· Vatican City ·

Interview with American novelist Jonathan Safran Foer

Where hopefulness and despair intersect

 Where hopefulness and despair intersect  ING-044
03 November 2023

In his highly successful first novel, Everything is Illuminated, as well as in his later writings (Extremely Loud & Incredibly Close, We Are the Weather: Saving the Planet Begins at Breakfast and Eating Animals), U.S. author Jonathan Safran Foer shares his deep concern for the way mankind exploits the environment and the repercussions of this exploitation. It was thus no surprise that he was invited to the Vatican to participate at the presentation of Pope Francis’ Apostolic Exhortation Laudate Deum, on 5 October.

How was your experience inside the Vatican? What memories will you take home with you?

We’re living in a moment when it’s very easy to despair. There are so many reasons to feel hopeless, whether it’s war, whether it is climate change, or whether it’s just the sort of tone of culture, and the way that we seem to have forgotten how to be earnest, how to assume the benefit of the doubt, how to extend the benefit of the doubt to people we’re talking to, how to disagree without it being an insult. And when I was invited to come to the Vatican, I thought, oh, this is fun. This is nice. And when I left, I felt good, but in a very different way that didn’t have to do with the honour of being invited, but had to do with having met someone and actually several people who are working to repair the world. There’s a Jewish expression, Tikkun Olam, and it means to repair the world, and it is what every Jewish person is supposed to devote his or her life to doing.

And having read Pope Francis’ paper, having witnessed the way that the people around him are working to bring it into the world, and then having met him, it was so obvious that that’s what they are devoted to. And I’m not a Catholic person. So I say this not as somebody who went into any of this experience predisposed to being inspired. And yet I really was inspired.

In your speech at the presentation of the Apostolic Exhortation, “Laudate Deum”, you spoke about the fact that often, even when they are aware of the dangers they face, humans do not act accordingly. They know the path of a hurricane, but cannot make up their minds to move away from it. Why does this happen? Do you think it is due to the topic of environmental danger or is this schizophrenia between awareness and action part of the nature of mankind?

I think there’s something about the climate crisis that is particularly difficult for our nature because it doesn’t feel personal. It feels a little bit abstract. It feels like it’s happening somewhere else, rather than to us. And we have very, very, very strong incentives to push it from our minds. Some of those incentives are financial. Some of them, as Pope Francis writes, have to do with power. And some of them are just fear as well because if we were to actually believe what we know, if we were to believe it in our hearts, then it would be like a waking nightmare. The number of people who are going to suffer, the number of children who are going to suffer, the number of families that are going to suffer. So in that way, it’s a little bit like death itself, something that is an inevitability, that is very very difficult to live with the knowledge of, and so we find ways to put it out of our mind. Even though, a memory of it could actually guide us toward the kinds of lives we want to live. People who have an awareness of their own mortality tend to make the most, find the most meaning in their lives. And a really full awareness of what we’re facing in terms of climate change is our best hope of responding to it. So I don’t think it’s because people are bad. I don’t even think it’s because people are lazy. I think, as you have said, it rubs up against our nature and we have to find a way not to overcome our nature but to contend with our nature.

You have said that we should not and cannot despair. What then is our hope?

There are a lot of reasons to be hopeful. The most obvious is young people who are taking this crisis far more seriously than people of my generation or older. It’s also clear, it has always been clear, that younger people are more capable of change than older people. It’s obvious, the older you get, the more solidified your life is. And when you’re young, it’s still sort of fluid. So young people can change habits, they can change opinions, they can eat in ways that are more environmentally conscious, they can commute in ways that are more environmentally conscious, they can choose living situations that are more environmentally conscious.

It’s hard for me and I’m not that old. I’m 46, but it’s hard for me to change my life in anything like a dramatic way, much as I might want to. Clearly the awareness of climate change is rapidly increasing. Clearly the will to change our society is increasing. If you were to ask me do I think that we will solve the problem of climate change, I would say I’m absolutely sure that we will. The issue is we have a finite amount of time to do it. But if we have 100 years to do it, I wouldn’t be worried at all. If we have 10 years to do it to make really significant changes, that feels like a stretch. So actually time is where my hopefulness and my despair intersect.

