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COWSPIRACY: The Sustainability Secret

The Leonardo DiCaprio Cut
This movie is perhaps the most important environmental documentary in decades. TWM's Learning Guide contains curriculum materials on using the film to teach:
  • For any class: The staggering environmental cost of Animal Agriculture;

  • For ELA & Social Studies: An exercise in analyzing an argument in a documentary film using Aristotle's appeals to logos, pathos, and ethos;

  • For Social Studies: The power of the Animal Agriculture lobby; in 2014 they received astounding exemptions from environmental regulations;

  • For ELA, Social Studies, Health & Psychology: Why people don't do what they need to do: Motivated Blindness and the Normalcy Bias; and

  • For ELA, Social Studies, Health & Math: An example of how an apologist for the Animal Agriculture Industry tried to mislead with statistics (the math is simple).
  • SUBJECTS — the Environment; English Language Arts - Argument;
             Civics; U.S. History: 1991 to present;
    MORAL-ETHICAL EMPHASIS — Responsibility.
    Age: 13+; Not rated: Documentary; 2014; re-released with DiCaprio Cut in 2015; 89 minutes; Color. Available on Netflix and from Cowspiracy.com.

    Description: Cowspiracy describes what happens when an environmental activist reads that animal agriculture is responsible for more pollution than the entire transportation sector. He is also told that animal agriculture and the crops necessary to feed those animals consume more than 50% of the potable water in the U.S. and that a hamburger with 1/3rd of a pound of beef requires 660 gallons of water to produce. As he digs deeper into the literature about the environmental costs of animal agriculture, he learns about the deforestation of the Amazon to grow crops to feed livestock, the pollution caused by the many hundred million tons of animal waste generated by the industry each year, and the antibiotic resistance caused by pumping livestock full of antibiotics to prevent disease among animals closely confined in large numbers. Then he learns that hunger in the world would be eliminated if the grain that is fed to farm animals were available for human consumption.

    The activist wonders why he can't read anything about animal agriculture on the websites and in the literature of some major environmental organizations. He questions why government agencies charged with reducing pollution don't publicize these facts and encourage people to reduce their intake of meat and dairy. He asks for an explanation . . . and is met with silence.

    Rationale for Using the Movie: This film discloses a major and as yet unpublicized cause of humankind's impact on the environment. In ELA classes, the film serves as an excellent example of Aristotle's appeals to logos, pathos, and ethos. The movie also provides an opportunity to introduce three important concepts which will serve students all their lives: "motivated blindness," "the bias toward normalcy," and how statistics can be used to mislead.

    Objectives/Student Outcomes Using this Learning Guide: (1) The movie, supplemented by the discussion questions and the assignments in this Learning Guide, will acquaint students with the role that animal agriculture plays in environmental degradation. (2) Students assigned TWM's Worksheet for the Aristotelian Modes of Persuasion in Cowspiracy will practice analyzing arguments using Aristotle's appeals to logos, pathos, and ethos. (3) Student who read TWM's Motivated Blindness and the Normalcy Bias: A Brief Introduction will understand and be able to apply these psychological concepts. (4) Teachers can use the film and the Learning Guide to demonstrate that even statistics (logos) can be framed in a misleading manner.

    Possible Problems: Minor: At the end of the movie, the filmmakers explain why they believe that the only solution for the environmental problems caused by animal agriculture is a vegan diet. The filmmakers would argue (and TWM agrees) that this is a strength of the film because it is clear that a drastic reduction in meat and dairy consumption is an essential component of any effective effort to mitigate human impact on the environment.

    The film shows a backyard farmer cutting the head from a duck and draining the blood into a bucket.



    Excerpts from: In Final Spending Bill, Salty Food and Belching Cows Are Winners
    By Robert Pear, New York Times, December 14, 2014.

    [B]uried in the giant spending bill that cleared the Senate on Saturday and [that] is headed to President Obama for his signature were provisions that prohibit the federal government from requiring less salt in school lunches and allow schools to obtain exemptions from whole-grain requirements for pasta and tortillas.

