The bookseller’s baby was three months old, and when the weather turned colder she realized she owned exactly one pair of pants that fit. We lamented the high cost of ethical clothing and how hard it was to justify when one’s body was in transition. We agreed it was all too easy to give in to the temptation of fast fashion, even though we knew its impacts on the environment and human rights. We bemoaned the hunt for secondhand items—how even though there were so many on sale, there were so few of quality. Neither one of us wanted or needed jeans with bedazzled, leopard-print back pockets.
People I know often bring up the topic clothing because they know I sew and write about slow fashion—sustainable, ethical, and slower approaches to consumption that include handmade garments, buying secondhand, and mending. Recently, I started saying little in return—not because I was at a loss for words, but because everything I could say about the subject of clothing and its impacts on the environment and human rights seemed at once too complicated and eternally insufficient.
It’s all been said.
Which is how I imagine Jonathan Safran Foer felt at the outset of We Are the Weather: Saving the Planet Begins at Breakfast. In his latest nonfiction book, the author outlines how the climate crisis can be partially addressed by reexamining, yet again, our consumption of animal products. It’s a natural progression from 2009’s Eating Animals, which combined memoir and investigative reporting to examine factory farming. Yet We Are the Weather is not interested in rehashing the same arguments as much as it is interrogating why we aren’t acting on what we know.
What we know: the four main ways to help save life on the planet are to eat less meat, drive less, fly less, and have one less child. Foer argues most of us rely on cars to get to work, many of us aren’t flying frequently (and giving up one or two flights a year wouldn’t be too difficult or too impactful), and most people aren’t deciding whether or not to have a child (though as a 32- year-old woman, it does seem like everyone is in the midst of that decision).
Out of these four, the one decision we make on a daily basis is what to eat. Another daily decision that isn’t discussed in We Are the Weather but seems worthy of consideration is what to wear.
The food system is a vastly larger animal (pun intended) than the fashion industry when it comes to ecological impact, but the latter’s influence is not insignificant: the UN reports the fashion industry “consumes more energy than the aviation and shipping industry combined,” contributes to approximately 10 percent of global greenhouse gas emissions and produces 20 percent of global waste water. Additionally, 85 percent of textiles end up in landfills or are incinerated when most of the materials could be reused. One pair of denim jeans uses 10,000 liters of water, which would take one person a decade to drink.
And yet knowing what we know doesn’t always lead to action.
Foer spent three years researching Eating Animals, followed by two years of readings, lectures, and interviews about the book. Despite this, the author couldn’t bring himself to abstain from eating meat, dairy products, and eggs.
“So it would be far easier for me not to mention that in difficult periods over the past couple of years—while going through some painful personal passages, while traveling the country to promote a novel when I was least suited for self-promotion—I ate meat a number of times,” Foer writes in We Are the Weather. “Usually burgers. Often at airports. Which is to say, meat from precisely the kinds of farms I argued most strongly against.”
He adds, “And my reason for doing so makes my hypocrisy even more pathetic: they brought me comfort.”
Last year, after my mother called to say her flight had been cancelled and she wouldn’t make it for Thanksgiving, I drove to the mall. I gravitated toward rows of shoes. A pair of nude heels called out to me: faux suede, ankle strap sandals with a three-inch block heel and cross toe, marked down to $22, which happens to be my lucky number. I tried them on over socks, took a picture, and texted it to my mother, who was still on the bus home from the airport. Should I buy these?
I knew I shouldn’t. I knew $22 for a pair of shoes meant somewhere someone had cut corners: not paying workers a living wage, unsafe factory conditions, environmentally unsound practices, or all of the above. I knew the materials were not biodegradable, so the shoes would sit in a landfill for longer than I’d ever wear them. I knew it was impractical to buy high-heeled sandals in Wisconsin in November.
And yet I bought them, wore them exactly twice, and still see them in my closet each day. They brought me comfort when I needed consolation, but the alleviation was short-lived, replaced by the discomforting fact of my complicity and hypocrisy.
