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.
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.