Climate Catastrophe Is Ungraspable Just Like the Holocaust Was, Jonathan Safran Foer Says

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Jonathan Safran Foer
Jonathan Safran FoerCredit: Rosdiana Ciaravolo / Getty Images
Limor Alouf
Limor Alouf

Scientists everywhere continue to sound insistent and dire warnings about climate chaos, but the newly released Emissions Gap Report 2019, published by the UN Environment Program, shows that their warnings have been ignored, even derided. Not only have we not reduced greenhouse gas emissions during the past decade, we have actually allowed them to grow. As the recent UN Climate Change Conference (COP25) in Madrid revealed, there’s a glaring gap between the place we’re at and the place we need and want to be. The world’s political leaders continue to talk grandly about the need for a policy transformation, but don’t dare upset the status quo.

We, who want only to go back to our familiar, old fears, find ourselves poised between the scientists raising the red flag and calling for a revolution, and the politicians who opt for blindness. When our eyes scan the headlines for news about the climate crisis, what they see is a chilling, if not nightmarish reality barreling in our direction. Yet most of us prefer to pass over the conclusion that accompanies every warning, which says that we still have a certain chance to avoid complete collapse – if you we choose the option of dramatic and aggressive change and carry it out by 2030.

One person who chooses to address the situation head-on is noted Jewish-American writer Jonathan Safran Foer, who sees it as humanity’s ultimate moral challenge. His latest book, “We Are the Weather: Saving the World Begins at Breakfast,” is the popular novelist’s second work of nonfiction, coming a decade after “Eating Animals,” in which he focused on what it means to consume the flesh of animals in an industrialized society. As in that earlier effort – in which he looked squarely at the horror of the factory-farming system and its systematic murderousness, offering an unvarnished picture of the brutality that underlies our carnivorous cravings – Foer also embarks here on another pitiless mission. Armed with reports from the Intergovernmental Panel on Climate, whose scientists urge vast, unprecedented changes in our way of life, and with a pen dripping with the despondency of one who knows we are not doing what’s needed, he extricates the climate issue from the ghetto of environmental discourse and slaps it down on the breakfast table.

Foer (probably best known for his 2002 debut novel, “Everything Is Illuminated”) points to the connection between the two realms that he covers in his two nonfiction books: Our choosing to put animal products – whether meat, dairy products or eggs – on our plates is condemning us and our children to a climatic hell, he writes. Indeed, estimates of its contribution to greenhouse gas emissions range between 14 percent and 51 percent. However, the most important service rendered by Foer in “We Are the Weather” is not the suggestion, demanded by the situation, to overhaul our eating habits, but lies in the way he unravels the emotional tangle of our responses to the climate emergency.

I met with Foer earlier this fall at the offices of his French publisher, Editions de L’Olivier, in Paris’ Montparnasse quarter.

You write that the climate disaster, the single greatest threat facing the human race, isn’t a good story for most people, since it fails to interest them. And you quote Guardian journalist Oliver Burkeman: “If a cabal of psychologists had gathered in a secret undersea base to concoct a crisis humanity would be hopelessly ill-equipped to address, they couldn’t have done better than climate change.” Why aren’t we interested?

Foer: “It is a problem of storytelling, I’m just not sure that it’s a solvable problem. A story possesses great power in our culture – good stories become history. But the climate crisis, the primary threat to humanity, lacks the attributes of an interesting story. The planetary crisis – it is abstract, eclectic, slow, and lacking in iconic figures and moments. It seems impossible to describe it in a way that is both truthful and enthralling. It’s not a dramatic event but a variable, incremental process occurring over time. It has the quality of a war being fought ‘over there.’

“It is exhausting to contemplate the complexity and scale of the threats we face. I know that the Amazon is burning and that there are wildfires in California, I know that the icecaps are melting, I know that there are extreme weather events and floods and droughts and famines, I know that there are record temperatures around the globe, I know that there are climate refugees. But it’s really hard to connect these developments into a single story and to experience it that way.

