First, a warning: this is a life-changing book and will alter your relationship to food for ever. I can’t imagine anyone reading Safran Foer’s lucid, heartfelt, deeply compassionate prose and then reaching blithely for a cheeseburger. There’s some dispute as to precisely what proportion of global heating is directly related to the rearing of animals for food, but even the lowest estimates put it on a par with the entire global transportation industry. A well-evidenced 2009 report by the Worldwatch Institute claimed that livestock-related emissions accounted for 51% of all greenhouse gases, “more than all cars, planes, buildings, industry and power plants combined”. Whichever the case, Safran Foer’s thesis is clear and compelling: by making “a collective act to eat differently” (he suggests “no animal products before dinner”) we can turn the tide of the climate crisis.
...Jonathan Safran Foer’s bad luck to have been overtaken, between the writing and the publishing of this book, by the rise to fame of Greta Thunberg and Extinction Rebellion, who have decided that disruptive campaigning is the only way to bring about meaningful action on the climate. It remains to be seen whether they’ll be successful, but I would bet on them rather than on a book that, by the end, appears to be mainly about how a sensitive Brooklynite novelist can feel better about his own life.
Sadly, Foer’s rather disjointed jumble of brilliance does not conclude with a sparkling idea for how to engage everyone emotionally in the world war against warming. There has been some progress since Foer finished writing his book, with the emergence of Extinction Rebellion and climate strikes inspired by Greta Thunberg. But the majority of people who accept the idea that human activity is causing climate change will need to do far more on the home front than forsaking meat and milk until dinner.
Two things stand out about this book. The first is the bravery to stand up and say “this is going to be difficult”. We cannot enjoy the consumerist lifestyle to which we have become accustomed, especially when those who do not “enjoy” our pleasures will be most affected by our choices. It’s a shame Safran Foer did not cite Peter Singer, a wonderful philosopher on ethics and animal rights, who gave a clever analogy: if you saw a child drowning in a paddling pool, you’d not think but to try and save them; but a child half a world away you can conveniently forget. Secondly, We Are The Weather is simply beautifully written.
In We Are the Weather the novelist Jonathan Safran Foer takes a more thoughtful (albeit anguished) route. In chapter after self-flagellating chapter he asks: “Why aren’t we doing anything?” Foer talks to himself, he digs into history, he composes a letter to his sons, he stares at the charts, he even writes something that looks like a prose poem and still he finds: “The truth is I don’t care about the planetary crisis — not at the level of belief.”
Like any good climate polemicist, Foer reports some terrifying predictions. Even if we stick to the Paris climate accord (according to recent estimates we have a 5 per cent chance of doing so) and limit warming to 2C, sea levels will rise by 1.6ft, flooding coastlines across the globe. “Dhaka (population 18 million), Karachi (15 million), New York (8.5 million) and dozens of other metropolises will be effectively uninhabitable.” Ninety-nine per cent of coral reefs will be irreparably damaged.