On September 7 2019, United States President Donald Trump retweeted a Breitbart.com post that suggested a Swedish scientist had proposed that cannibalism was a viable solution to fight climate change:
Swedish behavioral scientist Magnus Söderlund has suggested that eating other people after they die could be a means of combatting climate change. https://t.co/pvK3F6XlRI
— Breitbart News (@BreitbartNews) September 7, 2019
A headline with the tweet said it outright: “Swedish Scientist Proposes Cannibalism to Fight Climate Change.”
The linked article, published on September 6 2019, began by reiterating the headline (emphasis ours):
Swedish behavioural scientist Magnus Söderlund has suggested that eating other people after they die could be a means of combatting climate change.
The scientist mentioned the possibility of cannibalism during a broadcast on Swedish television channel TV4 this week about a fair in Stockholm regarding “food of the future”.
Söderlund is set to hold seminars at the event, entitled “Gastro Summit — about the future of food” where he intends to discuss the possibility of eating people in the name of cutting down greenhouse emissions.
According to his research, the main problem with the idea is the widespread taboo of eating human flesh and said that conservative attitudes could make it hard to convince Swedes at large to take up the practice of cannibalism.
Readers exposed only to the headline and the first few sentences apparently inferred that Söderlund suggested that eating human flesh was an effective way to reverse the effects of anthropogenic climate change, defined for this purpose as “an increase in the planet’s overall temperature due to the burning of fossil fuels, such as natural gas, oil, and coal.” However, no clear line of progression could be drawn between cannibalism and reducing the effects of human activity on climate overall.
As a topic, climate change is often negligently or even purposely misconstrued in media reports in order to advance a political viewpoint. In an explainer directed at schoolchildren, NASA states:
Climate change is a change in the usual weather found in a place. This could be a change in how much rain a place usually gets in a year. Or it could be a change in a place’s usual temperature for a month or season.
Climate change is also a change in Earth’s climate. This could be a change in Earth’s usual temperature. Or it could be a change in where rain and snow usually fall on Earth.
Weather can change in just a few hours. Climate takes hundreds or even millions of years to change.
That same educational page contains a short section on proposed measures to combat climate change. Notably absent from that passive is any suggestion that humans cannibalize one another to reduce or mitigate the effects of a changing climate:
Scientists think we can do things to stop the climate from changing as much. You can help by using less energy and water. Turn off lights and TVs when you leave a room. Turn off the water when brushing your teeth. You also can help by planting trees.
Another way to help is by learning about Earth. The more you know about Earth, the more you can help solve climate problems.
Environmental and science organizations provide advice for people wishing to assist in mitigating climate change. Among them are learning about carbon emissions, carpooling, using mass transportation, and determining whether switching to renewable energy versus using fossil fuels is feasible. Not among them: cannibalism.
In an effort to clarify the point about cannibalism, we looked for the source and context of Söderlund’s remarks. Since his original remarks were aired in Sweden, that context was difficult to uncover. In its place, many paraphrased comments suggested exactly what was claimed above: that he had proposed cannibalism to “combat climate change”:
The west has come to this point: Gastro summit – about the food of the future” at the Stockholm Fair. There, behavioral scientist Magnus Söderlund holds seminars that focus on the possibility of eating human flesh to save climate https://t.co/WDHU22LQ1r
— Antti Heikkilä (@AnttiHeikkil2) September 4, 2019
In our searches, we came across profiles for Magnus Söderlund, described in the media as “a scientist.” A European Marketing Confederation page for Söderlund made no mention of his being a climate scientist or a scientist in the traditionally accepted sense at all:
Professor Söderlund is Professor of Marketing and Head of the Center for Consumer Marketing (CCM) at the Stockholm School of Economics. He received his PhD in 1993, became associate professor in 1998 and full professor in 2008.
His current research interests comprise customer satisfaction, customer loyalty, and service encounters.
A separate profile indicated that Söderlund engages in research, but primarily to do with marketing and consumer behavior — not climate science, not agriculture, not disaster management, or any other disciplines associated with the possible effects of climate change.
As for the context of Söderlund’s original remarks, the primary source appeared to be Sweden-based video content with only a brief, automatically translated summary. That auto-translation, which was clearly not exact, read:
In the days the “Gastro Summit — about the future of food” is being held at the Stockholm Fair. There, behavioral scientist Magnus Söderlund holds seminars that make most people raise their eyebrows. They are about the possibility of eating human flesh — to save the climate.
Even sources published in Swedish examined the viral rumor editorially, without much light shed on the content of Söderlund’s comments. One September 5 2019 Swedish news story linked again to video, including very brief commentary indicating that Söderlund “aims to challenge the idea of what we can think of to eat, but also to raise the idea of sustainability” in the segment. However, English-language sources from Fox News to the Evening Standard all sourced their articles solely from an Epoch Times article, which is a known disinformation purveyor pushing a story that was itself based on secondary descriptions of Söderlund’s remarks.
A September 8 2019 BigThink.com article about the segment suggested that Söderlund didn’t propose consuming human flesh to “combat climate change” in any way — rather, Söderlund may have suggested that the severity of climate change-related food shortages could lead to scarcity and the consumption of things previously considered taboo, including cannibalism:
While talking about the Gastro Summit focused on “food on the future” on Swedish TV, the behavioral scientist and marketing strategist Magnus Söderlund from the Stockholm School of Economics proposed that in order to truly take on the effects of climate change, we must “awake the idea” that eating human flesh should be discussed as an option in the future.
The scientist acknowledged the “conservative” taboos that exist from ancient times against consuming human flesh and sees that as the main impediment to the spread of this idea. On the other hand, Söderlund argued our future food sources would likely be getting more and more scarce. So people would have to think outside the box to get their sustenance, considering pets, insects like grasshoppers and worms. That’s also where humans come in. The scientist thinks that if people were introduced to human flesh little by little, there’d be enough takers.
As presented, the story was almost certain to go viral. It encompassed a number of facets of questionable news the hot-button issue of climate change, the sensationalism of cannibalistic behavior, and an almost impossible to check source in Swedish. Readers leapt aboard to declare all efforts to combat climate change lunacy, on par with eating people:
Just when you thought some have lost their ever livin' minds… they take Climate Change to an entire LUNATIC LEVEL!
Swedish behavioural scientist Magnus Söderlund has… https://t.co/o4A7ZrKc1L
— Taz Jones (@TazJones1) September 6, 2019
One French journalist urged caution, in a tweet largely not seen by those lumping climate change prevention in with cannibals:
Toujours se méfier des nouvelles sensationnalistes provenant des pays scandinaves. Le « chercheur » Magnus Söderlund cité par plusieurs site douteux est un prof de marketing, pas un « scientifique ». pic.twitter.com/zdwWsqu9fp
— Pa Normandin (@PaNormandin) September 8, 2019
The rumor frenzy about Magnus Söderlund’s presentation on climate change and cannibalism kicked off in part because U.S. President Donald Trump tweeted a misleading article and — as usual — the news media followed suit. Marketing expert Söderlund appeared on Swedish television to discuss potential global food shortages resulting from climate change, and stark choices that might be forced by famine. From the available original material, it seemed very much as if Söderlund speculated that cannibalism might be a result of such shortages — and it seemed many people latched on to the sensational topic to present viewpoints in opposition to fighting climate change. We found absolutely nothing substantiating the claim that Söderlund (or anyone) had suggested cannibalism could “combat climate change” at any point. Accepted approaches to actually fighting climate change include reducing emissions and greenhouse gases, not eating human flesh.