We Are The Weather—review

We Are The Weather. Saving the Planet Begins at Breakfast. Jonathan Safran Foer. Farrar, Straus, and Giroux, 2019.

There is now a growing chorus of well-known popular books on the subject of climate change. Everyone from Al Gore to Naomi Klein has gotten into the act. Jonathan Safran Foer has outdone them all: BECAUSE, almost alone among such writers, he discusses livestock agriculture in some depth. He knows this implies veganism and addresses, in a very personal way, the difficulties of following a vegan diet.

Foer believes that livestock is about HALF of our climate problem — in line with the Goodland and Anhang article “Livestock and Climate Change,” which he discusses. Foer understands the role of livestock in the climate issue better than most vegans. While FAO has said that 14.5% of human greenhouse gas emissions come from livestock agriculture, the reality is more like 51%!

Robert Goodland (quoted by Foer) states that the 51% figure “accounts for how exponential growth in livestock production (now more than 60 billion land animals per year), accompanied by large-scale deforestation and forest-burning, have caused a dramatic decline in the Earth’s photosynthetic capacity.” Carbon dioxide is a greenhouse gas, and these billions of livestock animals are breathing out carbon dioxide, at the very time that we are leveling forests and burning the Amazon to graze more cattle, destroying the ability of plants to absorb this extra carbon dioxide.

It’s the destruction of the biosphere by the livestock industry, to which most of the public and even many climate scientists are oblivious, that is driving climate change just as much as (or more than) fossil fuels. This implies that saving the planet begins at breakfast, in the food we eat. To his credit, Foer is trying to follow his own advice. He appears to follow a vegetarian or nearly-vegetarian diet, but still sometimes eats dairy products and eggs. Foer admits — and writes extensively about — his own difficulty in following a strict vegan diet. He clearly sees the logic of a vegan diet, but is unable to follow it.

As a vegan, my first impulse is to grab him by the collar and shake him and say, “So, go vegan already! What’s the problem here?” Foer recognizes that he has a problem and devotes much of the book to addressing exactly what this problem is. Other nonvegans who see that there are serious issues with eating animal foods, but can’t break away, doubtless face a similar problem.

Foer distinguishes “knowing” from “believing.” He says that you can know that something is true, without believing it. This is not only his problem in dealing with his diet, but it is also many Americans’ problem in dealing with climate change generally. They know the facts about climate, but they can’t bring themselves to believe it and act on it. Foer gives the example of an American Jew (Felix Frankfurter, a supreme court justice), during the Second World War, who heard first-hand reports of the Holocaust, and couldn’t believe them. Frankfurter didn’t think that these reports were false, but he still couldn’t believe it.

Something similar is happening to many Americans concerning climate change. Foer isn’t talking about the climate change deniers, by the way — he’s talking about the people who know and accept that climate change is happening, but still can’t bring themselves to act as if it were really happening. Greta Thunberg has said, “I want you to act as if your house is on fire, because it is.” We know our house is on fire, but we still can’t act.

Some vegans will want to say, “he knows what he needs to do, but won’t do it! Why should we even give this guy the time of day?” Before getting all mad and huffy, we should reflect that Foer’s situation is hardly unique; many nonvegans know most of the reasons to go vegan, but are still unable to act.

No one knows precisely the process by which one goes from knowing the reasons for going vegan to believing them and acting on them. Melanie Joy suggests in her book Why We Love Dogs, Eat Pigs, and Wear Cows, that it probably has something to do with “cognitive dissonance.” We hate to tell ourselves that we are unable to act even after we know the facts, but it’s true.

If vegans think about their own conversion to veganism, likely most of them would find that there was a period of “oscillation” between the knowledge that they should go vegan and their acting on this knowledge. In my case, I had known that animals were killed for food since childhood. In graduate school, I met a few other vegetarians, understood the basic arguments, and adopted vegetarianism. About six months later, I gave it up and went back to eating meat. After that, I became vegetarian again, and then went back to eating meat again, and so forth for about four years. Finally, I read Animal Liberation and said “that’s it!” and became vegetarian. I had wanted to give up meat, but couldn’t bring myself to do it. (This was in the 1970’s.)

