We Are the Weather: Saving the Planet Begins at Breakfast

Climate change is a much-talked-about topic these days, and there are many books out there on it. We Are the Weather by Jonathan Safran Foer is another one highlighting this message. It is a quirky book that rambles at times, but it always comes back to its major themes. It is a very personal, heartfelt book for the author who presents one primary solution to the problem. Despite his somewhat distracting approach, he sends us a message which should not be ignored. I respond to some of his major points as directly quoted from the book in bold.

“Climate change is the greatest crisis humankind has ever faced, and it is a crisis that will always be simultaneously addressed together and faced alone.” (p. 71) As someone getting up in years, I have read about many crises proclaimed as “the greatest crisis humankind has ever faced.” It is easy to become skeptical and refuse to believe or at least not believe it is going to be that serious that soon. I confess that I have been a climate-change skeptic most of my life, but I am becoming more aware and more concerned the longer I live. Foer is a prophet of doom, but, if we had heeded the message of his forerunners, we might not be in the shape we are today. He asks us to not be resigned to our fate but to become part of the resistance movement. Or as we used to say back in my youth “If you are not part of the solution you are part of the problem.

“choosing to eat fewer animal products is probably the most important action an individual can take to reverse global warming.” (150) Some of the “facts” presented in the book are dubious, and it took 63 pages for the author to get to his single-most important solution to climate change—eat fewer animal products. The message, however, that it is not good enough to advocate change, it is imperative that we act and act now as the clock is running out.

“No animal products for breakfast or lunch. It might not amount to precisely the reductions that are asked for, but it’s just about right, and easy to remember.” (171) Although it would not be a bad idea to become a vegan, Foer is not asking us to give up meat—just refrain from it for the first two meals of the day. In addition, we should stop eating eggs, dairy or any other animal products before the evening meal. I am drawn to his solution as I dislike all-or-nothing solutions. I favor compromises, but I see some holes in his argument. One problem with such a regime is that the breakfast-lunch-dinner pattern is only a Western tradition and even that meal pattern doesn’t dominate our society as it once did.

plate of bacon, hashbrowns and a cheese omlet
This restaurant breakfast would no longer be allowed as it combines bacon, egg and cheese.

So, does that mean we can eat one exclusively animal-based meal each day if the rest of the day is plant-based? Could I negotiate another meal, say breakfast, as the one with animal products if I promised myself I would only eat food from plants the rest of the day? What happens if I am stuck in a food court at meal time with very few plant-based options? Can I receive dispensation? Since all of this behavior is self-policed, I see many opportunities for backsliding on the original commitment. Just once wouldn’t hurt, would it?

“Of course it’s true that one person deciding to eat a plant-based diet will not change the world, but of course it’s true that the sum of millions of such decisions will.” (200) And here is the rub. Our individual actions while important symbolically are meaningless for such a massive problem unless as part of a mass movement. Are millions of people going to forgo animal-based products before the last meal of the day? Are millions going to even buy and read this book or pick it up at the local library like I did? And, if millions do read it, what percentage of them are going to truly adopt the solution? Let’s say 25 million Americans read this book, and 20 million actually truly adopt the idea and greatly reduce their consumption of animal-based food. Those 20 million dedicated followers represent approximately 0.26% of the world’s population, not enough to stave off climate change.

plate of cooked zucchini and sausage
A home-prepared meal of zucchini and sausage. OK for dinner but not for breakfast or lunch.

A decrease in consumption of animal products in the United States would make more of an impact than anywhere around the world as we eat more animal-based products than any other country in the world. Unfortunately, meat consumption in this country and around the world is actually increasing not decreasing. Even more disturbing on this front is that many vegans-by-circumstance-not-by-choice around the globe are adding meat and other animal-based items to their diets as their financial situation improves.

“Doing what needs to be done will involve invention (like creating veggie burgers that are indistinguishable from beef hamburgers), and legislation (holding animal agriculture responsible for environmental destruction)” (173) We Are the Weather rejects technological and economic solutions to decrease consumption of animal products indicating that such solutions will not be enough to make a difference. Having said that, the author sees potential for some help in his mission from technology and government. One alternative to meat, dairy and eggs are plant-based products that simulate the “real thing” such as the veggie burgers, nut milks and egg substitutes currently on the market and the more sophisticated ones that will succeed them.

package of Beyond Meat--a plant-based meat substitute
Plant-based meats–are they a solution or merely unhealthy, ultra-processed junk foods?

The battle is now on as to whether these items are valid alternatives or merely unhealthy, ultra-processed junk foods. More about that on this site in three weeks. Government regulations, such as those in the Green New Deal, are being pushed by progressive groups around the world. Such ideas are popular in theory but tend to be easily criticized by the political opposition who highlight the less popular aspects of the plan.

“Because we believe that someday, somewhere, some genius is bound to invent a miracle technology that will change our world so that we don’t have to change our lives.” (208-209) No, No, No, No, No!!!!! The biggest problem I have with this book is that it has a single solution (eat fewer animal products) and a single straw man (a technological miracle). If the threat of climate change is real, reducing animal consumption by a few million or even a few hundreds of millions may delay its onset, but it will not, in and of itself, prevent the collapse of life as we know it on earth. Likewise, no single technological miracle will save us from ourselves. On the other hand, many small technological solutions knitted together across the world combined with conscious action might forestall the environmental apocalypse if not prevent it. The world and climate change is much too complex to simplify it down to simple actions.

Bottom line. Despite warnings about the environment issued over the last few decades, society has generally ignored them, and there is evidence things are getting worse rather than getting better. If such warnings represent real threats, when will we see serious enough evidence to prompt real solutions, and will it be too late by then to do anything about it? I don’t have the answers, and I am not sure that anyone does. Foer’s solution that we should markedly cut back on animal products is over-simplistic. The idea that those of us who believe that damage associated with climate change is real have a responsibility to marshal our forces and do something rather than just sit on our hands and complain is a solid idea. It is this idea and how it is presented that makes We Are the Weather an important book and one that deserves our attention.

Next week: Global climate change: Is it a hoax or are we doomed?

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