Best-selling author Jonathan Safran Foer spoke to a crowd of several hundred people at Rackham Auditorium for a book talk Thursday evening. The School for Environment and Sustainability collaborated with the Literati Bookstore to host the event.
Foer’s book, “We are the Weather: Saving the Planet Begins at Breakfast,” focuses on changes people can make in their immediate lives to promote environmental sustainability. Foer highlighted four major contributors to climate change: airplane travel, overpopulation, cars and food consumption. The way people eat is just as important as the other three since it also deals with dangerous pollutants, Foer said.
“Eating is the only one of those that immediately addresses nitrous oxide and methane, which are two extremely powerful greenhouses gases,” Foer said. “I think there are focuses exclusively on fossil fuels. It’s good to have a focus on fossil fuels, but bad to have a focus exclusively on fossil fuels.”
The discussion was moderated by Ivette Perfecto, a professor in the School for Environment and Sustainability. She asked Foer why he did not talk more about the political side of climate change.
“Is this a tactical device because do you think that people would dismiss you … or do you truly think that capitalism has nothing to do with it?” Perfecto asked.
Foer said he wanted to focus his book on a part of climate change that is not talked about enough.
“The focus of the book is individual action,” Foer said. “In the same way that I acknowledge the fossil fuel industry is a profound problem, but I don't really write about it in the book because I feel like a lot of people are giving a lot of attention to it.”
He acknowledged that, though the government needs systemic change, it cannot be done without some individual change.
“The government needs our help and we need the government,” Foer said.
Foer emphasized individual action is truly engineered toward the person and is not a one-size-fits-all program. He mentioned a plan that focuses on a plant-based diet and limited travel, saying clean eating was much easier than less travel.
“Acknowledge and accept who we are, acknowledge what our limits are,” Foer said. “I find it relatively easy to be a vegetarian. I find it rather difficult to control the number of flights I take.”
Regardless of what action someone takes, Foer emphasized the importance of taking any action at all. He said simply accepting the reality of climate change isn’t permissible.
“Intellectually accepting the truth isn’t virtuous in and of itself, and it won’t save us,” Foer said. “If we accept the fact of the reality, that we are destroying the planet, but aren’t willing to believe it, we are no better than those who denied the existence of human-caused climate change. And when the future distinguishes between the two kinds of denial, which will appear to be a grave error and which an unforgivable crime?”
Perfecto then brought up the instance of Puerto Rico, the U.S. territory devastated by a hurricane.
“I think that more and more, because of these climate catastrophes, people that didn’t know, are knowing, and the people that knew, are more compelled to do something,” Perfecto said. “Do you agree that things are changing?”
Foer agreed that things are changing, but said he worries Americans emphasize resilience too much after a natural disaster and do not talk about how things are getting worse.
Foer ended his discussion by offering up the idea of climate change as a chance to start again, rather than an ending.
“We are so used to thinking of climate change as endings: the end of the polar ice cap, the end of coastal cities, the end of tolerable weather,” Foer said. “But we never think about it as an opportunity for a beginning. Maybe that is the ultimate altercation of climate change is not ‘we’re doomed,’ but ‘we’re at the beginning.’”
LSA sophomores Natalie Suh and Katie Kulie are fans of Foer’s work and were pleasantly surprised by the event.
“I had read his book ‘Extremely Loud and Incredibly Close’ in high school, and I thought it would be a good opportunity to see a New York best-selling author talk,” Suh said. “I didn’t know what to expect, really, out of this. It seems so different from ‘Extremely Loud and Incredibly Close.’”
Kulie said she likes how Foer tells a story, acknowledging the trials and tribulations without being too depressing.
“He’s really good at framing things that are traditionally considered super negative as positive, but also still being realistic about it, which I think is something that is a struggle,” Kulie said. “You don't hear stuff like that in the rhetoric about climate change these days."
Both Kulie and Suh said they plan on attending the Washtenaw County Climate Strike Friday and hope it will be the beginning of real change.
“I hope that the University of Michigan officials are listening and actually see this as a powerful statement and not just, ‘Oh, the college kids are at it again’ and actually pay attention,” Suh said. “I think if there is more of a diverse group of ages and identities, it will be more of an impactful statement.”