Transcribed by Haley Freedlund
Intro Noise / Music: [inaudible].
Jini Palmer: Welcome to Town Hall Seattle’s Science Series. On September 25th, 2019, award-winning author Jonathan Safran Foer sat down with local journalist, radio, and podcast host Steve Scher to discuss how taking on collective action against climate change starts with what we eat or don’t. Together they explored what immediate action looks like, how our descendants will judge our actions, and Jonathan’s new book, We Are The Weather: Saving the Planet Begins at Breakfast.
Steve Scher: Thank you. I got a new knee so I was still limping. What a privilege though, right? I live in a country where I have a great health care plan because I worked for the University of Washington and so I can get a new knee because my knee wasn’t working anymore. And I could’ve gone on for another 10 or 15 years, just sort of dragging my leg, or I could have done what I did, which is take the pain, bite the bullet, deal with it now, for a future for myself and for my caregivers that would be better, brighter, which kind of is a nice metaphor for what you’re suggesting we think about in this book. Do it now. Get going, be active, try to make some changes and maybe we won’t have to leave a world for our children that are, or, not leave a world for our children at all, and instead leave them something a little better. (pause, laughter) Yes. Right. We can just be done. There’s my metaphor. I’m done.
Jonathan Safran Foer: Well, first of all, thank you for coming. When I was preparing to publish the book and speaking to my publisher about where I would like to go, Town Hall was the first place that I said, I’ve just had just wonderful experiences here. I was here for Eating Animals a few years ago – it’s actually a lot of years ago at this point, and I remember we realized too late that it was the night of the first Hillary-Trump debate. And I was like, “Oh shit. No one’s going to go to this, especially in Seattle, nobody’s going to go to this.” And we arranged to have a screening of the debate and we supplied, I think my publisher, maybe not, somebody supplied beer and it was one of the happiest memories I have as a writer. So warm, so great. Felt really in the spirit of wrestling with things as a community. I am a member of a lot of different communities: very local, familial community; Jewish; I’m a Brooklynite; I’m a New Yorker, I’m an American. But the community of people who love books is just one of the communities I’m most proud to be a member of and happy to be a member of. And I felt it very, very acutely that night, and I’m just so happy to be back.
JSF: So you were talking about your knee. (Laughs).
SS: Actually, did you talk about Eating Animals or did you just watch the debate?
JSF: We watched the debate and then I talked about Eating Animals. And Hillary really won that debate. So everybody was like, “Yeah! Let’s be vegetarian. This feels great.” Everybody’s feeling really good. So—
JSF: So you were saying that if we make a change we can prevent something worse later.
SS: Yeah, maybe.
JSF: Yeah. So I mean the worst thing—
SS: That’s sort of your message.
SS: I hope.
JSF: The worst thing is already happening. It’s just not yet happening to us. Or it’s not happening to us nearly as much as it’s happening to people halfway around the globe. One of the really cruel ironies of climate change is that the people most responsible for it will be the people last to suffer it. Which makes it very hard to modify our behaviors because it feels distant. Either distant, geographically, or distant, chronologically. But I think the goalposts have been moving over the last five years and even over the last, I would even say five weeks. The goalposts at one point were to bring everybody into that sort of community of knowledge of just acceptance of science. And then that was it. Just to say global warming is happening at all and then that it was happening because of human causes. And then that it’s happening with urgency, and then that it’s happening with urgency and in a way that we can, to some extent, determine or at least influence.
The first interview I did, if this is the most recent, the first one I did was with a guy named Ben Shapiro. Do you know who that is? Yeah, he’s a very far right wing (pauses) um, I never know how to finish that sentence. A far right wing—
JSF: Commentator, that’s the right word. And before I went to be on his show, my friend said, “Why would you do that? Like, why? Why would you sit across the table from him? And it’s going to be a totally unproductive conversation anyway, because he’s the kind of exemplar of far right wing values.” And I said, “Well, you know, a lot of the things he stands for are the exact opposite of a lot of the things that I stand for and believe in. But A) he’s not a dummy. You know, whatever else you say about him, he’s not a person who lacks intelligence or thought. He’s actually a very, very smart guy. And B) he has, if not the largest listenership, then the second or third of anybody who has a podcast or radio show in the country. And climate change is one of those problems that half the people aren’t going to solve. We’re either going to solve it together or we’re not going to solve it. And C) I have believed and continue to believe that conservatives don’t care about the environment less than liberals do, and they don’t love their kids or grandkids less than liberals do. There’s a real problem with the way that we tell the story that can sometimes accidentally and sometimes intentionally be very demeaning and become a zero sum game where somebody wins a point and somebody loses a point.”
So I went and I talked to him, and at the beginning of the conversation he said, “So what climate change, what is it that you want to talk about?” And I said, “Well, first it would be helpful to know what you think climate change is.” And he said, “Well, in the next century temperatures are going to warm between two and six degrees centigrade because of human activity.” And I thought, “Wow, this guy’s not a climate change denier. Not on the level of science.” But there are a lot of different kinds of denial. So his version of denial is, “It’s happening, it matters. Let’s give it a little time. Let’s see what happens in 20 years. We will know much, much better what the extent of it is. We can figure out how to adapt to it and technology will be that much more advanced.” That’s a little different than my kind of denial, which has been and to some extent still is, “It’s happening, it matters. We have to act on it now. Just not me. Somebody has to do something, but I’m not somebody.” And, I had been feeling that over the last several years and hearing myself say that over and over, “Somebody has to do something. Somebody has to do something.” And all my friends would say it, we would say it to each other. It was like our theme song, you know, Somebody Has to Do Something. And none of us were doing anything and worse, our climate footprints were probably significantly worse than the climate footprint of the few remaining science deniers, as if just knowing was virtuous or as if caring was virtuous and they’re not virtuous in and of themselves. Nobody’s going to look back from the future and say, “What did they care?” They’re going to say, “What did they do?”
SS: So what did Ben Shapiro say to that response, which I imagine you gave him?
JSF: I mean, we had an hour separating what I just described and what I’m about to tell you. At the end of the hour, he said, “I will not eat animal products for breakfast and lunch and I will tell my audience to do that.” (audience applause)
SS: What convinced him? I mean, what was clear for him then, than from before?
JSF: So, what was different was the tone of my approach, and it’s not quite as good as it just sounded because his perspective is that the government should not be getting involved right now. And I was not going to argue him out of that because (laughs) for a lot of reasons, but just professionally I wasn’t going to argue him out of that. That’s his professional stance and I believe that that’s a core value of his, that the government should allow us to live our full freedoms. And if there’s a problem, the market will solve it or individuals will solve it. To which I said to him, “I disagree, but if that’s your perspective, then you have a special responsibility to solve it.” If you’re somebody who says, “Don’t take away this hamburger, don’t take away this flight,” but you acknowledge the science as he did, you acknowledge the implications of the science and you are open about how much you care about what’s at stake, then you really have a special responsibility to eat fewer animal products and to fly less. And to his great credit, he said, “I know, and I will do that.”
