Way back in 2001, when I was a teenager furious at Bush for withdrawing from the Kyoto treaty, I still believed Something Would Happen to mitigate climate change. I knew enough to understand that a Republican-led United States would never participate in the Something, but—child that I was—I imagined Europe would set an example for a later, Democrat-led US to emulate; I imagined the rest of the world would unite behind a plan Americans would eventually adopt. Global warming had the feel of an epic threat that all the planet’s populations would rally to oppose, like an alien invasion or a meteor on a collision course with Earth. For decades, movies promised this acme of international cooperation, an achievement that could belong to the whole of humanity. I suspected we’d procrastinate and push our triumph to the final hour, but it didn’t occur to me there might be no effective effort at all.
It’s obvious now that the necessary degree of mobilization between and within nations may never occur, and the United States stands to be one of the most obdurate abstainers, all the way down to the local level. Under the long shadow of federal fecklessness, many American states, cities, neighborhoods, and households seem more inclined to follow suit than to devise their own measures to alleviate and prepare for what’s yet to come. The crisis is well underway but meaningful responses to it elude us, by pretty much any definition of who that “us” could be: you and I, our families, our government, our friends. The problem isn’t a lack of information, it’s an absence of action; with each viral doomsday article, our inertia and our hopelessness compound. We, like the climate, are stuck in a feedback loop, generating momentum for our complacency from our complacency. As Dahr Jamail writes in The End of Ice, a climate change travelogue: “The more something happens, the more it happens.”
“I am not a climate change denier, but it is undeniable that I behave like one,” writes Jonathan Safran Foer in We Are the Weather: Saving the Planet Begins at Breakfast, a bleak, discursive examination of persistent passivity in the face of the horrible future: “As the situation becomes ever more alarming, so does my ability to ignore the alarm.” Foer, made famous by his first two novels, surpassed his fiction with 2009’s Eating Animals, a thorough indictment of modern animal farming that left a deep impression on its readers, the majority of whom kept eating meat. In We Are the Weather, Foer admits that he, too, is convinced but not converted by his work. While on tour for Eating Animals, audience members asked why he wasn’t vegan; he blamed his children’s pickiness, though the real reason was that the “desire to eat cheese and eggs was stronger than my commitment to preventing cruelty to animals and the destruction of the environment.” Later, while on tour for a novel, he ate hamburgers because “they brought me comfort.”1 His hypocrisy shames him more acutely now that our fate is increasingly stark—“We must either let some eating habits go or let the planet go,” he reminds himself—but the catastrophe’s nearness is not enough to bring his practice in line with his preaching. Like most men, he is unaccustomed to thinking of himself as an emotional eater, and his dietary unruliness challenges his identity as a responsible, rational actor.