Jonathan Safran Foer: Stopping Climate Change Starts at Breakfast

In his second book on the ethics and impacts of food, the novelist urges people to eat less meat to save the planet.



This story is part of Covering Climate Now, a global collaboration of more than 250 news outlets to strengthen coverage of the climate story.

Covering Climate Now logo“We will never address climate change, never save our home, until we acknowledge that our planet is a farm,” acclaimed author Jonathan Safran Foer argues in “Dispute With the Soul,” a later chapter in his new book, We Are the Weather.

Foer wrote the chapter as an internal dialogue in which he wrestles with questions of how much of a difference he—and therefore other individuals—can make in the face of a climate crisis, and it’s one example of We Are the Weather’s unconventional approach to tackling the environmental impact of food choices.

While Foer is primarily known for his best-selling novels, he wrote his first book about the effects of food production, Eating Animals, nearly a decade ago. We Are the Weather pays similar attention to animal agriculture, but focuses the lens more squarely on its connection to climate change.

Thinking of the planet as a farm, for instance, leads to one simple, actionable step every person can take right away that could move the needle on climate change in a major way: eating less factory-farmed meat. (Numbers range dramatically depending on the source, but the Food and Agriculture Organization of the United Nations estimates greenhouse gas emissions from livestock supply chains account for 14.5 percent of all human-induced emissions.)

Through a mash-up of personal, historical, and factual storytelling, Foer explores why humans make the choices they make and what drives them to act. Why is an individual able to summon superhuman strength to lift a car off a stranger, for example, but can’t be moved to eat fewer chicken sandwiches in the face of planetary disaster? Climate deniers are not the problem, he says.

The vast majority of individuals who accept that climate change is real and eat as if it’s not, are. “We may not think the scientists are lying, but are we able to believe what they tell us?” he writes. “Such a belief would surely awaken us to the urgent ethical imperative attached to it, shake our collective conscience, and render us willing to make small sacrifices in the present to avoid cataclysmic ones in the future.”

Foer does not proselytize; his approach is literary and personal. He takes the reader along on a bumpy, somewhat chaotic journey that acknowledges his own challenges giving up animal products, offers easily digestible facts and figures, and presents ideas about how individuals can make small sacrifices together towards the greater good. “This book is not a comprehensive explanation of climate change, and it is not a categorical case against eating animal products,” he writes. “It is an exploration of a decision that our planetary crisis requires us to make.”

Just before the fires in the Amazon drew international attention to one of the environmental issues associated with animal agriculture—deforestation to clear land for grazing and growing animal feed—Civil Eats spoke with Foer about his new book and why he believes “saving the planet begins at breakfast.”

How much did the reaction to your book Eating Animals influence this book?

That’s a good question. I’m not sure. I can tell you that Eating Animals was far more successful than I or anybody else thought it would be. So, I was surprised and really gladdened by how open readers are to difficult subjects. My strategy with that book was not to figure out how to crack anybody else open; it was how to crack myself open. Because I have strong, sometimes subtle, sometimes mixed feelings about these questions. Like, what’s the right thing to eat? I sometimes can’t believe what a struggle it is given how many years I’ve now been thinking, writing, and talking about this stuff.

I find it harder now than it was before I wrote Eating Animals. But I’m a hundred times more resolved, my habits are more resolved as well. So, I have enormous sympathy for people who have a hard time acting on what they believe. And frankly, I don’t know if there’s anybody who doesn’t fall into that category. I really wanted this book to be honest about that struggle, because I think honesty makes it much easier.

Why do you think it’s such a struggle for you to avoid meat after all of this time?

My kids are vegetarians, and they really do find it easy because they never got addicted. I totally did. When I talk about times I’ve eaten meat, it hasn’t really been for the taste. It’s been for some sort of emotional thing. Whether it was a barbecue or food prepared by my grandmother … those are good memories, and formative for me.

But it’s different for different people. Some people have a really easy time letting go of the culinary craving but a hard time letting go of the emotional craving. Some people are really upset by the treatment of animals. Some people find the environmental arguments really persuasive. Some people think of it as a class issue. The amazing thing about [industrial] animal agriculture is … there’s just a wholly comprehensive argument against it. Different people respond to different aspects, but it’s a cumulative argument. One is not in competition with the other. The challenge is to reorient toward shared values, which don’t always perfectly overlap … but we can acknowledge the facts, which aren’t really controversial or ambiguous.