SS: Now you got to call him up.
JSF: I gotta call him up?
SS: Yeah. See if he’s doing it.
JSF: Well, what people say is not always what they do.
SS: I know. (laughs).
JSF: Yeah. (laughs)
SS: You ask this question a lot in your book, and to yourself, and others ask it of you through writings. So I ask this of you today: to whom do you speak today?
JSF: So the book begins with the first suicide note, the oldest existing suicide note, which was written about 4,000 years ago in Ancient Egypt. And the narrator comes back to this refrain often in the course of this note: to whom do I speak? And it’s the note that I found myself ending on when I finished this book. When I started the book, I thought of it really as a personal examination because I had been so disappointed in my own response to climate change and it didn’t make any sense to me.
SS: Your responses?
JSF: No, my own lack of care. Witnessing myself not caring about something that I thought I cared about was a real puzzle to me and I wanted to try to get to the bottom of it and to see if I could either care the right amount or just overcome my feelings. Maybe I shouldn’t wait to care, I should just do the right thing whether I care in the particular moment or not. And then as I wrote the book, in part because of what I was discovering, and in part because I’m a writer, you know, I can’t pretend I’m not a writer. I realized that there’s a good in talking about these things publicly and sharing them and encouraging other people to try to think in certain ways or act in certain ways. But then as I got to the end of the book, which I should say coincided with my grandmother passing away, I wrote the book in the year that she was dying. It’s just not how I felt it. I was still obviously aware of the fact that I was a writer. And as I got to the end of the book, I was getting that much closer to publishing. So I was having conversations with my editor and publisher. So I wasn’t at all naive, but I think in my heart and in the intimacy of writing in my little red chair in the living room or in my bed, that wasn’t really what I was thinking about or feeling. It became even more personal than when I began. And I thought a lot about my kids and I thought about them reading this book one day. I thought about them witnessing the decisions that I make in my life, and the ways that I model caring, what it is to be a caring human being. And that was my answer to the question, to whom do I speak today?
This sort of trick of that suicide note that comes up in the first pages and in the first sentence of the book and reappears at various points is that we don’t even know if the guy killed himself. We only have this note that exists, which in its first translation was titled, “Dispute with the Soul of One Who Is Tired of Life.” And it occurred to me as I read his note, it could just as well be an argument for survival as an argument for death. It’s an argument that he has with his soul, basically asking for his soul’s consent to kill himself. And it becomes this back and forth and it’s interesting how confrontations with death can become arguments for survival. And I think it’s something that a lot of us are experiencing now as we face what we either might lose in terms of what the planet will have to offer, or what we might have to lose in terms of what behaviors we might have to change to save the planet. It can bring into focus what we have.
I told a story just a little bit earlier to a few people about a friend of mine who was with his mother when she got a cancer diagnosis and she knew she was going in for a scan, but they thought it was something like a cyst, something benign. And the doctor came in and did one of these, you know, “I’m very, very sorry to tell you, but you have two months to live.” One of those things. And my friend’s mom said, “Why me?” And then she said, “Why have I been so lucky? Why have I had such a great life? Why have I had so many blessings?” In just the opposite of what I think I would say in that situation, which is, “Why me? Why did this happen to me, this horrible thing?” When thinking about climate change and the things that we’re going to have to do in order to mitigate it, sometimes they feel like big sacrifices or real diminishments of our life, but it’s because we are really shamefully forgetting everything that we have. Like, I’m going to have to eat considerably less meat and dairy, but I have thousands of foods to choose from. I’m able to walk outside 365 days a year. I can live in a coastal city as I do.
SS: For now.
JSF: Do I have to fly less? Yes. Could my grandparents ever have imagined flying as much as I do? Never. And if I never flew again, I’d be able to take the train to enough beautiful, interesting places that I could spend the rest of my life exploring them. So part of what climate change requires is this reorientation from negatives and binaries toward gratitude and an appreciation of accomplishments rather than the constant pointing out of hypocrisies and distances from perfection.
SS: I can “yes, and.” An IPCC report came out today again reiterating the speed with which oceans are absorbing heat and CO2 and dying. Last week, one third of the birds in the North, gone from 1970. Insects vanishing all across the North because that’s all that’s been studied. Despair is as easily a response to all those things. But you think despair is an indulgence?
JSF: I think hope is an indulgence, too. I think all of these feelings are indulgences. They’re also human. We have them. Most people I know have a complicated mix of emotions about climate change, including despair and hope and including guilt and anger and frustration and motivation and pride sometimes. And shame sometimes. But they don’t matter as much as what we do. In fact, the only thing that matters is what we do. So if hope motivates you to fly less and eat less animal products and drive less, that’s great. If shame motivates you to do that, that’s great.
Somebody asked me the other day, “Don’t you think these corporations are just being cynical when they start to provide more environmentally conscious product?” I said, “Who gives a shit? We just need to start having environmentally conscious products.” If you eat less meat because of your relationship with your parents, who cares? I’m glad that you’re doing it. It’s a great thing. It’s going to help save the planet for my kids. If I fly less because I want to look good in front of an audience when I say it, who cares? I’m flying less and that’s necessary in order to save the planet. I think that we put such an emphasis on our feelings. God, it feels good to march. A march is a very important thing to do and it’s a good thing to do, but not because it makes us feel good. It’s a good thing to do because it sends a signal to legislators that we need systemic change and that this is the will of the people and the will of the people is ultimately heard even if it takes too long. So a lot of this book is about the overemphasis on feelings and waiting for the right feelings to arise, instead of doing the things that we know we need to do.
SS: Is it enough? I eat less meat and fly less. You eat less meat and fly less. The 400 or so people here do that. Incremental change in a time when, as you said, it’s already happening. The world is already changing. The troubles we face for this planet are unfolding.
JSF: No, it’s not enough, but it’s impossible to get to enough without doing that. As the IPCC said, eating differently won’t save the planet, but we have zero chance of saving the planet if we don’t eat differently. They were speaking just in terms of cause and effect. The methane and nitrous oxide emissions from the livestock industry. The fact that animal agriculture is the number one cause of deforestation, responsible for 91% of Amazonian deforestation. The UN has said that animal agriculture is one of the top two or three causes of every significant environmental problem on the planet locally and globally. Air pollution, water pollution, deforestation, loss of biodiversity, top soil erosion. Everybody should just Google ‘UN IPCC meat or animal agriculture’.
