The importance of choosing something over nothing - a conversation with Jonathan Safran Foer

Chris Schluep on October 28, 2019


Although Jonathan Safran Foer is best known for his novels, he has begun to direct his attention toward nonfiction subjects like Eating Animals and, in his latest book, what we can do as individuals to help curb global warming.

You could call We Are the Weather a combination of essays and stirring facts, but the sum is worth well more than the parts. It's a unique experience, and it feels like an essential read for anyone interested in the subject. The gift that Foer brings, aside from deep research, is a novelist's honesty. When he stopped by the office to talk about the book, I was struck by what he had to say and how honestly he spoke it. We Are the Weather is no less honest.

This is a big problem, one that is difficult to view from the perspective of being one human out of seven and a half billion. But talking to Jonathan Safran Foer, and reading the book, has made me much more optimistic about what I can do.

Here is a portion of our talk:

When did you start thinking about writing this book?

That's a hard question to answer for any book. Because I have had lots of ideas for books, but have never ended up writing those ideas. I think I've probably written three or four proposals for publishers, and I've never turned in the book that I proposed—that they were expecting. So I actually gave my publisher a proposal for a nonfiction book about technology and screens, and I was supposed to write that. And it's not that that morphed into this. It's more that, I don't know, I guess my concerns about the world started to change. It feels ridiculous now, but the relationship to screens felt to me like the most pressing problem in the world.

Did that concern about screens come partly from having kids?

Yes and no. Like with a lot of things, it made me more sensitive to something that was already a problem. But then over the last couple of years, you know, the conversation around climate change has picked up parabolically. And over the last couple years I found myself, oddly, both increasingly upset by it and increasingly able to ignore it. I would say somebody's got to do something, all the time, and yet I really never did anything at all. But at a certain point it just became intolerable—not in the sense that I changed my life, because I didn't really—but in the sense that I really needed to set aside some time and space to think about it. To think about what's possible, both in the sense of what are things we can do that actually matter in the world, rather than just feel like they matter? And possible in the sense of what are my limits? Because there are a lot of things that actually matter that I just can't do. Another person maybe could, but I can't.

One of the things that really stood out to me about the book was that there's a big difference between caring about something and actually doing something about it. And I feel like a lot of people miss that distinction.

Well, it's hard to confront that distinction, because it feels bad to confront it. There's also the question of: what does it even mean to care, if not to act on your care? I, in my heart, feel that I care about the fate of the planet. If my grandchildren looked back at what I did during this period of time... first of all, I don't know that they would care whether or not I cared. They would care what I did. But even just looking at my behavior, they might say, well, he obviously didn't care at all. So, the first 60 pages of the book are devoted to that question in a way: the difference between caring and believing. Everybody listening to this, I'm guessing, believes in the science of climate change. As it turns out, there are very very few people who don't anymore. Ninety-one percent of Americans believe in the science of climate change. The majority of Republicans wanted to stay in the Paris Climate Accords. It's been framed as a politicized issue, and it's really not. Belief in the science, that is. Obviously, what to do with that has become a political issue.

So the real problem now is different than what it was a couple of years ago. You know, a couple of years ago there really was widespread ignorance or science denial. Now the problem is people like me, and people like probably you, and people like probably all of us who know but—for whatever reasons, some good some bad, some just totally inexplicable—aren't capable of converting that knowledge into a sustained care. I'll tell you a story. I did a reading the other day, and this young couple came up to me at the end of the signing. And they put the book in front of me, and on the title page, which would normally be blank, it was filled with their handwriting.

I said What's this?

And they said Well, we're getting married in a couple months, and we decided that we needed to have a plan, because if we don't have a plan we'll just keep doing what we've always done. Their plan was: don't eat meat unless served it at a friend's house, eat vegan two days a week, have no more than two kids, and drive no more than a thousand miles in the year.

And instead of having me just sign it they had a line that said witness. They asked me to sign that.

That's great.

Yeah, I found that really great and charming and inspiring. And really shaming as well. Because I realized, despite having written the book that they were there to have signed, I didn't have a plan. How many people do you know that have plan?

I just thought I was going to buy a hybrid car. Honestly, I thought that was going to solve it.

You know, but isn't that insane if you just stop and think about it? That for as much as we care, and for as much as we are asking for systemic policy change, we just don't have plans. And I don't even mean that our plans are unambitious. That's a completely different story. We just don’t have plans at all. We have no way of engaging personally with this problem. So, you know, individuals cannot solve this problem alone. That's true. But I don't believe the government is going to solve it without individual participation—both in the sense of the real world effects of what we do as individuals, but also in the ways that our individual actions can influence corporations and can influence countries themselves. So, I've made a plan. I've been working on it. There are parts of it that are still a little vague, because it's complicated. But one of the things about making a plan is you have to confront your own limits, which can be really embarrassing.

You can just feel so unambitious to say The world is in deep trouble! when I could probably take one less flight a year. Or I could probably go vegetarian Monday nights. It just seems so small, but first of all, we need to get over that feeling of measuring distance from perfection, and instead measure the distance from doing absolutely nothing, which is what most of us do. And again, I'm very much including myself in this category.

So that's something I have become really interested in since I finished the book. Not even when I was writing the book, but since I finished the book. I'm interested in this idea of codifying our plans and giving them words, giving them days of the week, numbers.

Is it based off the four high impact things we can all do?

