FEATURE

Still Eating Animals

We Are the Weather: Saving the Planet Begins at Breakfast BY Jonathan Safran Foer. New York: Farrar, Straus and Giroux. 288 pages. $25.

WAY BACK IN 2001, when I was a teenager furious at Bush for withdrawing from the Kyoto treaty, I still believed Something Would Happen to mitigate climate change. I knew enough to understand that a Republican-led United States would never participate in the Something, but—child that I was—I imagined Europe would set an example for a later, Democrat-led US to emulate; I imagined the rest of the world would unite behind a plan Americans would eventually adopt. Global warming had the feel of an epic threat that all the planet’s populations would rally to oppose, like an alien invasion or a meteor on a collision course with Earth. For decades, movies promised this acme of international cooperation, an achievement that could belong to the whole of humanity. I suspected we’d procrastinate and push our triumph to the final hour, but it didn’t occur to me there might be no effective effort at all.

It’s obvious now that the necessary degree of mobilization between and within nations may never occur, and the United States stands to be one of the most obdurate abstainers, all the way down to the local level. Under the long shadow of federal fecklessness, many American states, cities, neighborhoods, and households seem more inclined to follow suit than to devise their own measures to alleviate and prepare for what’s yet to come. The crisis is well underway but meaningful responses to it elude us, by pretty much any definition of who that “us” could be: you and I, our families, our government, our friends. The problem isn’t a lack of information, it’s an absence of action; with each viral doomsday article, our inertia and our hopelessness compound. We, like the climate, are stuck in a feedback loop, generating momentum for our complacency from our complacency. As Dahr Jamail writes in The End of Ice, a climate change travelogue: “The more something happens, the more it happens.”

“I am not a climate change denier, but it is undeniable that I behave like one,” writes Jonathan Safran Foer in We Are the Weather: Saving the Planet Begins at Breakfast, a bleak, discursive examination of persistent passivity in the face of the horrible future: “As the situation becomes ever more alarming, so does my ability to ignore the alarm.” Foer, made famous by his first two novels, surpassed his fiction with 2009’s Eating Animals, a thorough indictment of modern animal farming that left a deep impression on its readers, the majority of whom kept eating meat. In We Are the Weather, Foer admits that he, too, is convinced but not converted by his work. While on tour for Eating Animals, audience members asked why he wasn’t vegan; he blamed his children’s pickiness, though the real reason was that the “desire to eat cheese and eggs was stronger than my commitment to preventing cruelty to animals and the destruction of the environment.” Later, while on tour for a novel, he ate hamburgers because “they brought me comfort.”1 His hypocrisy shames him more acutely now that our fate is increasingly stark—“We must either let some eating habits go or let the planet go,” he reminds himself—but the catastrophe’s nearness is not enough to bring his practice in line with his preaching. Like most men, he is unaccustomed to thinking of himself as an emotional eater, and his dietary unruliness challenges his identity as a responsible, rational actor.

Matija Ereceg, Single-Use Nuclear Explosion Goggles, 2014, digital collage. Courtesy of the artist.

We Are the Weather is Foer’s second book-length attempt to revise his dining habits. In recognition of his own intransigence, he’s upped the stakes from nonhuman animals’ suffering to mass human pain and gradual extinction. This time around, animal farming is “manslaughter” and “genocide” not just because of the lives taken by the factory, but also because of the grain and corn that bypass hungry humans to support livestock that only exist to “feed overfed populations.” He excoriates himself and his equally negligent readers as their own worst enemies—“We should be terrified of ourselves. We are the ones we have to defy”—while implying that switching to two-thirds veganism could make them heroes. (“Not eating animal products for breakfast and lunch saves 1.3 metric tons [of carbon] per year.”) His preferred point of comparison for our collective failure to dismantle our habitat-squandering lifestyles is Justice Felix Frankfurter’s refusal to “believe” Jan Karski’s first-person account of the Holocaust in 1943, a scene Foer regularly returns to as the epitome of an unforgivable moral lapse. “What does it mean to live ethically if not to make ethical choices?” he asks redundantly, despairingly. I’d bet my twenty years of veganism he’s still eating things he wishes he wouldn’t.

