The Social Cost of Ignorance

It is not uncommon to be asked why I feel critical thinking and research are important. There are two key reasons: one is that I do not like the idea of middle-minded conservative people with antiquated ideas feeling they have a right to run a country without reason; second is the fact one needs to have a way of establishing facts to make sure they are not making decisions out of ignorance. To illuminate this issue I am going to start a small series called “Social Costs”. This particular post will be about ignorance, and my next post will be about obesity. I haven’t decided on any further topics yet, but no doubt a reader will give me something to formulate an opinion on.

It is unrealistic to assume I can outline all the possible ways ignorance can have social costs, so I am going to pick an example from within consumerism. Consumerism is probably the way we are most empowered; if we can make change a commercial concern then change will immediately follow. But we simply don’t know about the problems out there we will no doubt want to change. And that is a social cost of ignorance.

Here’s a simple challenge: I have a choice between cultivating land in a way that is responsible and renewable or cultivating land in a ‘slash and burn’. The responsible method includes taking one plot of land and treating it in a way that I can farm there year-after-year. The ‘slash and burn’ method includes cutting down sections forest, making all the local wildlife homeless leading to their inevitable, slow death (particularly of the infants), leading to local extinction. Which method should I choose? There are companies that have this very decision before them, and they pick the one you know they will (not the one you picked). They will slash and burn an area, annihilating the rainforest and all for one or two years of production. The product they are producing is palm oil. The wildlife they are endangering is Orangutans (as well as many other areas in the biodiverse rainforests of Indonesia and Malaysia: Tigers and sun bears. These are vulnerable and endangered species, according to the IUCN).

At this point, you probably think the lesson is over; you can avoid foods with palm oil in the ingredients and your social responsibility to orangutans is over. Unfortunately, you are mistaken. Palm oil is in a lot of our foods under the name “vegetable oil”. And this is where things get difficult. Oil from many sources are in our food as vegetable oil. How do we overcome this mess? I can’t not eat, so how can I avoid this nature-destroying, bear-and-tiger-killing ingredient? The Independent newspaper, in 2009, created a list of some foods it is it and, with a little extrapolation, estimated that palm oil is in about 50% of our foods, worth an incredible £6bn annually for just the top brands.

And that last statistic is the clue. We are ignorant, yes. But we are kept ignorant by the big brands. I am guilty of this. I love peanut butter. Peanut butter is notoriously high in oils (and it’s healthy and delicious… as part of a balanced diet). I used to buy Meridian Peanut Butter which, for a long time, listed vegetable oil as an ingredient. As it turns out, it is palm-free, orangutan-friendly vegetable oil (just to be confusing, that exists too). Meridian are now better at advertising that fact! But as it dawned on me that I didn’t know, I swapped out to a different brand: Peanut Butter & Co. They advertised on the jar “No palm oil”. It was the only informed choice I could make.

You may not think this can work. But exactly this kind of consumer power does work. Canada forced the sugar content of cereals down by just admitting they don’t want to eat so much sugar: they are concerned about diabetes, their teeth and their mid-morning blood-sugar plummet. Brands with lower sugar content in Canada now thrive, while the UK continues to leave high-sugar cereals as a back-door conversation that only pushy parents have.

We now needs to decide that we don’t want to eat Orangutan corpses. If an ingredients list has vegetable oil or palm oil and cannot explicitly advertise that is it Roundtable on Sustainable Palm Oil (RSPO) certified, sustainable or Orangutan friendly, then we need to not buy it. Foods which are friendly will advertise, foods which are not will change or die. It’s evolution by consumer selection.

We can make the pathways by which corruption happens in the UK work for us! As soon as big brands find themselves using no palm oil or sustainable palm oil, they will become a part of a pressure group (under the guise of concerned moral onlookers) pressuring and bribing their local MPs to draft bills and the Houses of Commons to vote accordingly for a ban on unfriendly palm oil (just to weaken the slower-to-react competition). This is more democratic than the brands paying to not pass laws like this, because it puts the companies on the back foot and makes them bend to our will (and consumer power).

But we can’t do this. Because we don’t know about palm oil and the devastation it causes across Southeast Asia and to wildlife and the environment. Nature is being ravished, and that is the social cost of the fact we just don’t know.


Related Reading

The Independent (2009) The Guilty Secrets of Palm Oil

The Roundtable on Sustainable Palm Oil

WWF Environmental Cost of Palm Oil

Meridian vow not to use palm oil

Peanut Butter & Co uses sustainable palm oil (RSPO affiliated)



12 thoughts on “The Social Cost of Ignorance”

  1. This is an excellent post. Knowledge is a fundamental condition for a democracy to work. Hence it’s of great importance that there’s a proper education system that teaches people how to handle and evaluate pieces of information, so that they can make proper decisions.

  2. This post makes some great points.

    Among them is the critical need for societies to husband their natural resources.

    There was no excuse for Brazil to lay waste to its rain forests, for example.

    I think a way to help the orangutan is to forego processed foods and take up home cooking.

    It’s only a little more time consuming and as master chef of your own meals you get to pick each ingredient with loving care.

    I use olive, sesame and peanut oils in my cooking. YUMMY!

    And I’ve only poisoned myself once so far.

    1. I love cooking my own food. You don’t have to worry about there being too much salt or sugar and you can control the nutrition. The drawbacks to my mind are: the washing up, having the imaginative headspace to come up with something after a day at work.
      Looking after our resources is important, though.

        1. In the UK to be middle minded refers to being unable to utilise imagination and a breadth of other critical thinking abilities (the kind of things that lead to nuanced perspectives).
          I don’t know if it used, or means something else, in other places.

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