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Review: We Are the Weather by J.S. Foer

Updated: Jun 30, 2020

On a positive note, We Are the Weather by Jonathan Safran Foer contains some of the best climate-related prose I’ve read. There is convincing allegory about World War Two, the industrial revolution, and the world’s oldest surviving suicide note. Some chapters almost compare to the unrivaled David Wallace Wells (if by now you haven’t read some D.W.W., make haste). But when it comes to substance, Foer both misdiagnoses the source of the climate crisis and gives useless prescriptions. His basic takeaway? Climate change can be fixed if everyone makes the private choice to be vegan.

It’s well established that you can cut down your personal carbon footprint by cutting your consumption of animal products. Beef and dairy are especially bad due to methane from cattle, but any non-vegan diet produces greater emissions than a vegan diet. Using these facts, Foer argues that your primary focus should be cutting consumption of animal products. Not support for clean tech. Not lobbying for a price on carbon. Only focus on your own diet and we will be saved. It is not hard to show that this is incorrect.

(I note that I was a vegetarian for about four years before lapsing, and I plan to make another long-term attempt at some point. I've also made my diet much more climate friendly in the past two years. So I’m not some proud carnivore unwilling to be inconvenienced. I’m writing this essay simply because it is false to say that your personal diet has the most impact.)

Foer often sets up an argument perfectly, with an assortment of symbolism and flowing language, crafting an enticing premise before flipping the whole tray of beautifully plated food onto the floor. For instance, consider this passage about D-Day:

“Imagine the scene: More than 150,000 soldiers are storming the beaches at Normandy. It is the largest amphibious invasion ever mounted. Even at the time, it is recognized as a hinge moment in history. The operation is happening now, June 6, 1944, because the full moon is necessary for the tide and for illumination. [...] The soldiers wading onto the beach have come from a dozen countries. [...] The landing crafts push forward, releasing as many as two hundred men at a time into the storm of the war. A child’s father pulls the trigger of his rifle, hears the crack of the shot. He is unaware that he just fired a blank. A Jewish soldier from Pittsburgh fires ten blanks per second from an M1919 machine gun. Someone’s piano teacher’s hand is shaking too violently to fire the first shot from a pistol loaded with blanks.”

This goes on for a while, and it’s a useful analogy. (I even plan to use it in my own conversations, especially when I hear friends imply that recycling is connected to climate change.) But after all that lead-in, Foer ruins the whole setup with an erroneous punchline. His conclusion is that ignoring animal agriculture is like “firing blanks” in Normandy.

In fact it is the climate change vegetarians and vegans who are often firing blanks, or at best something weaker than real lead. First, it is simply not true that animal agriculture is the sector with the most emissions. There are several evaluations out there: one respected estimate from the last decade is that animal agriculture produces about 15% of all global emissions, though some give a higher number. Hard to see how that would be the most important. On the other hand, burning of fossil fuels produces something like 60% of all emissions. So his conclusion is wrong, as much as he tries to promote a discredited study that puts animal products’ emissions much higher.

Second, much of livestock-related emissions can, strictly speaking, be eliminated by alternative methods. Agriculture emissions include (a) methane from cattle, (b) all fossil fuel burned in supply chain (transportation/farming/fertilizer/etc), (c) cooking [carnivorous diets apparently require more cooking], (d) land use change, and (e) refrigeration [fluorocarbons]. Again, much of this can be eliminated without cutting animal product consumption. It would be great if we collectively eliminated animals from our meals---that would be one legitimate route. But it’s false to suggest it’s the only route, or even the most likely one to succeed. Without changing diets it is technologically feasible to eliminate greenhouse gas emissions from transportation, cooking, and refrigeration. He does not seem to understand this, and continually suggests that the only method to reduce these emissions is to eat less meat.

Third, related to the last point, he falls prey to what one might call the fallacy of categorization. You can make it seem like animal agriculture is the worst (most-emitting) category of emissions, if you just define your categories in a way that proves your premise. If you lump together everything that touches agriculture (refrigeration, transportation, etc.), then you can conclude that agriculture as a sector is an enormous percentage of emissions. Hypothetically you could also play this game by splitting up the other sectors. For example you could put trucks and cars and airplanes into smaller groups, instead of including them in one transportation category. Then you would claim that all of the other categories are smaller than the animal category, and ergo we should address only agriculture.

A final necessary criticism is that even if his diagnosis were correct, his prescriptions are wrong. He focuses almost entirely on individual actions, hoping they will result in a big cultural shift. He doesn’t seem to be against politician action, but he doesn’t care much for it either. Do you know what changes behavior faster than individual-induced cultural shifts? New laws. And new taxes. If you want less beef consumption, you should call your mayor or congressperson and demand a tax on beef. (I encourage everyone to do just that.) By focusing on shaming individuals, he has given into some corporations’ manufactured trope about individual action.

The fact is, eliminating fossil fuels’ deep integration in our economy is the only serious climate strategy, and this is reflected in what the top experts in energy systems modeling tend to conclude. And the only way to decarbonize fast enough is political action. It is certainly ethical and praise-worthy to reduce your personal emissions by reducing meat and dairy consumption. But we shouldn’t fool ourselves into thinking that agriculture is the top priority, not when the data and research demonstrate otherwise.


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