old boy (one of the drivers) watched his mother’s internal organs spill into plain view in what remained of the back seat of their car — which had been twisted to rest in front of him — while nearby on the road’s shoulder, a young woman looked numbly at a piece of metal that had lodged in her calf, appearing to only faintly register the groans of her fellow passenger, suspended upside-down from the seat of their overturned Jeep, seatbelt still securely fastened. Until this moment I had only encountered such dismemberment on a TV screen — for example during the scene in the Wizard of Oz when Dorothy pieces the Scarecrow back together, casting about for his straw limbs and guts along the Yellow Brick Road.

At this collision site, “Dorothy” came in the form of first responders who could only do so much, though I was nonetheless grateful they arrived when they did, relieving me of the fruitless effort of distracting the young driver from talking to — or even looking at — his mother who had very clearly already died.

This incident changed my perspective of cars and driving forever. It demonstrated in no uncertain terms that, regardless of my skills, destination, and choices as a driver, there would always be other drivers around me in their own sheet metal cocoons making their own choices and applying their own skill levels. It also illustrated that when cars interact they are potentially deadly objects that change shape (and the shape of those inside them) in the most jarring of ways. This is not the only way to view cars and driving, of course, but being willfully blind to the perils of speeding while assuming we’re safe in metal cocoons is not a mindset I can embrace anymore. As a result, I’m pretty sure I’m a better driver when I do drive and I am much more inclined to find alternative, sometimes more efficient, often statistically safer means of getting around.

It’s perhaps cold-hearted to say (it has been nearly 30 years since my involvement in that crash scene, so cool detachment about what happened is easier now), but while I am sorry for those families’ losses and the terribly traumatic circumstances of that day, it is obvious that this crash happened as a result of a dangerous mindset about driving. And it could well have been me tossed like the Scarecrow on the road — I have no illusions on this score. Some friends tell me that I have the wrong attitude and I shouldn’t be so anxious about car accidents. Ironically, I don’t feel anxious about car accidents (and I don’t see this type of collision as an “accident”). Rather I feel grateful to understand things I didn’t understand before, and to be able to make better choices that are less likely to result in death — mine, a loved one’s or a stranger’s. That feels like a good thing, not an anxiety. And after that rogue wave of reality, there is really no going back even if I wanted to.

Gentle trickle floods taste buds

The second type of mind changing — the slow, steady seeping version — came about for me in relation to food. I used to eat a lot of meat and dairy. For a time I was teased as the person whose breakfast of choice was “steak-in-a-bowl.” I had probably eaten more than my adult weight in bacon before reaching adulthood. If I wanted to improve a meal, my default approach was to melt cheese on it.

As I began to explore food and cooking with more focus in my 20’s and 30’s, I incorporated a greater variety of grains, vegetables and fruits, but I held pretty secure in my understanding that some animals only existed to feed me and other humans, and that this was a workable arrangement. Even as someone who worked with, lived with, and deeply loved animals over the years — from horses and cats to birds and fish — I never felt any hint of a disconnect between my diet and my personal beliefs. Seriously: not a hint. I ate roasted goat brain right out of the goat’s cooked skull while in a Croatian village and I recall thinking it was the best thing I had ever tasted. And I had just been chatting with the goat earlier that afternoon!

Slowly over time, however, a new sensibility took hold, almost as imperceptibly as the greying of my hair, yet as steady an evolution. This mind shift was surely fueled by my work in the field of sustainability, where there is a great deal of data and dialogue about the importance of humans shifting to a more plant-based diet in the future we want (although said data and dialogue needs more work, not leastwise because growing food crops can do as much or more environmental damage as raising animals). It was also egged on by a deepening sense of my own place in the wider web of life as I observed the world around me. I started seeing it less as a hierarchy with humans in charge and more as a vast and dynamic network — and a fascinating one about which I barely have a clue. Whatever the factors involved, I went from being a regular consumer of double cheeseburgers with bacon to living on an entirely plant-based diet about five years ago.

Although many think of vegetarianism as pretty common in my field, I was in fact horrified and surprised when it happened to me (a bit like finding those early grey hairs). This seepage of consciousness about what was really going on (about food, not grey hair) became overwhelming one day when I was eating a piece of cheese and I could not chew and swallow it without a visceral awareness that I was eating the solidified breastmilk of another mammal, processed through an industrial system for profit by people I don’t know. I know how that probably sounds: crazy and pretty nasty. And I felt crazy and it sure tasted pretty nasty. But that’s what happened. The more I thought about it, the more I realized I didn’t have a really good argument to keep chewing and liking it. “Yummy” just didn’t cut it anymore.

