‘We will need to learn to let go’ [book review]

A review of We Are The Weather by Jonathan Safran Foer

At the end of my month of reading about the environment came this, the book I didn’t know I needed. In a couple of hundred pages and some very well-chosen words, Jonathan Safran Foer has managed to do what no other writer or journalist has succeeded in so far: make me take a long, hard look at myself and my impact on the environment, convince me I need to make a serious change, and motivate me to start right now. Though this book won’t be for everyone, its brave approach resonated powerfully with me. We Are The Weather is a book I am glad to have read, and one I only wish I had come to sooner.

Cover image We Are The Weather

Composed as a series of short-form essays, lists and experimental non-fiction, Jonathan Safran Foer’s We Are The Weather takes on the problematic of climate change – and, more specifically, makes the case for giving up animal products. The author knows this is a difficult topic to tackle, particularly in America (the main audience for whom he appears to be writing), and so spends the first sixty-or-so pages skirting around the issue, discussing climate change in general and how we all need to be doing something about it. After successfully laying the foundation of his case, he moves on to the real subject of his research and the bold but by now reasonable-seeming proposition that we should all stop eating animal products – even if only for breakfast and lunch. Of course, full-time veganism would be better, he argues, yet even this half-transition would dramatically reduce our carbon footprint. Even for him, he admits, it is a major lifestyle change – not to say sacrifice – yet it is one of the simplest and most effective things we can all do to slow the impending climate catastrophe.

My previous encounters with Jonathan Safran Foer had mainly been in the world of fiction – his novels are among my favourites, ones I have read, re-read and even written a dissertation on – and so I was delighted to find his distinctive literary voice coming through in this book as well. Bold and experimental as ever, We Are The Weather tries on various literary guises, including chapters consisting only of bullet points, an imaginary conversation between the author and himself, and the letter to his sons that forms the book’s ending. Though some are doubtless easier to read than others – stylistically, the conversation was less effective for me, though its substance made a big impression – this constant switching of modes kept me fully engaged with the book, as well as redoubling its impact. If a prose style becomes too familiar, there can be a danger of the reader slightly switching off – which, with a topic like this, is far from ideal. Here, unlike anything I have ever read on the subject before, I found myself gripped from one page to the next, absorbing everything I learned and, most importantly, letting it take hold.

Perhaps it was the mixture of styles that worked (it won’t be everyone’s cup of tea, but I would urge you to try it all the same), or perhaps I am simply more inclined to believe an author I have long admired and whose voice rings true to me. Whatever it was, We Are The Weather touches on several important points that had an effect nothing short of enlightening. Learning just how many emissions are produced by animal products is shocking enough, but Foer takes his argument further, wading into the muddied waters of ‘but what can I as an individual really achieve/why should I make these sacrifices when no one else seems to?’ and suddenly making them clear. The analogies he uses – drivers pulling off the road to let an ambulance pass, for example – are as logical as they are varied, and had the unsettling twinned effect of both shaming me into action and being so non-judgemental in tone as to encourage me. I left this book seeing the urgency of the situation but also, crucially, feeling that individuals can make a difference.

As Foer so correctly identifies, cutting right to the heart of the problem, climate change is too big an issue for most people to grasp. I am without doubt one of those who claim to be environmentally conscious without really acting on it; We Are The Weather made me see this, and provided the impetus to make a change. Whether you subscribe to the suggestion of giving up animal products for two main meals or prefer to take a different approach (in the chapter headed ‘Not all actions are equal’, the environmental impacts of driving, flying and having children are also illuminated), the underlying message is a simple one: we must make choices now, or the choice will be made for us. It is a message encapsulated by one line that has stayed with me – and always will, I think – ‘Whether or not we address climate change, we will need to learn to let go’.

It feels strange to admit to needing a book written not by a climate scientist or an environmental activist to make me truly see and acknowledge a problem that has been there all along. But this is exactly what We Are The Weather understands, and why it is so important. Climate change is enormous and scary and almost too much to deal with, and in the face of more pressing emergencies it can easily be put off till a nebulous future. But, as Foer states, ‘we do not have the luxury of living in our time’. The past is deeply entwined with the present – powerfully symbolised here by the author’s relationship with his grandmother, a Holocaust survivor – just as the present is entwined with the future, and so too the individual with the whole. Using a mixture of sparse, hard-hitting facts and beautifully memorable imagery (take the wildflowers that grew in the Coliseum following the fall of the Roman Empire), We Are The Weather brings home in a resounding manner the interconnection of all things.

Fittingly, it is Everything Is Illuminated, Jonathan Safran Foer’s first novel, that I’d name as one of the books that have made the most impact on me in literary terms – after finishing We Are The Weather, illuminated is how things felt to me. All of a sudden the situation seems clear: urgent, yet not entirely hopeless. It can feel trite to write that a book changed your life – but occasionally, there aren’t any better words.

5 thoughts on “‘We will need to learn to let go’ [book review]

  1. Fantastic review! I’ve so wanted to read this one. I hadn’t been aware of the fluctuating format, but that really appeals to me. I’ve been putting this one off for a sort of arbitrary reason only- I have JSF’s book Eating Animals on hand to read first, and am fairly certain it will be the last push I need to switch to vegetarianism, which I’m close to already but still feel like it will be a whole project to fully convert. But that’s hardly a reason to put off reading two books that sound so important, and in fact may be great to read together? I hadn’t realized that this one argued for cutting animal products out of two meals, but given his other book about the impact of eating animal products I suppose that makes sense! In any case, I’m feeling especially motivated now, seeing that it’s been such an impactful read for you- perhaps this will be something for me to finally tackle over the summer.

    Liked by 1 person

    1. I’m really glad you’re feeling motivated to read this, and I think you would enjoying the variations in style too. Eating Animals is actually the one book of his I haven’t read, but I definitely want to now as well – from what I gather it goes into much more detail on the farming and factory side of things, whereas this one is a little more general/directed towards climate change as a whole. I imagine they’d work well as companion pieces and certainly provide that final push – his writing is very powerful. Another review I hope to see appear on your blog sometime!

      Liked by 1 person

  2. Hi Eleanor! I really enjoyed reading your review and now feel motivated to read this too!

    I also remember enjoying his writing style – I read Eating Animals and Extremely Loud and Incredibly Close a while ago, back in high school, and remember being impressed with both. Eating Animals was one of the books that convinced me to stop, well, eating animals for a number of years. My main motivation was climate change (although I could never figure out how to talk to people about this without seeming preachy!). I’m pescatarian now and eat fish occasionally, which works for me, and I like that We Are the Weather suggests even cutting BACK on animal products would be helpful (as going full vegan just isn’t realistic for so many Americans and would be a huge shift for them).

    During Covid I’ve been disheartened by many people not being willing to make even small personal sacrifices and changes for the ‘greater good’. But I think books like this can go a long way in convincing people who DO care to take that extra leap. Thanks as always for this thoughtful review!

    Liked by 1 person

    1. Thank you very much, Carly! I’m really glad you like the sound of this and I feel much the same as you – it’s great to find a book that seems able to convince people to make the changes/small sacrifices they’ve possibly been putting off (it certainly gave me the nudge I needed). There’s also a ton of information in this about the relationship between animal products and climate change, which is fascinating but never preachy in tone, so maybe good material for sharing with other people! I’m yet to read Eating Animals, but it sounds like it had a big impact on you and I imagine will be the same for me – I hope to be able to discuss it with you one day soon.

      Liked by 1 person

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