In his second work of nonfiction, Jonathan Saffran Foer — well-known for his best-selling novels Everything is Illuminated and Extremely Loud and Incredibly Close—brings his adept pen and keen mind to the subject of climate change. This isn’t a book about science — though that does exist within its pages — instead, it’s a book of real-life parables that start somewhere unexpected and end up as a moral shot to the heart of the greatest challenges facing humanity.
We are the Weather is comprised of five sections. The first, third, and fifth contain short chapters that braid themselves into an argument that is meant to convince us to stop eating animal-based foods — much as his previous book Eating Animals did. But in reality, Foer’s goal is much larger than food. He wants to start a wave of change that’s impossible not to join, much like the momentum that causes sports fans to rise from their seats.
Around a quarter of all greenhouse gases are emitted by agriculture, mostly from farming animals. While many solutions to climate change require investment and infrastructure, we can immediately eat plant-based foods. Changing our diets isn’t enough to solve climate change, Foer acknowledges, it is impossible to solve climate change without altering our diets. Eating only plants is hard and Foer admits he has slipped repeatedly. He proposes that if we can’t stop eating animals entirely, perhaps we can at least abstain before dinner.
Foer writes some of the most moving pages sitting by his dying grandmother’s bedside. He recounts how she left her Polish village on the cusp of the Holocaust, walking away from a horror no one in the village believed would come, despite all indications. The metaphor is impossible to miss. Foer says he has a recurring nightmare of running door to door in that village, trying to rouse the families who he knows will one day be shot, and telling them to do something, to get out now, to act.
It’s a struggle, Foer concedes in one early section, to tell the story of climate change with the urgency it demands: it’s full of numbers; it’s not interesting; it has no good characters or plot. Having identified these problems, the reader hopes that a master storyteller like Foer will solve them. But the second section of the book shows that even Foer can’t. He defaults to a series of science-heavy bullet-pointed lists: powerful to be sure, but also a bit of a disappointment. Then again, maybe Foer wants us to feel disappointed, to evoke the sentiment our current response to climate change deserves.
The book begins with the lines of the first known suicide note, written 4000 years ago by an unknown author. In it, a man argues with his soul to allow him to kill himself. The fourth section of Weather is a riff on that internal dispute. In script-like fashion, Foer argues with his own soul about belief, hope, and the stories we tell ourselves to feel better about our actions and alternatively our passivity.
Foer tells us we don’t know if the author of the first suicide note actually killed himself. We don’t yet know the outcome of our actions on the earth’s future. We are the Weather is a haunting, moral treatise on where we are and where we need to go. It is a collection of ideas that float through the reader’s mind like philosophical spirits imploring us to act. And maybe that’s the real solution to the problem of how to write about climate change. Haunting a reader’s mind might be the only way for an author to start a wave.
Juli Berwald Ph.D. is a science writer living in Austin, Texas and the author of Spineless: the Science of Jellyfish and the Art of Growing a Backbone. Her book on the future of coral will be published in 2021.