Save Yourselves

The One Small Thing You Can Do to Help Save the Planet

'Eating Animals' author Jonathan Safran Foer is back with a new book about the climate crisis – and how our individual choices make a difference.

by Phoebe Hurst; photos by Wunmi Onibudo
08 October 2019, 1:49pm

Jonathan Safran Foer, author of 'We Are the Weather: Saving the Planet Begins at Breakfast'.

The climate crisis has an identity crisis. Sure, we know that temperatures are rising to an extent that ‘sunburn on your lungs’ is now a thing, but what do we actually do about it? While unprecedented numbers are taking part in Extinction Rebellion’s London shutdown this week, most of us respond to the latest environmental disaster update with internal screaming or a vague pledge to buy a KeepCup.

Part of this inaction may have something to do with the fact that the climate crisis does not have a unifying storyline. There are no good guys to cheer for, no enemy to vilify. Humans caused this mess, and now we have the incredibly difficult job of fixing it.

Still, there can be few better qualified to have a go at crafting the climate crisis story than Jonathan Safran Foer, author of best-selling novels Everything Is Illuminated and Extremely Loud & Incredibly Close, as well as the seminal vegetarian text Eating Animals. The New York-based writer’s new non-fiction work, We Are the Weather: Saving the Planet Begins at Breakfast, attempts to make us see the climate crisis not as a nebulous disaster, but something that we can and must urgently participate in. The best way to do this, he argues, is by forgoing animal products before dinner.

That’s not to say that We Are the Weather is simply a guide to going veggie. The book combines hard-hitting climate change stats with historic accounts of people acting collectively towards a common goal. Safran Foer ends the book with a moving letter to his two sons, stating that mankind must solve the climate crisis together, “everyone’s hand wrapped around the same pen”. It's a predictably compelling read. I met with Safran Foer on his recent trip to London to speak about the new book, and why he believes eating less meat must become a new social norm.

VICE: Hi Jonathan, I read Eating Animals back when I was a very recently converted vegetarian, and it felt like a watershed text. This is your first non-fiction book since then. What was your headspace like when writing it, compared to Eating Animals ten years ago?Jonathan Safran Foer: The last thing I wanted to do was feel that I was returning to the subject of meat, except that I did. What I wanted to do was write a book about climate change and specifically, this problem of knowing a fair amount about it. There is just so much information now and so much care, and yet so little action. I felt this increasing sense of mystery as to why that was the case, and disappointment as well. Like, why do I say one thing and do something else? It felt narcissistic, having so many conversations with friends. I felt like I was somebody who was wearing a t-shirt with a slogan that didn’t correspond to the life that he was living.

And then, very, very quickly, it became pretty obvious that I would have to write about eating. It's strange because in America, until about three months ago, nobody really wrote about the connection between eating and climate change – it was almost like a secret. In the last three months or half a year, it’s absolutely blown up as a subject. I just assumed it was a strategy that environmentalists have because it’s difficult to talk about. It’s already such a struggle to get people to care about climate change at all.

One of the heartening things is on this book tour is that I’m often paired with a climate scientist for interviews and they’re all vegetarians – I had no idea! They just take it for granted in the same way they wouldn’t own an SUV. They’re not vegetarians in a personal identity fashion. For them, not eating meat is like not flying in private planes.

But meat consumption remains very difficult to talk about. The food writer Bee Wilson wrote this piece after the World Health Organisation announced that bacon was carcinogenic. She writes that she knows bacon causes cancer, but she still has these memories and connections with eating a bacon sandwich in the morning, or making a fry-up with her family. People have such emotional connections with meat, how can we get them to cut down?
I guess we’ll find out [laughs]. Look, we have much much stronger associations with coastal cities than meat. We have much stronger associations with being outside during the summer. The problem is that meat is very primal and immediate, whereas the things we stand to lose because of climate change feel distant and vague. I would also say that the things that people usually point to as being important associations with food, aren’t actually dependent on a specific ingredient. So, like what you just said, a mash-up – I don’t even know what that means, honestly. What the hell is a mash-up, anyway?

