If it comes to pass that the psychology of climate change becomes an established academic subject in its own right, then there is a chance that this latest non-fiction venture by US novelist Jonathan Safran Foer (after 2009’s much-discussed Eating Animals) will make for a rigorous entry-level discourse.
As bewildering as the scale of the damage can be, it is our own response to climate breakdown that can feel like the greatest obstacle to salvation from the end of human life on earth. As Foer puts it plainly, we either trust that mankind is “too big to fail” and that someone much smarter than us will come along with a magic bullet, or else we are fully on board with efforts to secure a better future for our children provided – and this is key – that they are convenient and don’t infringe on our immediate comforts and indulgences.
Foer is rigorous, going to the wells of both personal family history (his Jewish grandmother’s escape from Nazi-occupied Poland) and his own inclinations and failings, as well as wartime anecdotes and current affairs to illustrate human potential when the odds are stacked against us and that which is most precious comes under threat.
During great conflict, for example, he cites the ability of entire nations to join in a war effort that could entail the countrywide rationing of supplies and curfews on the use of domestic and municipal lighting in order to hinder potential aerial attacks. This is an example of willingness to accept restrictions on consumption because of a distant, non-visible threat. Why can’t this be the case with climate change, he argues, where the ratcheting measurements and violent weather reports are almost daily occurrences in our plugged-in world views?
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No one is going to bail us out but ourselves, is Foer’s point. “We are the flood, and we are the ark” (one of a few nods here to the Jewish scriptures Foer was raised on). After addressing the perversity of our psychosis in the opening section “Unbelievable”, a practical middle chunk of the book entitled “How to Prevent the Greatest Dying” lays out facts and figures, solutions and implications, in bite-size chunks. Science has concluded that the four highest-impact things an individual can do are eat a plant-based diet, avoid air travel, live car-free, and have fewer children.
Scaling back planes, cars and parenthood is the kind of ask that shuts people out of joining the fight of our lives, and Foer doesn’t ask us to. Meat, and more particularly the incomprehensible amounts of forest-clearance, fresh water-wastage and methane production it entails, is where we can make a difference, he reasons.
“If cows were a country, they would rank third in greenhouse gas emissions, after China and the US.”
There is a great flow to Foer’s writing, even during a slightly naff section where he has a debate with his own soul to illustrate the difficult conversation we need to have with ourselves.
There is wit and there is constant reconnecting of the rational cornerstones to this calm-headed call to arms. The science is all here (there are extensive appendices and bibliography at the back), albeit with a largely US perspective on things.
The seed of his logic, however, is applicable right across the greedy developed world.
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