Book review: We Are The Weather, by Jonathan Safran Foer

Jonathan Safran Foer on stage at the Environmental Media Association's 2nd Annual Honors Benefit Gala, 28 September 2019, in Pacific Palisades, California. PIC: Tommaso Boddi/Getty Images for The Environmental Media Association
Jonathan Safran Foer on stage at the Environmental Media Association's 2nd Annual Honors Benefit Gala, 28 September 2019, in Pacific Palisades, California. PIC: Tommaso Boddi/Getty Images for The Environmental Media Association
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Alluding to the Holocaust, Jonathan Safran Foer makes averting the impending climate catastrophe the responsibility of every reader, writes Stuart Kelly

This is an extremely curious book, in that it is in part an impassioned and angry polemic and in part a poetic elegy and a horribly frank series of revelations. Jonathan Safran Foer has written about his commitment to animal rights beforehand – in Eating Animals – and is a “postmodernist” novelist. This book hinges on a single word, but deploys all the effects of ludic fiction to rational argument. That word is crisis, which, as he notes, comes from Greek and means decision. We should, he argues, not talk about “climate change” but “climate crisis”; and the fulcrum of that is then – “what can I do?” Although the book has very interesting things to say about the power of crowds – nobody really starts a Mexican wave – it is also about the small changes. It is a very humble book, despite its fear and fury.

But it begins with something completely different; not a harangue but the world’s first suicide note. The Egyptian text is called Dispute With The Soul Of One Who Is Tired Of Life, and as Safran Foer cleverly points out, it might not be a suicide note at all, but a decision to persist. The suicidal keeps on resurrecting through the book. The fourth section is titled “Dispute With The Soul”. Safran Foer reflects on his great-grandfather’s suicide, forced, it seems, by an inability to provide for the family. Not being able to “provide” for the human race, through greed and ecological catastrophe, is a collective suicide. Anyone who has read his novels – Everything Is Illuminated, Extremely Loud And Incredibly Close, and Here I Am will realise the resonance of grief and the sense of urgency which he brings to the topic. The text itself interweaves other strands, familiar from his fiction, such as the encounter in 1943 between Jan Karski, who had evidence of Nazi atrocities, and the Supreme Court Justice Felix Frankfurter. Frankfurter’s response was “I am unable to believe what you told me”. The later dialogue about the soul eventually clarifies itself into a version of Karski and Frankfurter’s positions. Personally, I rather feel for Frankfurter: there are points at which the rational mind recoils from the horrific.

And that seems at least part of Safran Foer’s tactics in this book. There is a confessional section where he reveals that, during the promotional tour for Eating Animals, he would scarf burgers in a hotel bedroom. He owns his own hypocrisy, and writes honestly about the “knowing” of Frankfurter (could the name become any more ironic?) and the decision to act. He still yearns for meat, eggs and cheese. But what cuts to the quick in this book is his conclusion. The greatest cause of the real and present danger to the ecosystem is not petrol emissions or coal-burning or even Donald Trump and the other climate-deniers. It is actually Trump’s much publicised diet of burgers. What will end the planet is gula, from the Latin gluttire, and from which we get gluttony: consumption to the point of waste.

The book Is subtitled “Saving The Planet Begins At Breakfast”. It’s not really mentioned in the actual book, but one of the key recommendations is to only have meat – if you want to have meat – as an evening meal. The statistics Safran Foer provides on deforesting, greenhouse gases, methane emissions and more are coherent and convincing: but sometimes you need a parable and not a graph, which is exactly what he does. So: no more full Scottish for me. I can get by on cornflakes and a banana, even when I am worrying about the carbon footprint of said banana.

Two things stand out about this book. The first is the bravery to stand up and say “this is going to be difficult”. We cannot enjoy the consumerist lifestyle to which we have become accustomed, especially when those who do not “enjoy” our pleasures will be most affected by our choices. It’s a shame Safran Foer did not cite Peter Singer, a wonderful philosopher on ethics and animal rights, who gave a clever analogy: if you saw a child drowning in a paddling pool, you’d not think but to try and save them; but a child half a world away you can conveniently forget. Secondly, We Are The Weather is simply beautifully written. From aphorisms like “while humankind might feel too big to fail, no-one will bail us out”, to “a rainbow is also a rope: it can be thrown to a drowning person, or it can tied into a noose”, to long cadenzas on the missing “a” in Neil Armstrong’s famous speech counterpoised to Nixon’s prepared speech in case the astronauts didn’t get back, or curlicues around the idea that every breath contains a snippet of oxygen from countless other, mostly dead, lives.

You catch more wasps with honey than with vinegar. That is precisely what Safran Foer has done with this clear-sighted, stricken book. “We will rise to meet the planetary crisis,” he writes, “or we won’t. We will be a wave, or we will drown”. That’s not a slogan, it’s a hope.

We Are The Weather, by Jonathan Safran Foer, Hamish Hamilton, £16.99