Book Review: We Are the Weather: Saving the Planet Begins at Breakfast by Jonathan Safran Foer

A few years ago, in my philosophy course on Animal Rights, our professor had us read and discuss Eating Animals, Jonathan Safran Foer’s exploration of factory farming and the ethical dilemma he found (and still finds) himself in with regards to cutting meat 100 percent out of his diet. From what I can remember (I’d probably have to go back and read the book despite reading it several times in that one course) Eating Animals mainly talks about the ethical implications of factory farming and how factory farming puts these animals in cruel conditions. In We Are the Weather, published this very year, it goes to another level to talk about the impact of factory farming on the planet. This book attracted me because he forces us to sit back and reflect on not just factory farming and global warming, but on the deeper meanings behind our actions, like in Part 2 he gives these disturbing statistics about climate change and the average carbon footprint, and the ways in which factory farming contributes to increased greenhouse gas production and, in turn, higher climate temperatures. He also talks earlier in the book about the film An Inconvenient Truth (the film that inspired me to go on a save-the-planet movement when I was in middle school). But then in Part 3, “Only Home”, he talks about the concept of home and how it relates to the ways we treat the planet. In one of the chapters of Part 3, called “Mortgaging the Home”, he talks about how his family was just one of many American families with the “American Dream” mindset, where his grandparents’ house was larger than his parents’ house, and how his house is larger than his parents’ house. The “American Dream” dictates that one’s lifestyle should be more expansive than that of one’s parents, but now that climate change is worsening and people are using more resources than the planet can provide, we have to ask ourselves: is The American Dream sustainable? What do we have to lose by sacrificing it? Foer talks about the debt that many Americans have: credit card, student loans, car debt, mortgages, but he takes it to another level by forcing us to think about the debt we owe to our only real home, Planet Earth. He says in the beginning of the chapter that we will need four planets to sustain the average American lifestyle for all 7.5 billion and counting people on the planet, while in other countries that are less affluent, we would only need one planet or so to do that.

I have lately been reading about lifestyle inflation and never thought that our planet would live long enough to still sustain the kind of lifestyles that the American Dream pressures us to pursue. I am fine living below my means, but I can’t speak for everyone since everyone has different goals and situations. But this book left me with this bittersweet feeling of, like, I am hopeful that we will mitigate what we’ve done to the planet, and at the same time I think about all the species that have gone extinct and the communities that have to deal with the worsening effects of climate change (coastal places mainly). I am a vegan, but I also drive a car to work, I keep my phone on everyday, and I have flown a lot in the past on planes and still crave that spirit of travel. I also try to compost and not waste too much food, since I watched the documentary Wasted and realized that being vegan by itself wasn’t going to cut down on greenhouse gases if all the food I ate was being thrown away in the trash so it could go and rot on a landfill and emit even more greenhouse gases into the atmosphere. Part of me wants to start a composting program at my workplace, but since I have composted before, I can tell you that it attracts a lot of critters and that wouldn’t necessarily be good for the firm’s business. Still, I get sad when our office manager has to throw out all this uneaten fruit at the end of the day, and no matter how much fruit I try to take home I know it won’t fit my tiny Pyrex container. So you can only do so much.

I guess I gelled with Foer’s book because in Buddhism, we talk about karma, and how it means that we create karma through our thoughts, actions and words each day, but from Nichiren Buddhism, yes, our karma is deep but we don’t have to be fatalistic and think it’s the end of the world. We can transform this karma not just through chanting Nam-myoho-renge-kyo but also through taking actions in our daily lives to transform the effects of this karma. In a way, as a collective of individuals we have created a social karma through setting up these institutions and systems that perpetuate discrimination and consumerism. And Foer recognizes that people who say we should stop eating meat and flying aren’t being super practical, and also that this perspective might as well be saying that we should become “air-a-tarians” and abstain from having fun altogether. But he also recognizes that the far end of the perspective, aka cynicism, won’t help. He writes a lot about hopelessness and suicide in the last part of his book, and suicide being one of the leading causes of death, but that we need to still have hope even at a time when we don’t know how we’ll adapt to global warming. He says that we can’t just sit back and pray for stuff to happen, but instead, we can take action

“by having honest conversations. bridging the familiar with the unfamiliar, planting messages for the future, digging up messages from the past, digging up messages from the future, disputing with our souls and refusing to stop. And we must do this together: everyone’s hand wrapped around the same pen, every breath of everyone exhaling the shared prayer.”

Foer, We Are The Weather, page 224

We Are the Weather: Saving the Planet Begins at Breakfast. Jonathan Safran Foer. 272 pp. 2019.

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