JONATHAN SAFRAN FOER at Border Kitchen in The Hague

Jonathan Safran Foer’s latest book, We are the Weather, is hot off the press – released just last month it already seems to be making an impact on readers world wide as the large audience in the Hague last night would suggest. Hailed as one of the new voices of American literature, Safran Foer has been compared to a 21st century Philip Roth. But in his capacity as a non-fiction writer, the New Yorker tells us that he is interested in changing mindsets. ‘By the end of the evening, I would like to have convinced everyone in this room that there is something they can do about climate change.’

‘Assuming we believe in science, you don’t have to take my word for it.’

The award-winning author maintains that the conversation about climate change is in fact best had with oneself. Indeed this is what he does in We are the Weather – he describes the book as a record of his own thought processes on climate change and his role in it. Although he admits to using science to convince his readers in this book, he also draws heavily on personal experience. The birth of his son and the death of his grandmother, both  occurred during the writing of the book. As such he acknowledges the book as a kind of ‘life note’, admitting that, ‘I made no great effort to keep my life out of my writing’. Perhaps it is the honesty of his own battle with climate change that accounts for the book’s initial popularity.  

Perhaps most noticeably, the writer makes no effort to hide what he openly calls his own hypocrisy when it comes to climate change. He is also unequivocal in his commitment to action, even if it is incomplete or imperfect. Jonathan Safran Foer explains that admitting to the hypocrisy is a first step to narrowing the distance between how he would like to live versus how he does live. He acknowledges that he still likes eating meat sometimes, even though his New York Times best seller, Eating Animals delves into all the gory details of the meat industry. He also agrees that flying is something he struggles to do less of and tells us that he has, for the first time this year, decided not to fly somewhere with his family for the Christmas break but rather to stay in the States and take a train. Admirable stuff indeed.    

‘Saving the planet begins at breakfast’

Safran Foer is at his most convincing when he argues for the virtues of a ‘something is better than nothing approach’ to saving the planet. Using himself as an example, he explains that he has given up eating animal products at breakfast and lunch. Although this doesn’t qualify him as a fully fledged vegan, he insists that an over-emphasis on ‘categories at the expense of action’ is not helpful. ‘Trying involves failure’, he continues calmly and calls for what he terms the de-politicization of the issue. Certainly, the rational, controlled manner in which he responds to his challenges and the apparent humility with which he repeatedly returns to his own struggles with the cause, suggests that he might have been an equally good lawyer. Yet something about the self-conscious manner in which he tells us that he ‘cannot be derailed because he isn’t on any tracks’, highlights a certain lack of sincerity that is difficult to ignore and make Jonathan Safran Foer’s carefully crafted humility just a little cloying at times.   Souwie Buis    5th September 2019