One thing I regret, when talking about this book, it’s phrased as, “So you’re urging people to do this,” or, “So your perspective is this, your opinion is this.” Not at all. Not any more than my perspective or opinion or urging is that one plus one equals two. This is just science. We can agree. We can be people who believe in science or we can be people who deny science. I doubt there’s a person in this room who wants to identify a science denier, but what’s important is not that we acknowledge science intellectually, but that we acknowledge science and our habits and science is totally unambiguous about what the things we have to do are to save the planet. Eating differently is one of them. We have to do all of them if we’re going to have any hope. So the point isn’t, we should pay less attention to fossil fuels. We have to pay even more attention to fossil fuels, but we also have to pay attention to the equal culprit, which is animal agriculture.
SS: Why’d you wait til page 66 or 64 to say, “This is a book about getting you to eat less meat, maybe even eat vegan before six o’clock?”
JSF: A full description of the book is in the flap copy of the book, so it’s not like it was that much of a secret.
SS: Oh, you see, I didn’t see it.
JSF: And the subtitle is ‘Saving the Planet Begins at Breakfast‘, but you’re absolutely right.
SS: Not lunch, you said breakfast and lunch.
JSF: You’re absolutely right that I was concealing something. I didn’t think I was concealing it deliberately. Although, I’m a writer, which means, in conversation if I say something and I wish later I’d said it differently, that’s my tough luck. As a writer, you can go back and change the things that you wish you had said differently and I didn’t change that. It’s very hard. If solving climate change required us to stop punching ourselves in the face, we would’ve solved it a long time ago. What’s hard about it is it requires us to do less of things that we really value and like. I love travel and I love it not only in terms of the pleasure it provides, but I think it’s just a good thing to do, to have your perspective expanded and to see how narrow your own way of living is.
Meat is a wonderful thing for most people. I mean, it smells good. It tastes good. They have a lot of positive associations with it. So it’s hard to talk about doing less of these things. Meat is particularly hard because I think everybody has a sense that there’s something very important going on when we decide to eat meat or not eat meat. I’ve done readings before where someone will stand up at the end and say, “Who do you think you are, telling us that we should eat less meat? My grandfather this and my uncle that.” And what I will always say is, “Well, we obviously agree that this matters.” If I had said we should use a different kind of paper towel, nobody gets upset. Frankly, even saying we have to fly less, nobody gets upset. But people get very upset. Some people do. Less and less and less and less. But it used to be the case that a lot of people would get upset when talking about meat because we’re talking about literally life or death. It’s just as simple as that. You might not like the expression ‘meat is murder’, but meat is murder. I mean, there’s no other way of looking at it. So we don’t want to feel that we’re participating in something that is murderous or murderous to the planet, which it also is unambiguously when our parents did it and our grandparents did it and we’d like to partake in it and it feels accusatory. So I wanted to try to set a tone in the book of where I was coming from and something that felt accessible and generated enough goodwill to get into the nitty gritty. And part of that was admitting to my own hypocrisies, my own challenges.
SS: You struggle with leaving eggs and cheese out of your diet, right?
JSF: I struggle with leaving hamburgers out of my diet.
SS: Oh, that’s right. You hide in the hotel room late at night and eat a hamburger.
JSF: Yeah. I mean, I don’t now, but there have been moments. I’ve been a vegetarian since I was nine, but really on and off. I’ve had years when I wasn’t a vegetarian and there has been no point when I didn’t crave meat. At all points in my life, I’ve thought meat smells good, looks good, tastes good. If I were a lion, then my obligations would end there. You know, “smells good, looks good, tastes good, I’m going to do it.” But I’m not a lion, I’m a human being. And I have the ability to hold different impulses in my mind at the same time and to say, “Man oh man, I want that. But, I remember there’s this other thing that I want too. Oh God, I’m going to have to weigh these two things and maybe say no to something whose immediate pleasure is stronger or more primitive than my long term impulse or the broader impulse.” And I have found that really hard. I wish so badly that vegetarianism were an event for me, but it wasn’t an event. It’s been a process and I assume it’s going to be a process that probably spans – I mean, I will be a vegetarian for the rest of my life – but I assume that the process of what I was just describing, that kind of internal debate, I now am realizing that’s probably going to last the rest of my life too. But that’s okay. If that’s my struggle, then I’m really lucky because, look at all of the amazing things that I have that I don’t have to struggle with.
SS: I guess it’s not surprising that this book is a philosophical book and a philosophical argument, since you studied philosophy. Do you have a master’s or PhD in philosophy? Which did you get?
JSF: Well, I have neither of those. (laughs, crosstalk) I think it’s literally called a BS.
SS: Oh, it was just the bachelor’s that you got. You did something for it, though. You had to write something that was read and turned into a book, I thought.
JSF: No. I did whatever the bare minimum was at the time. And I remember the moment I chose to be a philosophy major. I was late to choosing a major. I think I was well into my junior year in college. And I was like, “Do I want to be an English major? Well, I dunno, I probably want to be a writer. So then why would I do that? Do I want to be this?” I thought, “You know, what would sound great? (laughs) Is if I told people I was a philosophy major. If I were a girl, I’d probably think that was really attractive.” (audience laughs) And that that is how I decided to become a philosophy major. God. Was I wrong about that, by the way. (laughs)
SS: Tell me about something. Since this is about grappling with unbelievable things, tell me about Jan Karski and Felix Frankfurter, and what Felix Frankfurter said to this gentleman.
JSF: So, Jan Karski was a Catholic in the Polish underground in the early 1940s, and a really historically impressive human. Claude Lanzmann featured him in Shoah, but also made a small documentary about him called The Karski Report, which I think in its entirety is on YouTube. He was a 20-year-old Catholic in the Polish underground who smuggled himself into the Warsaw ghetto and smuggled himself into an extermination camp in order to collect testimonies and evidence. And then he was able to escape from Nazi-occupied Poland to England, and ultimately America with the goal of telling leaders what was happening and that they had to intervene. He had this famous meeting with Felix Frankfurter who was a Supreme Court justice and is thought of as one of the brightest people America has ever produced and was himself Jewish, which is relevant to the story. And so Karski laid out all of the testimonies and all of the evidence and Frankfurter asked him questions like, “The Jews are behind a wall in Warsaw, how tall is the wall? What’s the wall made out of?” And after having all of his questions answered, Frankfurter paced around the room and then sat down, and he said, “Listen, I have to be frank with you. I just can’t believe what you’re telling me.” And Frankfurter’s colleagues said, “How could you say that? Look at all of this evidence and on top of which, why would he lie?” And Frankfurter said, “Well, I didn’t say that he was lying. I said that I’m unable to believe him. My mind and my heart were made in such a way that I just can’t believe him.”
I think a lot of us have that relationship to climate science. We don’t deny it. We don’t think the scientists are lying. Our minds and hearts weren’t made in such a way that we can believe them. When history looks back at us, at this kind of denial, as opposed to people who simply denied a science, which is going to look like a grave error and which is going to look like an unforgivable crime? I think it’s those of us who know, but can’t believe.
SS: “It was the least we could do.” You mentioned that in this book as well, but that’s the truth. And that’s what most of us are doing. What motivates us to go further? Not do that? What’s motivating you to go do that? Go further?
