Some people reject the fact, overwhelmingly supported by scientists, that our planet is warming because of human activity. But do those of us who accept the reality of human-caused climate change truly believe it? If we did, surely we would be roused to act on what we know. In We Are the Weather, Jonathan Safran Foer explores the central global dilemma of our time in a surprising, deeply personal, and urgent new way. The task of saving the planet will involve a great reckoning with ourselves. Only collective action will save our home and way of life. And it all starts with what we eat—and don’t eat—for breakfast.
There came a point at which the inhabitants of Mars were no longer able to deny the warming of their planet or the scale of the destruction to come. In a last, desperate attempt to maintain their civilization, they dug vast canals connecting the poles of the planet to the expanse of scorched land that covered the rest of its surface. The annual melt of the polar ice caps would produce water to grow enough crops to sustain at least another generation.
This final struggle against extinction was documented by the astronomer Percival Lowell from his private observatory in Flagstaff, Arizona, at the end of the nineteenth century. Lowell was no quack—he was elected a fellow of the American Academy of Arts and Sciences and is credited for leading the effort that culminated in the discovery of Pluto—but given that Mars’s “nonnatural features” couldn’t be observed by any other astronomers of his time, his theory, which enthralled the public, was rejected by the scientific community. He continued to observe and make meticulous drawings of the Martian canals, and continued to insist, until his death, in 1916, that they were the last heroic attempts of a dying civilization to save itself.
Lowell didn’t initiate the search for Martian canals. In 1877, the Italian astronomer Giovanni Schiaparelli reported observing canali on Mars, thus launching a search among English-speaking astronomers for nonnatural features on the planet’s surface. Lowell was the only one to confirm Schiaparelli’s observations. Alas, the Italian word canali means “channels” (a naturally occurring feature, of which there are many on Mars), not “canals,” and was mistranslated into English.
When a NASA Mariner spacecraft flew by Mars in 1965, capturing the first photographs of the planet’s surface, the existence of canals was conclusively disproved. If Mars was once inhabited by intelligent life, either that civilization covered its tracks or evidence of its existence had been erased by time—as scientists say will be the case about twenty thousand years after the disappearance of humankind from Earth.
But it took another forty years to explain what Lowell had been observing and documenting all that time.
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I am sitting at my grandmother’s bedside as I type these words. She has been living with my parents for the last few years, after a stint in an assisted-living facility proved to be too stressful for her. At this point, she sleeps most of the day. My mother tells me that my grandmother’s wish is to be woken up whenever someone comes to see her. It goes against so many of my instincts—never wake a sleeping baby, never wake a dying grandmother—but in this case, I act on what I know, not on what I feel. Her smile raises with her eyelids as if they are connected by threads.
She is as mentally present as ever. Despite—or because of—there being so many ultimate things to talk about, it feels as if there isn’t anything to talk about. So most of the time, we just sit here quietly. Sometimes she stays awake, sometimes she falls back asleep. Sometimes I go downstairs and hang out with my parents while she rests. Sometimes, like now, I stay here. One of the ways that I’ve filled the hours has been to drive around the city to the neighborhoods and sites of my youth: Mr. L’s restaurant is gone; Higgers Drugs is gone; Politics and Prose bookstore moved across the street and spread like an empire; the Sheridan School playground has been overwhelmed by new classrooms; Fort Reno is still there, although Fugazi is no longer a band.
Everything is the wrong size. The “big hill” that my brother and I used to dare each other to bike down without braking is at most a gentle slope. The walk to school, which I remember taking nearly an hour, is only six blocks. But the school itself, which I remember as small, is enormous—many times larger than the school my children now attend. My sense of scale isn’t skewed in a particular direction, but it is badly skewed.
The strangest thing to reencounter was the home where I lived for the first nine years of life. In this case, it was not the physical scale that was skewed, but the emotional scale. I was sure I’d have strong feelings revisiting it for the first time in decades, but it was merely interesting, and I was happy enough to leave after ten minutes.
