“Maybe we’ll believe each other when we tell our stories, maybe we’ll come to different conclusions. Even from a very strong disagreement, one can begin an interesting conversation.” Julia Fiedorczuk talks to Jonathan Safran Foer, the author of Everything Is Illuminated, Eating Animals and We are the Weather.
Julia Fiedorczuk: I must begin by asking you simply: How are you? How are you coping with the strange situation that we find ourselves in at this time of social distancing?
Jonathan Safran Foer: Well, I would say a week or two ago there was a much greater awareness of the emergency. There were sirens going off all the time. And now it is almost back to normal. I mean, everyone is wearing a mask and, of course, restaurants are closed and all of that… but my life sort of resembled quarantine anyway, so, you know [laughs].
I understand completely – I’m sort of a hermit myself. What do you think the aftermath of this situation is going to be? Some people believe it might lead to an environmental awakening. Do you think this weird experience could be a chance to make people more aware of their dependence on the environment and on each other; of their own fragility?
I hope so. If nothing else, at least this moment definitely proves that we are capable of making big changes quickly, although Americans may be having a harder time with that than some other places in the world. After only one month, people are protesting. And for what? I can’t even imagine the answer to that question. Anyway, it’s interesting to think why we are able to make this change. You hear people say: It’s inspiring that we are protecting the more vulnerable among us. We’re willing to alter our lives for older or sick people. I don’t think that’s true. I think people are trying to protect themselves. If your government had said that everybody needs to go into quarantine otherwise people in Bangladesh will get coronavirus, would people have obeyed? Or not even that. If the government had said you need to wash your hands, scrupulously, otherwise people in Bangladesh will get coronavirus, I don’t think people would have. At least in America. So one of the difficult things this pandemic has reminded us of is how good we are at acting if we are afraid for ourselves, but how bad we are at acting when it requires any kind of leap for empathy.
There are things that will be asked of us – whether because of coronavirus or climate change – that may make our lives more difficult. That’s the tragedy of climate change: it requires us to give up some nice things. We are going to have to fly less, eat differently, consume less, and there is no way of getting around that. I think it is worth acknowledging and talking about.
You said a number of times that what we need to acknowledge is that no, we are not doomed and no, we are not just going to be OK. We have to somehow adjust to this truth. Why do you think it is so hard? Why would we rather believe in the inevitability of doom than accept the ambivalence of our moment?
In all of life it is easy to fall into binarisms – it’s either this way or it’s that way. I do it all the time. But it is especially easy when you are vulnerable. Then it’s especially tempting to think: It’s black or white; it’s all of this or it’s none of this. Coronavirus is going to be interesting in that way, because, at the very earliest, it’s not going to be over until we have a vaccine. We are confronting one of those very tricky moments of human mathematics . The virus isn’t going to kill everybody, that’s clear. And yet, we mustn’t feel safe. So how do we figure out the way in between these two poles? What is acceptable to us? With regard to climate change, we are going to have to ask ourselves the same question. Because the fact is that most people – certainly people like me – are not just going to stop flying or driving forever and only buy sustainable goods. I don’t think it is possible for me. Or at least that’s the story I tell myself.
Then it suddenly becomes a question of how much do I do? How much of the destruction am I OK with participating in? What kind of future is acceptable, is tolerable? Those questions are complicated, frustrating, but also fascinating to ask others.
We often fear that such conversations – for instance, conversations about meat – are going to be terrible, that people are going to become defensive or aggressive, while in my experience that is not true. They are actually beautiful conversations to have. They are a powerful way of getting to know the person that you’re speaking to, but of also getting to know yourself. Of interrogating what your limits are, what your own values are.
Perhaps that’s because you approach people without moral superiority and without posing as a model to be followed?
In my experience, when you share an accomplishment, it is not very interesting to anybody, nor productive. I don’t like to hear about other peoples’ moral accomplishments. But when you share your struggles, you create a space that people want to enter. We’re constantly analysing other people’s choices. Let’s say a friend of mine has made a choice not to fly for holidays and I ask: Why? And if they answer: What do you mean, why? Planes destroy the environment! I would say: Of course they do, I already know that. But it’s a lot more inspiring if my friend says: You know, it is difficult because I love to travel and I’d love to be able to take my family to different places, but on the other hand I am aware of environmental damage caused by plane travel and although I’m not sure how to deal with this, I’m trying to do my best. So much of the conversation about climate change does not boil down to information or facts, but to different ways of talking about different things.