When you were young, did you already have concern for ecological issues?

Not even the tiniest bit. My memory is that nobody did. I remember people would talk about the ozone layer and why we shouldn’t use aerosol sprays. But there just wasn’t an awareness of certainly climate change at all. And because of that, you can’t blame anybody for not responding. We live in a moment now where our children and grandchildren will look back at us and say, what did you do when you knew what was happening? Because we can’t claim ignorance as people 20 years or 30 years or 40 years ago could have. We can’t say nobody told me, I was unaware. So like most people, it wasn’t until I would say 15 years ago or so, that I began to understand — and by the way our understanding is still incomplete. It seems like with every new scientific paper about the climate, we learn that the situation is more urgent than we had thought it was. The ice caps are melting faster than we thought they were. The oceans are warming faster than we thought they were. World temperatures are increasing faster than we thought they would. We are going to have to respond without having perfectly complete information. What bet do you want to make?

What do you think is the real inheritance that Westerners have received and must pass on to the new generation?

We’ve received many kinds of inheritance. Some are beautiful and some are difficult. We have inherited economic injustice. We have inherited different kinds of racism. We have inherited histories of extracting, as the Pope writes in his paper, like extracting whatever is necessary to achieve power, whether from the earth or from other humans. We’ve also inherited a beautiful planet. We’ve inherited an innate sense of justice and a love of justice. We have inherited some incredible privileges, of living longer than humans ever have before in history, of having a higher quality of life than humans ever had before in history, of having more peace actually than humans ever had before in history. In terms of what we will leave behind us, I quoted Saint Francis at the end of my remarks about the difference between what we receive and pass down and what we give and pass down. And it’s my belief that ultimately what we leave our children and grandchildren are the values that we’ve wrestled with in our lives. And I say wrestled because it’s difficult. I really wrestle with these things in my own life. I often find that my values are in conflict with each other. I think it’s a wonderful thing to see the world. But I know that air travel leaves a huge carbon footprint. I think it’s a wonderful thing to eat the foods that are served to you by your host. And yet sometimes there are environmental implications to that. So I think religion can be a useful guide for living consciously, but living consciously is not a religion. It’s not an all-or-nothing wager. We don’t have to be pure. I think that’s a mistake some people make when they talk about ecological activism. They treat it as if it were a religion and that ends up scaring people away because they say, well, I’ll never be perfect so why even become involved? Well, the reason to become involved is because there’s this huge middle that we can occupy. And our choices can be at this end or they can be at that end. And we want to, as much as possible, nudge our lives one day at a time toward the good end, toward the end that will result in a planet for our children and grandchildren that is like the one that we have been able to enjoy.

As a novelist, what do you see as your responsibility in today’s crisis-ridden world?

I think a novelist has the same responsibility as everybody else, which is to question, to ask, what do I have to offer? And then to offer it. So some novelists are very good at writing essays, and some of them aren’t. Some novelists are very good at participating in public discourse, and some aren’t. What each of us has to do, whatever your profession is to really say, okay, these are the crises that we’re facing. What do I have to offer? Which is going to be different than what the person next to me has to offer.

How would you describe Pope Francis, in one word?

Authentic. Before I met him, I asked the person that I had been communicating with, what do you do when you meet him? What do I wear? What do I call him? Do I shake his hand? Do I look in his eyes? And what they wrote back to me, they wrote two sentences, they said, “Be normal, he is normal”. And it was. I laughed at it, but it was actually the best advice. He came across as a beautifully authentic person. He looked me in the eyes and he saw me. And he allowed me to look in his eyes and see him. And it doesn’t matter if you’re the Pope or if you’re a school teacher or if you’re a policeman, that’s not an easy thing to do. And doing that, being authentic and looking someone in the eyes and allowing them to look you in the eyes is the beginning to the answer to all of our problems.

By Andrea Monda