Author of Everything is Illluminated and Eating Animals discusses his newest book, Vermont farms, and global change

Do something. With climate change now breaking and remaking much of what humans have taken as given for thousands of years, it can be tempting to duck behind bleak despair—or to whistle, motionless, on the brittle surface of cheerful denial. Jonathan Safran Foer would like you to consider that your feelings might not matter very much—not compared to your actions. Not compared to what you choose for breakfast.

 “The truth is we are not doomed and we are not going to be fine,” he says. And in that dangerous and confusing middle space, where much will be lost, but not everything, we have, Foer says, the chance to choose new habits that might matter—about our consumption, travel, and, especially, food. But those may only emerge when we see that there is a profound space between acknowledging the reality of climate change—and truly believing that climate change is “in us,” he says, as much as it is “out there.”

Foer will give the 2020 Aiken Lecture on Thursday, October 8, 2020, 5:00 p.m., as a live, virtual event, hosted by the University of Vermont’s College of Agriculture and Life Sciences and UVM Continuing and Distance Education. The year's edition of the Aiken Lecture will bring together Foer—the author of the best-selling novels Everything is Illuminated, and Extremely Loud and Incredibly Close, and the influential nonfiction book, Eating Animals—with UVM’s Ernesto Mendez, Professor of Agroecology and Environmental Studies—for an evening of conversation and questions. Tickets to the talk are free and RSVP is requested.

UVM science writer Joshua Brown spoke with Jonathan Safran Foer to learn more about his new book and why he thinks that saving the planet begins at breakfast.

UVM Today: Help us unpack the title of your new book, We Are the Weather. Who is the "we" and where should we look for that weather?

Jonathan Safran Foer: We is humankind. And we tend to think about climate change (“weather,” idiomatically) as happening outside of us—the effects happening outside of us—halfway around the world, in the distance. And we think of the causes being outside of us as well. I wrote the book because I was upset about my own inactivity—the distance between what I knew and what I was doing. I wanted to know where I fit into this global catastrophe.

After writing this book, do you feel clearer about where you fit?

I guess, in at least the sense of being clearer about my struggles. I felt fairly clear about what I believed, but I had a hard time acknowledging how difficult it was to act on my beliefs. I thought that change was an event—rather than a process. One of the things that I've grown to understand much better is how entrenched my habits are, how powerful some of my cravings are. And that this conversation that I've been having with myself—and sometimes with myself in public—is something that will almost certainly last my whole life.

In that conversation with yourself, do you feel like it's an argument, that has the heat of an argument?

Usually it doesn't have any heat—at all. I wish it did; it would be easier, actually. Instead, it's ignorable, forgettable. Occasionally, it does heat up, usually because I become aware of some horrible new scientific report that tells us—as reports often do—that things are far worse than we thought they were. But generally, no, it's very quiet. It’s very easy to pretend climate change isn't happening.

What I'm trying to do—and this is the point of the book—is to move the conversation from the mind and heart—into habit, into norms. So that we don't have to have this hot debate inside of us—so that we don't have to have a debate at all.

When I go to a store, I don't have to debate with myself about whether I'm going to shoplift. I don't have to have a memory of the social contract. I don't have to be moved, thinking about what it would mean to take money from the shopkeeper. I don't do it because I just don't do it. That's just my norm—I don't steal and I don’t steal from a store. And so the challenge is: how can we become people—how can I make myself into somebody—who doesn't steal from the planet, who doesn't steal from the future? It's not easy, but that's the struggle that I was writing about.

You also write about the Second World War—the efforts of the U.S. to quickly respond to this global threat, and how people did all sorts of difficult things, some just for symbolic purposes, some making the ultimate sacrifice—as a useful example of what we could do about climate change.   

Responding to climate change isn’t any one thing for everybody. For some people it is, maybe, an "Ah-ha moment" of making a connection between, for example, what's on your plate and the climate. For other people, it has something to do with being a citizen and citizenship and living in a community, a human community. For other people, it's more psychologically driven and a battle of wanting more—whether it's travel or food or merchandise—against the instinct to live with moderation.

