In a September 2019 study, researchers asked the question: Which of the following personal actions has the strongest impact on reducing the CO2 footprint of an average American? The list included many of the commonplace practices of curbing one’s impact: energy-efficient heating/cooling/insulation; reducing air travel; eating less red meat; fuel-efficient driving; and no more plastic bags. In a chart comparing the belief percentage of the respondents with the facts, two stand out: 22% of participants believed that “no more plastic bags” was the most helpful way to reduce their footprint, even though it only results in a 3 C02 kg reduction p.a. per capita; this was opposed to only 10% of people believing that “no more meat consumption” would help out, despite its C02 reduction coming in at a whopping 450 kgs.
Although only one small study, it highlights a point we likely all know: climate change is confusing and what is most confusing is our complicity. In his newest book, We Are the Weather: Saving the Planet Begins at Breakfast (Farrar, Straus and Giroux; Penguin Random House Canada), Jonathan Safran Foer tackles a daunting obstacle: how do we get anyone, including and especially ourselves, to care about the planetary crisis? What’s more—and, I would argue, more difficult—how do we convince ourselves that our meals have any influence on climate change?
Foer is unique as an author in that he is perhaps equally known as both a riveting fiction writer and a hard-hitting non-fictionist. Fittingly, Foer has set out to write a book about stories: stories about what we eat, how we might fix the state of the planet, and how to use community effort as a catalyst for long-lasting change. “In addition to it not being an easy story to tell, the planetary crisis hasn’t proved to be a good story. It not only fails to convert us, it fails to interest us,” Foer writes. “The planetary crisis—abstract and eclectic as it is, slow as it is, and lacking in iconic figures and moments—seems impossible to describe in a way that is both truthful and enthralling.”
Though his claim that the planetary crisis lacks iconic figures and moments seems curious in the face of teen activists Autumn Peltier and Greta Thunburg, his main points stand: we remain skeptical of the story of climate change, even if we purport to accept the science around it. Unconvinced, we exist in a precarious balance between knowledge and belief. Foer’s goal with this book is to have us make that switch from scientific knowledge of the planetary crisis into a belief that we need to act—now. He hinges his argument not only on the impacts of animal agriculture but on the way we eat: he reminds us that we cannot save the planet unless we reconsider the food on our plate.
Foer impressively manages to weave together the micro and the macro, the personal and the collective, in a radical approach to the way we eat and the sacrifices we might make for the greater good. I was swept up in Foer’s tapestry of ideas and equally impressed by his ability to juxtapose the particularly prescient details of history that makes the present planetary crisis impossible to ignore. The structure of his book is straightforward, consisting of five broad sections, each of which tackles the crisis from a different rhetorical angle. The third of these sections consists of bullet-point facts about the climate crisis and animal agriculture that has involved him wading through scientific research to bring us the most compelling, relevant, and startling facts. This section presents the fact that livestock are the leading source of methane emissions and that animal agriculture is responsible for ninety-one percent of Amazonian deforestation, an issue particularly pertinent for 2019. The book’s final section, although written as a letter addressed to his sons, is actually a moving letter to future generations, in which he both apologizes for our actions and pledges to do better.
Foer has, in his words, “managed to conceal” his main argument until page sixty-three. It is here that Foer finally admits that the book is not simply about knowledge and belief and banding together for a collective goal, but about what (or who) we eat: animals. If we are confused about the planetary crisis, Foer goes to great lengths to provide clear numbers, figures, and statistics. Unlike Al Gore’s An Inconvenient Truth, which Foer critiques for its lack of a call-to-action, Foer strives to provide an approachable, accessible plan: eat animal-free breakfasts and lunches (or, 2/3 of the time).