In the chapter of We Are the Weather titled “Dispute With the Soul,” Foer laments how one of his friends—“a fellow writer and, what’s more, a passionate environmentalist”—refuses to read Eating Animals. “It upsets me because he is a sensitive thinker who cares and writes about the preservation of nature,” Foer writes. “If he is unwilling even to learn about the connection between eating and the environment, what hope is there for hundreds of millions of people to alter their lifelong habits?”
The chapter is a back-and-forth between the author and an unnamed, unidentified entity, presumably the soul, which asks, “Why won’t he read it?”
Foer’s reply: “He told me he’s afraid to read the book because he knows that it will require him to make a change he can’t make.”
The author clarifies that he doesn’t intend to make himself out to be better than his friend, but uses “his shortcomings to illustrate my own: if I argue against eating animal products while continuing to eat them myself, then I am a massive hypocrite.” Foer then names this as a problem not because of the impacts of those actions, but because “no one wants to be a hypocrite.”
The author investigates his own hypocrisy by mining history for stories of individuals and collectives, questioning their actions like he interrogates his own. Foer examines whether personal actions matter when the problem is systemic and structural. Everyone I spoke to about the book immediately brought up the same point: our individual habits don’t matter, and focusing on personal responsibility becomes a way of excusing corporations and entire nations whose contributions to the climate crisis are inexcusable.
The title and subtitle seriously oversimplify Foer’s book, and what could be misconstrued as a pedantic and mildly pejorative tome extolling the virtues of veganism is actually an investigation of our daily choices, what they say about us as individuals, and what they could say about humanity. It is not about food so much as it is about life and how to live it, which is fitting as the two are inextricably linked.
Nonfiction is often a presentation of the author’s research tied up with a neat conclusion about what to do with this information. We Are the Weather essentially says: I did the research, I know the conclusion, but I am unable to live into what I know is right and good—not just for me but also for future generations.
“Confronting my own hypocrisy has reminded me how difficult it is to live—even to try to live—with open eyes,” Foer writes.
Although the environmental impacts of clothing manufacturing are not unpacked in We Are the Weather, Foer collaborated with sustainability-minded designer Stella McCartney on a capsule collection named after the book. It’s not the first time a major label has emblazoned a book’s title on a t-shirt—in 2016, Dior’s first female creative director, Maria Grazia Chiuri, designed white tees featuring the title of Chimamanda Ngozi Adichie’s We Should All Be Feminists for her inaugural collection. Dior’s feminist shirts will set you back $860, while Foer’s are $530 apiece; their high price tags perpetuate the unfortunate notion that slow fashion or feminism are for those who can afford it, as though they are luxuries.
Reflecting on the collaboration three years later, Adichie told Elle, “A t-shirt is not going to change the world, right? But I think change happens when we spread ideas.”
The building and layering of ideas and stories in the book becomes an implicit reminder that change doesn’t happen overnight. Decisions are daily, and the impacts are revealed over time, many of which are unseen by those who have the privilege of choice, keeping us from implementing any personal, meaningful change. At points, Foer returns to the linguistic roots of words like “crisis,” which “derives from the Greek krisis, meaning ‘decision.’”
“Encoded into our language is the understanding that disasters tend to expose what was previously hidden,” he writes. “As the planetary crisis unfolds as a series of emergencies, our decisions will reveal who we are.”
We’re grappling with who we are as a society and culture—not only to let the climate crisis reach this point, but to continue to hurtle down a terrifying trajectory. We may not know who we are just yet, but we know who we don’t want to be: hypocrites—people who act contradictory to their stated beliefs or feelings.
The word hypocrisy is borrowed from the Greek hypokrisis: playing a part on the stage, pretending to be something one is not. Is it a coincidence that the latter half of hypokrisis is the same root as krisis, a decision?
Bonus Links from Our Archive:
— A Year in Reading: Jonathan Safran Foer
— Sentimental and Manipulative: On Jonathan Safran Foer’s ‘Here I Am’
— Cut and Dry: Jonathan Safran Foer’s ‘Tree of Codes’
— Storytelling: Jonathan Safran Foer’s ‘Eating Animals’
Here’s a quick look at some notable books—new titles from the likes of Rachel Cusk, Kevin Barry, Mona Eltahawy, Jonathan Safran Foer, Naomi Klein, Dan Kois, and more—that are publishing this week.
