getting beyond crisis mode
Over the last few generations, we’ve had some serious environmental challenges, and a broad environmental movement has risen up to deal with them. In the United States, there has been good progress in some areas, such as reducing pollution of air and water, informing the public about specific environmental threats, and cleaning up environmental messes. Yet despite this, today there are more complicated, more global, and more dangerous environmental challenges than ever. Our society seems increasingly confused about how we can address them. We need a new paradigm to help us build a more sustainable future.
The current mode of environmental protection includes a focus on specific problems, action at levels both personal and political, and campaigns to identify and solve specific problems. CFCs are destroying the ozone layer. Individuals: stop using spray cans. Politicians: create laws and international agreements to prevent CFC use. Declare victory. But addressing specific environmental challenges at this level is not sufficient. Problems are rarely solved completely. Politics and greed prevent scientific clarity. Worst, behind the original problem comes another bigger one, ruining the moment of celebration.
Our problems are not only tactical but also philosophical, stemming from confusion about what the environment is: a set of interconnected resources—clean air, clean water, food, animals, trees—on which we depend in order to live. It is not a series of individual problems which can be solved by concrete campaigns. Instead of addressing problems one by one, we need to recognize a fundamental truth: Protecting our resources is logical and healthy for human beings to do.
In Jewish thought, the environment is recognized as a set of resources to be managed over time. It is acknowledged that we must take resources from the land—such as food, energy, sanitation, and clothing—to meet our basic needs. Yet people were placed in the Garden of Eden both “to work it and to protect it” (Genesis 2:15). We treat our resources with care and great appreciation, as the Talmud records: “Rav Judah said in the name of Rav: ‘We give thanks to You, Hashem, our G-d for every single drop which you have caused to fall upon us.” (Babylonian Talmud, Tractate Ta’anit, p. 6b). In another example, the mitzvah to cut fruit trees, drawn from a Torah source (Deuteronomy 20:19-20), is understood as a comprehensive warning not to needlessly destroy.
Jewish teachings also recognize that the advance of technology presents ongoing environmental challenges which must be addressed by the application of old rules. For example, Maimonides (1135-1204) updated earlier pollution rules from the Talmud to apply to contemporary technology in his Mishneh Torah.
Environmental problems spring from a cultural lack which is essentially spiritual: lack of the sacred, lack of long-term and communal thinking, lack of concern for others or even our own health. Jewish thought emphasizes appreciating and managing our resources wisely, making decisions with an eye toward long-term needs, and correcting mistakes when they are discovered. The focus includes an ongoing responsibility for the environment, for our health, and for other people. These are paradigm shifts that could make a real difference in our environmental protection.
If our society began to internalize these values, protecting the environment would transcend just changing a light bulb or buying a different kind of car. It would be about our love for our children and our neighbors, and our gratitude for all that we have. These values would not only help the environment. They could also help us strengthen our families and communities, become less dependent on wealth and consumerism, and focus on what really matters.
Since the 1990s, more than a dozen Jewish-environmental organizations have begun operating at both the local and national levels in Israel, the United States, and around the world. Organizations such as the Coalition on the Environment and Jewish Life (COEJL), Hazon, the Teva Learning Center, and many more have engaged Jews and Jewish institutions in environmental action, awareness, and advocacy. Yet much more needs to be done to engage the entire Jewish community, and to use Jewish wisdom to alter the unsustainable course our society has taken.
We can build a society in which we protect our resources, continually, for our own health and for the well-being of our children. Thus, I offer a call to action to all Jews to pursue deep, authentic Jewish learning and to take action to address the serious environmental threats we face.
Familiarize yourself with websites, publications and programs that provide high-quality scientific environmental information, and make it a habit to consult them. Make environmentally sensitive consumer choices, such as buying 100 percent recycled paper, non-toxic cleaning products, and CFLs.
But also, learn what our tradition can teach us about sustaining our resources for future generations. Join and support a Jewish environmental organization. Learn the Jewish perspective on protecting the environment. Read Jewish-environmental teachings and promote programming and action in your community. Share your ideas with others. Together, we can move the Jewish community into our role as a “light to the nations” in protecting our world.
An ancient Jewish text teaches: One who learns in order to teach, develops the ability to learn and to teach. But one who learns in order to act, develops the ability to learn, to teach, to guard and to act. (Ethics of Our Fathers, 4:6).
Let’s join together as Jews, to learn, teach, and act to live sustainably.