    The watered-down standards for school meals were a setback for the first lady, Michelle Obama, who had vowed to fight "until the bitter end" for tougher nutrition standards. . . .

    The National Cattlemen's Beef Association scored several victories that require the government to keep its regulatory hands off farms and ranches.

    The bill says the government cannot require farmers to report "greenhouse gas emissions" from manure "management systems." Nor can it require ranchers to obtain greenhouse gas permits for "methane emissions" produced by bovine flatulence or belching. The Environmental Protection Agency says on its website that "globally, the agriculture sector is the primary source" of methane emissions.

    The spending bill requires the E.P.A. to withdraw a new rule defining how the Clean Water Act applies to certain agricultural conservation practices. It also prevents the Army Corps of Engineers from regulating farm ponds and irrigation ditches under the Clean Water Act. This is a major victory for farmers and ranchers, who consistently tell many of us that they are concerned about the potential of the E.P.A. and the Army Corps of Engineers' overreach into their operations," Representative Mike Simpson, Republican of Idaho, said.



    Rationale and Objectives

    Possible Problems

    Parenting Points

    Newsflash! The Power of the
          Animal Agriculture Lobby

    Using the Movie in Class:

          Argumentation: Logos, Pathos, Ethos

          Motivated Blindness and the
                Normalcy Bias

          How Statistics Can Mislead

          Discussion Questions


    Other Sections:

          Links to the Internet

          CCSS Anchor Standards

          Selected Awards & Cast

    WORKSHEETS: TWM offers a worksheet to keep students' minds on this movie and to direct them to the lessons that can be learned from the film.
    Teachers can modify the worksheets to fit the needs of each class.

    See also TWM's Historical Fiction in Film Cross-Curricular Homework Project and Movies as Literature Homework Project.

    Note to Teachers: The film needs no introduction and provides its own factual background. Before recommending Cowspiracy, TWM independently checked and found general verification for the statistics cited in the movie. The sources we used were as diverse as: The Economist, a magazine with a politically conservative viewpoint; mainstream organizations such as National Geographic and the Pew Charitable Trust; Scientific American magazine; the U.S. government; the United Nations, and several academic sources. The scientific studies in this area are periodically revised and the exact statistics constantly change, however, a review of these authorities makes it clear that the movie's basic analysis is valid: animal agriculture is a leading cause of pollution and environmental degradation. (See Links to the Internet and Bibliography below.) Despite this undisputed fact, the environmental effects of animal agriculture have not been previously addressed by environmental organizations and, due to the power of the Animal Agriculture lobby, they are still ignored by governments.
    Argumentation using: Aristotle's Three Rhetorical Appeals: Logos, Pathos, and Ethos

    Download and review TWM's Worksheet for the Aristotelian Modes of Persuasion in Cowspiracy: Appeals to Logos, Pathos, and Ethos. Modify the worksheet to meet the needs of your students. Before the movie is shown, review the worksheet with the class. TWM recommends going over the worksheet with students before starting the movie and allowing students two five-minute breaks during the film and one at the end of the movie to make notes for their responses.

    After students have seen the movie, the questions on the worksheet can be used as the basis for class discussion, or it can be assigned to students as an in-class writing assignment or as homework.

    Motivated Blindness and the Bias Toward Normalcy
    The concepts in the handout will serve students throughout their lives. For a version of the handout in word processing format suitable for printing click here.

    Play for the class the fabulous TED Talk by Margaret Heffernan: The dangers of "willful blindness". This is 14:39 minutes.
    Motivated Blindness and the Normalcy Bias: A Brief Introduction

    "Motivated blindness" refers to the human tendency to overlook information that works against what people want to believe, either because the belief is in their self-interest or simply because they have held the belief a long time and they are emotionally invested in retaining it. The human mind is programmed to selectively see evidence supporting the conclusions it would like to reach, while it tends to ignore or discount evidence that goes against its preferences.

