Jonathan Safran Foer and the Limits of Liberal Climate Politics

Jonathan Safran Foer and the Limits of Liberal Climate Politics

Things Are Bleak!

Jonathan Safran Foer’s quest for planetary salvation.


Hi. I am a popular novelist, and these are my thoughts about global warming. I grew up in a major East Coast city or perhaps some lesser, sadder place that I’ve built a relatively successful career processing my feelings about in a semiautobiographical manner. Eventually I became very well ​educated—​educated enough, I’m afraid to say, that I have come to understand the science of climate change. Here are a handful of cherry-picked findings from academic papers I have read on the matter, translated for the layperson with all the boilerplate prose and expert precision of an MFA graduate. And let me tell you: Things are bleak. Bleaker than any of us could have imagined. But precisely the sort of bleak that lends itself to the grand literary soul-searching readers have come to love me for. Come along with me on my journey.

You see, as someone who has spent his career beautifully digesting the finer points of meaning and existence, the climate crisis—have I mentioned how horrible it is?—is a perfect foil. My fraught relationships with my father, my religious upbringing, and/or my ex-wife were the end of the world, metaphorically speaking, for me. But here it actually is! Human nature, I have deduced from my pained interactions with women and authority figures, is wretched and vile and lazy. Let’s also not forget how tortured I am about those interactions and (now) my own interactions with the planet. Statistically, I happen to be among the wealthiest 10 percent of the world’s population, which is responsible for over half of its greenhouse gas emissions. If I were capable of reckoning with macro forces like capitalism and racism, this might be an opportunity to reflect on the fact that global warming is perhaps not the product of a universally shared moral failing but of a political economy that has allowed a very small group of people to hoard incredible amounts of wealth and power, enabling them to wreck the world. But I’m mostly interested in how I fit in. I see no reason my self-​loathing cannot extend outward to the rest of the globe. If there is a way out of this epic mess, it certainly must have something to do with me.

Over the last few years we have seen a veritable cottage industry of essays by novelists turned climate catastrophists: Jonathan Franzen in The New Yorker writing on birds and how inevitable the coming collapse is, Michael Chabon in The Paris Review lamenting that his art residency has not changed the world, Nathaniel Rich in The New York Times Magazine offering us an obituary for climate policy-making. The climate sad bois abound, bringing us an important truth that they believe they alone have discovered and that alone can deliver the world from catastrophe, or at least confer on them some sort of personal absolution as the planet burns. Stop hoping and start growing kale and strawberries, Franzen tells us. Make art, Chabon suggests. All of this is to say that there are a great many voices that have been missing from the public conversation about the climate crisis, but none of them are Jonathan Safran Foer’s.

Alas, Foer has entered the arena. The author of four works of fiction, a book on factory farming (Eating Animals), an esoteric Haggadah, and several turgid e-mails to Natalie Portman, he too wants to have his say on the warming planet, and 64 pages into We Are the Weather: Saving the Planet Begins at Breakfast, we find the novelist—after essays on Thanksgiving and the Holocaust but before 27 pages of bullet points on climate change and animal agriculture—laying out his must-do task for tackling global warming: persuading everyone to stop eating animal products before dinner.

Foer does not propose that an accumulation of individual lifestyle choices will in and of itself solve the problem, which requires (by his admission) large-scale government action. He doesn’t pretend he has One Quick Trick to Save the Planet. But he contends that change cannot come without an accumulation of individual lifestyle choices: Be the emission reductions you want to see in the world. “Humankind takes leaps,” he writes, “when individuals take steps,” noting also that “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.” Like so many well-intentioned liberals, Foer individuates a collective problem. Planetary salvation is possible only if we each, on our own, begin to become better people—and better eaters.

Reasonably enough, these novelists turned climate catastrophists like to make their cases by telling stories. Franzen speaks of community gardens, Rich of the early climate talks. Foer discusses the blackouts during World War II, when coastal US cities turned off their lights at dusk to prevent enemy ships from being able to target Allied vessels using the urban backlight. “Of course, the war couldn’t have been won only with that collective act,” he notes, “but imagine if the war couldn’t have been won without it. Imagine if preventing Nazi flags from flying in London, Moscow and Washington, D.C., required the nightly flipping of switches.”