It got crazier and nastier. My cheese-is-not-really-food-for-humans experience was followed not long afterwards by a bizarre olfactory shift: I smelled meat cooking — a smell that used to make my mouth water — and found myself wondering if the odor might resemble that of cooking human flesh. I didn’t ask for this seepage of awareness, believe me — in fact I expressly tried to come up with good reasons for why I and everyone else should continue to pay for people to raise and kill other creatures for the purposes of human sustenance. But just as I have never been inclined to kill and roast my downstairs neighbor nor my cat, I could no longer wrap my mind around putting an anonymous hunk of a cow’s hip or a pig’s rib onto my dinner plate. More than my neighbor or my cat — it actually felt akin to slicing off a piece of my own leg, which I was definitely not up for. And that was that — as unrequested as grey hair, but as real. And just like with grey hair, covering it up didn’t really change the underlying reality, although I did hide my new diet from many of those close to me for a while, as I was so embarrassed and confused by this dramatic switch. Eventually I just had to give in and openly eat only plants.

Now: I recognize my mindset about food is decidedly annoying to many (including to myself). And try as I might to avoid them, discussions about a plant-based diet almost always yield emotionally fraught and defensive remarks (many of which I made myself many times before, and can totally relate to, to this day). I place all this in the context of my own former (adoring) relationship to bacon and eggs, and I am the first to not judge lest I judge myself. Judging is pretty useless when it comes to mindsets, it turns out.

The thing is, it’s very difficult to “unknow” something once it’s become clear, and so I find myself dealing with waves of feelings of suffering when I walk through grocery aisles lined with products full of chopped up creatures. I also find myself having strange, impossible inner conversations comparing notes with trees and dragonflies in terms of how we all process sugars, proteins, minerals and sunshine to sustain ourselves and future generations of our kind.

All to say my change of mind regarding animals as food has dramatically influenced how I eat, shop and function as a person. But more fundamentally it’s changed how I interpret my relationship with food in the context of the life forms around me. I recognize that I’m just at the beginning of understanding (and will never get to the end) and it’s a rather sensitive topic to explore for all kinds of reasons.

Mindsets: Shifting from X to Y

So, it is within the context of mindsets and the difficulty with which any of us actually shifts them, that I view the rhetoric on climate change. Yes, we frequently hear of a need for a “mindset shift.” In principle, I agree with the need for said shift, and yet I sense a dearth, even among those of us making these calls to action, as to what we’re proposing. That is: a shift from what to what?

Very few of us can change the big stuff — e.g. significantly influence the required transition to renewable energy, restore the health of global soils, or reorient major corporations to be more profitable when they deliver on climate resilience and less profitable when they don’t.

Yet just as abolishing slavery or including women as voters required the mainstreaming of a different worldview (and make no mistake, both slavery and suffrage had to fight entrenched rationales for keeping things as they were, including arguments that the economy couldn’t withstand such a radical shift), we are going to have to change our worldview to avoid climate catastrophe. The collective mindset shift this will entail is massive and profound. We are just at the beginning of this journey.

What does this new mindset look like?

In as much as it’s possible to “see” a mindset, I think we can already observe some hints of where we need to head. For example, we’ll know we’re on the path of a transformative new understanding when it’s normal to see ourselves as just one part of the natural world, not above it or responsible for managing it. We will have made progress when responding to climate change is not perceived as an economic threat in and of itself, but rather as a necessary response to a threatened economy that has so far failed to internalize true costs. And I believe we’ll be particularly well underway with the required collective mindset shift when it is far more common to hear people describe what they have come to understand and changed in response to the climate change challenge, than to hear all the policy debating, judgement (of corporates, of environmentalists, etc) and ad hoc statistics shared in deafening silos.

I’m confident that this collective mindset shift is possible, just as we managed to (mostly) abolish slavery and to (mostly) grant women the vote in spite of daunting barriers. Yet I recognize that very few people believe they need to adopt a new mindset in the first place, and I accept that I’m no different in that regard. One way or the other the wave of new understanding will come — the question is if we will let it seep in, or be knocked off our feet by a rogue wave.