A few years ago, an artist conducted a series of lengthy interviews with each of my brothers and me, drawing out memories of our shared childhood home. What color is the front door? What do you see upon entering? Is the floor bare or covered? Approximately how many stairs are there? What do the banisters look like? Do the windows have coverings of any kind? How many bulbs are in the light fixture? (All her questions were in the present tense.) She then produced three distinct floor plans of the house, corresponding to our memories. The discrepancies were astounding: different configurations of rooms, different scales, even a different number of floors. How could that be? It was not some building we’d entered only a few times. It was the home in which we were raised. Maybe her experiment proved that memory is even less reliable than we suspect, or that we were too busy being kids to pay attention to our surroundings. But a far more unsettling possibility is that home—which we think of as being essential to the stories we invent and the stories we believe—isn’t nearly as powerful as we assume. Maybe home, in the end, is just a place.
Maybe home, in the end, is just a place.
• • •
After the Roman Empire’s fall, exotic plants bloomed across the Colosseum’s bloodstained ground, plants found nowhere else in Europe. They overcame the balustrades, choked the columns, relentlessly grew and grew. For a time, the Colosseum was the world’s greatest botanical garden, if an unintentional one. The seeds had been unknowingly transported in the pelts of the bulls, bears, tigers, and giraffes brought from thousands of miles away for the gladiators to slaughter. The plants occupied the Roman Empire’s absence.
When my grandmother and I used to go on weekend walks through the park, she would take a moment of rest at every bench—it would probably be more accurate to describe those Sunday hours as weekend rests punctuated by moments of walking. Usually we would sit in silence. Sometimes she would give me life advice: “Marry someone a little bit less intelligent than you”; “It’s just as easy to fall in love with a rich person”; “You paid for the bread in the basket, so you should take it.” More than once she placed her enormous hand on my knee and told me, “You are my revenge.”
This statement has always puzzled me, and I’ve arrived at different interpretations over the years. “Revenge” comes from the Latin word for “vengeance,” vindicare, meaning “to set free” or “to lay claim to.” To set something free again. To reclaim. The ultimate revenge against a genocide that is meant to eradicate you and your people is to create a family. The ultimate revenge against a force that tries to claim and imprison you is to set yourself free again, to reclaim your life. Maybe when she looked at her children and grandchildren and great-grandchildren, she saw something like a coliseum of thriving, colorful, distinctive life, spectacular precisely for its improbability. If we address the environmental crisis now, the future life we will have enabled—reclaimed, re-freed—to thrive might look the same.
• • •
It wasn’t until 2003 that the question of what Lowell had been seeing and documenting for all those years was finally answered. A retired optometrist, Sherman Schultz, noted that the modifications Lowell had made to his telescope turned it into something quite similar to the tool used to detect cataracts. The tiny aperture, which Lowell felt offered a clearer image of the planets he was observing, cast shadows of his own blood vessels and floaters in the vitreous body of his eye onto his retina, making them visible. By accident, Lowell took a tool that was invented to reveal the things that are farthest from a beholder’s eyes and altered it to reveal the things that are closest to them. He was born shortly after the Industrial Revolution—the period during which Western humanity most dramatically imposed its own vision on Earth, altering it forever. The maps Lowell drew of a dying civilization’s planet were maps of the structures and imperfections of his own eyes.
Recognizing that we are responsible for the problem is the beginning of taking responsibility for the solution.
The house where I grew up has not shrunk, and neither have my grandmother’s hands. Just like Lowell, I misattribute phenomena I observe to external changes rather than internal ones. Even those of us who accept the fact of anthropogenic climate change deny our personal contribution to it. We believe that the environmental crisis is caused by large outside forces and therefore can be solved only by large outside forces. But recognizing that we are responsible for the problem is the beginning of taking responsibility for the solution.
The planet will get revenge on us, or we will be the planet’s revenge.
Jonathan Safran Foer is the author of the novels Everything Is Illuminated, Extremely Loud and Incredibly Close, and Here I Am, and of the nonfiction book Eating Animals. His work has received numerous awards and has been translated into thirty-six languages. He lives in Brooklyn, New York.