Want to save the planet? Start with breakfast

Jonathan Safran Foer has a simple plan to battle climate change: resist meat until dinner time. His new book We Are The Weather is also an attempt to give the climate movement what it's most missing – a compelling storyline.

Interview by Sam Parker
Jonathan Safran Foer. Photo by Stuart Simpson for Penguin 2019.
Jonathan Safran Foer. Photo by Stuart Simpson for Penguin 2019.

What do you order for lunch when you’re with Jonathan Safran Foer, author of perhaps the most famous book ever written about vegetarianism?

Not the Porterhouse steak for two, that’s for sure. The whole roast grouse is probably out. And you can forget about the lamb pie. In the end, we both point at something called ‘layered potato, wild mushroom and watercress’ – which has the reassuring acronym ‘pb’ (‘plant-based’) next to it – and I relax. 

But then, wait – a huge chunk of bread appears with a side dish of extremely creamy-looking butter. I wait for him to recoil or send it back, but instead the 42-year-old tears off a clump of dough and eats it dry.

In retrospect, I shouldn’t have worried. For one thing, there’s a passage in We Are The Weather – Safran Foer’s new book advocating a ‘no animal products before dinner’ rule – in which he describes guiltly eating a cheeseburger while travelling on tour. Then there’s his response when I confess that I’ve been trying to stick to the rule myself but failed that very morning by accidentally ordering a latte.

‘So you didn’t have animal products for breakfast, but you had a little milk in your coffee?’ he asks me. ‘I would say that seems like a great breakfast. You shouldn’t see that as like a failed breakfast, but as a successful one.’ 

‘I have no idea if there are eggs in this bread or whatever. I didn’t ask and I don’t care – that would miss the point to me.’

Safran Foer is used to people expecting him to be something of a zealot. Ten years ago the publication of Eating Animals, an investigation into the horrors of factory farming, transformed him from a literary novelist (best known for 2002's Everything is Illuminated and Extremely Loud and Incredibly Close, 2005) into a prominent animal welfare campaigner, converter of famous people (most notably Natalie Portman) and giver of what must now be hundreds of public talks on the subject. His new book, We Are The Weather, is a sequel of sorts, in which he argues that using less animal produce is no longer just an ethical or healthy lifestyle choice but an essential battleground in our fight against climate change and, ultimately, human extinction.

It arrives in a rich period for books outlining the climate apocalypse and what we need to do to about it, from David Wallace-Well’s science-horror The Uninhabitable Earth to Naomi Klein’s political manifesto On Fire: The (Burning) Case for a Green New Deal. The difference between those books and We Are The Weather is best encapsulated in that burger confession, or perhaps this gasp-inducing take on Donald Trump’s climate denial tweets:

What is your response [to those tweets]? Anger? Terror? Defiance? They fill me with a primitive rage I feel only when someone endangers my children.

But those responses are misplaced.

This is a far more pernicious form of science denial than Trump’s: the form that parades as acceptance. Those of us who know what is happening but do far too little about it are more deserving of the anger. We should be terrified of ourselves. [...] I am the person endangering my children.

'The whole world is just the accumulation of conversations'

I ask whether we can take this as a sign he has "faith".

‘Well, what’s the alternative?’ he counters. ‘I did a really nice event at a high school in Boston, and a student asked me if he should be cynical about the adult world, and I said: “are you cynical about yourself?”’ He was really taken aback by that question. 

‘Then, last night, I was on television and the interviewer said: “are you hopeful that people will change?” and I said: “do you feel hopeful that you could change? That you could fly a little less, eat a little less meat?”, and she said: “yeah I do”, and I said well, you know, “then right now I feel hopeful."'

‘Throughout writing this book, I’ve never had a conversation with anyone – whatever their age or religion or socio-economic background – who wasn’t open to making changes in their life, even if it's just incremental.

'And really, the whole world is just the accumulation of these conversations.’

Jonathan Safran Foer. Photo by Stuart Simpson for Penguin 2019.
Jonathan Safran Foer. Photo by Stuart Simpson for Penguin 2019.

Halfway through, We Are The Weather abruptly switches tact and we are presented with a series of bullet points which, even for seasoned climate worriers, make for alarming reading. It’s a neat tactic: cosy up to the reader with some hopeful stories then sucker punch them with the cold, hard facts (the most harrowing of them, for me: after beef, cheese is the animal product with the highest global CO2e cost). 