It is. So, in my case, I can tell you what my plan is. As I suggest in the book—not because it's an opinion, but it's something I take as a starting point—the science of the relationship between food and climate. Which is that, while people who live in undernourished parts of the world could actually afford to eat a little bit more meat and dairy, people who live in the US, the UK, and Europe have to eat 90% less meat and 60% less dairy to “avoid catastrophic irreversible climate catastrophe.” So this book is largely about that: the relationship of food to the environment. My plan for food is not to eat animal products for breakfast or lunch, and I eat as a vegetarian for dinner. My plan for flying is I'm not going to fly for a vacation next year. I can't avoid a certain amount of flying for work. I got off the plane and came to you right now. It's not as if I'm naive about the carbon footprint of that, but I'm trying to be realistic about what I can do. For cars, it was that I'll only take three cabs a week. That may sound ridiculously unambitious to some people. It feels a little bit ridiculously unambitious to me. But I'm starting. And then the fourth thing, which is not one of those components that you mentioned, is I'm going to give a day of the week volunteering for, which is Bill McKibben's organization, and also working with New York City public schools to increase awareness among students about what they can do and how they can participate. My plan will probably change as time passes, and I can promise you right now, I will betray my plan. I have betrayed it since I made it. I think that is important. But I don't think it's as important as starting.

There's a part in the book where you talked about—I think it was after you wrote Eating Animals—how you ate some cheeseburgers at some point.

That was several years later, like six years later. It was probably the last time we spoke. I was here for the novel (Here I Am).

That was sort of an argument that, okay, you're not going to be perfect. You have to deal with your limitations. It seems like you were more stringent as a kid than you are now.

Well, I was rhetorically more stringent. And that's a big difference. And I think that's one of the problems that we've had, not only with climate change but with a lot of areas where we know that we could make a difference—which is that we view the our choices as binary. Like, if you care about animal welfare, if you care about the environmental effects of animal agriculture, what are your choices? You're a vegetarian or you’re not? Well, in fact, you have many, many, many choices in between those two extremes. It's just that any of those choices in the middle risk accusations of hypocrisy. Or just feeling like a hypocrite yourself. And that's scary, so a lot of people would rather just not try. Which is how I felt with a lot of areas of life—like, you know, really any time I'm confronted with an ethical problem, like passing a homeless person on the street. Am I supposed to give them all money, or am I supposed to ignore them all. And my policy had been I'm just going to ignore them all. And, even worse, I'll get a little bit annoyed when I pass a homeless person. But there is this middle space that we can occupy. It is just scary. But the thing about it is I think it's scary to enter, but it feels great to exist in. Because there's a feeling of relief in just acting on what you care about, even if the action isn't complete.

And sort of accepting that being human is not being perfect.

Human is not being perfect, but it's also—you know, it's funny, we talk about perfection only in terms of doing everything. There's also a perfection in doing nothing, which is what a lot of us live with. Being human also isn't to be a perfect nothing-doer.

I was interested in the format of the book. There are essays. There's a series of chapters that are related facts—which, by the way, are super interesting. I don't know if you have a worst fact...

You know one of the facts I love, which actually has nothing in the world to do with climate change, is that smokers are three times as likely to get cancer as non-smokers, and people who eat diets heavy in animal protein are four times as likely to get cancer than people who eat plant-based diets. I love the fact that the amount of animal products we consume today is the equivalent of everybody alive in the year 1700 eating 950 pounds of meat and drinking 1200 gallons of milk every day. It's just absolutely crazy. So what I want to do with the facts is not only tell a story, and not only inform, but also to create moments when you step back and say whoa. There's a real difference between acknowledging information, and information providing a perspective. I write in the book quite a bit about this thing called the Overview Effect that astronauts who have been in space have had, in being able to view the Earth. And it has so consistently and so deeply moved them that that experience has been given this name: the Overview Effect. Just seeing the planet for the first time. And having this revelation that we even live on a planet; which would seem to be something that wouldn't require a revelation, but it really does. And seeing the planet as something that's fragile and deserving of care. I wanted to have facts that offer tiny, tiny, tiny, tiny little versions of that—where you would see and say, oh gosh. See it as a kind of system.

What has is it been like touring and publicizing the book?

Well, I haven't felt like I've been publicizing the book. And every other book I've gone on tour for, I have felt like I was publicizing the book.

That's interesting.

Yeah, in this case. I feel like I am trying to expand the conversation about something that I care about quite deeply. I have found myself—I mean, this is another binary that unfortunately, I've gone to—I often bounce between the binaries of We're screwed. We’re just screwed. And to the other end, which I can say to you honestly I feel more often, which is I think we're going to get it together. And I think we're going to solve this problem. I share information with my kids all the time about climate change. And in the last few months, a number of times I’ve said, hey guys—and it's almost a joke in the house—this exact kind of exchange, like hey guys, I think we're going to solve it. I really do.

So, for example, the most recent time that I said it to them—Samin Nosrat of ”Salt, Fat, Acid, Heat"—just a wonderful TV personality cookbook author, has said that she read this book and said that she was going to try to not eat animal products for breakfast and lunch. The way she said it was something like This is going to suck. This is going to be hard. I really don't want to do it, but I'm not going to deny the science. I don't want to be someone like that. I know I can play a part. And she recognizes the power of her voice. When I saw that, I went down to my kids and I said, I think we're going to do this. The we meaning humankind.

Food is one slice of the problem. There's so many things that we have to address, so many ways to address it, but when you witness somebody being brave enough to both come out and say I'm going to try, and also to put it in terms of trying—not like an event but a process. Not like an accomplishment but like a decision to wrestle with something. I just find that so inspiring. And I think more and more people are stepping up and saying I'm going to try.

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