B.J. Hollars on Jonathan Safran Foer's We Are the Weather and Failing to Confront the Crisis
We Are the Weather: Saving the Planet Begins at Breakfast | Jonathan Safran Foer | Picador / Farrar, Straus and Giroux | 2019 | 288 pages
The beginnings of America’s conservation movement might be traced to a single moment: September 18, 1870, when 38-year-old writer and lawyer Cornelius Hedges proposed gifting the land they’d been sent to explore to the public, rather than allowing it to fall into private hands. While seated round the campfire, Hedges and other members of the Washburn-Lankford-Doane Expedition seemed to agree on the matter. Or at least they were in enough agreement to persuade Congress, just two years later, to designate the land as Yellowstone National Park.
At the time, Hedges’s idea may have seemed modest, but in fact, it paved the way for the creation of the 419 national park sites we enjoy today. In 2017, over 330 million people visited a national park—more than four times the total regular season attendance for all of Major League Baseball that year.
Which is to say: sometimes even modest ideas have a way of leading us to larger outcomes.
This is certainly the hope in Jonathan Safran Foer’s latest book, We Are the Weather: Saving the Planet Begins At Breakfast. His idea is simple: calling upon each of us to engage in the “collective act to eat differently—specifically, no animal products before dinner.” On its face, the recommendation seems manageable enough. After all, it beats giving up cars, or planes, or any other carbon dioxide-emitting machines.
We need only change our diets in order to save the world? No problem!
Except it is a problem.
Because by Foer’s own admission, diet is but one factor in the climate change calculus. Livestock (which is linked to diet) accounts for a mere 14.5 percent of annual global emissions. Meaning that even if we all were to change our diets, the impact would still be small. Yet by focusing on food—rather than transportation or how we heat our homes—Foer disrupts our lives the least, while also fighting to save them. In some ways, it feels like sticking a Band-Aid on a wound that requires a tourniquet. But perhaps Foer fears, as I do, that a Band-Aid might be all we are willing to give.
For the past three months, I’ve made efforts to alter my diet to fit Foer’s recommendation. If forced to choose between a double burger or the survival of the 8.7 million species on Earth, I’ll generally order a salad. While I’ve failed to forego all animal products before dinner, I have dramatically limited my meat consumption. Though I wish I could say this change was due, in part, to my compassion for animals, the truth is, I made my choice based on one animal: me.
It’s hardly surprising that we are most easily spurred to action when we are the ones at risk. In 1972, Carol and David Hovland made this very point in their book America’s Endangered Wildlife. “As the most deadly predator,” the Hovlands write, “man should be a protector of other species, if only for the practical reason that they cannot be of any use to him if exterminated.”
Translation: don’t spare species for their sake, spare them for yours.
By appealing to humankind’s self-interest, endangered animals still had a fighting chance. Certainly no other line of logic appeared to be working. After all, our species has rarely been shamed or horrified into altering our behavior. If anything, we often seem baffled by the outcomes of our actions. “Humanity,” writes Foer, “has a tendency to underestimate its own power to create and destroy.”
The passenger pigeon is the best illustration. Once the most abundant birds on the planet, within half a human lifetime, we surprised ourselves by reducing those birds from billions to none. In the mid-1800s, flocks of passenger pigeons quite literally blotted out the sun, though by the end of the century, our skies were empty of them. Martha, the last passenger pigeon, died in captivity in 1914.
We have a name for the last of a species. We call them endlings. That we could dream such a devastating word, and yet fail to see the blood on our hands, is devastating in itself.
I write this in the ninth month of my wife’s pregnancy. Any day now, we will meet our daughter. She will enter a world already in crisis—one that, through my actions, I have personally precipitated. That I value a good chunk of cheddar more than my daughter’s future says a lot about me. That you might make the same choice says a lot about you.
It’s easy to rationalize our selfishness. After all, it’s not like any of us are going to save the world by foregoing animal products for a couple of meals a day. Even if I could remove my carbon footprint altogether—even if I ceased to exist—I wouldn’t do the work of a Band-Aid.
Of course, it’s not about my chunk of cheddar or my hunk of meat. It’s about ours. And it’s about silencing that voice within us that whispers: Well if my neighbor’s not making the same sacrifice, then why should I?
Too often, we choose stubbornness over solutions. Or worse, we ignore the problem altogether because the problem proves unsettling. Foer is the first to admit that it’s “exhausting to contemplate the complexity and scale of the threats we face.” Yet what choice do we have?
If only we were capable of expressing empathy for the people we haven’t yet met. Or at least empathy for the people we have. But empathy, even for those we claim to love, has failed to inspire change.
One day Foer confronted a terrible truth: “I am the person endangering my children.”
We all are.
The one question we can’t bear to ask is the one question we must: Are we willing to save ourselves from our own extinction?
Not likely if we can’t even give up a chunk of cheddar. (A chunk of cheddar, I’ll add, which we’d be glad to give up were it for weight loss purposes, rather than climate change.)
It’s less a matter of appetite than apathy. Either we don’t know, or we don’t care, or we don’t care to know. If we were different people, the cataclysmic stakes might spur us to action. But we aren’t different people. We are who we are.
Sometimes I wonder if our inability to save ourselves is the result of our own self-loathing. Perhaps, at some level, we know we’ve got it coming.
Maybe the problem isn’t in the message, but in the messenger. If climate change deniers have been successful in eroding the public’s trust in our scientific community, then perhaps we ought to recruit messengers who might regain that trust by making the same case in a new way. Messengers who can personalize the threat, forcing us to feel that which we don’t dare fathom.
Messengers like Jonathan Safran Foer.
Believe him when he tells us that we must eat as if our lives depend on it. Not because it is the only thing we can do, but because it is one thing we can all do.
We can’t bail a boat with a single bucket, no matter how big that bucket may be. But we can all make a modest change to our diets in the hopes that it might lead us somewhere better.
Near the book’s end, Foer tells us that we have but two choices to our current climate crisis: “resignation or resistance.”