Then, finally, we get to the simplicity of the proposal itself: consume no animal products before dinner. If that relatively small individual effort sounds somewhat futile while the Amazon still burns and Trump still doesn’t care and China still chomps through coal like a midnight drunk attacking a Big Mac, Safran Foer has the following answer for you:

We need structural change, yes  we need a global shift away from fossil fuels and toward renewable energy. We need to enforce something akin to a carbon tax, mandate environmental impact labels for products, replace plastic with sustainable solutions, and build walkable cities. We need structures to nudge us toward choices we already want to make. We need to ethically address the West’s relationship to the Global South. We might even need a political revolution. These changes will require shifts that individuals alone cannot realise. But putting aside the fact that collective revolutions are made up of individuals, led by individuals, and reinforced by thousands of individuals’ revolutions, we would have no chance of achieving our goal of limiting environmental destruction if individuals don’t make the very individual decision to eat differently. Of course it’s true that one person deciding to eat a plant-based diet will not change the world, but of course it’s true that the sum of millions of such decisions will. 

Elsewhere, more succinctly:

We must either let some eating habits go or let the planet go. It is that straightforward, that fraught. Where were you when you made your decision?

'It’s usually rich, white people who say this is a rich, white person issue'

As we eat, central London has been brought to a standstill by the environmental campaign group Extinction Rebellion which has set up camps in key areas like Trafalgar Square and Westminster. Prime Minister Boris Johnson’s reaction has been to call them ‘crusties’, the inference being that the protesters are middle-class hippies, with little support among other demographics.

Safran Foer is a supporter of Extinction Rebellion and the recent global climate march, with the caveat that ‘it’s easy to confuse the expression of displeasure for something generative, when it’s just not’. 

He elaborates: ‘We confuse the climate crisis as a political problem which it isn’t. Half the people aren’t going to solve the problem, we’ll either solve it together or we’ll suffer together.

‘The rhetoric has become kind of a zero sum game where, at a march like this, one team is scoring a point and another team is losing a point. It just deepens the crisis rather than resolves it.’

But he is quick to dismiss the charge – buried in Johnson’s anachronism – that caring about the environment or adopting a plant-based diet is a luxury only the middle classes can afford.

‘[In America], more than twice as many people who are vegetarian make less than $30,000 than make $75,000. People of colour are vegetarian at a much higher rate than white people. And it’s significantly cheaper: Harvard medical school did a study last year that found that there’s $750 difference between eating a meat-based diet compared to a vegetarian diet. 

‘I find that it’s usually rich, white people who say [the climate crisis] is a rich, white person issue – as a way to get out of having to change.’

Extinction Rebellion protests at Trafalgar Square in London, October 2019. Photo: Getty
Extinction Rebellion protests at Trafalgar Square in London, October 2019. Photo: Getty

The final sections of We Are The Weather see the novelist in Safran Foer return. In one particularly cinematic passage, he imagines earth after our extinction:

And then our planet will orbit unintelligently for the rest of time, an unintelligent rock among unintelligent rocks in an unintelligent universe. The brief experiment with human consciousness – with learning words, planting seeds, sizing the space between monkey bars, twisting loose teeth, trick-or-treating with pillowcases, sliding pencils under casts, making stovepipe hats and beards from construction paper, folding cranes, planting flags, folding poker hands, sharing selfies[...] – will be forever unremembered.

This beautiful, sad list of human minutiae continues for twice as long as replicated above, and is followed up by a letter from the author to his sons. It is there, I think, that Safran Foer will either convert or lose most of his readers. The soaring emotional notes either bring you along or they don’t.

For me, it worked a charm. Quite aside from being a meticulously researched account of global climate change, We Are The Weather is a writer summoning all of his skills to try and do what the facts alone cannot: make us believe in something we already know. As such, it amounts to a passionate case for storytelling itself, something that may seem trivial in the face of scorched earth and rising tides until you realise, he’s right: we need a shared narrative that can cross political and social divides if we’re ever to galvanise ourselves into tackling this thing. Partially inspired by the book, I posted a rather meek Facebook status for the first time in months about how I'd cut out the majority of my meat intake and was enjoying it. Amid comments of congratulation and skepticism, one read simply 'F*** off'.

'It’s helpful to remember the word “no” is a bit severe'

Stories are all well and good, of course, but assuming you agree, what about actually putting that ‘no animal produce before dinner’ plan into practice? Does Safran Foer have any advice for that?

As we polish off our towers of potato, he offers the following:

‘Having some go-to meals you know you love is helpful. Avocado toast is a really nice thing to have in the morning. Oatmeal. A smoothie.

'How many animal products do you rotate over a month? Three? Five? So come up with three or five alternatives that are good and work for you, and that takes the pressure off having to decide each time. Also, knowing other people that are doing it is really helpful, finding that community.’

‘But really I would say this: psychologically, it’s helpful to remember the word “no” is a bit severe. The point is: I’m just trying to orient myself in the direction I know is necessary.’

We Are The Weather by Jonathan Safran Foer is out now. 

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