'We Are the Weather: Saving the Planet Begins at Breakfast' by Jonathan Safran Foer review – a life-changing book

6 October 2019

Warning: Jonathan Safran Foer’s compelling new book is likely to alter your relationship to food for ever…

What would you do to save the world? Not the strapline for a Netflix series, but rather the question that sits behind Jonathan Safran Foer’s second work of nonfiction, We Are the Weather. The answer to the question appears to be “not very much”, given that despite the looming threat of global heating, despite the fact the next generation (and those that follow) will live more precarious lives, with food, water and clean air in ever-shorter supply, despite the fact that the future of our planet appears to be one of flooded cities, scorched forests and sulphurous skies, we continue to behave as if the climate crisis is someone else’s problem. In 2018, despite knowing more about climate change than we have ever known, we produced more greenhouse gases than we have ever produced, at three times the rate of global population growth.

Climate change, therefore, exists as a rhetorical challenge as much as a scientific one. The most pressing question is how to persuade people to act, and to act now, both on an individual basis and, particularly, collectively. Extinction Rebellion provides a blueprint for action, but what about the majority who aren’t about to chain themselves to the headquarters of Shell? One landmark in the rhetorical battle was Al Gore’s 2006 film An Inconvenient Truth, although it may surprise you to learn that Gore’s film, for all its rigour, didn’t mention the single largest contributor to global heating: livestock.

Now Safran Foer, best known for his astonishing magical-realist debut novel Everything Is Illuminated, but also the author of a bestselling 2009 book about factory farming, Eating Animals, has set about remedying that omission. In We Are the Weather, he demonstrates that, rather than being an insurmountable nexus of insoluble problems, there’s one small change that all of us can make that would have a sustained and far-reaching impact on the climate crisis: eating fewer animal products. “We cannot keep the kind of meals we have known and also keep the planet we have known. We must either let some eating habits go or let the planet go. It is as straightforward and as fraught as that.”

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.

The book is made up of five sections, each divided into a series of sharp, hard-hitting chapters. Part two, How to Prevent the Greatest Dying, is a bombardment of facts that seeks to overwhelm the reader with evidence. “Humans use 59% of all the land capable of growing crops to grow food for livestock”; “60% of all mammals on Earth are animals raised for food”; “There are approximately 30 farmed animals for every human on the planet”; “In 2018, more than 99% of the animals eaten in America were raised on factory farms”; “Animal agriculture is responsible for 91% of Amazon deforestation”; “If cows were a country, they would rank third in greenhouse gas emissions, after China and the United States.”

These facts, though, are part of the problem, rather than the solution. The point is, we know this stuff, we just don’t believe it. And so the rest of the book is dedicated to persuading us that it is our duty to act, just as, Safran Foer suggests, it was the duty of Jewish leaders in the US to act when Jan Karski, a member of the Polish underground, came to them in June 1943 with news of the murder and persecution of Jews in Europe. The Jewish leaders, and particularly the supreme court justice Felix Frankfurter, didn’t act. “I am unable to believe what you told me,” Frankfurter told Karski. History now judges Frankfurter as it will judge us.

The final chapter is structured as a letter from Safran Foer to his children. The author’s grandmother, who herself fled Poland just before it was too late to do so, has just died. Most of her family were killed in the Holocaust and Safran Foer powerfully interweaves her story of action with his own history of inaction in the face of global warming. Reversing climate change, he says, “requires an entirely different kind of heroism”. This heroism is “perhaps every bit as difficult” as the sacrifice his grandmother made “because the need for sacrifice is unobvious”. That sacrifice begins, as the book’s subtitle suggests, at breakfast.

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