The novelist Jonathan Safran Foer has a different take on global warming. The worst can be ameliorated, he suggests, but only if we believe the unbelievable. In “We Are the Weather: Saving the Planet Begins at Breakfast,” Foer approaches the threat with all the postmodern techniques of his acclaimed books “Everything Is Illuminated” and “Extremely Loud and Incredibly Close.” In a style rarely found in books about global catastrophe, he interweaves personal stories, bulleted factoids and a delicious serving of metaphor. The effect is dazzling at first, dizzying in the long run. Yet even a weary reader might hope that this novelist may do what traditional jeremiads have not: Wake us up.
The first 60 pages of “We Are the Weather” are little short of brilliant. Rather than bludgeon us with apocalyptic facts, Foer asks why we have done so little when faced with so much. Our inaction, he writes, cannot be blamed on deniers from the White House on down. Even those who admit the crisis have dodged the life-changing moves it demands. Why? Because we simply cannot believe what we must believe. “It is excruciatingly, tragically difficult to talk about the planetary crisis in a way that is believed,” Foer writes.
To underline the problem, he turns to a tragic moment in the midst of the Holocaust. In 1943, Polish resistance fighter Jan Karski came to America to alert its leaders to Hitler’s “final solution.” One day, Karski confronted Supreme Court Justice Felix Frankfurter with an account of the whole Nazi machinery of death — the cattle cars, the camps, the gas. Frankfurter, a Jew, paced the room. Finally he told Karski, “I must say I am unable to believe what you told me.” Frankfurter did not accuse Karski of lying. Instead, the justice explained, “My mind, my heart, they are made in such a way that I cannot accept it.”
From Frankfurter’s failure of imagination, Foer draws disturbing parallels to our own. Despite warnings that began 30-plus years ago, we continue to drive our fat cars, fly everywhere, live as if the darkest cloud in human history were not approaching across the horizon. Noting the steady rise of CO2 emissions, Foer writes: “There are tidy explanations — the growing use of coal in China and India, a strong global economy, unusually severe seasons that require spikes in energy for heating and cooling. But the truth is as crude as it is obvious. We don’t care. So now what?”
Hope, Foer writes, comes in waves — social waves that have changed human behavior without legislation or leadership. As examples, he cites the widespread decline in smoking, the rapid acceptance of the polio vaccine and Americans’ sacrifices on the home front during World War II. But are individual actions enough? “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,” Foer writes. “This is exactly the opposite of the truth: the impotence of individual actions is a reason for everyone to try.”
Having made his case, Foer offers his simple — even simplistic — solution: breakfast and lunch. As in “Eating Animals,” his 2009 cri de coeur, Foer urges us to avoid all animal products. At least for two meals a day. He makes a compelling case. By raising cattle on cleared forest land, by producing feed for a sprawling meat and dairy industry, we have made innocent animals culpable in planetary destruction. If cows were a nation, Foer notes, they would be the third-largest emitter of greenhouse gas, behind the United States and China. Our diets have turned the Earth into a factory farm.
Okay. Eating plants — only plants — for breakfast and lunch is no big deal. (His compelling case persuaded me to adopt his diet.) But Foer’s faith in veganism soon breaks down. He can’t entirely give up red meat, he says. And he admits that animal agriculture causes only 24 percent of greenhouse gas emissions. So what about the other 76 percent?
Just when he should be going beyond breakfast, Foer detours into dithering. To prop up his vegan solution, he denigrates electric cars and other sensible innovations as impractical. (Never mind that transportation contributes 14 percent of greenhouse gases, and electricity and heating contribute 25 percent.) Then he descends into personal trauma. He tells us of his grandmother’s recent death, his angst as a parent of two sons and his deep doubt that anything, even veganism, will save us. The doubt, filling a 35-page dialogic “dispute with the soul,” is as numbing as any talk of polar bears or melting Arctic ice.
So now what? One of our best young novelists brilliantly defines our denial, offers a partial solution and returns to despair. “We Are the Weather,” Foer admits, is not an ordinary jeremiad, simply “an exploration of a decision that our planetary crisis requires us to make.” But in fact, our planetary crisis requires more than one decision. Had Foer used his abundant talent to remain global instead of going personal, his wake-up call would not have put us right back to sleep.
A different novelist better explains our apathy. In “War and Peace,” Leo Tolstoy describes Moscow’s reaction to the news of Napoleon’s invasion. “At the approach of danger, two voices always speak with equal force in a man’s soul,” Tolstoy writes. One voice tells us to weigh the danger and act. Now! The other voice says “it is too painful and tormenting to think about the danger, when it is not in man’s power to foresee everything and save himself.” In solitude, we listen to the voice of alarm, in company to the voice of denial. Then we fiddle while the world burns. As Napoleon marched toward the city, Tolstoy writes, “it was long since there had been so much merrymaking in Moscow as there was that year.”
Saving the Planet Begins at Breakfast
Farrar, Straus and Giroux. 272 pp. $25