LEARNING GUIDE FOR:
COWSPIRACY: The Sustainability Secret
This movie is perhaps the most important environmental documentary in decades. TWM's Learning Guide contains curriculum materials on using the film to teach:
SUBJECTS — the Environment; English Language Arts - Argument;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.
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.
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.
LEARNING GUIDE MENU
SUGGESTIONS FOR USING COWSPIRACY IN THE CLASSROOM
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.
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.
"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:
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.
Other examples of the normalcy bias include the following:
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.]
AN EXAMPLE OF HOW STATISTICS CAN MISLEAD:
ANALYZING ONE BEEF INDUSTRY RESPONSE TO COWSPIRACY
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.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.Display or write on the board the following. The numbers may change depending on the class discussion.
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.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.
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.
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:
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:
(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.
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:
This Learning Guide was written by James Frieden and Deborah Elliott and was revised on August 9, 2016.
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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