The Foer phenomenon is familiar to every animal-rights activist, aspiring vegan, and on-again, off-again vegetarian who has ever lived among omnivores—as well as to everyone who has attempted virtually any type of diet. It’s almost impossible to persuade a person to change the way they eat, especially if that person is yourself. When it comes to veganism, the struggle is chalked up to cheese tasting delicious and bacon consumption being natural, or some other circular reasoning: Humans want to eat animal products because animal products are irresistible, case closed. But Foer’s self-recrimination is characteristic of plenty of other dietary endeavors, from eliminating sugar and cutting salt to giving up carbs or not eating after 8 PM. A doctor can tell a sick person that he’ll die if he doesn’t change what he eats, and even that’s no guarantee change will come. Trying to use information or threats to eliminate food habits is like trying to dam a river with a sieve.

On some level, Foer knows this, yet he remains determined to dominate his behavior with his intellect. He can’t slough off the conviction that if he could provoke himself in the right way, correct actions would follow. “How to Prevent the Greatest Dying,” a section of Weather in which Foer bullet-points chilling facts related to food and climate crisis, reminds me of the thinspo binders I used to compile with paste and pictures of gaunt models cut from magazines, though I think his project has the stronger flavor of futility. Covetousness is more propulsive than terror, which is as likely to paralyze as it is to motivate.

I sympathize with Foer, but I can’t fully identify with him; I took to veganism like a live duck takes to water. One afternoon in the summer of 1999, I asked the internet why people would give up eggs and dairy, and after less than an hour of researching the answer, I became one of those people. My parents deserve some credit for my early fortitude since their derision cemented my resolve, but what really made it workable were the myriad airtight arguments against the industry. As is true for climate change, the relevant information is widely available, widely confirmed, and points to a single conclusion: In its current iteration, no dimension of animal farming is ethically defensible or even ethically tolerable. It entails grotesque, unceasing suffering for sentient beings whose only moment of mercy is death. It consumes obscene amounts of resources—water, grain, electricity, land—to produce a modest number of calories, calories laced with feces and pus, pumped full of antibiotics that create resistant bacteria. (Yet another feedback loop.) Slaughterhouses jeopardize workers’ physical safety and mental health by paying them low hourly wages to commit acts of extreme sadism as quickly and relentlessly as possible. (Last year, much was made of Amazon employees’ peeing in trash cans and bottles due to insufficient bathroom breaks; in 2016, Oxfam released an entire report about the same treatment of poultry workers, some of whom had taken to wearing diapers at work.) And those devalued employees are often people of color drawn from low-income communities, communities then poisoned by the perpetually replenished lagoons of excrement and effluvium maintained nearby.

The wide-ranging horrors of animal farming, in my estimation, explain why the topic is so radioactive even among otherwise progressive, Far Left thinkers, a number of whom I’ve seen react to mentions of veganism with an incensed disdain usually reserved for the #BlueLivesMatter crowd. The intensity and immediacy of their rejections reek of insecurity; they don’t want to enter a debate they know they’d lose. In We Are the Weather, Foer mentions a conscientious, politically engaged friend who refuses to read Eating Animals “because he knows that it will require him to make a change he can’t make.” Omnivores don’t want to be forced to acknowledge what they already know, because, in this instance, a moral response can’t be fudged or faked or only acted upon now and then. To take a stand against animal farming entails taking it multiple times a day, every day, whenever you want to eat. The opportunities to put your fork where your mouth is will never stop coming; you can’t just make a donation or volunteer one weekend a month and believe you’re doing your part.

A demoralizing truce takes place inside most of us, an agreement to live out of sync with what we know because the alternative is too daunting—that applies to climate change and to our exploitation of animals. “Knowledge of harm alone is usually not enough to change us, even if we agree that what’s happening is horrible,” writes Jacy Reese in The End of Animal Farming (2018), distilling our predicament into one tragic sentence. The End of Animal Farming is one of several recent books about cultured meat and its potential to save us from ourselves. The expectation is that clean meat—meat made in a lab, free from animal bodies—would sidestep the obstacle of our intractable demand by addressing harm on the supply side. It’s a beguiling dream because it frees us from reliance on the near-useless tools of guilt and willpower and suggests the future can be improved without any sacrifices. At last, a protocol we can get behind: Sit back, eat whatever we want, and let the science guys figure it out.

This switch might even facilitate our moral improvement in other dimensions, since “it’s easier to act your way into a new way of thinking than to think your way into a new way of acting.” In Clean Meat: How Growing Meat Without Animals Will Revolutionize Dinner and the World (2018), author Paul Shapiro, who worked for the Humane Society, suggests that as long as we’re eating animals, we won’t be able to think about them accurately or ethically. He’s probably right. To take some liberties with a famous Upton Sinclair quote, it’s difficult to get a man to understand something when he feels like his dinner depends on not understanding it. Perhaps this is also true with climate change: As long as every aspect of our American lives is wrapped up in profligate consumption of fossil fuels, plastics, and animal products, we won’t consider the steps necessary to create a less nightmarish future—because we won’t believe we’re capable of taking them.