    "Motivated Blindness" consists not only of ignoring our own negligent or wrongful conduct, but it also includes overlooking questionable behavior in others when it is not in our best interest to raise questions. Examples include the following:

    • Bernard Madoff, a respected stockbroker, ran a Ponzi scheme that looted $18 billion dollars from investors. In a Ponzi scheme, a broker takes money from investors and reports exceptional profits. In fact, the profits are completely or partially fictional. The operator of the Ponzi scheme uses money from new investors (attracted by the high rate of return) to pay "profits" to current investors. Eventually, the scheme collapses when the investors try to withdraw the money they have invested. That money, however, is no longer available, having been paid out as fake profits.

      For more than two decades, in good times and bad, Madoff reported consistently high earnings that were too good to be true. However, very few of Madoff's investors wanted to see this. They left their money with him — and gave him more of their savings. One day it all collapsed. The investors lost their money and Madoff ended up in prison for the rest of his life.

    • Engineers and executives at General Motors ignored ignition defect problems for years even though some people died as a result of the defects, and many more were injured. The engineers and executives didn't want to see that there was a problem.

    • People find it hard to believe that their group or their nation has committed mistakes or has done something wrong. For example, workers in a well-known charity did not see that their leaders, who had lavish offices and expensive cars, were misusing donations made to the charity. Slaveholders in the American South did not see that it was unethical to hold people in bondage and take the fruits of their labor. In fact, the Southerners went further and fervently believed that slavery was sanctioned by God. History is rife with examples of nation-states engaging in actions that in hindsight are obviously wrong or even criminal yet at the time the actions were taken most people in those countries thought the actions were fully justified. Look at the period of the Second World War: Germans believed their invasions of various countries were justified; the Japanese also believed their aggression against their neighbors was justified; the Germans believed that that Holocaust was good public policy; the U.S. interned American citizens of Japanese descent who had never done anything treasonous. Most people in these countries thought the actions were justified, but they weren't.

    The "bias toward normalcy" is a form of motivated blindness that occurs when the motivation is the desire to avoid disrupting one's normal way of living. It is, for example, the tendency of people to ignore signs that there is an impending disaster. People often underestimate the probability or extent of an expected disruption in their lives. Another way to describe the bias toward normalcy is that when people find themselves in unsettling circumstance, some have a tendency to shut down and pretend that everything will continue as it has in the past. People subject to the normalcy bias assume that everything will be much the same today as it was yesterday, despite clear signs to the contrary.

    The bias toward normalcy restricts the ability to react to new experiences. It leads people to discount warnings and to see signs of impending disaster in the most optimistic way possible, seizing on any reason to justify an inference that the situation is less serious than an objective appraisal would warrant. Aspects of the normalcy bias can be found in each of the examples of motivated blindness set out above. For example, Madoff had paid consistently high dividends year after year and the investors had become used to it. Challenging Madoff would have required them to acknowledge that their money was at risk, change their investment plans, and find other investments. The GM engineers and executives would have had to engineer a correction to the defective ignition switches, recall millions of vehicles, and implement a program to install new switches. It was easier just to deny that there was a problem.

    Other examples of the normalcy bias include the following:

    • An experiment used machines that tracked eye movements when people were shown pictures. Some of the photos contained sexual imagery, and some of the test subjects were people who were very uncomfortable with sex. The eyes of the test subjects who were uncomfortable with sex would skip the sexual parts of the pictures in an effort to stay within their normal comfort zone. "In order to avoid looking, some element of the mind must have known first what the picture contained so that it knew what to avoid. The mind somehow grasps what is going on and rushes a protective filter into place, thus steering awareness away from what threatens." Daniel Goleman quoted in Let's All Feel Superior by David Brooks, New York Times Op Ed, November 14, 2011.

    • It is frequently noted that when a hurricane or some other natural disaster is predicted by the weather service many people simply don't respond, but instead carry on as usual. They minimize the potential danger and decide to "ride it out" despite warnings of dire consequences. This problem is so pervasive that getting people to recognize the danger facing them is always stressed as one of the most important steps in disaster planning for agencies like FEMA, the Federal Emergency Management Agency.

