For the love of Earth and its beings

Uday Balakrishnan | Updated on November 25, 2019

Title: We are the Weather: Saving the Planet Begins at Breakfast Author: Jonathan Safran Foer Publisher: Hamish Hamilton Price: ₹493

Foregoing meat and animal-based products may just help us soften the blow of climate change

Over the past couple of decades, heat waves, floods, cyclones and droughts have ravaged India. Thousands have lost their lives; many of these farmers, who have seen their fields wither and livestock perish.

India is home to some of the most polluted cities in the world. Our rivers are amongst the most abused, the Ganges being a case in point. The country is also running out of groundwater — so swift and voluminous has been its extraction, and so slow the replenishment of the aquifers. The Himalayan glaciers are in retreat and slated to vanish within the next few decades.

It is surprising then, that India’s environmental devastation is hardly a talking point amongst politicians and it has never been a poll issue in India. Paradoxically, the only person who has really gone to town about global warming is Prime Minister Narendra Modi, with his emphatic endorsement of the Paris climate accord and his pledge to double India’s non fossil-fuel target. Even the usually critical Economist accepts that India “for three years in a row has invested more in renewable energy than in fossil fuels”.

Sadly, it is also this government, which is seeking to industrialise India on a massive scale in the old-fashioned way, with resource-intensive industries that go hard on India’s natural resources. Then there is the unresolved problem of India’s huge underproductive cattle population, which contributes significantly to global warming and must be brought down.

Animal agriculture

It is this casual indifference to climate change, even when the evidence is staring at our face, that Jonathan Foer reflects upon in his elegant book of interlinked essays We are the Weather: Saving the Planet Begins at Breakfast. Foer seeks to alert the world to the single greatest contributor to climate change — breeding livestock for meat, milk and eggs. “Animal agriculture,” he writes, “is responsible for 91 per cent of Amazonian deforestation.”

“When researchers at the Worldwatch Institute accounted for emissions that the FAO overlooked,’ Foer states, ‘they estimated that livestock are responsible for 32,564 million tons of CO2e emissions per year, or 51 per cent of annual global emissions — more than all cars, planes, buildings, power plants, and industry combined.

We will never address climate change, Foer tells us, until we acknowledge that our planet is an animal farm. Every year, animal agriculture funnels more than seven times the amount of grain and corn — enough to feed every hungry person on the planet — to animals for affluent people to eat. We might call that crime “genocide.”

It is this inequity of climate change that riles Foer: “The richest 10 per cent of the global population is responsible for half the carbon emissions; the poorest half is responsible for 10 per cent. And those who are the least responsible for global warming are often the ones most punished by it.”

“Imagine if you had never touched a cigarette in your life but were forced to absorb the health tolls of a chain-smoker on the other side of the planet.”

Foer comes down heavily on our singular focus to fossil fuels as being the chief agents of climate change, and he is not seduced by cosmetic measures. The drive towards electric transportation, he convincingly argues, will be a catastrophe if the electricity to power it comes from polluting fossil-fuel run power stations, as they are in countries like China and India. And, “it takes about twice the amount of energy to produce an electric car as it does a conventional one.”

Grim reality

Foer is a despairing realist. He knows matters have gone too far to be reversed. He is well aware of the price humanity must pay for its seemingly insatiable hunger for meat and animal-based products. We can neither save the Amazon nor the coral reefs. He is convinced, on sound evidence, that coastal cities cannot be saved from rising sea levels, exclaiming that “The scale of inevitable loss is almost enough to make any further struggle feel futile.”

But maybe, we can mitigate the impact of climate change if enough of us as individuals choose to go off meat and other animal products and create a ripple effect within our networks. “We,” as the title says, “Are the weather”.

Foer asks us to accept the devastating reality of climate change and “get down to the hard work of adapting, with moral humility, to our new reality”. Here he finds solace in his Jewish faith of acceptance and resignation.

Foer is justifiably sad at the fact that numbers numb us all, for “each corresponds to an individual, with a family, and idiosyncrasies, and phobias, and allergies, and favorite foods, and recurring dreams, and a song stuck in her head, and a singular handprint, and a particular laugh.”

Foer’s book has depth and feeling for the human condition in a period of seemingly irreversible decline and demise. It is also very Gandhian in its approach and conclusions. The fourth part, Dispute With the Soul, is written in a style startlingly reminiscent of Gandhi’s Hind Swaraj.

Inevitably, for a Jew whose ancestors had died at the hands of the Nazis, the personal impact of the Holocaust is often brought in to amplify the points. His Notes and Bibliography are very beautifully put together to make them wonderful reads in themselves.

This excellent and powerful book could have done with a discussion on a prescient report, Restoring the Quality of Our Environment, prepared and presented to US President Lyndon Johnson by his Science Advisory Committee in 1965.

The report warned Johnson of melting icecaps, rising sea levels and predicted that “By the year 2000 the increase in atmospheric CO2 will be close to 25 per cent. This may be sufficient to produce measurable and perhaps marked changes in climate, and will almost certainly cause significant changes in the temperature and other properties of the stratosphere”.

If only Johnson and his successors had considered the report seriously and taken steps to stop climate change in its tracks when it was still possible, we’d be living in a much better world today than one on the brink of extinction. That’s a thought!

The reviewer, a former civil servant, teaches at the Indian Institute of Science-Bengaluru

Published on November 25, 2019

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