Comprehensive and cheap replacements for animal-made items might never come, or they might not arrive “in time,” meaning before environmental disaster forces our hand. But factory farming will come to an end in the near future; it is, and always has been, unsustainable. To wait for the moment of its inevitable demise means increasing our impending devastation by orders of magnitude, but are we capable of doing anything other than waiting? Short of a Silicon Valley–sponsored deus ex machina, what would free us from our suicidal feedback loop?

IN HER 2011 BOOK, Thinking in an Emergency, philosopher Elaine Scarry writes that when we act during a state of emergency, “we do so out of the habitual. . . . If no serviceable habit is available, we will use an unserviceable one and become either immobilized or incoherent.” Immobilized and incoherent is the perfect description of our present circumstance. We have no serviceable habits for this emergency; we are altogether out of the habit of establishing habits together mindfully, with cooperation and deliberation. Foer surveys the inaction of the American populace and sees a deficit of “belief,” a mass of people unbothered by the advancing cataclysm because they aren’t trying hard enough to care. What I see (and perhaps I am projecting) is abject dread and solace-seeking in old habits, the most nefarious of which is conducting ourselves as if we are not part of a vast network of mutual obligations.

As Weather progresses, Foer pays lip service to collectivity, but he seems to think of it as spontaneous, semi-instinctive synchronicity, like a wave at a baseball game, rather than intentional collaboration. He imagines numerous individuals “influencing” one another to make the same choices, exerting tacit peer pressure and shaping corporate productions through what they consume—an impoverished version of collective action, if it can be called collective action at all, and an approach that’s contingent upon reaching critical mass. (Ask a vegan how many friends and family members they’ve converted through leading by example—I doubt they’ll need a second hand to count.)

Scarry emphasizes the value not of willpower nor of inspiration but of “habits of mutual aid,” community practices of crisis preparation designed and executed by an engaged cohort, not a collection of individuals monkey-see-, monkey-doing. Part of what’s important in CPR training or evacuation drills is “the fact of regularly working and planning together,” an experience the American public has become unaccustomed to now that power is concentrated ever further upward, in corporations, high courts, and a lawless executive branch. Again, I think of feedback loops, of how witnessing the suppression of votes and the punishment of protests, or police impunity and politicians’ unaccountability, erases our faith in our capacity for participation.

It is essential and right to hold accountable the corporations, figureheads, and institutions so disproportionately responsible for what’s happened to our world. But that reckoning can’t be a ploy to deflect attention from our own culpability. “Even smart and caring people seek holes they can escape through with their lifestyles intact,” Foer writes, and this is one of the ways they do it, but we’ve given up everything if we’ve given up the right to act in accordance with our integrity. No matter how otherwise constrained our circumstances, we can always choose each other, choose solidarity, choose effort. Every time we do, we’re making headway toward a new habit, a self-reinforcing orientation that alters the fabric of who we are and how we live.

I wonder which dietary choices would be more attainable if we replaced the idea of willpower with external support and encouragement; if we replaced the pressure of conversion with the commitment of a standing invitation. Eating is already so emotional, it’s hard to believe that applying panic and absolutism can help. But working together would. The communal aspect of meals is frequently cited among omnivores as a reason why it’s hard to be vegan, as if vegan communal meals are inconceivable, and the participation of friends and family too much to ask. It isn’t.

There has never been a better time to start building our lives around mutual aid; our climate-ravaged future is not a landscape in which anyone will survive without receiving and giving help. That initiative has to come from inside of you and you alone, but that’s not where it stays nor where it ends. Invite people you love to lunch, and make it vegan. Enlist them in the preparation. It’s OK if none of you know what you’re doing at first and it doesn’t taste great; talk about what might be better, try it separately and share your tips, divvy up leftovers, improve the approach for next time. Working together is the important part. There’s still time to make it a habit.

1An earlier version of this review stated that Foer ate meat while on tour for Eating Animals. According to We Are the Weather, he ate meat later, while promoting a novel.

Charlotte Shane is a frequent contributor to Bookforum and the cofounder of TigerBee Press.