To me this is related to what we mentioned earlier – the attraction of the apocalypse. Do you have any thoughts about why the vision of the apocalypse is so seductive? A lot of environmentalists use this trope as well.
I think there are a lot of different ways of looking at it. Perhaps the most generous one is that some people probably believe that the end is coming. It’s like when animal-rights activists scream that meat is murder. They do so because they believe it is true. And they’re right. In the case of environmental activists – who knows, maybe this really is the end. But I don’t think that’s the whole story. Then there’s another explanation. I think to some people making apocalyptic predictions feels good. It provides a kind of perverse entertainment. Perhaps they believe that they are going to scare people into action. And it does work for some people. For instance, PETA is a very successful organization. They turn off eight out of ten people, but they convince two out of every ten, which makes them very effective. I think when it comes to climate change, we need lots of different strategies. Telling an apocalyptic story is one of them. Greta Thunberg’s strategy is another. Novels featuring climate change are yet another strategy. Too often, we look for one silver bullet, and we’re not going to find it.
Speaking about the novel as a strategy – or, more broadly, storytelling as a possible strategy for fighting climate change – I think your work is a wonderful example. We are the Weather is a case for storytelling as a tool for understanding the world. As a writer, what do you think about the potential of fiction, of story, of metaphor to change the world? I myself think a lot about the place of poetry in all of this; what it can and what it cannot do.
It’s funny, ever since the quarantine began I’ve put a poem outside my door each day. We have a kind of a chalk-board there, and I’ve written a poem on it every day. The neighbours stop and read it, but also the mailman and the food-delivery people. I said to a friend the other day: “It’s like nobody needs poetry, until a day comes when everybody needs poetry.” Now is one of those moments. Do I think that poetry is going to be effective in making people stay inside during coronavirus or think about climate change? I don’t know, I doubt it. Do I think poetry is a good strategy to remind people that they are alive and that they have choices and that they love existing? Very much so. People who remember that they are alive and that they have the power to choose are more likely to save the world than destroy it.
I personally wouldn’t use fiction to make a political point. But that said, fiction is always political in a certain way, because it reminds us both of the uniqueness and power of the individual, but also of how similar and how different we are. It reminds us that the stranger is not as strange as we think. That is what the world needs right now. The Polish poet Zbigniew Herbert said: “The imagination is the instrument for compassion.” Telling stories is also a good way to practice caring about things. Not about something in particular, but simply through exercising the muscle of care.
Who are some of the poets that you’ve put outside?
There’s a lot of them. Adam Zagajewski. Everyone from him to Galway Kinnell, Denise Levertov, Stanley Kunitz, Emily Dickinson, Wallace Stevens, Robert Frost, a couple of contemporary poets… It’s really been a lot at this point!
Returning now to We Are the Weather. It’s not until around 60 pages in that you actually say that it’s going to be about meat and the impact of eating animals on the climate. Why the long wait?
There are two reasons. One is that there were other things I wanted to say. It is a book about food and climate change, but it is also about other things – for instance, the difficulty of believing what we know. I sort of wanted to set the table with that. The second – and probably more honest – reason is that I was afraid to raise the subject because it turns a lot of people off. I felt like I wanted to establish a certain kind of relationship with the reader, a kind of trust or goodwill, before getting into the more difficult part of it.
So you create a story, and make us very much engaged before we find out that the question of eating meat is also part it. That makes sense! Why do you think it is so hard to talk about meat and the destruction it causes? Why do you think so few people know that meat production contributes so significantly to climate change? I really think there is very little awareness of that.
There are perhaps two different issues. One has to do with the system. There are very powerful forces that have a very strong interest in keeping people unaware of those truths. Animal agriculture has enormous lobbying and financial power. The other thing is, the tradition of eating meat has enormous cultural power. Our parents and grandparents and great grandparents – they all ate meat. It’s become embedded not only in our diets, but also in our ways of thinking about holidays, religion, celebration, or even social gatherings. This tradition is a difficult force to unwind. However, the most important thing may be that it is hard to talk about meat because we know how high the stakes are. Sometimes when I give a reading someone will stand up and get upset and ask: “Who do you think you are?” If I had been talking about why we should drink fizzy water instead of still water, nobody would ever protest. People stand up because something is upsetting them. And it only happens when you care. Otherwise you let it go.
