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How ‘Eating Animals’ changed how I view climate, myself, and dinner

Photography By Wendy Syfret

This Changes Everything is a series where we revisit transformative items, texts and moments that shaped our personal climate journey.

For those of us concerned about climate change (or the health of our planet), there’s a question that always comes up: when did it all change for you? 

The expectation is that we all had some transformative moment where we woke up to our singular and unique role in protecting our delicate home. I wish I could offer a dramatic answer. Perhaps I came face-to-face with majestic polar bears in the Arctic. Or reached transcendence while hiking through the Amazon. Sadly, for me (probably not for polar bears), my “big moment” came in a bookshop.  

Dragging out a lunch break in 2009 I picked up a copy of Jonathan Safran Foer’s opus to the insanity of modern culinary habits, Eating Animals. At the time I was undertaking one of many attempts to become a vegetarian. Motivations were murky but pure: I loved animals and felt increasingly bad about chomping on them. But despite my best efforts, the lure of a 2am burger was regularly proving too strong. 

I’d enjoyed Safran Foer’s tender and thoughtful fiction, and I figured if anyone had the narrative skills to get me to put down the patty it was him. Little did I know the next 300-plus pages would not only transform the way I ate, but the way I thought and saw myself too.  

One criticism that echoes around a lot of environmental reporting is that we tend to present the issues as too big. Regular people glance at the news and feel totally overwhelmed and disempowered over their role in any of it. Safran Foer inverts this with a clever trick. He views a global climate story through the door of our own kitchens. Between reports on industrial farming and agricultural science he talks about family, history and what we say to each other when we serve dinner. 

By shifting focus from headlines to the items on our shopping lists he’s able to evocatively highlight the people who produce them, their impact and the pleasure and pain they can inflict. Other reporting in this area is often quick to villainise the farmers and producers working within the factory food vortex. But Safran Foer is careful to show them as real people who are frequently also victims of a broken and often exploitative system.  

Rather than leaving you overwhelmed and unsure if there’s anything safe to eat, the book is surprisingly comforting. It makes you feel invested in the worlds of the individuals who feed us, the animals that give their lives and the ecosystems that support both. 

I haven’t (knowingly) eaten meat since that day in the bookshop. Not because I was terrified of where it came from. But because Eating Animals made me feel hopeful and inspired by a reality that wasn’t dominated by an industrial appetite for animal products. I wanted to live in and support that future. Over a decade later, I still do. 

Eating Animals was adapted into an acclaimed 2018 documentary of the same name.

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