Tuesday 22 October 2019

We are the Weather: A brilliantly disjointed opus on tackling climate change

Safran Foer highlights his own struggles to change behaviour in response to the planetary crisis in this deeply personal account, writes Tanya Sweeney

Quirky: Safran Foer is experimental enough to make his readers feel a bit smart
Quirky: Safran Foer is experimental enough to make his readers feel a bit smart
We are the Weather by Jonathan Safran Foer

Tanya Sweeney

'This is a book about the impacts of animal agriculture on the environment," Jonathan Safran Foer announces no fewer than 64 pages into his opus. Before that, he takes the reader on a fairly whimsical tour of This and That, taking in subjects as diverse as Rosa Parks, Julius Caesar, Elvis's polio vaccinations, his family's fates during the Holocaust, human flower pollinators in China, suicide notes from ancient Egypt and Thanksgiving. It's a polemical book on climate change alright, but not as we know it. He's fond of an analogy you see, hence the wildly disjointed start.

To further prove this, Safran Foer makes a curious admission. During the three years he spent researching factory farming for, and two years he spent promoting his first non-fiction book Eating Animals, he ate a lot of burgers, usually at airports. "They brought me comfort," he explains. "How could I argue for radical change, how could I raise my children as vegetarians, while eating meat for comfort?"

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This in itself should be enough to take the edge off any persuasive argument about saving the planet. Yet Safran Foer highlights this to prove that even a person with all the information that is possible to have on the subject will find it difficult to live with open eyes. He acknowledges that we are fatigued by the complexity and the scale of the threats that the planet faces. Humanity faces a race against time, and that race is about starting to give a monkey's about the planet. Safran Foer is, he notes, struggling with how to square his own gratitude for life with behaviour that suggests an indifference to it.

When most of us strive for perfection in our behaviours, we are doomed to fail, but even making small efforts and putting simple habits into effect to tackle climate change is better than nothing. Giving up meat for every meal except for dinner, he posits, would be a good place for many average people to start.

"Clearly, facts aren't enough to mobilise us," says Safran Foer. "But what if we can't summon and sustain the necessary emotions? I've wrestled with my own responses to the planetary crisis. It feels obvious to me that I care about the fate of the planet, but… it's undeniable that I care more about the fate of a specific baseball team on the planet, my childhood-hometown Washington Nationals?" Greta Thunberg, this ain't.

In a world full of dully prescriptive and preachy advice about environmental Armageddon, this seems an admirable place to start a thesis on climate change, by acknowledging that most humans know that they have to modify their behaviours and attitudes, but for some reason aren't really able to put those changes into effect. Safran Foer notes that individuals have their own power; enough individuals making changes in turn start a Mexican wave of sorts.

"We will rise to meet the planetary crisis, or we won't," he writes. "We will be a wave or we will drown. If we don't overcome our agnosticism and later our behaviour in the ways that we know are necessary, how will our descendants judge us? Will they know that they inherited a battlefield because we were unwilling to turn off our lights?"

This may sound, on the face of it, like many a speech we have heard from environmentalists, activists and politicians. But the author's inimitable philosophies make this a cut above your typical climate change call to arms.

Yet for those expecting what we will call Safran Foerisms, there are plenty of those within these pages, too. As a novelist at least, he is the literary equivalent of the Brooklyn mumblecore film director: contemporaneous enough to be relatable, but experimental or quirky enough to make his readers feel a bit smart.

In the chapter 'Dispute with the Soul', the author appears to be having a conversation with himself. Quirky/experimental box, ticked. A less generous reviewer might deem the stylistic tic overly ponderous or indulgent, but Safran Foer has the charm to make it work.

Later, in 'Life Note', he writes to his boys about the death of his great-grandmother Bubbe, as well as her earlier life, escaping the Nazis in war-torn Poland. It's familiar terrain for anyone who has read Safran Foer's fiction before, and is arguably the most touching and enjoyable passage of the book. And yet this deeply personal, poignant account comes back to his central thesis on climate change.

We are the Weather is a brilliantly disjointed mishmash of powerful personal accounts, stark statistics, cod-philosophical curveballs and authentic opinion. To be fair, the book doesn't suffer much because of this scattergun approach. If anything, these stylistic confusions and meanderings seem to serve the central subject matter quite well.

We are the Weather by Jonathan Safran Foer, Non-Fiction, Penguin, hardback, 272 pages, €17

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