30 Nov 2019

Jonathan Safran Foer - can you eat your way to saving the planet?

From Saturday Morning, 9:05 am on 30 November 2019

How much power does the individual have in preventing climate change when just 100 companies are responsible for more than 70 percent of emissions? More than we think, American author Jonathan Safran Foer says.

Foer places one solution for dealing with the problem directly onto our dinner plate.

The message that we should all be eating less meat will not come as news to those familiar with his 2009 non-fiction work Eating Animals. And in his latest book We Are The Weather, the focus shifts from animal welfare to the environmental benefits of making relatively minor changes to our diet.

Jonathan Safran Foer

Jonathan Safran Foer Photo: Jeff Mermelstein

His friend and fellow author Jonathan Franzen recently said that climate change is causing an upcoming apocalypse and there’s nothing we can do to prevent it. Foer takes a slightly different tack. He tells Kim Hill there’s nothing controversial in accepting climate change is real, what’s controversial is the question of whether we can act to prevent disaster.

“There’s absolutely no sense that we are already doomed unless you want to say human nature dooms us. Because climate change is such a scary subject, it makes us feel vulnerable and a lot of us, myself included, often race, psychologically, to the extremes of we’re either doomed or we’re going to be OK even if we can’t explain why.

“I find if I’m not extremely vigilant about my own thinking, I tend to rest in one of those two places and I can rest in one of those two places in the course of two minutes. What science tells us is that we’re not doomed and we’re not going to be OK.

“I don’t know that I would say I’m optimistic, but I’m hopeful - maybe stubbornly hopeful.”

Foer says we’re at the beginning of a process of loss and we’re likely to lose some coastal cities, ice sheets, and months or years off the average lifespan, but how much we lose is up to us as humans.

“There are very few version of climate change that describe the death of all humans. It’s a spectrum of loss. Even those expressions like saving the planet or losing the planet don’t really make sense. First of all, we’re not talking about the planet – the planet’s going to be just fine whatever happens.

“What we’re really talking about is life as we know it on the planet, and life on the planet is going to change both because of what we’ve already done and are doing, and the ways warming will force us to adapt, and it’s going to change because of the ways we’re going to adapt in response to that change now – driving less, flying less, having fewer children, eating differently, recycling, and so on.”

He says Americans are among the most responsible on earth for climate change but will be among the last to feel it.

“It’s one of the most cruel things about climate change, the social injustice of it. Americans, even if we don’t meet the goals of the Paris Climate Accord, we will be able to adapt. At least for a good long while… but if we don’t chose to solve this and we scrape by and adapt and find some way to carve out a life in a world that’s 5 degrees or 7 degrees warmer, we are not a people that’s ultimately going to survive.”

Just 100 companies are responsible for 71 percent of greenhouse gas emissions which makes putting the onus on individuals a little unfair. Foer says we need to hold both ideas in our mind at the same time. 

“One, that individuals can’t solve climate change on their own. And, two, that the system is not going to change on its own. We absolutely do need governmental help through regulation, through something like a carbon tax, through ending subsidies to the bad actors and supporting the good actors, transitioning to renewable energies, and so on.

“I don’t know about you, but I have no faith that it’s going to happen anytime soon. Trump is going to move in the opposite direction and Trump is the most egregious - though maybe Bolsonaro is competing with him at this point - anti-environment leader in the world. But the rest of the world is not that far behind.”

He says that although Trump officially pulled the US out of the Paris Climate Accord, there are only two other countries that are actually on pace to meet the goals - Gambia and Morocco. 

“So, if Hillary [Clinton] had been president - and I worked for Hillary and voted for Hillary and was gravely disappointed when she wasn’t elected - our signature would still be on the right document, but like the rest of the world we would not be on pace to meet the goals.

“There could have been an even worse kind of complacency in believing we were doing something. At least with Trump he’s awakened, through his ignorance and inaction, this moment of environmental consciousness. But, our leaders are not taking us where we need to be with the speed that is necessary.”

He says where individual action comes in is when we realise that corporations sell what we buy, and politicians are whom we vote for. 

“It may be that changing what we eat, how often we fly, what cars we drive if we drive at all, we are doing more than just contributing these drops in the bucket, we’re reshaping a culture and we’re reshaping a marketplace.”

For instance, six months ago, you couldn’t find a vegetarian alternative at most fast food restaurants in America. Now, vegetarian options are ubiquitous and are often Beyond Burger or Impossible Burger plant-based meat. 

“It’s not because the government insisted that they do so and it’s not because the CEOs of those companies awoke one morning and said ‘hey wouldn’t it be great to be part of the solution rather than the problem’, it’s because individuals asked for something different with their money.”

He acknowledges that walking the walk is difficult to do and, in the book, recounts a story of when he ate a beef burger at an airport while on his book tour for Eating Animals which strongly suggests we shouldn’t eat meat. 

“I was highlighting the struggle that I feel and that, frankly, everybody I know feels. I’ve yet to meet the person who is fully capable of acting on what they know when it comes to the environment.”

But Foer says caring and acting are like muscles, the more we use them, the stronger they get.

“Once you start to make movements in the direction of connecting your values to your actions, at least in my life and the lives of friends I speak with, you start to do more. It’s not that you become complacent, you realise this much movement was possible, this much movement felt good, and you want to do more.”

He says it’s a neoliberal myth that fate is in the hands of the individual, but it’s also a defeatist myth to say the individual has no say in their fate. 

“I cannot start a revolution any better than you can, but every revolution is comprised of thousands and hundreds of thousands and millions of individual revolutions. We have to start somewhere.”

  • Naomi Oreskes- can we trust scientists?
  • Climate change: Are we getting into emergency mode?
  • Climate change: Critical year for climate change starts in Madrid