I don’t fault Foer for not knowing which angle to pick—the issue is so daunting and, in many ways, so seemingly unapproachable, that his conglomeration of methods makes a certain kind of sense. Indeed, I find his patchwork approach adroit and charming, if not a touch meandering. But I admit that the book’s fourth part, wherein Foer, in a nod to the opening of the book’s consideration of the first known suicide letter, wrestles with his soul, almost lost me. He’s enormously empathetic—he acknowledges the difficulty of changing one’s diet and the contradictory feelings we have towards food—and undoubtedly (and smartly) steers clear of pompousness and righteousness in his writing. I appreciate his reminders that humans are fallible and prone to mistakes. However, it does ring false that in a book about belief, feelings, and science, he would fail to include the salient issue of animal welfare. Not to say Foer hasn’t tackled similar topics in Eating Animals, and, for a somewhat unfocused book, I appreciate the attempt to keep things on track, so to speak—and yet, the issue of animal agriculture and animal (mis)treatment cannot be entirely untangled, even if one’s focus is on the environment rather than the rich interior lives of nonhuman animals. Foer makes mention of Stephen Hawking’s involvement in the University of Cambridge’s “Declaration on Consciousness,” where Hawking advanced the idea that, like humans, the animals we eat experience consciousness, “along with the capacity to exhibit intentional behaviors.” Foer concedes that we humans mostly treat other humans well because we believe in and value their consciousness, which is the reason, he says, some people don’t eat animals, too. He then admits that the case against factory farming makes sense to him, whereas the case against meat challenges him. To use his own distinction throughout the book: Does Foer mean he doesn’t believe in animal consciousness, despite his knowledge of it? Is factory farming only terrible because of its environmental consequences? If not, why the challenge with meat-eating more generally? Even though some might find it “genuinely disturbing,” Foer writes:
I spent three years researching factory farming and wrote a book-length rejection of it called Eating Animals […] I ate meat a number of times. Usually burgers. Often at airports. Which is to say, meat from precisely the kinds of farms I argued most strongly against. And my reason for doing so makes my hypocrisy even more pathetic: they brought me comfort.
This section is somewhat of a confessional booth for Foer, who says that “we do not simply feed our bellies, and we do not simply modify our appetites in response to principles. We eat to satisfy primitive cravings.” He’s right, of course, and wise to bring up emotional connections to the foods we consume. Foer has discussed these issues in Eating Animals, but, as he readily admits, he has not even convinced himself despite writing an entire book on the matter. Weather is strategic and effective, even (and perhaps especially) because of its omissions, but it’s strange to unravel animal lives from animal agriculture, and I thought his sentiment on consciousness deserved an expansion.
Foer makes a valiant effort to wrangle the personal and the political, the historical and the contemporary, to talk about an issue we are all understandably confused by, overwhelmed by, and intimidated by. Yet I think this impressive effort struggles to find footing in the dispute with the soul section for myriad reasons, not the least being I worry that Foer has picked a contradictory strategy. I know what he’s getting at here: Foer wants to reassure us that falling short of a goal doesn’t mean we should give up trying, that all of us are human, that fallibility is to be expected. And not to say I don’t appreciate these sentiments, but I worry that what the reader is left with is not assurance that their struggles are commonplace, but instead with the question: if someone as privileged as Foer can’t commit to this, how on Earth could I?
Despite his inner struggles, Foer vows to go vegan by the end of his writing of the book. He purposely does not call his plan towards veganism “veganism” and has distanced himself from the word throughout the book. Ultimately, wading through Foer’s contradictions and uncertainties—clearly rhetorical tactics, although perhaps not the strongest ones—is worth the winding and eye-opening journey. The book’s ability to take a concept as unwieldly as the planetary crisis and present it with brevity, levity, and poeticism is remarkable. Foer’s optimism in humanity and our ability to band together in the face of emergency shines through: “What is ecological grace if not the sum of daily, hourly decisions to take less than one’s hands can hold, to eat other than what our stomachs most want, to create limits for ourselves so that we all might be able to share in what’s left?”
I’m hopeful that Foer will succeed in moving readers from a place of knowledge to a place of belief. He leaves the reader with a tangible goal and a reminder that it is a “defeatist myth” to think that our individual decisions “have no power at all.” Moreover, I think he is exactly right in that we should be pursuing ecological grace daily, for ourselves, for our planet, for the animals, and for the future.