We Are the Weather by Jonathan Safran Foer
“When a radical change is needed, many argue that it is impossible for individual actions to incite it, so it’s futile for anyone to try. This is exactly the opposite of the truth; the impotence individual action is a reason for everyone to try.” — We Are the Weather, page 51
Imagine. for a moment. that the United States collectively returns to sanity, reenters the Paris Climate Agreement and, along with the other nations so-committed, succeeds in reducing greenhouse gases and keeping global warming below the Paris Accord’s stated threshold of 2° Celsius. Well, then we’d have dodged the bullet, right? Not exactly.
Even if we’re able to keep global warming below the 2° threshold, an outcome that statisticians currently model at having a 5% probability, the results of the warming already in effect will include dramatic increase in human mortality, flooding and uninhabitability of dozens of coastal cities (including New York), 40% increase in armed conflict, and widespread water scarcity. That’s our best-case scenario. But, according to We Are the Weather, Jonathan Safran Foer’s second book of nonfiction, we’re not even doing enough to meet that goal.
The following industry segments contribute the greatest to greenhouse gas emissions: electricity (25%), agriculture (24%), manufacturing (24%), transportation (14%), buildings (6%), and 7% from other miscellaneous sources. In order to meet the goal of the Paris Accord, Foer tells us, greenhouse gas emissions from all of these have to drop to zero. He cites a 2017 research letter stating that the most effective steps any of us can take to decrease carbon emissions are to eat a plant-based diet, avoid flying, live car-free and have one fewer child. Foer’s previous book, Eating Animals, took on the factory farming industry, and the subtitle of We Are the Weather is, “Saving the Planet Begins at Breakfast.” It’s not hard to see where he’s headed.
In feeding humanity’s dependence on animal agriculture, we’ve transformed the Earth into a massive animal farm. 59% of land capable of growing crops is used to grow food for livestock, and a full one-third of the fresh water that humans use also goes to livestock. Not only does the deforestation of land used for livestock grazing release CO2, but livestock and the fertilizers used for growing feed crops are the leading source of emissions of methane and nitrous oxide, greenhouse gases that trap heat at rates many times that of CO2. It will, Foer states, be impossible to achieve the goal of the Paris Accord without reducing our consumption of animal products.
He cites an assessment of the livestock industry published in Nature in October 2018, which stated that if we are to avert irreversible and cataclysmic environmental damage, the average world citizen would need to shift to a plant-based diet. For the average U.S. and U.K. citizen, that means consuming 90% less beef and 60% less dairy. Foer’s proposal as to how we achieve that is a modest one: no animal products before dinner.
Foer admits that individual action is not enough, that there must be structural change as well – a carbon tax, mandated environmental-impact labels for products, walkable cities – but he insists that individual actions, which have the power to influence and spark collective action, are also required. We tend to believe that climate change is caused by large external forces, when in fact each of us is part of the problem, and we each need to be part of the solution.
Foer’s argument is persuasive, and I want to believe that we can call to halt the forces that are carrying us off the end of this cliff, reverse them, and save the planet. At the same time, Foer himself admits that it’s a fantasy, that for numerous reasons – the ongoing destruction of the Amazon rainforest, the increase in American CO2 emissions by 3.4% in 2018, the thousands of feedback loops already in play (ie: warming > air-conditioning > more warming), the inability of those most impacted (Bangledesh, Haiti, Zimbabwe, Fiji, Sri Lanka, Vietnam) to change the behavior of those most responsible (United States, China) – it’s already too late. He wrestles with his own imperfection when it comes to eating animal products, admitting (at the time of the book’s writing) that he had yet to give up dairy and eggs and was giving himself until he finished the book to do so.
Still, he says, inaction is unforgivable.