So when somebody gets upset, I say to them: Look, we obviously agree that this matters. I’ll tell you why I think it matters, you tell me why you think it matters. But I’m glad you think it matters because it’s a good starting place. Maybe we’ll believe each other when we tell our stories, maybe we’ll come to different conclusions, but I promise I will listen. I will listen when you tell me the ways in which meat is indispensable for your way of life. And I hope that you will listen while I tell you the science that says what it says. Even a very strong disagreement can lead to an interesting conversation.
Do you think that religion is an obstacle on the way towards a more environmental way of life?
No, I think it’s one of our greatest hopes, actually. I’m not religious and there is a lot about organized religion that I find deeply difficult. But there is no organized religion in the world that does not take as a basis that some kind of God had something to do with creating the world and therefore we have a responsibility to take care of it. Values such as having dominion over the animals and being stewards of the planets are exactly the values that need to be talked about in the context of climate change. The challenge is that these connections with the climate change debate have not yet been made. But there’s some movement in that direction. The Evangelical Church in the US, for instance, has become much more active in terms of the environment. This is sort of a different conversation, but since religion is still relevant and it desires to maintain relevance in today’s world, engaging in environmental issues may be its best chance.
Changing the topic a little – do people ever question your sources?
No, it actually doesn’t happen. I’m a bit surprised, but it’s true. If it were to happen, if somebody questioned what I write, I would say: Look, I’m as interested in truth as you are. I want to know. I’m actually very transparent about what my sources are. Hundreds are listed at the end of my book. What does happen to me sometimes during a reading is that someone will stand up and say: Well, I can’t believe you haven’t mentioned the fashion industry. Do you realize that the fashion industry has a larger carbon footprint than food industry? To which I reply: You know, it doesn’t sound true to me. It is not in keeping with what I have read. If it were true, I would want to know about it. And even if it’s not bigger than food, I still want to know more about it. I will give them my address and ask them to send me the materials and I’ll read them. The news services tend to be biased, but science doesn’t. In America, roughly half of the people are Republicans and half are Democrats. However, in the scientific world, about 100% of scientists agree about climate change and its main causes. Nothing that I say is even remotely controversial in the scientific world.
Occasionally, someone will stand up and say: I don’t believe there is this scientific consensus; I don’t believe scientists agree about the causes of climate change. To this I will say: Well, you and I have no common path. Sometimes you just have to let people go. One thing that moved me as I was writing this book is the discovery that the challenge is not to persuade science deniers. There aren’t that many of them. The challenge is to persuade people like us, who accept the science, people who actually want to do the right thing, who want to change – but don’t, for a handful of reasons.
Our readers are likely the people who want to change and who want to do the right thing. What is your advice to them?
I would say that we know, without any doubt, the four acts that individuals partake in and are the most important with respect to the environment. These are: increasing overpopulation (having kids), flying, driving, and eating animal products. We don’t have to stop doing those things, but we should know that the more we do of those things, the more destruction we cause. And vice versa: the less we do of those things, the healthier the environment will be. I can’t say to you or anybody else, stop flying or stop eating meat. Ask yourself, however, what is the least amount that I could do of those things? Different people find different things more challenging. You may find reducing plane travel easy; I find it very difficult. Not eating meat can be really hard for you; it so happens that it isn’t hard for me. We have to respect each other. When you say to me, this is who I am, this is what I can do, I will respect that. While at the same time holding you accountable to your own self-described limits.
The other thing is we need both individual and systemic change – though it is much harder to know how to participate in systemic change. Voting is important, but you have to have good politicians to vote for. Ultimately, nothing is more powerful than our money. It is more powerful even than our votes. As we withhold money from bad industries and give it to good industries, the world will change.
Parts of this interview have been edited and condensed for clarity and brevity.
Jonathan Safran Foer:
An American novelist, author of such novels as: Everything Is Illuminated (2002), Extremely Loud & Incredibly Close (2005), Here I Am (2016) and one of the short stories from The Burned Children of America anthology. In 2009, he published Eating Animals, a book that discusses factory farming, industrial fishing, the cultural significance of food, and the methods of agricultural production.
His latest book We Are the Weather: Saving the Planet Begins at Breakfast (2019) is a collection of essays in which Foer explores the central dilemma of our time in a surprising, deeply personal way. The task of saving the planet will involve a great reckoning with ourselves – with our all-too-human reluctance to sacrifice immediate comfort for the sake of the future. In order to eat more, in a cheaper and more delicious way, we have turned our planet into a farm for growing animal products, and the consequences are catastrophic. Only collective action will save our planet. This starts with what we eat – and don’t eat – for breakfast.
Introduction and biography translated by Julia Potocka-Ostaszewska