WE ARE THE WEATHER
Saving the Planet Begins at Breakfast
By Jonathan Safran Foer
Jonathan Safran Foer’s second book of nonfiction is an eye-opening collection of mostly short essays expressing both despair and hope over the climate crisis, especially around individual choice. It’s a wide-ranging book — there are tributes to grandparents and sons, as well as musings on suicide, family, effort, sense and much more — but it has a point, and that is to persuade us to eat fewer animal products.
Foer makes the case that, for Americans and citizens of other voracious meat-eating countries, this is the most important individual change we can make to reduce our carbon footprints. But “We Are the Weather” is best read as a collection of Foer’s thoughts about life and crisis.
In this follow-up to his influential “Eating Animals,” he brings both personality and passion to an issue that no one has figured out how to address in a way that inspires an adequate response. The central argument, not unveiled until Page 64, is essentially that we all refrain from eating animal products except in the evening.
Foer again emphasizes that our treatment of animals is unethical and inhumane. He correctly adds that the system that supports the raising of something like 10 billion land animals per year in the United States alone (a ballpark figure, since no reliably accurate number exists) is also a mighty contributor to a public health emergency and the climate crisis.
One can argue that industrial production of animals is responsible for as little as 7 percent of greenhouse gases (the geophysicist Gidon Eshel, whom I believe to be reliable), or 11 percent (Climate Watch), or 15 percent (the Food and Agriculture Organization of the United Nations), or upward of 50 percent (Worldwatch), but it’s another fuzzy number and it hardly matters. The fact remains, eating animals contributes to climate change and, given that meat-eating also has profound negative effects on public health, other environmental issues (in Iowa alone, pigs produce as much excrement as more than 80 million people) and our farming culture (almost 40 percent of all corn is grown to feed confined animals), it behooves us to do less of it.
But industrial agriculture in general — the foundation of all of this — is an even bigger contributor, and that’s not all about meat. It’s about monoculture (the growing of one or at most two crops on vast swaths of land); it’s about the cartels that make up Big Ag; and it’s about using our most fertile land to grow corn and soybeans, not only to feed livestock but to form the basis of most ultra-processed food.
Even if industrial animal production were our main problem, Foer’s cogent argument is one that I fear won’t have much impact. (He fears this too, calling it “a losing hand.”) I say this in part because I’ve written books making this same argument (“Food Matters,” in 2008, and “VB6: Eat Vegan Before 6PM,” in 2013) and, although both received wide attention, they made not a dent in our population’s behavior. Today, we’re eating animals at the same rate as we have since the maturation of industrial agriculture 30 or 40 years ago.
What’s to be done? As Foer says, we’re not good at making positive decisions about our future. And we’re really not good at denying ourselves cheap pleasures like cheeseburgers, no matter how bad they are for us and our fellow humans.
But the argument that to address this requires changes in personal behavior so that the market is forced to respond has not worked. And the needle will not move an iota through the force of another member of the intelligentsia telling people the truth in a variety of ways (eloquent, harsh, humorous, scolding, intellectual, academic), convincing them of the veracity and holiness of his position, and waiting for the light bulb to go on.
The truth is not news: For personal health, for lives to be less threatened by changing climate, people must eat differently. How to do this is not debatable — more plants, fewer animals, less junk — yet those who profit from the status quo will fight those changes through marketing and obfuscation of facts.
Consider what happened with tobacco. It was thought to be dangerous in the ‘30s; it was proved to cause lung cancer in 1948; the surgeon general warned us in 1964; and then there was the 1988 states’ attorneys generals’ Master Settlement Agreement, which, among other things, limited the marketing of tobacco. This last was effective because it actually made it more difficult to smoke. For all the talk about industrial agriculture being a contributor to climate change, for all the talk about the dangers of ultra-processed foods, the reaction has largely been more talk and almost no action.
Counting on a couple of billion heavy meat-eaters to respond to someone’s eloquence and cut back their meat consumption by 90 percent (the recommended amount, to have real impact) is not a plan. It is, rather, a plea. In his chapter “Dispute With the Soul,” Foer blames “human nature.” Because of it, “people like me, who should care and should be motivated and should make big changes, find it almost impossible to make small sacrifices for profound future benefit.” The argument for individuals to eat better isn’t wrong, but it encourages “people like me” — wealthy people, almost all white — to become better shoppers while leaving others behind. Not everyone can make the same decisions.
Human nature is not the reason that our diet consists of large amounts of meat and junk food; availability, access and marketing determine that. For people to eat and act differently, different tools, beneficial rather than exploitative, must be employed. This is about supply, not demand. If cheeseburgers are everywhere, and always priced lower than health-enhancing meals, and we have been trained from birth to “enjoy” them, we will continue to eat cheeseburgers. The easiest way for us to eat fewer cheeseburgers is to produce fewer cheeseburgers, or at least to price them at their true cost, one that includes their contributions to climate change, public health, environmental degradation and so on. (This would make them prohibitively expensive.)
High-tech fake meat isn’t the answer, because even though vegan ultra-processed food doesn’t kill animals it kills people and furthers climate change. And, if you’re wanting to turn around the climate crisis, you have to go beyond food: If fossil fuels are widely available and cheap, and there aren’t better options, people will continue to drive and fly. Guilt-tripping isn’t a huge change-maker.
Bill McKibben’s 2016 New Republic article, “A World at War,” in which he urged us to treat the climate crisis as we did World War II, presents the soundest argument to date: Climate change is a crisis, and we need government to lead us in attacking it. We also need government to lead in attacking the food crisis: We need new laws and stronger enforcement of existing ones that will make it difficult or impossible for industrial animal production to remain profitable; we need to make it easy to buy food produced by sustainable, even regenerative farming; and we need to make it inexpensive for people to buy or be served that kind of food, perhaps in what amounts to communal kitchens — a different way of doing “fast food.” Generally, we need to limit exploitation — to tax and even break up the agribusinesses responsible for ecocide and the increasingly global epidemic of chronic disease — and we need to enhance cooperation.
Foer writes, “Although it may be a neoliberal myth that individual decisions have ultimate power, it is a defeatist myth that individual decisions have no power at all.” That is so true: Individual decisions have power, and despair is an awful option.
But individual decisions are limited. Without effective, sane, forward-thinking leadership, the needed change won’t happen. “We Are the Weather” is a “Why?” book; what we need are more “How?” books.