Coventry by Rachel Cusk
Here’s what Publishers Weekly had to say about Coventry: “Memoirist and novelist Cusk (Kudos) turns her perceptive gaze and distinctive voice to a variety of topics in her arresting first essay collection. Broken into three sections, the volume takes its title from an English term for ‘the silent treatment,’ which typified how Cusk’s parents disciplined her as a child. The opening chapters focus on memoir, but within the context of broader questions about society, families, women and work, and what makes a home. Cusk tackles, in addition to her fraught relationship with her parents, life after separating from her husband and with her daughters as they become teenagers (in the deliciously titled ‘Lions on Leashes’). In the second section, she examines art and its creation, in one piece grappling with ‘women’s writing’ in terms of Virginia Woolf and Simone de Beauvoir (‘Shakespeare’s Sisters’). The final section ventures into literary criticism with analyses of writers such as Kazuo Ishiguro, D.H. Lawrence, Olivia Manning, and Edith Wharton. There is an element of stream of consciousness to Cusk’s prose, with its effortless transitions from one idea to another. However, the overriding thread binding her essays is the uses of narrative, particularly for allowing people to make sense of their lives. It’s something Cusk interrogates exceptionally well throughout this well-crafted compilation.”
Night Boat to Tangier by Kevin Barry
Here’s what Publishers Weekly had to say about Night Boat to Tangier: “A pair of Irish drug runners who’ve seen better days haunt a ferry terminal in southern Spain in search of a missing woman, in Barry’s grim and crackling latest (after Beatlebone). Maurice Hearne and Charlie Redmond had a long and profitable run in drug smuggling, but now, with both just past 50, they are out of the business after a decline in their fortunes. The two stalk the ferry terminal in search of Maurice’s daughter, Dilly, whom they haven’t seen for three years but believe will be showing up on a ferry there, either coming from or going to Tangier. As the men wait and scan the crowds, they reminisce on better days and an unfortunately textbook betrayal, and flashbacks to pivotal moments in Maurice’s adult life reveal a torturous history. Whether Dilly is actually Maurice’s daughter is an animating question of the narrative, along with what the men’s true intentions are. Barry is a writer of the first rate, and his prose is at turns lean and lyrical, but always precise. Though some scenes land as stiff and schematic, the characters’ banter is wildly and inventively coarse, and something to behold. As far as bleak Irish fiction goes, this is black tar heroin.”
The Seven Necessary Sins for Women and Girls by Mona Eltahawy
Here’s what Publishers Weekly had to say about The Seven Necessary Sins for Women and Girls: “In this fed-up, rage-fueled ‘big fuck-you to the patriarchy,’ activist and journalist Eltahawy (Headscarves and Hymens) thrusts ‘tools to fight back’ into the hands of women and girls: in themed chapters, Eltahawy exhorts her peers to embrace their power through the energy of anger, attention seeking, profanity, ambition, power, violence, and lust. She lets no one off the hook, calling out the Muslims who defended the man who sexually assaulted her while she was on hajj and the racist Americans who vilified Muslim men during her #mosquemetoo response, feminists who accept the crumbs offered to them by the patriarchy and promote milquetoast ideas of ‘girl power,”’U.S. Republican white women complicit in misogyny and racism, and women who call for civility in discourse or who disavow violent responses to violence. But Eltahawy’s arguments come through with as much intelligence and clarity as passion and evocative imagery; they are built on facts about racism, capitalism, and homophobia, as well as her own and others’ experiences. Eltahawy not only gives frustrated women permission, but demands that they ‘defy, disobey, and disrupt.’ This bold, rampaging manifesto is far past the edge of mainstream feminism, but it’s so viscerally motivational that even those more moderately inclined may find themselves intrigued.”
