In “We Are the Weather,” Jonathan Safran Foer argues, essentially, that it is our moral imperative to adopt a vegan-before-six diet if we care at all about attempting to prevent the destruction of the human race through human-caused climate change. Although it’s a bit more complicated than that.
Safran Foer begins by laying out the stark reality of climate change and the holocaust that is creeping up inexorably, if almost unnoticeably, on us. He goes through the science of anthropogenic climate change, along with why this is the kind of disaster that humans are extremely ill-equipped to respond to. He interweaves it with stories of the Holocaust of WWII and how unwilling and unable people were to recognize it when it was happening. He includes the story of his own grandmother, who fled her village as the Nazis were approaching. The rest of her family refused to leave–and all ended up brutally killed.
Mixed in with this are meditations on suicide and on the morality of responding to disasters. What do we do–what *should* we do, what *must* we do, Safran Foer asks–when we’re faced with an event of such enormity it is beyond our ability to comprehend it, let alone stop it.
This sounds weighty, but the writing style is in many places almost childishly simple. I admit that I found this aspect of the book off-putting at first, but it is written in a way that should be accessible to almost all readers, while also guaranteed to create high emotional impact. Safran Foer writes with almost naked simplicity and honesty about himself, his family, and all the other families that have been and will be affected by climate change.
Only after setting the stage for several chapters does Safran Foer jump into the main argument of the book, which is that animal agriculture is making the planet uninhabitable for the very humans who have domesticated it. He points out that there are many other reasons to oppose animal agriculture, especially factory farming, such as its appalling cruelty and its exploitation of its laborers, but the most self-interested reason to oppose it is because eating animals is going to destroy humanity.
This point has been made many times before. What sets “We Are the Weather” apart is its examination of the behavioral and emotional difficulties humans have in giving up animal products. Safran Foer admits that he, who believes absolutely in the immorality of eating animal products, occasionally finds himself slipping and eating a burger. More importantly, most people have a strong attachment to their foods, and find the idea of changing their diets to be somewhere between a major pain in the neck, and morally offensive.
At the same time, Safran Foer argues very compellingly that giving up animal products is an absolute moral necessity that will eventually be forced upon is if we don’t do it voluntarily. He also argues, again very compellingly, that of all the things we could be doing to fight climate change, giving up animal products is the easiest and most effective. In the US, for example, it is impossible in large swaths of the country to survive without a car, making cutting back on carbon emissions from transportation extremely difficult or impossible, but anyone can cut back on bacon and eggs. The kinds of massive infrastructure changes that we need to reduce transportation and energy production emissions to safe levels will take years or decades to effect, if they happen at all, and require top-down intervention. While, as Safran Foer points out, in the grand scheme of things giving up or cutting back on meat and dairy is not only an easy thing that each individual can do. It’s easy to feel helpless in the face of climate change, but modifying your diet is the one area where you have power–and impact. It is also a tiny sacrifice. If we fail to stop climate change, something that is looking ever more likely, how will our grandchildren look back on us? How will they feel about inheriting a burnt-out wasteland because we were too gluttonous to give up cheeseburgers?
I have to admit that in my case, Safran Foer is preaching to the choir. I became a vegetarian 25 years ago, and transitioned to veganism 8 years ago. And unlike many, I never suffered from intense cravings for animal products. My struggles in my journey to plant-based eating were and are entirely social. So I can testify that sticking to a plant-based diet does require a cast-iron conviction of your own righteousness.
Still, I can also testify that giving up meat and dairy is ridiculously easy once you make the commitment. Like St. Augustine before and after his conversion in the garden in Milan, you may spend a long time agonizing and searching for the courage to do what you know needs to be done, but once you do, you’ll wonder why you ever found it difficult. And, as Safran Foer says, when faced with the end of the world as you know it, it’s the very least you can do.