JSF: I’m just trying to figure it out myself, because I don’t do so many of the things that I wish I did. I had an experience a couple of weeks ago that was really quite moving to me, where at the end of a reading, a couple came up and gave me their book to sign and opened it to the title page, which is normally empty except for the title. And it was filled with their handwriting. And I said, “Oh, what’s all that?” And they said, “Well, we’re getting married in a couple months and we decided tonight that we really need a plan for how we’re going to live. Because if we don’t have a plan, we’ll probably just do what we’ve always done because that’s what people usually do, what they’ve always done.” And their plan that they’d written was: eat vegetarian unless served meat at a friend’s house, eat vegan two days a week, have no more than two children, drive no more than a thousand miles in the year. So you could look at that and say, “That seems like an awful lot.” Or you could look at it and say, “That seems like not nearly enough.” My response – oh, I should say the best part of the story. I forgot. Instead of just signing it, they had a line that said ‘witness’ and wanted me to sign it there. (audience laughs).
SS: Was that you? Were you the witness?
JSF: That was me. Yeah. “With the power vested in me, by nobody.” (laughs) My response was to feel both inspired and ashamed because I had written this book, they’d come to hear me read from the book. They’d asked me to sign the book. And I didn’t have a plan. I had ideas about how to eat that I was following, but that’s only one part of what it is that we have to do. I assume everybody in this room acknowledges the science of climate change. Is that a safe assumption? Okay.
JSF: I assume everybody in this room cares about – you don’t even have to applaud because it’s so obvious – cares about the fate of the planet, right? Of course. Yes. Out of curiosity, how many people in this room, just being perfectly honest, have a plan for how they are going to respond to climate change? I mean a plan that says days of the week, months numbers, meals, number of flights, that kind of really specific plan. (pause) So maybe 10 people? Maybe 10 people. That’s because it’s Seattle. In another city it would be zero. It’s a really hard thing to codify a plan because it risks acknowledging your own limits and how unambitious your own limits are. I will share with you my plan in a second and I find it sort of embarrassing that I can’t say that I will do more. I could say I will do more, but I won’t do more. And I wanted to have a plan that reflected what I’ll actually do. And it also risks accusations and feelings of hypocrisy. Like, “You know that this is bad and that’s all that you’re going to cut out?” And, maybe most importantly, it risks making visible something that is otherwise comfortably invisible. When you tell other people or tell yourself, “This is what I’m going to do,” suddenly that’s known. Having witnesses is a very, very powerful thing. If you start saying to people that you care about and who care about you, “I’m going to try to eat this way. I’m going to try to fly this way.” Or whatever your versions are. “I’m going to give one day of my week to volunteering for 350.org,” or “I’m going to compost,” or whatever it is. Once you say it, it then takes on a different kind of reality in the world.
So my plan, which is a work in progress, is to eat vegan for breakfast and lunch, to eat vegetarian for dinner. If I can do better than that, that will make me happier. But that’s my plan. To not fly for leisure in 2020. Every year for the past however many years I’ve been alive, I have flown many, many times for leisure. So that’s a really big change for me. But it also acknowledges I flew here and I treat that differently. Maybe I shouldn’t treat it differently. Greta Thunberg doesn’t treat it differently, but this is me being honest about what my own limits are. Three cab rides a week. I will limit myself to that. And I’ll devote one full day every week to volunteering for 350.org or working with the New York City Public School System to try to make sure that kids are informed about what’s going on and informed about their own kind of empowerment. Maybe I could make a better plan. I’m not exactly sure. I know I’ll be somewhat inconsistent with that plan, but I can tell you that life feels very different simply having a plan. And if I could only make one suggestion tonight, it’s not to have my plan. It’s to have your own plan and to write it out with words and to put it on your refrigerator and let people see it.
SS: Carbon offsets, by the way? For your flights?
JSF: For flights on this trip?
SS: Or in general.
JSF: So that’s something I don’t know a lot about and wants to know more about. I’ve had this experience and I’m sure it’s a great idea and I don’t see any reason why that shouldn’t be part of my plan. That sounds good. By the way, my email is firstname.lastname@example.org and I am completely open and would love to hear about things that you do that you think I should do. Not because you’re better than me, not because you’re wagging your finger, but because this is how it works in my experiences. You share your experiences, you share your struggles. When someone tells me about their ethical accomplishments, I generally just think this person’s annoying and I want to go away. When someone shares with me their struggles and their process, I feel really invited in and I feel inspired.
I can’t remember if I was talking to you about this or not, but I was in San Francisco yesterday, in Berkeley. I was speaking with Samin Nosrat, who does Salt Fat Acid Heat on Netflix and is just a wonderful, wonderful person and personality. And, she read this book, so we were doing an onstage thing together and she’s trying not to eat animal products for breakfast and lunch. Which, that, for her, is like if you said to me, “Don’t use verbs and adjectives before dinner. (audience laughs) You know, that’s a really, really big, big, big, big, big thing. Also, she has a real following, not like me. She has the power to influence millions of people. And the way that she talks about it, I found so inspiring. She says, “I don’t want to do this.” That’s the first thing she said, “I don’t want to do this. This is going to be hard. And I don’t think I’m going to be consistent, but I just can’t live as somebody who denies the science. I can’t, and I can’t live as somebody who is constantly repressing what she knows to be true. True, both in the objective sense, and true in the very subjective personal sense of that, the feeling of not doing what you want to do, not being your full self.”
SS: So are you hoping that the individual actions create a movement like old Ben was talking about, and the markets of ideas shift? Or is this about your argument with yourself?
JSF: Well, we’re dead if it’s only individuals, it’s got to be both individuals and systems changing together. It’s presented like a false choice. Either you’re somebody who advocates individual responsibility or you’re somebody who advocates for systemic change. They’re not different. They’re the same thing. Individual choices influence systemic change and legislation, and legislation makes it easier to make good choices as individuals. If we were to eat dramatically less meat, then of course farmers and farm corporations would be selling different products. It would also change the cultural conversation and it would be much easier to create legislation or just enforce the environmental regulations that are already on the books for factory farms that are completely ignored.
You know, Smithfield, which is one of the largest meat producers in the world, had 8,600 violations of the clean water act in one year. If they had 20 you’d say, “Oh, that’s not very good.” If they had 200 you’d say, “Hmm, somebody should keep a really close eye on this company.” 8,600 is a business model. That’s on purpose. And we’ve allowed them to have that business model. If there was a will to hold these companies accountable, which is best expressed, not through a march but through withholding money, then it would make it much easier to enforce that kind of regulation. Which would increase the price of meat dramatically to what it really costs rather than this artificially deflated class cost. Which would make it so much easier to eat less of it. And that’s what we’re talking about. These aren’t simple binaries, like “If you care about this, you’ll be a vegan tomorrow.” That’s great, if you can do that. Most people realistically can’t do that. Don’t want to do that. Most people are willing to eat less meat. Did you know 90% of the Beyond Burgers that are sold in supermarkets are bought by people who eat meat. I find that really inspiring. The shift is not – there are more and more vegetarians in this country. On American college campuses now, there are more vegetarians than Catholics. (applause) You know, every single time that gets an applause, and I have no idea what they’re applauding. I mean, are they Athiests? I don’t know. There are more vegetarians than Economics majors, English majors, than every major of study.