“Most of us would find it difficult to explain how our individual and collective behavior is boosting hurricane winds by almost 30 miles per hour or contributing to a polar vortex that makes Chicago colder than Antarctica. Our portrayal of the planetary crisis is not galvanizing people, with the result that, though we are aware of the existential stakes and the urgency, even when we know that a war for our survival is raging, we do not feel immersed in it. The distance between awareness and feeling is an obstacle, because it makes it very difficult for people to act.”

In order to help us come to terms with the gap between “knowing” and “feeling,” you cite the real-time mistrust of reports about the Holocaust. You mention the response by the French sociologist-philosopher Raymond Aron, who fled to London when France was occupied, and when asked, after the war, whether he had known what was happening in the East, replied, “I knew, but I didn’t believe it, and because I didn’t believe it, I didn’t know.” You also cite the 1943 meeting between the Polish resistance fighter Jan Karski and the Jewish American jurist Felix Frankfurter. Karski, who twice infiltrated the Warsaw Ghetto to gather evidence, tried to persuade Frankfurter of the atrocities being perpetrated, but the Supreme Court justice was unable to believe him. What do you extrapolate from that encounter for our time?

Polish resistance fighter Jan Karski. Reported Nazi atrocities, in real time. Credit: Courtesy of Yad Vashem Photo Archives

“Well, it just felt so familiar to me, so recognizable. It was the first time I’d read something where I thought, ‘Oh, that’s my problem with climate change.’ Frankfurter didn’t question the truthfulness of Karski’s story. He didn’t dispute that the Germans were systematically murdering the Jews of Europe, but he was incapable of believing it. He said to Karski, ‘My mind, my heart, they are made in such a way that I cannot accept it.’ I use that as a metaphor, because I can’t think of a better description of my own response.”

What does Frankfurter’s response teach us about ourselves?

“That it’s possible for extremely smart people, who are extremely well-intentioned and well-informed and have their hearts in the right places, to still be unable to believe what they know. That is where we are now. The scientists are the equivalent of Karski in our time, they are the messengers and they are presenting us with the truth and asking us to act on it. No sane person thinks the scientists are lying. The climate crisis is a solid scientific fact, and we agree with the factual situation but refuse to believe it.”

Narcissism vs. collectivism

In 1941, a year before Karski left Poland to report about the annihilation of the Jews, Foer’s grandmother, who was then 20, left her Polish shtetl, days before the Nazis entered the village.

'The climate crisis, the primary threat to humanity, lacks the attributes of an interesting story.'

“She knew only what everyone else knew,” Foer writes in his book – meaning that the Nazis were advancing eastward into Poland and would reach the town within days. However, she was the only one in the family who grasped the meaning of what she knew, and the only one who took action.

“Those who stayed weren’t any less brave, intelligent, resourceful or afraid of dying,” observes Foer, adding that they simply didn’t believe that the future would be radically different from what they had known. “Belief can’t be willed into being, and you can’t force someone to believe,” the author says, citing director Claude Lanzmann’s prologue to his 2010 documentary “The Karski Report”: “What is knowledge? What can information about a horror, a literally unheard-of one, mean to the human brain, which is unprepared to receive it because it concerns a crime that is without precedent in the history of humanity?”

Our tragedy, according to Foer, is that on the one hand, in order to act we must believe, but on the other hand we cannot afford to wait for the feeling, the narrative, that will impel us to act. Psychologically, we tend to respond to the immediate and the urgent, but are indifferent to a threat that is perceived as far away from us. Our brain finds it difficult to imagine ourselves in the future and to plan for that future. Accordingly, the question that must be addressed is: Are we even capable of believing what the scientists are telling us? Perhaps we need to take into account that emotional constrictions prevent us from believing, and that we will thus fail to mobilize the feelings that will render the crisis of planet Earth personal and emotional for us.

What, then, is to be done?

“Maybe we can find other ways of talking about it that will elicit the right emotions,” Foer says. “I’m not sure. [Swedish environmental activist] Greta Thunberg has been sort of interesting because her way of talking has inspired people to feel things in new ways. She’s the best storyteller we have, she is our hope. It may also be the case that we’re putting too much emphasis on feeling and what we need to do instead is put the emphasis on doing. Judaism is really great about this actually, about putting the emphasis on what you do rather than what you feel. The emphasis isn’t on understanding or even believing. The emphasis is on doing – you fulfill the commandments, and then through fulfilling them maybe you understand or maybe you don’t, but at least you fulfilled them. The change we need to make is not to wait for feeling or belief in order to act.”

