books climate change food

Book review: We are the weather, by Jonathan Safran Foer

We Are the Weather is an unusual book on several different fronts. It’s a book about climate change that is actually about lots of other things. Or maybe it’s a book about lots of other things – family, grief, responsibility, food – that is actually about the climate. Either way, it’s in a climate book sub-genre of one.

The book begins with an analysis of why climate change has been so hard to address, explored through what look like unrelated stories – family anecdotes, strange news articles – but that reveal a reflected truth about human psychology. For Safran Foer, climate change is hard to believe. Not that he doesn’t accept the facts, but that it all happens so slowly and so far away that it doesn’t quite sink in.

In phrases I’ve never seen an author use of themselves, he says “I don’t believe” and “I don’t care” about climate change, and “I do virtually nothing.” And then he interrogates his own apathy. Why doesn’t climate change trigger any sense of danger? Why isn’t he moved by it?

“The truth is I don’t care about the planetary crisis – not at the level of belief” he writes, but then “how could someone claim indifference to the subject of their own book?”

In exploring this lack of engagement on his own part, he compares it to his grandparents’ generation and their reaction to the threat of the Nazis. As Jews, they knew they were in danger. Some fled and began a new life elsewhere. Others chose to stay and were killed. He circles around these questions and comes back to them throughout the book, asking what leads some to act and others to inaction. He writes about his grandmother – even writing from her deathbed at one point – and the choices she made, and compares them with his own responsibilities to his children.

Best known for his book Eating Animals, vegetarianism also emerges as a recurring theme of the book. If we’re talking about action and how we should live in response to climate change, why is meat so rarely mentioned? It is one of the most obvious solutions, and doesn’t get nearly enough attention. But this gets interrogated too – why does he, as a well known advocate of vegetarianism, still want to eat meat?

If it sounds like the book is a bit of a jumble, well, you’re not wrong. Parts of the book are short chapters that tell stories, touching on the development of the polio vaccine, how crowd ‘waves’ form at sporting events, or the likelihood of surviving a jump from the Golden Gate Bridge. Then the book has a whole section in bullet points, and another written as a dialogue with his own soul. Foer even says that at some point in the writing he “stopped caring if it made sense”. But it’s also very eloquent, very imaginative, and full of interesting insights and quotable lines.

Yes, there’s a rich vein of privilege here – what a luxury it is to be able to agonise over how much you care about climate change, while others experience it as a survival situation. And yes, not everyone is going to have the patience for things like the ‘dispute with the soul’ dialogue chapter, or the way that the book veers from the general to the intensely personal. But if you go with it, there’s a courageous and curious climate message here about our own responsibility to each other, the difference we can make, and how “we cannot go about our lives as if they were only ours”.

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