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Yes, you know about climate change, but what will get you to believe it?

Jonathan Safran Foer’s new book, We Are the Weather, Saving the Planet Begins at Breakfast will make you think, and hopefully change the way you live.

I have read many books about climate change and written more than a dozen academic articles on related subjects. I teach a course in climate change and public policy. I try to be active in climate-changed related advocacy. I have my students over for dinner and show them Al Gore films. So I was not expecting to learn much when I picked up Jonathan Safran Foer’s latest book We Are the Weather, Saving the Planet Begins at Breakfast. Imagine my surprise when I found myself immersed in the most insightful, compelling, and thought-provoking book on the subject I have ever read. 

Eating Animals — an earlier non-fiction work by Safran Foer, was a good read, but We Are the Weather is better: a brilliant manifesto that every person who cares about the future of the planet should read.

Like so many people who think about climate change, I have a hard time explaining to my students why, 30 years after NASA scientist James Hansen gave his historic testimony to Congress about global warming, the actual outcome of all the education, lobbying, proclamations, and policies has been so pitiful. The opening series of chapters in the book considers our collective denial and inaction under the title. “Unbelievable,” explaining why we are unable to believe.

Like Safran Foer’s other books, We Are the Weather does not conform to a standard format and at times is downright quirky… but in a good way. Every page is filled with a unique combination of storytelling mastery, intelligence, and decency. Apparently Safran Foer’s standing as a laureate was sufficient (or his editors were wise enough) to grant him the stylistic latitude to do it “his way” and challenge us with a book where different chapters, stylistically, are all over the place. But together they form a brilliant mosaic and call for action.

After 71 pages of thoughtful insights about how we might get people to care enough to do something about climate change, Safran Foer lets on that the book is actually a call for people to change their diets. He then distills a dizzying array of facts, (fully documented in the end notes) onto 25 pages of bullets. He calls this second section of the book: “How to Prevent the Greatest Dying.” Here are a few of the statistics that resonated with me:

  • 59% of all land capable of growing crops grows food for livestock; 
  • 70% of antibiotics used globally goes to livestock;
  • There are 30 times more farm animals than people on the planet;
  • People who eat high animal protein diets are four times as like to die of cancer than people who eat low animal protein. (Smoking only increases one’s three-fold).

Most important perhaps is the vast understatement made by the UN’s Food and Agriculture Organization that only attributes 14.5% of annual greenhouse gas emissions worldwide to livestock. For the uninitiated, this figure might see high. But it actually leaves out the lost carbon sequestration by forests that are converted to cropland for animals or the CO2 exhaled and methane released by farm animals. Safran Foer explains how woefully superficial this sort of analysis is (“Imagine a life insurance policy that covered the cost of the funeral, but not lost future wages.”) He prefers a 2009 World Watch Institute assessment that included maximal emission scenarios and reported that 51% — fully half of global greenhouse gases released — come from the livestock industry.

The World Watch report never underwent peer review and the estimate is probably a bit inflated. But does the actual percentage really matter? The central theme of the book is that the climate crisis will not be overcome without a fundamental shift in the kinds of food we eat and how we produce it. This is surely true given the massive rise in the populations of developing countries and the rapid increase in their meat consumption. We all eat, so we all have to be part of the change.

One of the things I personally appreciate about Safran Foer’s books is his uninhibited relationship to his Jewish heritage. Generally, one would not consider his books to be “Jewish books,” per se — books that might be highlighted in a Jewish literature course or at a Jewish book fair. His themes are universal, as is his intended audience. But his writing is deeply personal. So, Judaism has always informed his writing — even as it does not define it.

We Are the Weather is no exception. Safran Foer weaves in biblical commentaries about the meaning of the flood and Noah’s Ark. He writes about Israel’s security. He translates the traditional “Mi Sheberach” blessing for the ill. And he pens a great deal of poignant prose about his grandmother, who found the courage, as a girl, to make a spontaneous decision to flee the Nazis as they approached her home in Poland. He wonders: what made her act in the face of uncertainty, when no one else in her town could really believe the genocide awaiting them?