SS: That actually would work, too.
JSF: Yeah. But—.
SS: The world would change when there’s more vegetarians than Business majors.
JSF: But that number is not going to get big enough, quick enough. But the number that is going to get big enough quickly enough is the number of meat eaters who say, “I want to eat less meat.” So if you were to ask me, “What are the odds that half of Americans will be vegetarian in five years?” I would say zero. If you were to ask me, “What are the odds that half of the meals eaten in America will be vegetarian in five years?” I would say I feel sure that that’s going to happen, and it’s going to happen because meat eaters are going to say, “Hey! I care about this as much as anybody else and I acknowledge the science as much as anybody else, and just because I can’t go to some extreme doesn’t mean I can’t do a lot. I want to.”
SS: I’m going to play a little bit of Greta Thunberg from the day before yesterday, and then I want you to tell me what you’re hearing. And then I want to ask you about one final thing, and then we’ll get questions.
(Recording of Greta Thunberg): “My message is that, we’ll be watching you. (applause) This is all wrong. I shouldn’t be up here. I should be back in school on the other side of the ocean. Yet, you all come to us young people for hope. How dare you. You have stolen my dreams and my childhood with your empty words, yet I’m one of the lucky ones. People are suffering. People are dying. And our ecosystems are collapsing. We are in the beginning of a mass extinction, and all you can talk about is the money and fairy tales of eternal economic growth. How dare you.”
SS: It goes on from there. It’s a profound speech. What is it for you, when you hear it?
JSF: It’s shaming and inspiring. It’s funny, it does exactly in part what she’s saying, “shame on you,” for, which is a feeling of, “Isn’t she amazing? Aren’t young people amazing?” And that is not the response that she’s asking for and it’s not the response that’s needed. The correct response is, “You shouldn’t be having to do this. I will do it.” Kids shouldn’t be parenting their parents. And they certainly shouldn’t be governing their elected officials. It’s at an interesting moment now because the emotions have risen to a real peak. I’ve wondered, where does it go from here? It’s a place that feels almost scary. Emotions that aren’t given ventilation can turn inward.
The Washington Post did a poll, I think two weeks ago, maybe a week ago, that found that the majority of American teenagers are feeling scared about climate change and feeling angry. I worry that the fear and anger are going to continue to ramp up. What I would love to see is for that to be converted into action. I remember what it was like to be a teenager and one of the things among others that made it so difficult was the huge emotions paired with the feeling of disempowerment. Not having control, that other people were making choices on my behalf. And this is that played out on a massive, massive scale. Nothing would make me happier than if American students, instead of boycotting school, boycotted meat or boycotted air travel. I think that that would have a really profound effect on them, first of all, because they would feel their own strength in a slightly different way. Not only their rhetorical strength and their strength in numbers, but their ability to actually change the marketplace. They are the most important consumers to advertisers and companies. If they say, “We want this,” it’s going to start to happen. It really will. And legislation will follow after that.
She’s just an absolutely amazing person, clearly, singularly, historically important, but we can’t keep watching videos of her and listening to her. It, first of all, verges on cruelty toward one person, whether that person is 16 or any age. But secondly, this is a global problem and requires global action. And there is a way in which reverence for kids, not only her, but kids, is another situation of our feelings becoming more important than our actions. There’s a kind of complacency in applauding them, in feeling proud of them, and admiring them. It makes us feel good. It soothes us, actually, when what I think the appropriate response is, “You’ve done more than enough. Now it’s our turn to do what needs to be done.”
SS: Last question from me, and then questions from you folks. You talk about, the biggest challenge is to live ethically in a broken world. And this is a broken world and you and others have this remarkable sort of idea that the first Earth is broken, but could we live in the second Earth, The Earth we could rebuild? That is a mind-altering idea. Are we on that one? Do you feel like that’s the task before us, to live in the broken world ethically and to live in that second Earth?
JSF: That quote you were mentioning was actually a response to something that Roy Scranton had written. When you said, I thought, “That doesn’t sound like me,” but it’s because I was—
JSF: Roy Scranton is a great writer, a really wonderful writer who’s written a number of essays and books on the subject of climate change, which I take a lot of issue with. And I have a different way of looking at it than he does.
SS: Well, he’s got a little more despair.
JSF: Yes. His notion is that we should learn how to incorporate this despair into our lives, and that climate change has become a philosophical problem rather than a practical problem. And I see it as a practical problem. We are going to lose this planet one way or another. We can lose it by not doing anything and watching it fall apart, or we can lose it by choosing to replace it with a different kind of planet, one with a different kind of conscientiousness, in which the inhabitants feel a different sense of responsibility toward nature and also toward other people. People who live halfway around the world and that you’ll never meet.
One of the amazing things about this moment is that we will prove ourselves. We’re in the process of revealing who we are and I have no idea what we’re gonna show. We can prove ourselves to be people who are just incapable. Our minds and hearts weren’t built in the right way. We’re incapable of small sacrifices for the preservation of these things that we value. Or we will prove ourselves to be up to that challenge.
One of the things I say in the book is, in the process of making these efforts, we will not only save the planet, but we will make ourselves worthy of salvation. It’s a wonderful thing to imagine. If you just close your eyes and dwell on what it would be like if we accomplish this, if everybody in this room makes the changes that are necessary despite whatever the frustrations or inconveniences or challenges are. If the government is actually somehow capable of enacting legislation that changes the culture in the marketplace and the way that is required. That inspires me so much to think about. And not because I’m hopeful that it will happen, but just imagining it. And one of the things that it reminds me of is that we’re so used to thinking of these efforts as making martyrs of us, and these efforts as being sacrifices. I think we are going to be a far happier people if we are able to do this. I don’t mean simply because we will have all of these things preserved, but because of what it will feel like to do it. In the case of food, think about the best steak you’ve ever had. The pleasure of eating it ended when you swallowed the last bite. If you want to get more food pleasure, you have to go to the next meal. It doesn’t stick around. If anything, often you start to feel bad after the last bite. The pleasure of closing the distance between who you are and who you want to be, of just acting on your own values, is not as immediate and it’s not as primitive as a food pleasure, but I think it’s deeper and it’s definitely more sustaining.
