We are the Weather

  • Review
By – November 18, 2019

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.

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