I remember thinking at the time that, based on Animal Liberation, I should really go vegan, since laying hens and dairy cows were in some ways treated even worse than “meat animals” — and all eventually wound up in the slaughterhouse anyway. But I reasoned to myself, “vegetarianism is enough for the moment, I’ll deal with that later.” At the time, I didn’t know a single vegan. It was over two years later (after finding the Vegetarian Society of D. C.) that I finally became vegan. Even then I had one mildly terrifying episode when I thought, with some justification, that veganism was destroying my body.

So I don’t find it at all amazing Foer would find it difficult to adopt veganism, even after knowing the facts. What I do find amazing is that he’s willing to write about it! Talk about self-examination!

Some vegans may respond, “well, I did it! As soon as I found out about the treatment of animals, I went vegan overnight.” I can’t argue with people’s memories. But I can quote Nietzsche (Beyond Good and Evil): “I did that, says my memory. I could not have done that, says my pride, and remains inexorable. Eventually—the memory yields.” This may not be true for all “overnight” conversions, but I wouldn’t be surprised if it was true for many.

My question to Foer would be: do you have any vegan friends? The biggest obstacle to veganism isn’t the “why,” but the “how.” And the biggest problem in “how” to be vegan is often the social one: your spouse or partner isn’t interested in veganism, your kids aren’t, your parents aren’t, or your friends aren’t. The technical issues with veganism (what do I actually eat for dinner? am I getting well-prepared vegan meals?) do require a period of adjustment, but they are not as serious as the social obstacles. So while I obviously don’t agree with Foer, I see that there is a problem, a problem to which vegans should be giving some thought.

Jonathan Safran Foer, I believe in your disbelief. Please talk to us.

6 Replies to “We Are The Weather—review”

  1. As always, lots of good insights Keith. I appreciate your self-reflections on the challenges of going vegan, as I too had plenty of on-again, off-again experiences.
    Giving up meat just before starting high school back in the early 70’s was very isolating in many respects. And, due to a lifetime of societal conditioning – what Melanie Joy has termed the three N’s of carnism, that it’s Normal, Natural and Necessary – it did feel like I was giving up a very nourishing food group.
    After a few years, and for a host of personal reasons, not the least of which was the difficulty in finding vegetarian fare, I went back to my old meat eating ways for a time. After a few years on the dark side, I returned to my original vegetarianism in 1979, but still thinking eggs and dairy were okay. I hadn’t come in contact with Peter Singer’s ‘Animal Liberation,’ and just thought (or found it convenient to think) that the dairy cows and laying hens were being treated okay since they weren’t being killed. Unfortunately, this erroneous culturally conditioned belief was reinforced by a bit of starry-eyed dabbling in yoga and reading Indra Devi’s ‘Yoga for Americans’ book, which included a section on diet, with milk (presumably not from modern factory farms) being a perfectly acceptable food, and in line with the view that cows the epitome of generosity and giving.
    In addition to all this, I continued to subscribe to the prevailing ‘wisdom’ about the nutritional benefits of animal products. I’d read Frances Moore Lappe’s ‘Diet for a Small Planet,’ and took the reinforcement of the protein myth to heart (unintentional though that may have been on Lappe’s part), thinking it was far too complicated to get into all the protein combining needed to get all the essential amino acids on a vegan diet. With these ideas lodged in my head, I went on with a vegetarian approach for more years than I care to admit, missing not only Lappe’s later retraction about the necessity of methodical protein combining, but also missing the publication of ‘A Vegetarian Sourcebook’ (which might have hurried me along the road to veganism a little faster had I found it sooner).
    In the end, and after way too much procrastination, I read John Robbin’s ‘Diet for a New America,’ and was finally able to ditch the eggs and dairy. The funny thing, though, is I had the book for several years before reading all of it. Though I looked at the sections on beef and chicken, I couldn’t bring myself to read the sections on milk and eggs for some time, sensing that if I did, I’d have to do something about it. Then, when I was feeling more ready to hear the message, I finally read those parts and headed down the vegan path.
    Now, with years of veganism behind me, combined with the information explosion about vegan nutrition – so many more books and films on the subject, to say nothing of the internet – as well as the explosion in veggie burgers, plant milks and other analogs that simply weren’t available years ago – it’s easy to get to the point of wanting to grab people and ‘shake them by the collar,’ even if it’s not very effective. (It’s also probably worth remembering that, people who have gone the vegan route have probably been exposed to a Lot more info on the subject than those who haven’t gotten there yet, so it’s easy to think ‘How can they still be doing that,’ when there might be a persistent knowledge gap.)
    Not really sure how to hasten people’s overcoming their cognitive dissonance and long-entrenched habits, but I think some of the information out there now can cut both ways. When it comes to climate change or resource usage, for example, learning that veganism is preferable to meat eating can be one piece of the puzzle, but I fear it can also, however inadvertently, lend itself to a kind of unproductive gradualism, with people thinking they can help the planet by cutting back, but not eliminating animal consumption. And, to some extent this is true – if those are your primary reasons for going vegan. Same thing with personal health and the whole plant-based eating movement. It certainly has its strong points, and especially so when it comes to dispelling outdated notions regarding nutrition and health, but plant-based eating for personal health can also lend itself to a reduction in, rather than elimination of animal product consumption. Not an entirely bad thing from a personal health standpoint, but it can also provide a manner of comfort in thinking that cutting back on animal products is sufficient.
    What’s missing in the environmental and plant-based lines of reasoning is confronting the issues of animal abuse and exploitation. If it’s just personal health that we’re worried about, eating some meat or dairy may not be a deal breaker, if you only do it a little bit. But if the matter is also considered from the standpoint of abusing and killing living and feeling beings, then the justification of only doing ‘a little bit’ of killing suddenly becomes exposed as a sham when combined with the understanding that we have no nutritional need to eat animal products. (Though even here, there are those who want to equate the pain that cows, chickens, pigs, goats, rabbits and fish feel with the ‘pain’ experienced by plants that are raised for food, despite the many weaknesses with this ridiculous rationalization.)
    Anyway, not sure how to move people along, except to somehow get them to look at the preponderance of reasons to go veg – the health benefits, the environmental benefits, and maybe most importantly (and likely hardest of all), the need for prompting people to overcome the lifelong conditioning that ‘food animals’ are placed here for human benefit, and realize that killing other animals to live isn’t necessary and it isn’t okay.