Oh, you mean a fry-up! It’s a full English breakfast with bacon, eggs, beans, toast …
Right. So, my guess is that some of that memory has something to do with the specific ingredients. It was interesting that you said “with her family.” My guess is that the “with her family” is the more important part of that sentence. If they were to conceive of a different breakfast, whatever it is, I just doubt that the emotional association would be undermined. I doubt that it would be any less rich with meaning. I don’t think you lose meaning when you substitute a food; you lose a taste but you can make something else and it will be great.

That’s not to understate the challenges. But we do things differently all the time – frankly, the way we eat now is really different to how our parents or grandparents ate.

When I picked up the book, I assumed it would be a guide to cutting down your meat consumption, like a “how to go vegan in five easy steps.” But you actually devote more time to probing why climate change doesn’t really have a narrative in the same way that – in one example you give – Rosa Parks refusing to move on the bus did for the Civil Rights movement. Did you set out to write the compelling story of the climate crisis?
I don’t know if that story exists. When I was writing the book, I hadn’t reached a conclusion that I wanted to share. It was more like I had entered into a struggle with myself that I wanted to share. To say, “Here are five easy ways to do it” implies that you want to reduce your meat consumption, and most people don’t want to do it. I don’t really want to do it. I think it’s good to be honest about our own mixed feelings.

And you’ve been honest as well in writing about your struggles with vegetarianism.
I mention it because when somebody shares their ethical accomplishments with me, I find it really annoying. If someone says, “I’m feeling so good, I gave up flying,” it makes me almost want to go fly to offset their patronising. But when someone shares their struggles with me, I find it interesting and trustworthy. If what was required of us was to save the planet was to stop punching ourselves in the face, then we would have done it already. It would be really easy.

The problem is what it requires of us is doing less of things that are really nice. Travelling is really nice and I like seeing other parts of the world and it brings me pleasure. So, it’s hard to fly less but that’s what’s required of us. To simply say, “We have to fly less” may be true and people may nod in agreement, but we’re also human beings. The challenge now is not to know that something is necessary, and it’s not to argue that we should do it – it’s to actually do it. I think a helpful starting place is just to admit that it’s hard and instead of pointing at each others’ hypocrisy, to say, “This is hard, I can’t be perfect about it but I can definitely do a lot better than I’ve been doing.”

I think there can actually be something even radical in talking about incremental action. Sometimes, facing the scale of the crisis, it can be easy to dismiss incremental action, like, “How can you only talk about refraining from meat at breakfast and lunch?” but we’re coming from a starting place of almost all of us doing almost nothing. It doesn’t matter what we know or what we care about, it only really matters about what we do.

I wanted to talk about the concept of ‘the individual’ in your book. The premise is what you can do as an individual to fight the climate catastrophe in cutting down your meat consumption, specifically. But groups like Extinction Rebellion say it’s too late for individual action, and that we need to go straight to politicians as they declare a climate emergency. The change has to come from the people at the top.
I don’t disagree, I just think it’s a false distinction between the individual and the collective. Or the grassroots and the top-down, let’s say. The people in Extinction Rebellion who are protesting are individuals. We’re talking about the exact same means: individuals make a choice. Their choice is to raise their voices, which is good and important. I’m talking about individuals raising their voices with habits and money, which I think is an indispensable part of the same movement. How much are governments going to care about people with posters and people stopping traffic? Maybe somewhat. They haven’t cared very much up until now. If those same people were withdrawing their financial support, I think it would be a more powerful way to change the system. Students boycotting school is one thing, if they were to boycott an industry, I think we would see change more quickly.

I’m in complete agreement that individuals can’t do this alone, we need to have systemic change and legislative change and corporations behaving differently. I just think the best way to force them to do that is through these kind of individual changes in addition to marching. Marching is a necessary way to make the will of people heard. I just think it’s perhaps not as strong a nudge or not as forceful a nudge as behavioural change.

You see not buying meat products, or deciding not to fly as a similar kind of collective action as going on an Extinction Rebellion protest?
I do, I just think that it’s more forceful. It’s already starting to happen without people trying. So, things like the Beyond Burger. In America six months ago, you couldn’t get a veggie burger anywhere. Now every single fast food restaurant in America sells them, not because anybody legislated it, not because these corporations woke up and decided to participate in the environmental movement, it’s because people asked for them. And now they have them which in turn, makes it much easier for people to eat less meat, which will make it easier for these corporations to withdraw from industrialised meat production.