From this description, we might picture the war mobilization—from food rationing to the nation’s massively increased industrial productivity—as a great patriotic coming together of the American people and companies to fight the Axis Powers, made possible by the epic will of a country under threat and by the individuals who, through their actions, helped the good guys win. It’s true that vast swaths of the United States really did rally around the war effort, making changes large and small to meet the challenges of the day. But they didn’t do so unprompted, let alone on the advice of a well-meaning novelist. The blackouts Foer refers to were the result of orders sent out from Washington, stringently enforced by local civil defense councils, and followed up with other state actions and regulations. To prevent disasters on roadways during the blackouts, for example, General Electric produced lamps for cars that shined only a sixth as brightly as a full moon. During the war, the United States effectively had a planned economy, with the government setting prices and wages and placing strict rules on corporations. Quick-footed industrial policy like the kind that created those blackout lamps did most of the work, and CEOs were happy to take lucrative public contracts. Yet with those carrots came sticks: Companies that failed to comply with the government’s war production mandates faced a federal takeover, and by the end of the war, about a quarter of US manufacturing was nationalized.

War mobilizations are nothing to be nostalgic about. Still, the speed and scale of what the domestic economy was able to produce through economic planning—deemed all but impossible by plenty of contemporary naysayers—does make it a tantalizing metaphor for climate campaigners today. The same is true for the New Deal, which laid the groundwork for the state to play a more active and constructive role in setting the economy’s course in the midst of the Depression. But what Foer seems to get wrong is who and what was helping execute these changes. It was not just individuals acting out of their sense of moral responsibility; they likely wouldn’t have done so had it not been for the federal action and movements and strikes that made them. The ideological project of the right in the decades since the Depression and World War II has been to claim otherwise, suggesting in public that economies can run on their own and in private that the state will safeguard profits from nuisances like regulation and democracy. Individuals, the right has insisted, are both the source of their own problems and the means to betterment and social change. As British Prime Minister Margaret Thatcher once infamously put it, “Too many…people have been given to understand, ‘I have a problem, it is the government’s job to cope with it!’…They are casting their problems on society, and who is society? There is no such thing! There are individual men and women, and there are families, and no government can do anything except through people, and people look to themselves first.”

While hardly a conservative ideologue, Foer can often sound like one. “No one motorist can cause a traffic jam,” one of his representative aphorisms goes. “But no traffic jam can exist without individual motorists. We are stuck in traffic because we are the traffic.” Or another example: “It is easier than ever for the Left to blame the Right for our environmental negligence…. But that blaming can also be a means of turning away from our own reflections.” (He even seems cognizant of the association but brushes it off: “Although it may be a neoliberal myth that individual decisions have ultimate power, it is a defeatist myth that individual decisions have no power at all.”)

What’s so unsettling and even tragic about Foer’s book is that his moralizing is illustrative of a broader self-flagellating despair among many liberals who are troubled by the ominous climate forecasts but who have absorbed right-wing nostrums that it’s a problem of our shared making.

When it comes to Foer’s specific remedies for climate change, it is worth noting that there are compelling ethical and scientific cases to be made for constraining meat, dairy, and egg consumption—many of which Foer presents in Eating Animals. He is right to argue that the contribution of agricultural emissions—a stunningly large, if hotly debated, source of greenhouse gases—​has been perilously neglected by many greens. For many reasons, we should all eat fewer animal products. Yet Foer never makes it entirely clear how giving up yogurt and BLTs will lead to any significant change in the atmospheric temperature in the short time frame that the Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change has given us to mitigate climate catastrophe. The high-​consumption lifestyles of those lucky enough to have them are conditioned by much larger forces, from the agribusiness companies that lobby to maintain a broken food system to the fossil fuel executives who have funded disinformation campaigns to spread doubt about the reality of climate change. Driving to work in a gas-guzzling vehicle isn’t a choice so much as a necessity for people living in places where austerity has deprived them of functional public transit and for whom 30-plus years of wage stagnation has put Priuses and Teslas out of reach. A less meat-intensive diet may well be easier and cheaper than we make it out to be, but without systemic changes to erode the power of industrial agricultural—to better value the work of farmers and make healthy food accessible to all—it won’t be worth much to the planet.