The students are marching both because it’s the right thing to do – they believe it’s acting on something that they believe in – and because it feels good, it’s like a really happy event, a happy occasion. A lot of people I know, myself included, have felt a kind of low-level, ignorable sadness or alienation when it comes to climate change, because we just know we’re not doing what we should do. We just know it. Nobody has to lecture us to know it. We know it. And it’s often revealed when you start to do the thing that you know you should do and you feel a sense of relief. You just feel a little bit better, a little bit lighter. I feel that way. Like when I made my decision about not flying for pleasure next year, I just felt a little lighter. I felt good and I feel pretty sure that my vacations are going to be happier because of that, because they’re going to be informed by that conversation, by that knowledge that this is who we are. This is our family. This is a reflection of what we believe in. It doesn’t require us to repress something that is fundamental and valuable inside of us. So that future planet that we will inhabit. It’s not just that it will be moral. It will be happier as well.
SS: All right, some questions from you folks.
Patron 1: Hi. First I want to say thank you for speaking. It was really interesting. When I read your book, it was wonderful, but also really uncomfortable because I’m 17 and I’m a vegan, I’ve been vegan since I was 7. I expected it to be a scientific pat on the back for me, and it was philosophical and it made me look at myself and I wasn’t expecting that. My question is, what exactly drove you to have a philosophical take on environmental science and what drove you to be so honest about your struggles and imperfections as someone who believes in climate science but is still trying to figure out what to do about it?
JSF: I don’t know that I thought about it as philosophical. To be honest, I didn’t think about it. That’s the truth. More than any other book I’ve ever written, this one was really a record of my own thought process. It wasn’t an artifact of some thought process I’d already had. It’s not like I had conceits and notions and, “here’s a clever way to do this.” I was really just writing as I was experiencing it, which included both wrestling with the question of how to be an individual in this moment, and also with my grandmother’s death, which actually plays a kind of large role in this book, which happened over the course of that year.
As to why I was honest, well, you don’t know how honest I was. That’s the first thing I would say. No, I was honest. I was. But then again, that’s just what a liar would say. But really, I was. I really was. Yes. Only I know for sure. I always just tired of lying. That’s the truth. I have two kids and this happens once a day, probably. I’ll be at the kitchen counter. I’m doing some crap, like paying a bill or whatever, and they’re in the other room goofing around and it’s fine. They’re making a lot of noise. No big deal. I can still basically concentrate. Then they’re making a little more noise, but it’s okay because I can still basically concentrate and do what I have to. And then one of them punches the other and it’s like, “Hey, screw you. Or in my house it’s like, “Hey fuck you fucking asshole.” And I’m like, “Oh, it’s okay. I can still basically concentrate.” And then something breaks and I’ll do this thing where I put my hands on the counter and I’ll say, “enough.” And then I get up and I go, “enough, enough.”
I reached that point with climate change, except that I was both the kid and the adult and I just reached— “Enough, is enough,” of hearing myself say this stuff that just wasn’t true. I was tired of saying I care when it was obvious I didn’t care. I was tired of feeling good when I made an inspiring poster, or had a good t-shirt, or joined my friends in the march, but I just wasn’t doing anything and I knew it and it was a lie. And I wanted to change because it just felt bad, you know? And I think that change is difficult. Change is easier when you admit that it’s difficult. If you go into something and think you’ll just do it and it’ll be easy, then you become scared when you encounter the difficulties, or you think there’s something wrong with you, that you’re not doing it right. But if from the start, you know that it’s going to be hard and you admit that it’s going to be hard and you’ve talked to other people about the challenges, then you’re just much, much better equipped to face them. So I wanted to talk about it both for my own sake and also for the sake of a reader. To say, “Hey look, I literally wrote the book and I find it really hard. So, this is something that we can do together.”
Patron 1: Thank you.
JSF: Thank you.
Patron 2: Hi. First I want to thank you for having really tough conversations with people like Ben Shapiro. And also, this is sort of a tough conversation I’ve had with myself. You mentioned earlier in your talk about how people half of the world away are feeling the effects of climate change more than we are. And to bring it in even closer, in our own communities, the people that are most effected by climate change are those that are most likely to be of a lower income and disproportionately, Black and Brown folks. And they are also the folks that have less of this sort of freedom of choice to be able to say, “I’m going to eat less meat,” or “I’m going to be able to fly less.” So I’m just kind of curious if you’ve thought about that at all, or is the onus on people that have more privilege to take on some of that responsibility?
JSF: So I’m really glad you brought that up. I mean, in terms of flying, I don’t think that it’s so much harder for low income people to fly less. Flying is a privilege of privileged people, by and large. In terms of food, I’m really glad you brought that up because that is often brought up as a critique of this idea that we should eat less meat. People will say, “but there’s folks who live in urban food deserts.” They never say, “there’s people who live in urban food deserts, so let’s make sure there aren’t, let’s like fix that problem. Let’s get into that because everybody should have access to healthy, fresh food.” It’s usually used as, “there are some people there, so that’s the reason I’m not going to change in my own life.” Harvard Medical School did a study in 2018 and found that a vegetarian diet is $750 a year cheaper than a meat based diet. I should say, as I speak now, we’re putting aside people who literally have no choice. People who don’t have access to other foods, of course they can’t be expected to change. We have to make sure that we change their context. We shouldn’t ask them to change. But that’s not most people that we’re talking about, it’s not most Americans. It’s $750 a year cheaper to eat a healthy vegetarian diet than to eat a healthy meat-based diet. It’s $250 a year cheaper to eat a healthy vegetarian diet than to eat an unhealthy meat-based diet. Two and a half times as many people who make less than $30,000 a year described themselves as vegetarian than people who make more than $75,000 a year. Two and a half times more people of color are disproportionately vegetarian by some distance, actually. So the critique that it’s elitist, I find to be elitist itself. And it’s amazing how often people who say, “this is really an argument of rich white people,” are themselves rich white people. It’s uncontroversially healthier. It’s uncontroversially cheaper. It’s uncontroversially better for the environment. I just can’t imagine why that’s an elitist argument. There is this parallel problem that not everybody has access to healthy food and we need to fix that. That’s a problem of equal urgency, but it’s a parallel problem.
Patron 3: Hello, thanks for coming. You’ve been very inspiring and also challenging. I will confess, I’m having a hard time turning this into a question, but I’ve heard this said over and over and over again tonight, which is the criticism of flying. And it isn’t that I disagree with that point of view, but I think the issue is much broader than that. And I think we need to talk about it more broadly, which is really the decisions we make in terms of fossil fuel use. For contrast, this may seem hard to believe, but a six hour flight, for example, on a 737 if it’s full, burns about 35 gallons per person. That’s from here to New York, that’s from here to Hawaii. Many of us put that much gas in our car every week and drive to work single-passenger, or buy fruit out of season or vegetables that don’t grow locally. So I think my concern is by being dismissive about flying, it lets people off the hook for all the other ways that we’re using fossil fuels in a damaging way. So. Thoughts?