For different people, it's different. And the path will be different as well. I find it relatively easy—not simple, but relatively easy—not to eat meat. And I find it virtually impossible to imagine not flying. A bunch of people have never gotten on a plane and find the notion of eating as a vegetarian unimaginably impossible. I don't need to convince them to be like me and they don't need to convince me to be like them. We have to be honest about where we feel that our present limits are and be rigorous about trying to live according to those limits—but also forgive ourselves and approach this with some humility.

I hear you talk about humility, community, forgiveness.  To what extent do you think of climate change as the problem—versus a symptom of some broader failure of human nature, some deeper cravings?

I don't know if acquisitiveness and consumption are failures in and of themselves. What's plainly obvious is that we have a huge problem when those habits are unleashed on a world of finite resources. If we lived in a different world, where we have endless resources, maybe we could look at these things a little bit differently. But in the world in which we live we do have an immediate and profound problem right in front of us. Grappling with that feels more urgent than the broader question.

You wait until page 64 of your new book to call out animal agriculture as a primary engine of a lot of our troubles. There’s a debate about what percentage of greenhouse gases—what slice of the climate change pie—is caused by animal agriculture.  Does that really matter to you, whether it's 7 percent or 50 percent?

I don't know that anybody says 7 percent, but the way I respond to that is the way that the IPCC [Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change] responds to it—which is to say: we can't solve the problem of climate change, we can't meet the goals of the Paris Climate Accord, unless we change how we farm and eat. 

I use the analogy in the book of an encounter between resistance-fighter Jan Karski and U.S Supreme Court Justice Felix Frankfurter. Frankfurter asks Karski how tall the wall of the ghetto was in Nazi-occupied Poland. He wants to know if it's 20 feet or 200 feet. There's a big difference between 20 feet and 200 feet—but what they have in common is you can't get over it and you're trapped. And we are trapped behind the problem of animal agriculture. There are very good reasons to figure out how trapped we are—but if we are waiting for those specific answers before taking action, then we are standing in our own graves.

What about the question of scale? I'm looking out the window right now and I've got four chickens running across my yard. We collect the eggs from those chickens and feed them our leftover oatmeal. Once in a while, I slaughter the birds in the driveway and the kids in the neighborhood come and watch. That’s animal agriculture. And I've also been known to go to McDonald's and get a burger. Where does scale fit into your consideration?

On the one hand, it's absolutely everything. Not all kinds of farming are the same; they're not even remotely the same. What you're describing out the window is utterly different from factory farming. In one, cruelty, environmental destruction, getting rid of farmers is the business model. And in the other case, none of those things is the business model—and it's an older-fashioned, benevolent kind of farming. More than ninety-nine-point-nine percent of the animals that we eat in America come from the first kind of farming. So if we partake in the exception, that's great. But you do have to acknowledge how exceptional the exception is. One can risk a kind of preciousness in getting too excited about something that occupies less than one-tenth of one percent of what's available. There's enough truly free-range chicken meat produced right now in the United States to feed the citizens of Staten Island.

Are there any exceptions? Of course there are. I can imagine a situation in which giving a paying job to an 11-year-old is a good idea. It would save his family, allow them not to starve. He has a benevolent boss and the job is only three hours a day. Whatever. We're capable of imagining it. That's not an argument for child labor.

We have been able to scale animal agriculture in the past in a way that was not nearly as destructive as it is now. But we didn't have nearly eight billion people with this seemingly infinite appetite—the expectation that you would eat meat three times a day, the expectation that a lunch or dinner is going to be two-thirds animal protein. Our population is ballooning. The planet is staying the same size.

So if you took me to your house and you showed me your chickens I would say it's pretty great; looks like you have a good thing going here. But it has nothing to do with the systems. One of the things confronting us right now in the world is: what kinds of systems are bad? What kind of policing system is bad? What kind of gender power-dynamics system is bad? And we’re wrestling—sometimes clumsily and sometimes really successfully—with what to do with individual cases and their relationship to the system.

One thing that I think everybody can agree on—and certainly every real farmer I've ever met—is that we need to change our system of animal agriculture. I don't think it's important that we all come to the same conclusion before we start. We just need to be honest about how broken it is.