We Are the Weather by Jonathan Safran Foer
Here’s what Publishers Weekly had to say about We Are the Weather: “In an unconventional but persuasive manner, novelist Foer (Here I Am) explains why taking meaningful action to mitigate climate change is both incredibly simple and terribly difficult. Writing from an intensely personal perspective, he describes the difference between understanding and believing, making clear that only the latter can motivate meaningful action. He argues that the dichotomy between those who accept the science of climate change and those who don’t is ‘trivial,’ because ‘the only dichotomy that matters is between those who act and those who don’t.’ Foer makes the case that animal agriculture is the dominant cause of climate change, concluding that ‘we must either let some eating habits go or let the planet go. It is as straightforward and as fraught as that.’ While he calls for everyone not to eat animal products before dinner (at the very least), he is not shy about discussing his own hypocrisy, disclosing his lapses back into meat-eating after writing a book-length treatise against it (2009’s Eating Animals). Foer’s message is both moving and painful, depressing and optimistic, and it will force readers to rethink their commitment to combating ‘the greatest crisis humankind has ever faced.'”
The Second Founding by Eric Foner
Here’s what Publishers Weekly had to say about The Second Founding: “In this lucid legal history and political manifesto, Pulitzer Prize–winning historian Foner (The Fiery Trial) explores how the ‘Reconstruction amendments’—the 13th, 14th, and 15th, which abolished slavery, granted birthright citizenship, and acknowledged black men’s political rights—have been interpreted over the past century and a half. Foner begins with Congressional debates immediately after the Civil War about what ‘freedom’ could and should mean in the context of the liberation of hundreds of thousands of slaves. Most relevantly for today, Foner depicts the disagreement among both Democrats and Republicans about who should have, and be allowed to use, the right to vote. He points out that, as recently as 2013, the Supreme Court has failed to use the 15th Amendment to oppose state laws that, while not specifically mentioning ethnicity or race, make it difficult for nonwhite citizens to vote, and has refused to bar discriminatory practices of private citizens, in seeming contradiction to the 14th Amendment. In Foner’s view, the current moment represents a ‘retreat from racial equality,’ but the rights promised in these amendments also remain ‘viable alternatives.’ Readers invested in social equality will find Foner’s guarded optimism about the possibility of judicial activism in this area inspiring, and both casual readers and those well-versed in American legal history will benefit from his clear prose and insightful exploration of constitutional history.”
On Fire by Naomi Klein
Here’s what Publishers Weekly had to say about On Fire: “Klein (This Changes Everything) makes a case for a Green New Deal in a treatise high on passion, but low on specifics. It consists largely of reprinted writings—reporting, think pieces, public talks—with brief notes providing updates. After an account of speaking at a 2015 Vatican press conference on Pope Francis’s climate change encyclical, Klein comments that the Church’s encouraging gesture now seems overshadowed by a lack of accountability over its sexual abuse crisis. These retrospective pieces lack the urgency of the book’s lengthy introduction about fostering ‘economies built both to protect and to regenerate the planet’s life support system and to respect and sustain the people who depend on them.’ In the brief epilogue, Klein returns to the book’s main thrust and argues the Green New Deal still has a ‘fighting chance.’ But even that formulation acknowledges the difficulties involved, and her more extravagant proposals—for instance, transforming every post office in her native Canada into a ‘hub for green transition’—don’t encourage confidence in her ambitious program. Klein’s cri de coeur (‘when the future of life is at stake, there is nothing we cannot achieve’) will galvanize some and depress others.”
A Single Thread by Tracy Chevalier
Here’s what Publishers Weekly had to say about A Single Thread: “Chevalier (Girl with a Pearl Earring) celebrates the embroiderers of Winchester Cathedral in this appealing story of a 38-year-old spinster who learns needlecraft from real-life embroidery pioneer Louisa Pesel. In 1932, Violet Speedwell is what newspapers of the day call a surplus woman: unmarried and likely to remain so. Working as a typist in Winchester, Violet visits the cathedral, where she admires the intricate canvas embroidery on the kneelers, cushions, and other accessories. She joins the Winchester Cathedral Broderers Group and, after an unpromising start, becomes proficient under the mentorship of group founder Louisa Pesel. A fellow embroiderer introduces Violet to Arthur Knight, a 60-year-old married bell-ringer who, like Violet, has suffered the death of a loved one. Arthur protects Violet from a stalker and takes her to the bell tower to show her the ropes. Violet’s confidence grows as she learns to handle a needle, her mother, and her own desires. Chevalier excels at detailing the creative process, humanizing historical figures and capturing everyday life. With its bittersweet romance and gentle pace, Chevalier’s latest may be less powerful than her best novels, but it vividly and meticulously shows how vision, teamwork, and persistence raise needlecraft from routine stitching to an inspirational and liberating art.”