    • People will get into a car driven by a friend who has been drinking alcohol despite the fact that we all know that the chances of being involved in an accident increase dramatically when the driver has been drinking. However, despite this knowledge, every year there are fatalities and injuries among passengers of drunk drivers because people don't want to insult a friend or be the person who won't go along with the group.

    There is, however, a beneficial side to the normalcy bias. If people were to react to every report of a possible threat, nothing could be accomplished. Some scientists theorize that the normalcy bias is related to the "play dead" behavior of some prey animals such as possums. For these animals, freezing in place and death-like stillness can sometimes lead to increased chances of survival.

    Knowing when to act and when to go on as usual may not be easy, but having to make that decision is part of living.

    Resisting Motivated Blindness and the Normalcy Bias: To avoid motivated blindness try to objectively view yourself and the circumstances in your life. Step outside of yourself and look at the situation and any proposed course of action from the standpoint of several other people who have a stake in what is going on or what you propose to do. You will learn a lot and make a better decision. Making a good decision requires evaluating the situation and the possible courses of conduct objectively, acknowledging even the uncomfortable facts, and taking action when the facts require it even if that is outside one's comfort zone.

    [End of handout. Discussion Questions 1 and 4 - 6, relate to the concepts discussed in the handout.]


    Suggested Class Discussion
    TWM recommends that the class discussion include at least the matters set out below. Write the important points on the board — TWM's suggestions are in bold. Students may come up with other reasons, or with rebuttals. Encourage a lively debate. The industry response debunked below was an early partial response to the movie. Teachers might want to check for additional industry responses to Cowspiracy and present them to the class for analysis.

    Orange italics represent instructions or notes for the teacher.
    Teacher: An early response to Cowspiracy by the meat industry is an article entitled Why Ranchers Should Care About The Documentary "Cowspiracy" by Amanda Radke, a journalist for an on-line magazine called "BEEF Daily." In the article, Ms. Radke quotes a beef industry source, Facts About Beef, to try to rebut claims made in the movie.

    Hand out or display the following paragraph:
    From Facts About Beef, a beef industry source: "In reality, it takes 441 gals. of water to produce 1 lb. of boneless beef. Farmers and ranchers are committed to water conservation and have reduced the amount of water used to raise beef by 12% compared to 30 years ago. In comparison, 441 gals. of water is a fraction of what is used to produce other everyday items. It takes over 713 gals. of water to produce one cotton t-shirt; 39,090 gals. to manufacture a new car; and 36 million gals./day is leaked from the New York City water supply system."
    Teacher: Let's analyze these statistics. The claim that that a pound of beef takes only 441 gallons of water to produce is very different than the claim in Cowspiracy that a 1/3rd pound hamburger takes 660 gallons. National Geographic estimates that it takes 1,799 gallons to produce one pound of beef. That's about 1/3rd of 1800 gallons or 600 gallons for a one-third lb. hamburger (but then there's the bun and the catsup). The authoritative Water Footprint Network estimates that 634 gallons of water are required to produce a hamburger. These are close to the numbers in the movie.
    Sources: See The Hidden Water We Use from National Geographic and Water Trivia Facts from the EPA.
    Teacher: Can you think of any reasons why these numbers might differ so much from the number given by the Beef Industry?
    Guide the discussion so that it includes the following concepts: the larger numbers most likely are more complete, including water use from transportation, the water used to grow the feed, the water involved in producing the electricity to heat the barns, the water required for disposal of waste etc.
    Teacher: The numbers for the water footprint of T-shirts and cars provided by the Beef Industry were taken from a source generally accepted as accurate. But let's look carefully at the Beef Industry's comparisons.