JSF: My first instinct is to say that I don’t think you’re right. But I think that that’s not the right way to have the conversation.
Patron 3: It’s just math. You can look up yourself later.
JSF: Listen, this is what happens with people like Ben Shapiro. You throw facts like darts at each other. Yeah, you’ve got a fact. I’ve got a fact. I think my facts, right. You think your facts right. We could probably dig into it, but we’re clearly not going to do it in front of an audience. I think the important thing is to agree that we need to work on flying and we need to work on driving. We’re not going to save the planet unless we fly dramatically less and unless we drive dramatically less. It’s amazing how often good-willed people get into these stupid quibbles when in fact we agree virtually. Completely. But it’s amazing that those small disagreements suck up the oxygen in the room. This has happened to me a lot of times. I’ll have a situation where someone will stand up and say, “It’s curious that you didn’t mention the fashion industry. Did you know that one t-shirt has a greater carbon footprint than your flight to Europe?” I mean, that sounds wrong to me. “I’d be curious to hear. I’m open to hearing your facts. I would love to know more about it. If that’s true, man oh man, am I never going to buy a t-shirt again.” But that’s not the important thing. This is a special occasion. There’s a lot of people gathered in this room and I think we have a shared goal of greater consciousness and moving in a direction of solving these problems. We could exhaust ourselves with like, “it’s just the math,” you know? And I can say to you, “it’s just the math.” And nobody in this room is going to know who’s right, although probably more people will agree with me because I’m on the stage and that’s the way it works. But that’s not the point. If your point is we have to really pay attention to our cars, I completely agree with you.
Patron 3: To all of it, is what I mean.
JSF: We need to pay attention to as much as we can. There are four activities that have a significantly greater impact than all others, and this isn’t controversial, which are: flying less; living car-free, not with a hybrid, car-free; having fewer children, controlling overpopulation; and eating a plant-based diet. I don’t think you would disagree that those are the four most important things that we can do. And we need to do them all. We’re really beyond the point of either-or. “Should I get solar panels or should I get an electric car? Should I advocate for a carbon tax or should I eat less meat?” Well, we can’t do all of them, but we have to try to do all of them, because cherry picking isn’t gonna get us anywhere near where we need to be.
Patron 3: Yeah. And I agree with you with the flying, I don’t mean to put it that way. Just, broaden the conversation.
Patron 3: Yeah. Thank you.
Patron 4: First of all, you are a hundred bucks. Best book ever. Thank you. So as a parent, I’m wondering how you plan on coming to terms with or dealing with wanting to show your kids the world, where your great-great-grandparents came from, but then flying less. That’s something that I struggle with, wanting to show my kids everything, but then not wanting to leave the world less for them.
JSF: Well, I guess it’s just a balancing act and the way I feel about it right now is, my desire to show them the world is smaller than my desire to save the world. You know? But it’s about moderation. Not only should we not think about it as, “I am somebody who will never fly again, never drive again, never eat an animal product again.” But, that’s not even what’s required. That’s not what it will take to reach the goals of the Paris Climate Accords.
In the most comprehensive analysis of food systems around the world, the authors concluded that while people who live in certain malnourished parts of the world could afford to eat a little bit more meat and a little bit more dairy, people who live in the States, the United Kingdom and Europe need to eat 90% less meat and 60% less dairy. So that’s a lot less, but it’s not the same as saying that everybody has to stop eating these things altogether. There are people who say, “I come from this very specific culture. We have strong ties to certain kinds of meat. It’s really how I stay close to my parents and grandparents.” You don’t have to give it up altogether. You just have to do a lot less of it. You don’t have to do it for breakfast and lunch. I don’t think most people feel those strong cultural ties during breakfast and lunch. I think when people eat meat at breakfast and lunch, it’s because they’re kind of used to doing it. They like the taste or it’s what they did yesterday. But giving that up doesn’t have to infringe on anything more than your cravings, or your preferences. Also, one can modify culture. We do all the time, all the time. My grandmother made matzah ball soup, right? That’s an absolute Jewish staple. And when I became a vegetarian, she just started making a vegetarian version of it. It’s not like anything was undermined. It’s not like we stopped being, you know, we didn’t convert to Christianity or anything. We were able to stay the exact same people. And I would say even more than that, the values were reinforced. They weren’t undermined.
Like take the Thanksgiving turkey, for example. It’s a really great case because it’s hard to think of a more symbolically important food than that. Does it make Thanksgiving feel like less of a Thanksgiving if your family gathers and has a conversation and says, “Here are the ideas that we’re celebrating tonight. Here are the values that we’re trying to transmit. We’re not going to have this particular food on the table, even though we’re used to it, even though we find it delicious, even though we have all these really beautiful associations with it.” If any of you guys ate Turkey for Thanksgiving, you ate a turkey that was not the product of sexual reproduction. Every turkey that’s sold in the United States was artificially inseminated. Every single turkey that sold in a supermarket in the United States was the product of artificial insemination because they’ve been bred to grow so enormously that they literally can’t have sex anymore. If you just stop and think about it, is that the best symbol for these values that we’re trying to transmit? Harvest and bounty and gratitude. It can— an animal— yeah.
So I think that when we examine the role that food plays, food plays a huge role in our emotional lives and in our cultural lives. But it’s not as if the precise ingredient is the thing that is the vehicle of those values. I think it’s the sitting together and the conversation and creating time to talk to each other. And that’s one of the things that’s been taken from us by the advent of factory farming. 1 in 3 Americans eats a meal in a fast food restaurant every single day. 1 in 5 meals eaten in America is eaten in a car. And this is just because of factory farming. That’s why that is the case. Artificially low prices of meat and creating contexts in which it feels like the only choice that we have, even if we have other choices. We used to just be better eaters. Farmers used to be better farmers. There are very few farmers left anymore. We used to be better eaters. One of the things that I would wish for teenagers in America is that in addition to teaching physics and English and biology, that we had [home economics] again, and that we just put aside time during the day to say, “Hey guys, this is what food is and these are the choices that are available. Here’s how you cook food because we’ve completely forgotten those things.”
Patron 4: Thank you.
Patron 5: Hello. Thanks for being here. I really liked that you mentioned the people who are on the front lines of climate change. I come from a really small country that, two years ago, was devastated by Hurricane Maria and we completely lost over 200% of our GDP, along with lives. So it’s really personal for me. I wanted to know for you as someone who is probably more physically distance from those more immediate effects. I know you’ve made your plan, you’re, you’re hoping to stick to it, you’ve spoken to other people, so there’s accountability. What are other ways that you stay motivated to do what you’re doing now? And I’m also asking because with climate change, a lot of times we hear a lot of bad news, so it might feel like the little that we’re doing is probably not helping. What are ways that you stay motivated to keep making change or what have you heard from other people? Just wondering.
