What would you give up to save the planet?
Jonathan Safran Foer's new book, We Are the Weather, looks at the ties between climate change and our diets
By JASON MCBRIDE
Special to The Globe and Mail
Saturday, October 19, 2019 Print Edition, Page R16
In his first non-fiction book, 2009's Eating Animals, novelist Jonathan Safran Foer investigated the many contradictions and complexities of eating meat.
It was wise, vivid and often horrific, but as comprehensive as the book was, it only briefly touched on how our diets are related to climate change. With We Are the Weather: Saving the Planet Begins at Breakfast, Foer's latest, he goes much deeper into that inextricable relationship, arguing that the climate crisis can only be solved if we radically reduce the amount of meat (and eggs and milk and cheese) we eat. It's a philosophical book and a personal one - Foer devotes many pages to his own hypocrisy around food - but its central question is a universal one: How much, and what, are you willing to give up for the sake of the planet?
In Eating Animals, you wrote about the horrors of factory farming and why we shouldn't consume animal products. What compelled you to return to the subject?
I didn't think I was returning to the subject, actually. I didn't intend to and I didn't want to. I felt like, with Eating Animals, I had said what I wanted to about meat. I intended to write about climate change and specifically what we can do as individuals.
Like a lot of people, I have found myself saying over the last several years, someone's got to do something. And I found myself saying this isn't a problem that people can't even participate in, let alone solve, because the systems are so large. Which is not untrue. But there's obviously an interplay between the big and the small and the macro and the micro. I don't see the kinds of systemic legislative changes that are needed happening without being forced by the actions of individuals. So, as I began to dig into that, it became immediately clear that I was going to be writing about animal agriculture again.
Can you explain specifically why reducing our consumption of animal products would positively affect the environment?
The first thing I might say is this has a way of sounding like an opinion and it's important to be clear that this isn't an opinion.
But the basic story is that animal agriculture is either the No. 1 or the No. 2 source of greenhouse gas emissions, depending on what's included in the calculation. Grazing animals produce huge amounts of methane when they burp and fart. It's also a very energy-intensive kind of food and requires huge amounts of water, huge amounts of land. It's the No. 1 cause of deforestation on the planet. So it's really bad news. But it's one thing to know it; it's another thing to do anything about it. I have a lot of sympathy for people who have a hard time trying to do something about it. Most people have been eating animal products their whole lives. Most people find them to be tasty. Most people have a lot of really positive emotional associations with meat. So, I think part of the solution is moving away from the binary that we're used to - you're in or you're not, you're vegan or you're not - and toward moderation, eating a lot less.
About midway through the book, you have a dialogue with yourself, where you write, 'Just 100 companies are responsible for 71 per cent of greenhouse gas emissions and putting the onus onto individuals isn't fair.' Is it fair? Bill McKibben recently wrote that we can't solve our problems one consumer at a time, we have to do it as societies or civilizations.
I completely agree that individuals can't do this alone. But the changes that we make in our lives, when they're accumulated, have a known and significant impact on the climate. And secondly, they have a known and significant impact on the culture and on legislators. I think all the marches and speeches are wonderful, but they haven't been doing the trick.
You know, we're watching the Amazon burn and people are outraged and showing their outrage through speeches and marches. But 91 per cent of the Amazonian deforestation is for animal agriculture. We pay for it.
It's done for us. If you could imagine a national or a global boycott of beef, we would save the Amazon. What some people would say is, yeah, but people aren't capable of that. That's sort of at the heart of the argument for systemic change - it's not that individual change wouldn't be enough, it's that individuals can't change. I agree that it would be helpful to have help - if we had certain options removed or the price of beef at the cash register resembled what the price of meat actually is in the world. But if we wait for that, we're all going to be kaput.
Whereas we have the power to make these changes in our lives right this second.
What do you, as a novelist, bring to this subject that science writers and journalists like McKibben or Naomi Klein or David WallaceWells, whom you cite, maybe don't?
I think each of those three people are fantastic and have played a large role in bringing me to it.
But I think one of the big problems with climate change now, not historically, is how the story is told, and how the conversation is had. For years, we were battling ignorance or misinformation. Now, people know. It's not a significant number of people who deny the science of climate change. It's a question of connecting the dots, emotionally, primitively even. So that what we know, and what we care about, is converted into action.
So when I wrote this book, I don't know that I thought in terms of, "I'm a novelist, I can add X, Y or Z," I approached it like, why am I having such a hard time connecting the dots?
Why am I having such a hard time converting knowledge into action? What will reach me?
You spend a fair bit of time in the book pointing out your own hypocrisy, that you were still eating burgers after publishing Eating Animals and even while writing this book, you're still eating eggs and dairy. What's the value for the reader in being so hard on yourself?
It's not being hard on myself to be honest. We're so used to measuring our distance from this unattainable ethical perfection.
Which is unnecessary and often precludes action more than it inspires it. We need to applaud each other for making efforts. If you were to ask me in 10 years, if half of Americans or Canadians would be vegetarian, I would say it's extremely unlikely. But if you were to ask me in two years would half of the meals eaten in American and Canada be vegetarian, I could really see that happening. It's the same outcome, with regards to the environment, with regards to animals, but one is based on identities and one is based on actions.
If we could reorient ourselves away from identities and toward actions, I think more people would act.
I've been a vegan for nine years and I don't think I've ever found it as difficult as you do. But I have found it very difficult to get others to follow my example.
How optimistic are you that this book will get people to change their diets?
I have no idea. I meet people all the time who became vegetarian because of reading Eating Animals. But what are we going to do, but try? What's the alternative?
What did you have for breakfast this morning?
My kids made me a special breakfast because the book came out today. They set up banners and little posters. I don't usually eat a big breakfast, but they made me toast with peanut butter and a smoothie and a little fruit salad. It was very nice.
When it comes to climate change, Jonathan Safran Foer says people need to reorient themselves away from identities and toward actions.
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