    Teacher: How many times would you wear a typical cotton T-shirt?
    Take whatever number the class feels comfortable with and compare the per-usage water footprint for a T-shirt with a bite of hamburger. The following is sample analysis.
      If we wear the T-shirt twelve times and the water footprint for producing a T-shirt is 713 gallons, the water footprint for each time we wear the T-shirt is 60 gallons (713/12 ≈ 60.) That's a lot of water. Some people will wear a T-shirt more than twelve times and their water use for each time they wear the shirt will be less. But assuming we can eat a 1/3 lb. hamburger in ten bites, for 660 gallons per burger, that's 66 gallons a bite. If we have a big mouth and can eat the burger in five bites, one bite would be 132 gallons. But let's assume it takes 10 bites to be conservative; that's 66 gallons a bite. Thus, assuming we use the T-shirt twelve times, each time we put on the shirt it costs about the same amount of water as a single bite of hamburger. And a typical meat-eater will eat meat once or twice a day, day after day after day.
    Display or write on the board the following. The numbers may change depending on the class discussion.
    Hamburger ≈ 66 gallons a bite

    1 day T-shirt ≈ one bite
    Teacher: What about the new car statistic? How long do you think a new car will run?
    Use whatever number the class feels comfortable with and compare the per-day water footprint for building a car with the water it takes for one bite of hamburger. The following is sample analysis.
      Assume that the new car runs for ten years or 3650 days. 39,090/3650 = 10.7 gals of water per day or about 17% of a single bite of one hamburger (10.7/66=.15). Or let's assume it runs for only five years, and most cars run far longer than five years. That pushes it up to about 1/3rd of a bite of a hamburger -- and for this we get the machine that will provide transportation every day. Let's be conservative and assume the car lasts for five years; that's less than 1/3rd of a bite for the car for each day. This is just the cost to build a new car, not to operate it. The gasoline and oil used in making the car run would require additional water.
    Display or write on the board the following. The numbers may change depending on the class discussion.

    1 day car ≈ 1/3rd bite

    Teacher: It is true that New York City has a massive leak in the major aqueduct bringing water to the City and about 36,000,000 gallons of water are lost each day. They have a terrible problem. They can't find a way to supply the city with water while they shut down the aqueduct to fix it. So, the leak continues. At least it's not getting worse. Let's break the statistic down to a daily usage per citizen of New York and see what it shows. The city has a population of about 8.4 million people. 36,000,000/8,400,000 = 4.33 gallons of wasted water per day per person. 4.33/66=07. Thus, the waste from this leak is about 7% of a bite of a typical 1/3rd lb hamburger each day for each person in New York City.
    Source: See e.g., Delaware Aqueduct Leak from Riverkeeper.
    Display or write on the board the following.

    NYC water loss ≈ 1/14th bite

    Teacher: The daily water footprint of the Beef Industry's examples total up to roughly . . .

    Display or write on the board the following words in bold-faced type. The numbers will change depending on the class discussion.
    Total ≈ 1.5 bites!
    Teacher: But most people eat several servings of meat and dairy every day, day after day after day.
    Teachers might want to ask the class to state the number of servings of meat or dairy that they had the day before.
    Teacher: Ms. Radke only discussed water use in her article criticizing the movie. What problems of meat production did she ignore?

    Solicit input from the class. The following is a good list.

    • greenhouse gases — more than the entire transportation sector;
    • pollution from manure — animal agriculture creates trillions of pounds of manure created each year by factory farmed animals, some of which leaches into rivers and water sources;
    • deforestation — clear-cutting the Amazon rain forests to raise soy beans to feed the cattle;
    • world hunger — if the wheat, corn, and soybeans grown to feed the cattle were reserved for human consumption, no person on the planet would have to go hungry;
    • antibiotic resistance — massive use of antibiotics to keep thousands of animals jammed together in the barns of factory farms contributes to the rise of antibiotic resistant bacteria.
    Teacher: This is a very simple analysis of the way statistics can mislead. There are entire books devoted to this topic.

