One of the reminders from the COVID-19 pandemic is how interconnected we are with everyone and everything on this planet. A new take on an old adage could be, When a bat flaps its wings in China, the rest of the world goes on lockdown. Or try this one: When “60 percent of all mammals on Earth” are animals raised for food, sea levels rise. As with a pandemic, so too with climate change: Seemingly insignificant actions, when they meet the right conditions, can propagate until the whole planet is affected.
This is the line Jonathan Safran Foer takes in his decidedly literary climate change treatise, We Are the Weather, to encourage the kinds of seemingly insignificant actions that when they propagate will reduce rather than exacerbate the effects of climate change. Specifically, Foer wants us to limit eating and drinking animal products to dinner and be vegans the rest of the day. “Choosing to eat fewer animal products,” he writes, “is probably the most important action an individual can take to reverse global warming—it has a known and significant effect on the environment, and, done collectively, would push the culture and the marketplace with more force than any march.”
But no matter how simple the idea and how plain the logic, Foer’s challenge is substantial. And he knows exactly what a tough sell this is going to be. None of us takes very kindly to being told to change what we eat. But as was his book Eating Animals, which depicts the atrocities of factory farming, We Are the Weather is a work of rhetorical virtuosity. The facts that Foer presents are exactly as distressing as you expect: “Since the advent of agriculture, approximately twelve thousand years ago, humans have destroyed 83 percent of all wild mammals and half of all plants”; “If cows were a country, they would rank third in greenhouse gas emissions, after China and the United States”; and so on.
Of course, we’ve heard it all before. More times than we care to remember. No statistic, no bar graph is going to rouse us to action. As Foer recognizes, “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.” What we have isn’t a failure of evidence or even consensus (Foer cites a recent report that only 14 percent of Americans deny climate change.) What we have is a failure to coordinate meaningful responses.
And so Foer asks us to face the reality of what a meaningful response would entail. “We have no hope of tackling climate change if we can’t speak honestly about what is causing it, as well as our potential, and our limits, to change in response. . . . we cannot save the planet unless we significantly reduce our consumption of animal products.” The idea is simple. The logic is plain. The challenge remains substantial.
Is Foer’s book a good one? It’s extremely well written. It might have life as a work of literature even if it doesn’t affect our diets as Foer wants it to. But certainly that’s not what Foer or anyone else could mean by good in this context. The only good to be recognized here is successfully persuading readers to “reduce our consumption of animal products.” Is it a good book, then? Will it achieve its goal? If We Are the Weather doesn’t motivate us to change our diets, it’s hard to imagine that any book could.
That might be a high estimation of Foer and low estimation of books. But we do know now, if we didn’t know before the pandemic, that it is possible for us to change our behavior suddenly, dramatically, and on a global scale when our survival depends on it. So.