Jonathan Safran Foer on Our Moral Obligation to Eat Better

September 20, 2019

The writer’s second book on animal agriculture, We Are The Weather, asks readers to take a hard look at their own role in the climate crisis.

Reading Time: 6 minutes

Jonathan Safran Foer on Our Moral Obligation to Eat Better

The writer’s second book on animal agriculture, We Are The Weather, asks readers to take a hard look at their own role in the climate crisis.

At the United Nation’s climate conference in Poland last year, I sat around a dinner table with a group of Polish forestry experts, environmental journalists, and two climate deniers—female radio journalists from Texas who said they had been attending the conference for years to bring back behind-the-scenes stories of the climate movement’s failures.

The women were focused not on the science of climate change, but on the sacrifices the climate movement asks of us. “Why should we give up out standard of living while Al Gore flies around in a private jet?” one asked the group.

I thought about those women a lot as I read We Are The Weather, Jonathan Safran Foer’s latest work, which begins with a look at the home front efforts during World War Two, when the government framed sacrifices as service. Americans participated in voluntary black outs, paid higher taxes, rationed meat, sugar, gas, and other goods. Collectively, these individual actions helped a nation go to war.

I also thought about the meal I shared with the Texas journalists—a roast beef dish, as I recall—and how Foer might say that, ultimately, I was no better than an outright climate denier. “Our descendants won’t distinguish between those who denied the science of climate change,” he writes in his new book, “and those who behaved as if they did.”

By some estimates, animal agriculture accounts for roughly half of annual emissions around the globe, and by all accounts, cutting down on meat is one of the simplest and most effective ways for humans to combat the climate crisis.  Cutting out animal products before dinner could reduce each of our annual carbon footprints by 1.3 metric tons. Yet environmentalists and policy makers have long been wary of asking individuals to change their behavior, when it’s industries, not individuals, who carry much of the blame for the climate crisis.

We Are The Weather is an ode to collective action, persuasively asking readers to take a hard look at our own role in the climate crisis and its solutions. “We must either let some eating habits go or let the planet go,” Foer writes. “It is as straightforward and as fraught as that.”

I spoke with Foer about why food is such an emotional issue, his own struggles to stop eating animals, and the power of collective action.

I found the book thoroughly convincing. But so far, I’ve also been incapable of living up to its central mandate. Why is it hard for many of us to change our food behaviors, even when we know better?

It’s such a personal thing. For me, it’s hard because I spent my whole life eating this stuff. It’s hard to undo decades of training, especially when that training includes one’s childhood, when you’re just forming your sense of self and sense of the world. All of that having been said, while I think it’s very easy to understate how difficult it is, I think it’s also easy to overstate it. It’s tricky, but it’s not impossible. One good strategy is to start by eliminating the stuff that is easy. Speaking for myself, shifting from milk in coffee to oat milk in coffee is super easy. And then, the things that are really difficult, because they’re embedded with memory or just because you love them, I think one can forgive oneself for those things. A huge amount our eating is inertia eating: We eat it because we ate it yesterday. Replacing things we don’t even care about falls into the category of “everybody can do it.”

Your earlier book Eating Animals also dealt with animal agriculture, but focused on animal suffering. We Are The Weather feels much more like a call to action. What led you to this more prescriptive stance?

Part of it is the urgency of climate change, which is a collective problem. One could probably look at animal agriculture itself as a collective problem in the sense that it’s a system that produces so much violence and destruction that we all need to work to dismantle it. But animal welfare doesn’t have a ticking clock in quite the same way that climate change does. With climate change, we either fix it now or we will never fix it.

Of all the efforts that people could make to help the climate, why focus on food?  

Most people think about animal agriculture or meat as something that they have a personal relationship with, whereas when we think about climate change, we think things like, “Someone’s got to do something.” We don’t know exactly where the “I” fits into the problem or the solution. That was something I wanted to figure out for myself: What it is that you could do—assuming that you’re not a legislator?

We know that the four things an individual can do that really matter are having fewer kids, flying less, living car free, and eating a plant-based diet. Most people aren’t currently in the process of deciding whether or not to have a kid, and 85 percent of Americans drive to work and live in cities designed to require a car. About half of all flights are either for work or for what are called non-leisure personal purposes, like going to visit a sick relative.

Food, however, is a choice that we make three times a day. It’s the only one of those four things that immediately addresses methane and nitrous oxide, which are the two most urgently important greenhouse gases. [Editor’s note: Over the long-term, methane and nitrous oxide are 25 to 300 times more effective at trapping heat in the atmosphere than carbon dioxide.] So then I started to just think, what’s possible for me? What is fair to ask of others? What’s required?

People have more control over the agriculture industry with their food choices than they do over, say, oil and gas wells. But our current agricultural system is still supported by the government with subsidies, anti-whistleblower laws, and more. How does individual action succeed in the face of that?

Those laws aren’t what’s making it difficult for you or for me. They’re making it very easy for that industry to carry on or to expand its destructive practices, but they’re not forcing our hand. And we can force their hand. I’ve met a lot of farmers in my life who said to me, “I grow what people buy.” A good example of this is cage-free and free-range eggs, which are the fastest growing sector in the food industry—not because the industry had some sort of ethical revelation, not because they taste better, and not because they’re any healthier for us. It’s because people said, “I don’t want to support that.” And it worked. You could maybe find them in a health food store five years ago, and now you can find them in gas stations. So I don’t think it’s at all naïve to believe that consumer preferences will reform the industry. We’re watching it happen in front of our eyes right now.

You’re candid about your own struggles eliminating meat, and at times it seems like in We Are The Weather that you’re still trying to convince yourself. You write that you’re trying to stop eating eggs and cheese by the end of book. Did you succeed? 

I have been succeeding, not perfectly, but a lot more perfectly than before. I would be lying if I said that it’s easy. It’s not easy, but that’s okay. Rather than feeling like a hypocritical failure when I fall short of my own intentions or values, I kind of enjoy the work of it. I like the feeling of digging in, and doing my best. For me, I’ve come to realize that this is not going to be a decision that I make once. It’s going to be a conversation that I have with myself at most meals, when I’m at the supermarket or a restaurant, where I just pause and say, “You want this. You also want that. How do we weigh those two wants?” Sometimes the want that is not good for the environment wins—and should win. If you have a relative who is sick, I think it’s the right thing to get on a plane and visit them.

You write about a friend of yours who refuses to read your books because he knows he won’t like the knowledge they will provide. So given how fraught an issue food choice is, are you optimistic?

My impression is that at the moment of our speaking, which is not the same as a year ago even, pretty much everyone knows what needs to be done and wants to do it. There are twice as many people in America who believe in Bigfoot as deny climate change right now. It’s hard to find people, putting aside our president, who deny the basic science and the basic realities of it, and most people want to participate in the solution. So what’s needed is not some kind of philosophical or ethical revolution, but connecting the values that we have and share with our behaviors. And I think a large part of that is just about how we talk about it, to each other and to ourselves.

This interview has been edited for length and clarity.

Covering Climate NowThis story originally appeared in The New Republic. It is republished here as a part of Sentient Media’s partnership with Covering Climate Now, a global collaboration of more than 250 news outlets to strengthen coverage of the climate story.

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