    Other Discussion Questions:

    Questions 3 - 7 on TWM's Movie Worksheet for Cowspiracy are excellent class discussion questions. Additional questions are set out below:

    1.  Why is it hard to convince people to eliminate or substantially reduce their consumption of meat? Suggested Response: Good responses will include the following: (1) people like the taste and texture of meat, thus motivated blindness kicks in, and we try to justify what we want to do and discount the arguments against what we don't want to do; (2) we are accustomed to eating meat; society has developed rituals surrounding the consumption of meat, such as barbecues, favorite family dishes etc.; eating meat and dairy is our normal state and the bias toward normalcy lulls us into postponing the change and ignoring warning signs; (3) the meat, milk, and restaurant industries bombard us with cleverly designed advertisements and marketing techniques to get us to eat more meat and dairy; entire business enterprises are based on meat or dairy consumption (e.g., Sizzlers Steak House, KFC, Arby's Roast Beef, any ice-cream shop); (4) meat has definite short-term benefits in concentrated protein [but is this important in a modern developed country?); (5) for some males meat consumption is falsely associated with masculinity and physical power. Many people find any suggestion to reduce or eliminate meat or dairy consumption to be threatening.

    2.   Most of the statistics in Cowspiracy are estimates derived from academic studies, United Nations reports, the U.S. Government, or established environmental organizations. However, new studies come out every year. How should people evaluate any new studies about the effects of animal agriculture on climate change? Suggested Response: Evaluate the new facts being careful to avoid motivated blindness and the normalcy bias, while looking carefully at the statistics and the bias, if any, of the source of the report.

    3.   Ask students to name and describe an example of "motivated blindness" from the movie or from their own experience. Suggested Response: The "motivated blindness" from the movie is the failure of established environmental organizations to see the need to try to convince people to reduce their meat and dairy consumption. Another motivated blindness is the refusal of people to recognize the facts about the environmental costs of animal agriculture.

    4.   Ask students to name and describe an example of the "bias toward normalcy" from the movie or from their own experience. Suggested Response: See item 2 to the suggested response to Discussion Question #1.

    5.   How does the bias toward normalcy affect the approach of our entire society to the environmental impact of our lifestyle? Suggested Response: Everyone who is not a vegetarian is ignoring the contribution of eating habits to the likely environmental catastrophe caused by the way we live.

    6.   After watching Cowspiracy, will you make any changes in the way you live? Explain your reasons. Suggested Response: Teachers should ask the students to apply the concepts of motivated blinds and the bias toward normalcy to the positions taken by students.

    7.    How can the Beef Industry claim that it takes only 441 gallons of water to produce a pound of beef, and organizations like National Geographic claim that it takes 1,799 gallons? Suggested Response: It's all in what you count. The National Geographic numbers try to include the entire water footprint, direct or indirect. The Beef Industry number may exclude, for example, the water costs of the antibiotics given to cattle, the water involved in transporting the animals to market, the water involved in heating the barns, etc.


    Any of the discussion questions or questions 3 - 7 on the Movie Worksheet can serve as an essay prompt.

    1.    Have students check each of the factual claims made in the movie with their own original research from the most recent studies they can find. The claims and the sources relied on by the filmmakers are on the Cowspiracy fact page. In the alternative, have students in groups or individually, research the following topics:

    • the impact of animal agriculture on water use;
    • the impact on the environment of the disposal of the waste from factory farming of cows, pigs, chickens and fish;
    • the comparative water footprints of providing 1 lb of protein from soy, wheat, beef, pork, chick and fish;
    • the risks posed by antibiotic resistant bacteria, and the contribution of animal agriculture to that problem;
    • the causes of the deforestation of the Amazonian rain forest, and its worldwide environmental impact;
    • the environmental impact of a diet in which protein is obtained through grains or legumes as opposed to a diet in which protein is obtained through meat consumption;
    • the impact on the health of an individual of a vegan diet.

    The depth and length of the analysis will depend upon the time available and the abilities of the class.

    2.   Have students plan and cook a vegan meal. Alternatively, students can be asked to divide into groups and bring a vegan dish to a potluck. (There are a myriad of great recipes on the web.)