As the grandson of Holocaust survivors, it seems totally natural for Safran Foer to contrast the ethical dilemmas facing people during World War II with our challenge today, in the face of another human-created annihilation — notwithstanding the entirely different dynamics. He returns again and again to a story introduced near the book’s opening: Catholic-Polish underground fighter Jan Karski’s 1942 visit to the US, where he attempted to bring the horrors of the Nazi Final Solution to the attention of American Jewish leadership.

When Karski finally receives an audience with Jewish Supreme Court judge Felix Frankfurter, one of the most influential Jews of that age, the partisan offers a first-hand testimonial of what is happening in the Warsaw ghetto and to Polish Jewry in general. Frankfurter heard him out, questioned Karski for details, but ultimately explained: “I didn’t say that this young man is lying. I said that I am unable to believe him. My mind, my heart, they are made in such a way that I cannot accept it.”

Safran Foer makes the point that many of us know that climate change is happening and that the consequences will be catastrophic. We know of many places where rising sea levels, violent storms, scorching temperatures and water shortages are going to devastate the quality of their lives — and in many cases take lives altogether. Yet, like Frankfurter, we somehow cannot believe it. And so, we do nothing about it.

One of the most compelling sections of the book comes when We Are the Weather takes on the fatalism of physicist Stephen Hawking, whose environmental pessimism led him to call for space colonization. Also rejected is the cynicism of writers like Roy Scranton who derides the contribution of individual consumer actions (like veganism) to change the relentless rise in global temperatures. Safran Forer doesn’t buy it, arguing that history is full of examples of heroic collective actions taken by societies, in the interest of collective survival or a higher purpose. Indeed, early in the book, he documents how the remarkable sacrifice made by American citizens on the home front during World War II was critical to winning the battle.

This too reflects a uniquely Jewish perspective — a faith for which it is axiomatic that saving one person is tantamount to saving the entire world. It doesn’t really matter what you say: what matters is what you do.

Unlike many polemics, We Are the Weather does not come off as excessively sanctimonious, perhaps because Safran Foer is so brutally hard on himself. Time and again, he mentions his own failings as he struggles to reconcile his ideological commitment to vegetarianism and his lingering appetite for meat, which still occasionally gets the better of him, especially when he is in need of comfort food. As someone who is transitioning into a new vegan equilibrium, for all the usual reasons (environmental responsibility; health; animal welfare), reading this book for me was something akin to a group therapy session.

I found myself wanting to shout out a bit of solidarity to Jonathan — to lighten up and go a little easier on the self-flagellation surrounding his diet. But it seems that only such high moral standards would lead a novelist to write not one but two books about the moral implications of the food he eats.

I started reading We Are the Weather while attending a conference in Abu Dhabi last week. The reason why that particular geographical circumstance is germane has to do with the peak temperatures that the Emirates experienced during recent summer months when thermometers crossed over the 51 degrees C (over 127 Fahrenheit) mark. Already the heat is excruciating, life-threatening. Then consider that every decade we can expect for temperatures to go up at least another half-degree. (Unless, as many climate models predict, the warming function is not linear, and crossing a threshold, things will heat up much faster.) It is easy to get a sense of the future apocalyptic conditions that give Safran Foer no rest.

About 13% of Israelis are already vegetarians; 5% are vegan; at 6%, the IDF is the most vegan army in the world. That’s a good start. Translating this book into Hebrew might contribute to this encouraging trend. That’s because We Are the Weather reminds us that it is not enough to wait for some magic technological bullet to come along and save the planet, allowing us to continue to our high consumption, meat-intensive lifestyles.

If we are going to stabilize the climate so that future generations may actually have a reasonable planet on which to live, we all need to change our lifestyles. As Safran Foer writes: “Of course it’s true that one person deciding to eat a plant-based diet will not change the world, but of course it’s true that the sum of millions such decisions will.”

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