Greta Thunberg. Credit: Sergio Perez/Reuters

In the book, you also take yourself to task, and in effect allege that you, too, are a “climate denier.” What are you getting at?

“Well, we have the impression that about half the world doesn’t believe in the science, and that that’s the problem, and if they would just stop being so ignorant then we could finally solve this thing. The truth is that there’s hardly anybody anymore, even in America, who denies the science, including far-right conservatives. The president says he denies it. I don’t know if he actually does or not – my guess is he doesn’t actually deny it, but thinks that [doing so] serves a political end. But who cares what he thinks?

“The situation today is that the absolute majority respect the scientific findings. But to accept the veracity of the science is not enough. Because, to take action we need the issue to hit us like a fist in the gut, to make it personal for us, and then we will feel that a blow to the planet is a blow to us. The problem is people like me, who of course accept it, not only accept it but love to talk about how much we care about it. However, there’s something very disappointing or embarrassing or maybe even shameful about my response, my unwillingness to change my habits. It’s easier to conceal the truth behind rhetoric. I know how to say things that sound good and that make other people feel good. But I also know that that is not the truth, that the planetary crisis does not touch me.

“That was precisely the hardest part of writing the book, witnessing myself saying one thing and feeling one thing but doing something different, accepting, but living as if we deny it. My carbon footprint is for sure significantly larger than that of the average science denier. Future generations won’t care what our feelings were; they will want to know what we did in response to what we knew or didn’t know. The four highest-impact things an individual can do to tackle climate change are: eat a plant-based diet, avoid air travel, live car-free and have fewer children. We are angry at President Trump for denying the science in a host of tweets, but actually we should be angry at ourselves. We know that the future requires more from us that what we are giving.”

At present, two narratives are competing for our attention and for primacy. One is overtly political, calling for systemic change, and focuses on toxic corporate power and the failures of our political system; and then there is the other narrative, the personal one, which your book focuses on. Some argue that focusing on the personal shifts the responsibility from the heavy players and from the broad change that’s needed, to the individual. However, this argument maintains, responsibility cannot be apportioned equally, because the plane on which the individual lives and acts is created and shaped by corporate interests. Can you share your perspective on this conflicted dynamic?

'Judaism is really great about putting the emphasis on what you do rather than what you feel. You fulfill the commandments, and then maybe you understand or maybe you don’t, but at least you fulfilled them.'

“Well, I think it’s a false distinction actually. I would say unequivocally that the two channels, the personal and the political, are intertwined. They feed on each other, and change needs to take place in both. We do not absolve politicians or businesspeople of responsibility, and we are not forgoing a structural change. Still, it’s narcissistic to think that our personal choices as individuals don’t have an effect. We need a collective effort, everyone’s participation. Collective revolutions are made up of individuals and led by individuals. 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. 

“We can’t escape the fact that our nutrition has a significant effect on the environment. We avoided talking about it for a long time, possibly because the subject stirs a great deal of antagonism in us non-vegans. But we have no choice – we can’t deal only with changes that others need to make. We need to look at our personal habits, especially those that have a large impact. Social change, much like climate change, is caused by multiple chain reactions that occur simultaneously, and the impotence of individual action is a reason for everyone to try. The choices we make and actions we undertake or don’t undertake, can be part of the problem or part of the solution.

“We are at a historical juncture, where a common effort is required to change the individual, too. A daily choice to move collectively to plant-based food is something that offers a challenge but is not complicated. This is our simplest opportunity to exert influence: animal agriculture is the major cause of the emission of methane and nitrogen oxides, which are powerful greenhouse gases. No infrastructure overhaul is necessary, only a decision. Grasping what we face will help us make that decision. At this moment we understand that we will not be able to save the world’s coral reefs, or the Amazon rain forests, and probably not our coastal cities, either, and hundreds of millions of people, perhaps billions, will become climate refugees.