It’s totally not controversial that animal agriculture is a leading cause of climate change. It’s not controversial that we cannot solve the problem of climate change without solving the problem of animal agriculture.

A lot of the book, though, is about how to get people from that starting point to a place where they actually take action.

There are a lot of ways of saying the same thing or achieving the same goals. For example, if you were to ask me: “What are the odds of half of Americans being vegetarian in 10 years?” I’d say zero. But what are the odds of half of the meals eaten in America being vegetarian in 10 years? I would say really good. And in terms of the impact, on the environment or on the animals or whatever it is that you care about, the impact is the same. But they are radically different ways of looking at the same problem and conclusion. We ask whether somebody’s a vegetarian or is an environmentalist. But maybe those aren’t the right questions to be asking. First of all, it turns these things into identities rather than choices that accumulate over the course of a day, or a life.

There’s a lot of tension between vegans and those who raise animals outside the factory system, like grass-fed beef producers. You’ve always made your case for eating fewer animal products while also showing examples of animal agriculture that is better for animals and the planet. Is it possible for people to understand the difference, while also understanding that most meat comes from factory farms?

I think about that a lot, and I worry about being dishonest in either direction. It’s dishonest not to acknowledge that there are good farms that are not bad for the environment or not bad for animals. But it’s also dishonest to focus on them too much when they’re the tiniest little sliver of what’s available. So how excited should we really get about those exceptions?

What I wrestled with when I wrote Eating Animals—and am still wrestling with—is the question of what is the outcome that we want? The outcome I think we can say everybody wants is less violence and less environmental destruction. If that’s what we want, what’s the best way to get it? I obviously take a more incremental approach, but I have a lot of respect for people who take the other approach. PETA is probably the most successful advocacy group in history, and their strategy has been to [convert] two out of 10 people at the expense of alienating the other eight. I don’t know if they would say that … but that’s how I would characterize it. And what they did was an amazing service to this conversation. Nobody cared about [the consequences of animal agriculture] before.

The problem is we need the other eight out of 10 to make a dent in our climate impact. We cannot do this without them.

You say in the book that making history depends on good stories, and that climate change is not a good story. What kinds of stories, then, are needed to get people to act?

I don’t think there’s a story that is going to work for everybody. To a large extent we have to overcome our feelings and just do the thing we have to do. On the other hand, people rarely do the thing they have to do if it’s not embedded in some kind of story, or an idea of oneself.

These stories are going to be largely told to oneself. I write books and some people read them, but then they stop. I have to find ways to keep this conversation alive inside of me. If I stop thinking about it, I’ll stop doing the things I want to do.

The book ends with referencing … this idea of making a home together, and I feel like, by arguing with ourselves, we will make a home together. The form of that argument will be different for different people. Like some people might say, “I am doing this for my kids.” Other people might say, “These are my values, and I want to live my values.” I think the really interesting and inspiring thing is we don’t all need to find new values. We don’t need to change who we are.

We just need this moment of pause when ordering off a menu or when taking food off a shelf in a supermarket. Literally, five seconds of pause, to say, “I want this, but I know I want other things as well.” Biodiversity or the ability to be outside in the summer or for kids today to not become climate refugees … whatever it is. How can I weigh these two things right now, in this moment? Can I remember those other things?

Jonathan Safran Foer author photo © Jeff Mermelstein.

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  1. Lisa Hammond
    Tuesday, September 24th, 2019
    I was told by a rancher at my local farmers' market in Palo Alto, Calif., that a new loophole in the claim that animals are 'grass fed' - the new piece of legislation allows ranches to claim 'grass fed' if they animal was fed only grass for the first few months of its life, but after that anything goes. Does anyone know more about this subject.

    Lisa
    • Jennifer
      Wednesday, September 25th, 2019
      Lisa--This is why its good to know your farmer, there are actually loads of loopholes when it comes to labeling of products. I would know your farmer, if you buy organic familiarize yourself with the standards behind each of the different groups that certify. It may be extreme to some people, but I pretty much just eat local and if its not a locally produced product its from my cooperative grocery store where I can ask questions about the origin....