So, I agree with the opinion you attributed to Extinction Rebellion, that we just need faster change. My thinking is, this is the way to bring about the fastest change. When we see the images of the Amazon burning, the response is to be angry at Bolsonaro for not enforcing protection but there’s something a little disingenuous about that when 91 percent of Amazon deforestation is for meat, for the purpose of animal agriculture. It’s a little disingenuous for us to write the cheques and ask them to burn the Amazon on our behalf for culinary pleasure, and them blame somebody else for not regulating our own cravings. If we were to have a boycott of beef, we would protect the Amazon forever. It’s exactly that simple.

It’s easy for someone like me to go vegan: I have disposable income and time, I don’t have any children. However in the UK and US, there are food deserts where you can’t access fruit and vegetables cheaply, especially if you’re on a low income. Is this not an example of where government legislation is needed to ensure everyone has access to a vegan or vegetarian diet?
We don’t really have to talk about the ‘vegan’ or ‘vegetarian’ diet, we should just talk about reducing meat consumption – that’s a very important distinction to make. An awful lot of people can’t imagine becoming a vegetarian or vegan, whereas they can easily imagine eating less and that’s what the planet requires.

Secondly, we absolutely need to have a concerted effort to make sure that nobody lives in a food desert – that’s an independent issue. Oftentimes people point at that – the existence of people without access to food – as the reason why they themselves won’t change, which is condescending. When a movement away from meat is referred to as an ‘elitist’ argument, it’s silly. Harvard Medical School did a study that found that it’s $750 a year cheaper to eat a plant-based diet than a meat-based diet. Not only is it not more expensive, it’s significantly cheaper. People of colour are also disproportionately vegetarian.

You often hear this thing, it’s in the atmosphere somehow, that it is an affluent white person’s argument to eat less meat. First of all, it’s affluent white people who say that most often, secondly, it’s completely not in keeping with the reality. The reality is, people who are not affluent and white seem to be more drawn to this than people who are, and are taking on a greater burden to change. We have to dismantle that idea and at the same time, adjust the problem of people who live in food deserts, which is not a vegetarian issue, it’s an issue of poverty which needs to be resolved.

What I find so frustrating is people who point at the existence of food deserts are never the people who are devoted to solving the problem. They’re the people who are devoted not to change in their own lives.

The behavioural changes you outline in your book – eating less meat – need to become social norms very quickly. How do we make that happen?
I had this really arresting experience a couple of weeks ago, I did a reading and afterwards there was a signing and a couple came up to me and put the book in front of me and on the title page, it was filled with their handwriting. I said, “What’s this?” and they said, “We’re getting married in a month and we decided that we need to have a plan because if we don’t have a plan, we’ll just do what we’ve always done.” Their plan, which they’d written out, was “Eat vegetarian unless served meat at a friend’s house or there’s no alternative, eat vegan two days a week, have no more than two kids, and drive no more than 1,500 kilometres a year.” Instead of having me sign, they had a line that said “Witness.” I realised when I was confronted with this that I didn’t have a plan, but I’m the guy on the stage doing the reading and I signed their book.

I went back to my hotel that night and on hotel stationary, I wrote my plan and it was really powerful.

You’ve inspired me to go home and write my own climate action plan
I’ll show you mine, I carry them around with me.

Jonathan Safran Foer's personal climate action plan.

Wow, it’s actually on hotel stationary.
I signed mine as well – there’s a power in putting your name to it. Also I have witnesses: I’m showing it to you, I showed it to my kids so it’s harder to forget. It’s just a simple thing, I hadn’t thought about it when I wrote the book. I wish I had!

If everybody just did that, if we said, “Okay, here are the four things that matter: fly less, drive less, eat less meat, and have fewer kids.” Just write down what you plan to do and give it a number – maybe that’s it. It would be a huge step in the right direction.

Thank you for speaking with me, Jonathan.

Interview has been edited for length and clarity.

@phoebejanehurst / @wunmio

We Are the Weather: Saving the Planet Begins at Breakfast by Jonathan Safran Foer is published on the 10th of October.

Jonathan Safran Foer
climate crisis