The Heart and Other Viscera by Félix J. Palma
Here’s what Publishers Weekly had to say about The Heart and Other Viscera: “In Palma’s solid collection, following his The Map of Time trilogy, the surreal collides with the deeply mundane in transformative ways. In these stories, the protagonist—almost always a man down on his luck or depressed in some way—encounters something extraordinary. This might be a magical train set, where an avatar painted in one’s likeness placed inside it can traverse the world (‘Roses against the Wind’); a new apartment that’s perfect in every way, except for the man behind the curtain in the den (‘The Man behind the Curtain’); or, in the title story, a man who gives pieces of his body to his lover on birthdays and anniversaries. In the most ambitious story, ‘The Seven (or So) Lives of Sebastian Mingorance,’ Palma pulls off the impressive juggling act of considering one man and all the different directions a day in his life could have gone, with all seven alternative Sebastian Mingorances occupying the same room at one point. The scope of Palma’s imagination is undeniable, even if his female characters suffer for it—all of them are objectified or otherwise treated as accessories to the plot, and most meet rather gruesome fates. Palma proves he is an assured, creative writer with a knack for the unsettling.”
Red at the Bone by Jacqueline Woodson
Here’s what Publishers Weekly had to say about Red at the Bone: “Woodson’s beautifully imagined novel (her first novel for adults since 2016’s Another Brooklyn) explores the ways an unplanned pregnancy changes two families. The narrative opens in the spring of 2001, at the coming-of-age party that 16-year-old Melody’s grandparents host for her at their Brooklyn brownstone. A family ritual adapted from cotillion tradition, the event ushers Melody into adulthood as an orchestra plays Prince and her ‘court’ dances around her. Amid the festivity, Melody and her family—her unmarried parents, Iris and Aubrey, and her maternal grandparents, Sabe and Sammy ‘Po’Boy’ Simmons, think of both past and future, delving into extended flashbacks that comprise most of the text. Sabe is proud of the education and affluence she has achieved, but she remains haunted by stories of her family’s losses in the fires of the 1921 Tulsa race massacre. The discovery that her daughter, Iris, was pregnant at 15 filled her with shame, rage, and panic. After the birth of Melody, Iris, uninterested in marrying mail-room clerk Aubrey, pined for the freedom that her pregnancy curtailed. Leaving Melody to be raised by Aubrey, Sabe, and Po’Boy, she departed for Oberlin College in the early ’90s and, later, to a Manhattan apartment that her daughter is invited to visit but not to see as home. Their relationship is strained as Melody dons the coming-out dress her mother would have worn if she hadn’t been pregnant with Melody. Woodson’s nuanced voice evokes the complexities of race, class, religion, and sexuality in fluid prose and a series of telling details. This is a wise, powerful, and compassionate novel.”
How to Be a Family by Dan Kois
Here’s what Publishers Weekly had to say about How to Be a Family: “Kois, a parenting podcaster and editor at Slate, believed that he, his wife, and two daughters ‘were doing being a family wrong’ and tells of his radical step to rectify their situation. He decided they should spend 2017 living in new locations far from their Arlington, Va., home, spending three months in each location. The experiment’s results are varied and delightful to read about: their happy idyll in beautiful Wellington, New Zealand, is packed with friendly neighborhood barbecues and a rejection of American helicopter parenting. The Dutch in Delft, in the Netherlands, seem a cooler lot and obsessed with ‘normalcy,’ though Kois—a serial enthusiast—is entranced by their social cohesion and bicycles. Bug-infested Samara, Costa Rica, is appealingly laid-back, though its roughness starts straining family ties. Back in the vaunted ‘Real America’ of Trump-voting Hays in western Kansas, Kois is as intrigued by the close-knit religious town as he is with the locales abroad. He fills his narrative with both ironic, self-deprecating humor and earnest soul-searching (‘A place never solves anything’) as he comes to the realization that ‘you can’t actually change your kids but your kids change nonetheless.’ This ‘foolhardy jaunt’ into experimental family life–hacking consistently pleases and surprises.”