Not unlike his description of World War II, the picture that Foer paints of US agriculture is as the sum total of American consumer choices. But reality tells a different story. As economist Raj Patel and National Family Farm Coalition president Jim Goodman point out in an expansive essay in Jacobin, the foundations of today’s broken industrial agriculture were intended to forestall the type of militancy that led to the New Deal system. The Farm Bureau, for example—chock-full of corporate interests and a leading proponent of greenhouse-gas-spewing farming practices—grew in the early 1910s and ’20s throughout the Midwest as a cudgel against the Socialist Party, the Non-Partisan League, and Farmer-Labor organizing in Minnesota and the Dakotas. Today, it’s Big Agriculture that dominates American farms and eating habits by lobbying for generous subsidies to distort the cost of food, leaving farmers in debilitating debt and farm workers with poverty wages. “At the moment,” Patel and Goodman note, “those who want to farm with dignity in the web of life plead a case for which there is no business logic.”

As Foer has pointed out, meat is too inexpensive, and corporate-friendly agriculture subsidies are a scourge. But he seems constitutionally unable to place the blame on the capitalist interests that maintain this status quo. He thinks tackling greenhouse gases is akin to a war, as he told Christiane Amanpour in a recent interview, but not a war in which there is a good and a bad side in the conflict. It’s “a little bit different than any war we’ve ever fought before, because this war is us against us,” he explained. “There is nobody to vilify. There is no enemy to point at and to become enraged at.” That’s an illusion that agribusiness and fossil fuel executives are eager to sustain as they continue to move full speed ahead with business as usual.

And therein lies the problem. For Foer, climate change is first and foremost an issue of personal morality, not corporate power. Throughout the book he grapples with the weight of the climate crisis and what it will mean for his young children, but the story has less to do with them than with how Foer feels about himself. For unnecessarily long portions of the book, he meditates on how—while on tour to promote a novel written after Eating Animals—he occasionally indulged in hamburgers at the airport, lamenting that although he kept saying we should do something, he himself was unable to. Foer’s self-​interrogations are so self-​centered that in one lengthy section he explores these and other moral quandaries via an extended dialogue between himself and his own soul, modeled after what is thought to be the world’s first-​ever suicide note. The metaphor isn’t subtle.

There are a lot of missed opportunities in this book. Foer might have revisited the stories of the farmers he spoke with for Eating Animals. He also could have scratched beneath the surface to examine the moneyed interests that structure modern food production and consumption and that profit from our carbon outputs. He could have used his book as an opportunity to chronicle the many compelling people struggling against climate change, using his skills as a novelist to help give life and feeling to their experiences, hopes, and frustrations. But Foer ultimately gets bogged down by his climate anxieties and his painfully inchoate view of the problem he’s describing. For Foer, ultimately, the main culprit in the ongoing climate crisis is individual apathy.

Early in the book, after relaying the story of his grandmother, a Jew who escaped from Nazi-occupied Eastern Europe, he writes:

I sometimes daydream about going from house to house in my grandmother’s shtetl, grabbing the faces of those who would stay, and screaming, “You have to do something!” I have this daydream in a house that I know consumes multiples of my fair share of energy and I know is representative of the kind of voracious lifestyle that I know is destroying our planet. I am capable of imagining one of my descendants daydreaming about grabbing my face and screaming, “You have to do something!” But I am incapable of the belief that would move me to do something. So I know nothing.

