16 January 2020

We Are the Weather by Jonathan Safran Foer


I was secretly so happy that Meg didn't get this book for Christmas so that I could buy it and read it ASAP. I think her review would have been interesting because she's a vegetarian, BUT I am a long-time lover of Jonathan Safran Foer's writing so I wanted to get to it first.

I am a massive fan of Eating Animals (which Meg reviews here) which came out 10 years ago, so I was very excited to see that Foer had a new book out that involved similar subject matter. We Are the Weather: Saving the Planet Begins at Breakfast is almost the inverse of Eating Animals. The former starts by focusing on the environment and then introduces eating animal products, whereas Eating Animals starts with veganism and then ends with introducing the impact animal products have on our environment.

My mom has been recycling for as long as I can remember. My dad and I both agree that she started recycling long before it became so commonplace. She had massive blue bins in the coat closet and would always remind my sister and I not to throw our Yop bottles in the garbage... that they were recyclable. I would say I am environmentally conscious but like most people do literally nothing to help. Like in Eating Animals, Foer makes a very strong and very compelling argument for curbing our consumption of animals products and how this would impact climate change.

Globally, more people die of suicide than war, murder, and natural disasters combined. We are more likely to kill ourselves than we are to be killed and, in that sense, ought to fear ourselves more than we fear others. A rainbow is also a rope: it can be thrown to a drowning person, or it can be tied into a noose."

What I loved the most about We Are the Weather is that Foer seems more unsure than ever before. He knows how screwed we are about the environment, but he is unsure in his ability to make small changes in his life that could help the reversal process. And this self-doubt is what I related to the most.

I remember when I finished Eating Animals I thought the takeaway message was that even though I know animals are tortured and that eating their products is destroying the Earth, I won't change my eating habits because I really love the taste of chicken nuggets. I was explaining this to a long-time vegan I knew living in Montreal and he replied "wow, that's pretty militant." But I can see now that this isn't Foer's thesis... the best part about his personal experience with eating animal products (which he includes in both books) is that he struggles IMMENSELY with it.

In We Are the Weather Foer admits that even after he published Eating Animals and did tons of readings and interviews about it, he still ate at least a couple dozen hamburgers while at the airport - some of the worst factory farmed meat you could find. And he explains his actions in the most relatable way. He says he ate the hamburger because it brought him comfort. And who hasn't felt that way before?

Again, it's the way Foer is so open and straightforward about his lack of action that I found so compelling:

When researching this book, I was often shocked by what I learned. But I was rarely moved by it. When I was moved, the feeling was transient, and it was never deep enough or durable enough to change my behavior over time."

Jonathan Safran Foer
Foer talks a lot about America's efforts at home during the Second World War throughout the book. Civilians would go without pantry staples due to rationing, and they would turn their lights off after dusk. And even though these seemed like small inconveniences and they certainly didn't win the war, it's hard to say that the war wouldn't have been won without these sacrifices. He obviously compares this to today's environmental crisis and the impact such small sacrifices could have for our planet. Specifically, Foer argues this: skip animal products for breakfast and lunch!

Instead of imagining all the meals ahead of you, focus on the meal in front of you. Don't give up burgers for the rest of your life. Just order something different this one time. It's hard to change lifelong habits, but it's not hard to change a meal. Over time, those meals become your new habits." 

He mentions that avoiding all animal products for only two out of three meals a day would have a greater impact than a completely vegetarian diet. This alone is kind of mind blowing to me.

There was certainly some gloom and doom associated with this book (how can there not be given the subject matter), but I didn't come away from it feeling depressed. The hardest thing to grapple with was really just humanity's own indifference. That even though most of us believe in climate change, we are unmotivated to act. As Foer points out: 

It's a shame that instead of having a minority of climate atheists, we have a majority of climate agnostics."

Something he briefly touched on that probably caused me the most anxiety was about how our psyches will change with the climate. He says:

Our psychologies will be changed by the traumas: being separated from our families in extreme weather events, leaving aging parents behind in places debilitated by drought or flooding so that children might have less arduous lives, competing for resources in ways more explicit and less civilized than we ever have before."

It reminded me of Paul Schrader's amazing movie First Reformed and the central conflict between two of the characters. How do you bring a child into a world you know is dying? And what will you say when they ask you why you did it anyways?


Foer's grandparents escaped eastern Europe during the Second World War and all of his work references these themes. He continues to do so in We Are the Weather and it is one of my favourite parts. Foer explains that he only recently learned that his grandfather's early death was actually the result of suicide. And that his grandfather left a note in his pocket that read "My Etele is the best wife in the world." I know this might seem unrelated to the subject matter but I wanted to include this beautiful passage Foer included afterwards:

Isn't it strange how the beginning of his suicide note could also be the beginning of a Valentine's card? The writer Albert Camus once wrote, 'What is called a reason for living is also an excellent reason for dying.' Your great-grandfather loved his family very much. Sadness and joy aren't opposites of each other. They are each the opposite of indifference."

Once you've finished the book you see how meaningful this story is and how it relates to We Are the Weather's central theme.

This book is 288 pages and I read it in less than 48 hours. The chapters are incredibly short and the information is endless but fascinating. I read a lot of nonfiction but I find Foer, more than anyone, approaches it the same way he would his fiction writing... with elegance and artistry. I can't recommend it enough.

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