“The age of climate collapse is also that of social collapse, and our urgent challenge is to save as much as possible. Ecological compassion is no more than the choices we make every day. We need to agree collectively to live an ethical life, to set limits on ourselves so that we can share what will remain.”

Smoke billows from a fire in an area of the Amazon rainforest near Porto Velho, Rondonia State, Brazil, September 10, 2019. Credit: Bruno Kelly/ REUTERS

‘Instant vegans’

What do you say to the argument that it is too late and that the change required of us is too big and too rapid, and therefore cannot happen?

“This is an enormous problem – it would be hard to overstate how big it is or how urgent it is – but historical precedents show that both collectively and as individuals we can take action and do the impossible in extreme situations. The home front during World War II showed the scale of the effort and the sacrifices that average citizens who weren’t fighting in the army and weren’t making weapons were willing to make collectively for the greater good. Even though Americans were not in imminent danger, they agreed to blackouts, food and fuel rationing, a spike in marginal tax rates to 94 percent and the redirection of industrial manufacture for the sake of the war effort.

“When we confront the enormous challenge posed by the climate crisis, we would do well to remind ourselves that we are not helpless and not to understate what we are capable of. Our dialogue has to be clear about the dimensions of the problem and its urgency, but we also need to ensure that the dialogue is convertible into action and does not merely deter. Christiana Figueres, who headed the UN Framework Convention on Climate Change, drew my attention to the fact that setting a goal to reduce greenhouse gas emissions by 60 percent within 10 years, which is what’s required of us, is perceived as impossible. But if we were to say, ‘Could you do 6 percent less this year and commit to doing 6 percent less each year for the coming decade?’ – it would suddenly sound possible. The most hopeless conditions can inspire the most hopeful actions.”

A widespread response to the climate crisis is, that if the problem is so acute, then the scientists will surely find the requisite solutions. What is your response to this pervasive technological optimism?

“Cultivating a belief that someone will at some point invent a miraculous technology that will save us, reveals laziness and unwillingness to sacrifice anything. Technological optimism attests above all to our refusal to alter our way of life. Because short-term pleasure is more seductive than long-term survival. Besides, these people who say we should put our faith in technology, never also say, ‘Let’s increase our tax rates and put all of that money into scientific research.’ Saying that a technological solution will be found in the future is one of a million ways to say, ‘I don’t want to think about this.’ It also invites solutions that are every bit as scary as the problem. Climate engineering is like a Frankenstein waiting to happen.”

'Saying that a technological solution will be found in the future is one of a million ways to say, ‘I don’t want to think about this.’'

We are at a critical moment in which we need to broaden the awareness of and belief in the climate crisis for the whole society, and what you are suggesting is that we pay attention to our own dialogue.

“We are trying to shape a system and create a real wave right now, not in 10 years, not in 20 years. If I go to the extreme, it becomes an entirely different kind of conversation – about identities rather than about choices. A conversation about identities is not helpful; it puts people off, it posits perfectionist standards. We should shun the extremes. We need to take into account that we are human beings, with all their complications, and not ethical robots – we are not going to become instant vegans or stop flying overnight. The extreme, binary, off-putting conversation needs to give way to a noncritical dialogue. Instead of focusing on identities, we need to cultivate speech about the inner struggles and about our choices.

“The emphasis needs to be on the effort I am making to reduce the disparity between who I am and who I want to be. We must share struggles instead of achievements; instead of blaming, choose to praise progress. It’s worth remembering that each of us has struggles.

“This is our judgment moment, which will show who we really are. Our decisions will determine not only how future generations judge us, but if they will be here at all to evaluate us. But just imagine if we solve the climate crisis. It makes me very emotional to imagine solving it. [Jewish theologian and philosopher] Abraham Joshua Heschel wrote, ‘Our prayers may not save us, but they may make us worthy of salvation.’ I say in the book, ‘We may or may not save the planet, but the effort to do so will make us more worthy of being saved.’ Collective action will change us, and that process could be the best thing that ever happened to us.”

Limor Alouf is a longtime Israeli environmental activist and commentator.

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