Like the Nazis, the corporations driving this crisis curiously don’t factor much into the picture Foer paints; indeed, they barely make an appearance in the book. World War II was famously not a fight without enemies. Nor is the one against climate change.

In We Are the Weather, readers get what they should expect: a novelist offering his inner thoughts to the world styled in the same brand of brooding supposed realism that allowed Foer and a whole generation of literary men to make their names in the late 1990s and early 2000s. We sometimes even meet his fellow brooders, introduced in the text as his main interlocutors. Foer attempts to offer some counterweight to the fatalism found among them. Abandoning his longtime fixation on bird protection, Franzen (who somehow doesn’t make an appearance in the book) wrote in his New Yorker essay, “Call me a pessimist or call me a humanist, but I don’t see human nature fundamentally changing anytime soon. I can run ten thousand scenarios through my model”—which is to say, Franzen wants you to know he is thinking very hard about the climate crisis—“and in not one of them do I see the two-degree target being met.” In contrast, Foer asserts a more sanguine view and believes that change is possible. But he doesn’t have much hope in humankind. “In 2018, despite knowing more than we’ve ever known about human-caused climate change, humans produced more greenhouse gases than we’ve ever produced,” he mourns. “There are tidy explanations—the growing use of coal in China and India, a strong global economy, unusually severe seasons that required spikes in energy for heating and cooling. But the truth is as crude as it is obvious: we don’t care.”

Reading Foer, Franzen, and the other novelists turned climate catastrophists brings up the question “Who, for them, is ‘we’?” The Global North has historically fueled the climate crisis, while the Global South is experiencing its effects now, as with catastrophic flooding in Bangladesh. Yet these far-off climate disasters are mentioned only briefly in Foer’s book, and if they appear in other doomist books and essays, it is mainly as tragic set pieces. Instead, center stage is reserved for things like the dietary habits of relatively well-off people who can, at least, feel better about our environmental doom since they think they are doing their part. But if all of humanity is the “we,” then Foer’s insistence that we are all in a state of collective denial no longer holds. There are many millions of people affected by climate impacts, sometimes on a daily basis, who do believe in the tremendous scale of this crisis and who have been acting on that belief for decades because it’s a matter of life and death. Released days before the worldwide climate strike saw millions of people take to the streets around the world, Foer’s book seldom discusses any existing climate movements—for example, the indigenous-led water protectors who have successfully fought fossil fuel infrastructure, the organizers from climate-​vulnerable countries demanding bolder action from world governments, and the Sunrise Movement and those championing the Green New Deal, now the axis around which national conversations about climate policy revolve. Nor does he mention farmers’ groups like La Vía Campesina that have argued for decades that dismantling industrial agriculture is inextricable from climate justice and have presented tangible alternatives, along with the kind of concrete policy that Foer treats as secondary. About the closest he gets to talking about climate hawks is an offhand reference to Meatless Mondays and an extended jab at Al Gore, subbing in here for the green movement and its silence on animal agriculture, which, as food journalist Mark Bittman and many others have noted, is only one of the problems plaguing our extractive food system.

“We” are not all the deniers that Foer makes us out to be. As even Bittman, who has long promoted the benefits of a mainly vegan diet, has noted, decades of writing and advocacy urging people to make more climate-friendly consumer choices hasn’t led to a meaningful decrease in emissions. That’s not likely to change based on a Jonathan Safran Foer book. Our best hope in the face of enormous odds is collective action of a different sort than he prescribes, pioneered by those listed above. As with the New Deal and even the mobilization for World War II, any adequate solution to the climate crisis will emerge from a head-on confrontation with those blocking progress and the kind of ambitious public policy that will allow countries and people to transform their consumption in the ways Foer advocates. In fighting the New Deal order, early neoliberals understood that changing public consciousness wasn’t a matter of having enough conversations about Hayek around the dinner table. It was about taking power.

If the world does manage to steer away from catastrophe, the credit will be owed to a critical mass of social movements, unions, and the elected officials accountable to them, working to take power back. No angst-filled breakfast or lunch can do the same.

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