In Vermont, as you probably know, there's an active conversation about the degree to which our place—this state and its farming community—represents an alternative. What would you say to people who put forward the idea that Vermont’s food system is an alternative to the failed system you're describing?

In many ways, I think that they're right. In certain ways, I think that's not the case. Cows produce huge amounts of methane—one of the most powerful greenhouse gases—86 times more powerful than carbon. And as we are facing runaway climate change, which is to say once we've set into motion feedback loops that can never be undone, we need to make huge cuts quickly. Time is of the essence.

Let's say you are a family and you're worried about being able to pay your mortgage at the end of the month. You could consider using fewer stamps and mailing things less. Or you could consider getting rid of the car. It obviously makes sense to look at the biggest expenses first. Methane is one of our biggest expenses. So, without a doubt, in Vermont, you have a farming system that's more humane and sustainable. And there are ways of raising cattle that produce less methane. But there is no way of producing cattle that doesn't produce enormous amounts of methane or isn't hugely inefficient. It takes between six and 26 calories put into an animal to get one calorie out. It's just a very inefficient way to produce food. It would be a wonderful thing if farms around the country imitated the model of Vermont—but it doesn't change the reality that we need to eat dramatically less meat.

You’ve been talking about population growth and resource intensification—which takes us back to that thorny question about symptoms versus causes. I mean, is the driver of all this climate trouble runaway population growth?

Yes, at the very least it's the most important driver. If we could halve the population, this would be a very different conversation. But you tell me how that's going to happen. We can change our eating habits tomorrow. For most people, we can change our eating habits within the next hour.

Oftentimes we forget that we're even making a choice. It's a perceived inevitability about what we eat. Be conscious of the impact of your choice and do your best to make a choice that's in keeping with your values, not because anybody else is telling you—but because it's what you want to do. And different people, again, can take different paths to the same place: the reduction of destruction and violence in the world.

That's something we can all agree on. It's not about me saying what anybody should do. I made a prescription in the book—largely for myself—based on the available science of how much we need to reduce our consumption of meat and dairy.  But there are a lot of ways to the same place. We do have to agree on the science—we really have to agree on the science, especially when it's not controversial. But there are a lot of paths toward the same conclusion.

We live in a moment of intense conflict about science. Lots of science that might have once not been controversial has been forced to become controversial. What do you make of the weaponization of science that was once non-controversial?

I'm wary of telling the story that way—because it suggests that much of the science is more controversial than it is. As I say in the book, twice as many Americans believe in the existence of Bigfoot as deny the existence of human-caused climate change. The majority of Republicans want the United States to stay in the Paris Climate Accord which is a very robust climate treaty. We have a problem with Donald Trump and I don't think we should allow him to persuade us that half the country doesn't believe in science. That's just not the case.

What can we do about that? What do you recommend to the students, who are going to be listening to your conversation in October, about this political moment?

Well, if they're of voting age—to vote. It's the most important act. In the book, I talked about flying less, driving less, overpopulation and eating habits—but none of it matters as much as voting. Climate change is a problem that we need to participate in the resolution of—but we can't do it alone. We need systemic change and we can't have systemic change without leaders. And so we need different leaders. Nothing is more important for a young person to be right now than to be political.

This seems like a prime example of what you’re pointing out in the new book: what matters is not the heat of your feelings, it's about taking action.

That is exactly the point of the book. Don’t be confused into believing that feelings are the same thing as doing. Having the opinion doesn't change the world—acting on the right opinion changes the world. I don't think the problem is needing different values or opinions. I think they're universal and probably innate values that we share—wanting less destruction and less violence. The searching we need to do is how to live out those values—not simply to have them but to act on them.

For me, that requires finding a place of reflection and enough quiet, enough distance, from the noise of culture to reflect. And, for me, the best way to reflect is actually to read and write—to give myself space to be with myself. And, in the case of reading, to be with the mind of another person. And to question. To question what the world is like and to question what I'm like—and how those two intersect.

What did you have for breakfast this morning? 

I don't eat a huge breakfast. Today I just had coffee. My kids were rushing to make it to school on time—to their version of school. I might have had a piece of toast; I can't remember.


Joshua E. Brown
Cover art for the book, We are the Weather: Saving the Planet Begins at Breakfast