Meat Your Maker

In ‘We Are The Weather,’ Jonathan Safran Foer Posits that Meat-Lust is Killing the Planet

My favorite cut of meat is the tri-tip. If you aren’t from California, where it is very popular, you might not be familiar. Cut from a section of cow called the bottom subprimal sirloin, the tri-tip is a triangular hunk that usually yields around two pounds of slightly marbled meat. You rub a liberal amount of salt and pepper and a dash of garlic powder into it and sear it for a few minutes directly over the coals (mesquite, or red oak if you can find it). Then you move it off the heat, cover your grill, and let it cook until it’s medium-rare.

Amateurs will use a meat thermometer; I’ve roasted enough tri-tip to know when it’s done simply by pressing a finger into its greasy hot surface, to test the firmness. Then you slice it up and eat it. It’s smoky and bloody and fucking delicious. Beef: it’s what’s for dinner! Also, it’s partially responsible for the destruction of life on earth as we know it.

That is what Jonathan Safran Foer posits in his new book, We Are The Weather. And before you jump all over me, let me say that he’s absolutely correct. Animal agriculture–the large-scale raising of critters for the purpose of eating them–is really, really bad. Humanity’s love of bacon, McRibs, and a damn good steak is draining the planet of potable water, oxygen-pumping forests, usable land, and grain that could be feeding a whole lot more humans than the current population of pigs, chickens or cows, who are making things worse by adding a bunch of methane into the atmosphere. You are, of course, free to not believe this. Hundreds and hundreds of scientists, who are much smarter than you or me, do believe it. I’m comfortable siding with the PhDs.

This is not a science review, though. This is a book review. Jonathan Safran Foer is not a scientist, but he is a fine writer and a very smart and thoughtful individual. We Are The Weather is a short, dense exploration of the morality of large-scale animal consumption. It is a Science Book–there’s an Appendix and lots of notations and a hefty bibliography. And the first section of the book is a fusillade of Scary Facts: greenhouse gases fuel climate change and a single serving of beef puts 6.61 pounds of carbon dioxide into the atmosphere.

But it’s not really about science, and it’s certainly not your standard polemic. Two hundred and fifty pages of Jonathan Safran Foer kvetching at you for eating meat would not be much of a read. Instead, Foer takes the reader through histories both global– comparing the things average Americans gave up to contribute to the war effort during the 1940s to us refusing to quit McDonald’s–and personal, touching on suicide and his relationships with his grandmother and kids, all to build a narrative about facts, how we absorb them (or refuse to), and how we choose to live our lives when we know that we’re not going to be around forever.

Foer intends to tell us that animal consumption is a driving force behind a growing human catastrophe, but that all is not lost, and we can easily make a minor lifestyle change that will, collectively, make a huge difference. It would be a disservice to say much more about how Foer makes a compelling, even life-changing readout of what could have very easily been a long-form piece in The New Yorker. The great charm and impact of We Are The Weather comes from Foer’s unusual, humanistic approach to the topic. Taking tri-tip off the menu will seem like a little thing.

(Farrar, Strauss and Giroux, September 19, 2019)

Jason Avant

Jason Avant is a writer and editor based in Carlsbad, California. He’s written for and edited a bunch of websites that no longer exist, and occasionally contributes to one that does: Roads and Kingdoms.

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