    3.    Have students research and describe the process by which various industries externalize their costs: the auto industry, the animal agriculture industry, the tobacco industry, the mining industry (pick a different product such as gold, iron, coal, aluminium), the oil industry, the production of ivory, the production of palm oil.

    4.    Have students prepare a water footprint analysis for what they eat for a meal.

    5.    Have students read Elie Wiesel's Night and analyze Wiesel's description of what happened in his home town in terms of the bias toward normalcy and motivated blindness. [For classes that have already read the book, have them re-read the first twenty pages. See note in the sidebar.]

    Links to the Internet:

    Common Core State Standards that can be Served by this Learning Guide
    (Anchor Standards only)

    Multimedia: Anchor Standard #7 for Reading (for both ELA classes and for History/Social Studies, Science, and Technical Classes). (The three Anchor Standards read: "Integrate and evaluate content presented in diverse media, including visually and quantitatively as well as in words.") CCSS pp. 35 & 60. See also Anchor Standard # 2 for ELA Speaking and Listening, CCSS pg. 48.

    Reading: Anchor Standards #s 1, 2, 7 and 8 for Reading and related standards (for both ELA classes and for History/Social Studies, Science, and Technical Classes). CCSS pp. 35 & 60.

    Writing: Anchor Standards #s 1 - 5 and 7- 10 for Writing and related standards (for both ELA classes and for History/Social Studies, Science, and Technical Classes). CCSS pp. 41 & 63.

    Speaking and Listening: Anchor Standards #s 1 - 3 (for ELA classes). CCSS pg. 48.

    Not all assignments reach all Anchor Standards. Teachers are encouraged to review the specific standards to make sure that over the term all standards are met.


    If it takes about 660 gallons of water to produce a 1/3rd lb. hamburger, how many gallons of water does it take to make a veggie burger? This is a difficult question because vegetarian hamburger substitutes are proprietary products made by different chefs and companies. They are made of many things: soy beans, black beans, wheat, pea protein, etc. There may be substantial water use in the manufacturing process. One study from the University of Twente in The Netherlands found that a soy burger had 7% of the water footprint of a beef burger and that soy milk had 28% of the water footprint of cow's milk. The water footprint of soy milk and soy burger and equivalent animal products by Ercin, A. Ertug, et al (2011). According to National Geographic - The Hidden Water We Use, while it takes 1799 gallons of water to produce a pound of beef, it takes only 226 gallons to produce a pound of food from soy (that's 13%) and 132 gallons for a pound of food from wheat (7%). Thus, from everything we can tell, the water usage of soy and wheat are a small fraction of what it takes to produce a hamburger, and the water footprint of soy milk is about 1/4 that of cow's milk.

    BUILDING VOCABULARY: mass extinction; vegan, water footprint.

    Select questions that are appropriate for your students.

    Parenting Points: Watch the movie with your child.

    Reminder to Teachers: Obtain all required permissions from your school administration before showing any film.

    Teachers who want parental permission to show this movie can use TWM's Movie Permission Slip. To host a free screening of this movie in a theater, click here

    An Extreme Example of the Normalcy Bias: The community of Jews of Sighet in Transylvania, then part of Hungary, described in the first 20 pages of Elie Wiesel's Night and millions of other Jews in Europe, ignored the signs of the coming Holocaust. In Sighet, Jews who had not been born in the town were the first to be deported. One of them, a man who had been a minor official of the synagogue and who had lived in the community for many years, escaped. He returned to Sighet and insistently told the community that the Jews who had been taken away had been forced to dig their own graves and then the whole group had been murdered: men, women, and children. "People refused not only to believe his stories, but even to listen to them." Pg. 4. The people maintained their optimism even when an overtly fascist and anti-Semitic government was installed in power by the Germans and when the Jews of Budapest, the capital of Hungary, were being attacked and their shops and synogogues looted. Even after this news, "optimism soon revived." Pg. 7. Then Sighet was occupied by Hungarian fascist police and German SS troops with the death-head insgnia on their uniforms. (The SS was the armed wing of the Nazi party.) "[Y]et the Jews of Sighet continued to smile." Pg. 8. The failure to read the signs of what was coming continued long after it was obvious that disaster had already struck.