JSF: I find it really hard, and I would say two things. One, I try to keep an argument alive inside of myself. The last line of the book is, “Each of us arguing with ourselves, we will make a home together.” Which is a kind of echo or quote from that first suicide note that I mentioned. I have to argue with myself. It just doesn’t come naturally to remember other people as often as I wish I did. And to remember that the actions that I make here are contributing to a world that is harming people, other people, halfway around the world. The other thing is, I try to not wait for that argument and those feelings, but to create habits. So I try to make myself into the kind of person who just doesn’t do that thing. So for example, if I’m in a store and there’s something that I want, I don’t have to wait for a well of emotions to decide that I’m not going to steal it. I don’t have to have some memory of the social contract. I don’t have to think, “it’s really unfair to the person who owns this store to take from his bottom line or her bottom line just because it’s going to be more convenient for me.” I’m just not the kind of person who steals and I want to have that relationship to stealing from the planet and to stealing from other people who live on the planet, where I don’t have to wait for a well of emotion to say, “Boy that food looks good,” or, “boy, that trip looks good,” or, “that drive looks good.” But I want to think about those other people. Instead, what I’m aiming for is where I just say, “I’m not somebody who does that. I don’t eat this stuff at breakfast and lunch or dinner, or I don’t fly on vacations. It’s just not who I am.” I think if we can relieve ourselves— it’d be great if the government relieved us of that burden, by making it much easier to make good choices. In my dream world— are you a student or no?
Patron 5: Not anymore.
JSF: Okay. So, if you were a student and you went to a cafeteria, you would see six options and the veggie option. And you’re not a student, so you go to a restaurant and oftentimes a waiter will read the specials for that night or tell you about the menu. Let’s say, “We have this, this, this, and this, and here’s the veggie option.” In my dream world, it’s like, “We have this, this, this and this, and here’s the meat option.” And if you want to eat meat, good for you. That’s a decision you’re allowed to make. But man, oh man, it would be easier to eat less if the default was inverted. And I do think that’s what we’re moving toward with great speed. I really think in the next five years, the default with food is going to be inverted so that you will be given a meat option rather than a vegetarian option. And it doesn’t have to be something that’s shaming and it doesn’t have anything that’s horrible. Nobody’s going to have to say, “Oh my God, I can’t believe you’re eating that.” But it may very well be the question, “Why are you getting that?” Just as the question now is, “Why are you eating vegetarian?” Until then, we have to find ways to create different defaults in ourselves and to relieve the pressure of making a big choice every time. And that’s where I think a plan can be so effective because you just lay it out and you say, “This is who I am. This is what I’m going to do. I’m not going to be somebody who is waiting for emotions or doing the analysis every time there’s an option. This is the way that I am.” Thank you.
Patron 6: Thank you so much. Thank you for encouraging folks to have a plan to take action. As a volunteer with 350 Seattle, thanks so much for volunteering with 350.org.
JSF: That, by the way, is a totally new thing for me.
Patron 6: Oh, good.
JSF: And I had been advocating for this stuff, individual choices. And then enough people said to me, “You should really spend some of your time working on systemic things.” And I did an event with Bill McKibben the other day and I was just so inspired, and the only reason I’m mentioning it in the middle of your question is because having a plan that’s open to change also feels like a good thing.
Patron 6: It’s almost as if you’re anticipating my question right now, because I wanted to say, I think we all need to acknowledge that individual consumer choices are not going to address major systemic problems such as access to affordable, healthy food, access to healthcare, access to reliable public transportation. So how do we encourage folks to move from that plan of individual action to collective action? To holding their representatives accountable, to organizing general strikes, to making sure that we actually do get towards system change instead of individual change?
JSF: Well, it’s not system change instead of individual change, it’s system change in addition to individual change. And that’s again a false choice, we need to do both, and they reinforce each other. System change will make it easier to make individual change, and individual change will help to bring about system change, but we have to do them both at the same time. I think that aligning oneself with an organization like 350.org is a great way to do it. It’s a very intimidating thing as an individual who’s not part of a community that’s guided by people who have been doing it for a long time with expertise. It’s very hard to know what to do more than, “I think I’ll write to my congressman,” or, “I think I’ll call my congressman.” There are more effective ways to exert your will and energy. So I would definitely recommend 350 as a great place to start.
Patron 6: Thank you.
JSF: Thank you.
SS: You get the last question.
Patron 7: Thank you. As someone who writes for a living, I’m wondering what rules— this is more of a general writing question— what rules of thumb or observations or advice do you have for someone like myself who does some writing? What helps you produce such creative content?
JSF: Like advice for writers, basically is what you’re asking?
Patron 7: Yeah.
JSF: You know, I gotta say, I find it so hard myself, and I have not found it to get easier over time. I saw one of the writer W. G. Sebald’s last readings. I was lucky enough to go to Queens College and watch him speak. And he said, “It’s not like being a doctor where, you know, the first appendix you remove, you’re like, ‘Uh-oh, this is very scary. This is very hard.’ And the 10th one you’re like, ‘I’m kinda getting the hang of this.’ And by the hundredth one, you’re drunk when you do it because it’s so easy.” Writing, just for some, it gets harder as you get deeper into it because you’re more aware of what’s possible. And I have become much, much more aware of the fact that time is limited. I think you’re not going to write, I’m not going to write, a hundred books. And I feel a lot of sensitivity to how I spend my time, which doesn’t actually help me spend my time well.
My best advice, or the thing that has been most helpful to me, it’s a little bit like answering the question about were you honest with this book? I oftentimes will think I have a good idea and I will push forward with a good idea despite knowing in my heart that it’s not my good idea. There’s a real difference between a good idea in the abstract and a good idea when lived personally. Probably everybody in this room is, well maybe not, I don’t know, but been in what would seem to be a great relationship but just isn’t, for you, for whatever reason. And writing is a lot like that. It’s like a relationship that you carry on for a period of time. And I think you have to— the voices of doubt are worth listening to, as are the voices of certainty. Even when you’re working on what is a bad idea, sometimes bad ideas, some of the things I’m most proud of were bad ideas, but they were my bad ideas, and it’s more important that it’s yours than that it’s good or bad. Ultimately, there are people like you.
James Baldwin said— this is a very bad paraphrase, but it’s such a great idea that it’s worth trying. He said something like, “I used to think that the things I felt most deeply most alienated me from other people, because who would ever be sad in the ways that I’m sad or happy in the ways that I’m happy?” And he said, “Then I came into books and reading and writing, and I found that the things I felt most deeply, most strongly connected me to others. They just weren’t the others that I was thinking. They weren’t the others that I was anticipating.” So, probably if you follow your own sense of what’s yours, worry less about what’s good and bad, or smart and dumb, or funny or not funny, provocative or mundane, but just instead focus on what’s yours, there will be other people who will say, “That’s like what is mine as well.” Even if you can’t anticipate who those people will be.
Patron 7: Thank you.
JSF: Thank you.
SS: Thank you. Thank you, John.
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