The last time I checked on my roof was too long ago to say how long ago. It is out of mind because it is out of sight—I literally can’t see its condition, and unlike a water stain on the ceiling, which is aesthetically unpleasant, a decrepit roof is no eyesore or embarrassment. Even if I managed to examine it, as a layperson I probably wouldn’t know it was in need of maintenance until it was in need of replacement. The prospect of having to replace my roof has discouraged me from determining whether I need to.
My younger son had a nightmare while I was taking a shower the other night. I heard his cry through the water, the glass door, and the three walls that separated us. By the time I got to his bed, he had already returned to a peaceful sleep. His lavishly decorated bedroom is beneath a roof that might be deteriorating.
Hysterical strength could explain my ability to hear his quiet cries, but what deficiency allows me to ignore the precarious roof, and the precarious sky above it? I would bet that at some point, every one of the Jews in my grandmother’s village swatted a fly that had landed on their skin. Whatever it is that allows me to ignore my roof and the climate is the same thing that allowed so many of them to stay behind when they knew the Nazis were coming. Our alarm systems are not built for conceptual threats.
I was in Detroit when Hurricane Sandy was about to hit the Eastern Seaboard. All the flight back to New York had been canceled, and it wouldn’t be possible to get on a plane for the next several days. The prospect of not being with my family was intolerable to me. There was nothing to be done at home—we had plenty of bottled water and nonperishable food in the pantry, flashlights with fresh batteries—but I had to be there. I found the last rental car in the area and hit the road at eleven that night. Twelve hours later, I was driving through the front edge of the storm. The wind and rain made progress almost impossible. The final hour took four hours. The kids were sleeping when I got home. I called my parents, as I had promised I would, and my mother told me, “You’re a great father.”
I had driven sixteen hours to get home simply to be there. In the days, months, and years after, I did virtually nothing to lessen the chances of another superstorm pummeling my city. I barely even entertained the question of what I could do.
It felt good to make that drive. Being there, doing nothing, felt good. It felt good to hear my mother’s praise for my parenting and, when they came downstairs, to see my children’s relief at my presence. But what kind of father prioritizes feeling good over doing good?
I was a boy when I learned why the word “ambulance” is written in reverse. I loved the explanation. But now I’m older, and there’s something I can’t figure out: Is there anyone alive who would see an ambulance in their rearview mirror—the bright lights spinning, the sirens blaring—and require the word “ambulance” to identify it? Isn’t it like a boxer writing the word “fist” on his boxing gloves?
I run to soothe a nightmare in my son’s head but do almost nothing to prevent a nightmare in the world. If only I could perceive the planetary crisis as a call from my sleeping child. If only I could perceive it as exactly what it is.
Sometimes a fist needs the word “fist” written across it. Hurricane Sandy battered our home and our city. We received those punches without being able to identify them as punches; to most of us, they were just weather. Journalists, news, anchors, politicians, and scientists were wary of identifying it as a product of climate change until there was evidence of the kind of irrefutably that will never come. And anyway, what does one do with weather but accept it?
I want to care about the planetary crisis. I think of myself, and want to be thought of, as someone who cares. Just as I think of myself, and want to be thought of, as a great father. Just as I think of myself, and want to be thought of, as someone who cares about civil liberties, economic justice, discrimination, and animal welfare. But these identities—which I flaunt with exhibitionist conscientiousness and dinner-party Op-Ending—inspire responsibility less often than they get me off the hook. They don’t reflect truths so much as offer ways to evade them. They are not identities at all—only identifiers.
The truth is I don’t care about the planetary crisis—not at the level of belief. I make efforts to overcome my emotional limits: I read the reports, watch the documentaries, attend the marches. But my limits don’t budge. If it sounds like I’m protesting too much or being too critical—how could someone claim indifference to the subject of his own book?—it’s because you also have overestimated your commitment while underestimating what is required.
In 2018, despite knowing more than we’ve ever known about human-caused climate change, humans produced more greenhouse gases than we’ve ever produced, at a rate three times that of population growth. There are tidy explanations—the growing use of coal in China and India, a strong global economy, unusually severe seasons that required spikes in energy for heating and cooling. But the truth is as crude as it is obvious: we don’t care.
So now what?
Jonathan Safran Foer
We are the Weather: Saving the Planet Begins at Breakfast
Penguin Books 2019