    TWM recommends having students read Elie Wiesel's Night. If they've already read it, have them read the first 20 pages again and analyze Wiesel's description of what happened in his home town in terms of the bias toward normalcy and motivated blindness.

    Be sure to give students appropriate vocabulary exercises before they read the book. For the first 20 pages, knowing the following definitions will be helpful: beadle (layman who holds a minor position in a church or synagogue for ushering, keeping order, making reports, and assisting in religious functions), cabbala (an ancient Jewish tradition of mystical interpretation of the Bible), and mysticism (the belief that spiritual knowledge is inaccessible to the intellect and may be attained pnly through prayer, contemplation, and self-surrender).

    MOVIES ON RELATED TOPICS: See Blackfish, a film about the controversial treatment of Orcas held in captivity; The Cove a documentary about an annual capture and slaughter of dolphins at a cove in Taiji, Japan, and Charlotte's Web, based on the classic children's story which arose out of the author's realization that pigs have intelligence and emotions. (Students of all ages love the film.)

    The Witness, a favorite of students and teachers alike, is a documentary about personal transformation relating to issues of animal welfare.

    For a film about the ill-effects of fast foods, see Super Size Me!. For a movie about a diet to correct for diabetes and heart disease, a diet that excludes meat, dairy, oils and sugar, see Forks over Knives.

    Selected Awards, Cast, and Director:

    Selected Awards: None.

    Featured Actors: Kip Anderson.

    Director: Kip Andersen and Keegan Kuhn


    The websites and studies listed in the Links to the Internet section and:
    • Eating Animals by Jonathan Safran Foer, Little, Brown and Co., 2009, pages 58 & 59 which cites several additional studies supporting the general conclusion that if one cares about the environment, one must care about eating animals;
    • "See No Evil: Why We Overlook Other People's Unethical Behaviour," by Francesca Gino, Don Moore and Max Bazerman, Rotman Magazine Fall 2009, pp. 29 - 32.
    • "Meat and Greens" article in The Economist magazine, January 18, 2014, pp. 60 & 61.
    • "The Greenhouse Hamburger" by Nathan Fiala, Scientific American, Vo. 300 #2, February 2009, p. 72.
  • An experiment used machines — From Brooks citing Daniel Goleman Vital Lies, Simple Truths;
  • The "normalcy bias," also called the "bias toward normalcy" . . . much of this paragraph adapted from Brooks;
  • Manipulating Statistics — Analyzing a Beef Industry Response to Cowspiracy — Article by Radke, at Why Ranchers Should Care About The Documentary "Cowspiracy" by Amanda Radke in BEEF Daily, Jul 21, 2014;
  • Class Discussion Analyzing the Beef Industry Response — Some of the ideas for the class discussion were adapted from Response to Radke article from Reasonable Idealism: a blog by Loughan Call.

  • This Learning Guide was written by James Frieden and Deborah Elliott and was revised on August 9, 2016.

    Our Own Reasons for Wanting to Believe this Movie

    The movie ends by recommending a vegan diet to save the planet. The authors of this Learning Guide are vegans, although not primarily for the environment. Our reasons are: (1) that humans can thrive on a plant-based diet; there is no physical need to eat meat or dairy; (2) that factory farming in developed countries causes untold suffering for billions of animals, breaks up their families, and leads to an early and often painful death, depriving them of what is most important in their lives; (3) and for what? — because people like the taste and texture of meat! But these are the most trivial of our interests and certainly they cannot outweigh the tremendous suffering caused to the animals caught up in modern factory farming. See Animal Liberation by Princeton University philosophy professor Peter Singer. Because we believe in the ethical imperative of a vegan diet and because we are also aware of the need to avoid motivated blindness, we checked the general validity of the statistics shown in this film before recommending it.

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