    1. Thanks for taking the time to share. I was lucky enough to have not been a big lover of meat anyway. Eggs and cheese were harder; but I’ve been 100% vegan (which is really always less than 100%) for quite a few years now. Keith is working on a book that should clarify the environmental issues – but at some point I would like to see Vegetarian Resource Book updated edition, or something along those lines. He needs a volume that summarizes the contents of his writings since VRB.

      1. Agreed that it would be great to see an updated version of Vegetarian Resource Book. So much powerful info packed into that one. But of course updating is far easier said than done.

        1. If I were to update A Vegetarian Sourcebook, it would be a completely different book. What it would be is my new book, Embracing Limits, which is about veganism, the environmental crisis, and limits to growth (among many other things). I’m currently looking for a publisher / agent. Kip, if you’d like to see a copy, send me an e-mail (keith “at” compassionatespirit “dot” com). Drew already has seen it.

          In such a revision of A Vegetarian Sourcebook, there would be no real need for Section I on nutrition, because we’ve got How Not to Die and many other excellent books. (In Embracing Limits I do have one chapter on nutrition.) There may be a need to revise Section III on ethics; but the basic facts about treatment of animals have been well-known and well-explored for decades by many excellent writers. I do have some new things I could say, which I also work into Embracing Limits, but it’s not as important, quite honestly, as the environmental crisis. So Section II on ecology, in my “revision,” has expanded to be almost the entire book, and has taken on some additional topics.

          There are a lot of things most vegans do not understand about the environmental crisis that fundamentally affect the future of veganism (and the planet). For that matter, most nonvegans don’t understand them either. That’s what Embracing Limits is about.

          1. I see I got the name of your first book wrong, sorry. I’m hoping to see you take on artificial intelligence and “techno -unemployment” one day. If we survive climate change, these will be the BIG issues for the second half of the century, for sure, and maybe before mid-century

          2. Great news to hear you have a new book coming out Keith! I wish you all the best in finding an agent and publisher – and most of all, the wide audience I’m sure it deserves.

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