Tu B’Shvat starts this Friday night. The time is upon us to engage in our annual ritual of celebrating the birthday of the trees, marveling in various fruits, eating mindfully, planting trees…
This is all well and good, but while we’re at it, let’s also acknowledge the proverbial “elephant at the Tu B’Shvat seder”–namely that this year, the trees are all watching America’s train wreck in a giant collective facepalm.
2016 catapulted “alternative facts” or “fake news” to a viral level, but climate change has gradually become its poster child over many years. Shortly after 37 countries adopted the Kyoto Protocol in 1997 (including the U.S., whose later withdrawal gutted the treaty), big oil and other businesses adopted as a strategy challenging the underlying science of global warming to bolster lobbying against environmental efforts. Before this time, politicians of both parties had largely accepted scientific consensus on global warming, and United States policy reflected that consensus.
2008 was a turning point for climate science, according to a 2009 Pew Research Poll. Those results showed that belief that human activity causes climate change dropped from 47% to 36% of Americans, and the belief in global warming at all dropped from 71% to 57% of Americans. As if on cue, Republicans quickly began adjusting their platforms and policies to pander to “climate change” skeptics within their midst. A narrative emerged describing climate change as a “hoax.” You probably recall Senator James Inhofe’s 2015 snowball spectacle (apparent premise being to undermine the conclusion that 2014 was the warmest year on record by tossing a real live snowball).
Trump’s administration demonstrates bullish opposition to environmental causes. He purged language about climate change, humane treatment of animals, and other science-oriented issues from government websites. He placed “gag orders” on federal agencies, insisting that he approve any social media post or press release before it was published. Though these actions can in some ways be justified as standard protocol while a new administration revisits policies, they take on a more insidious tone in view of his other actions and advisors. He reinstated the Keystone and Dakota Access pipelines that were nixed by the previous administration for largely environmental reasons. He has openly threatened the Clean Power plan (purportedly to bring back coal jobs), without proposing any counter-plan. His nominees to head the EPA and Energy departments have records of opposing everything the agency has ever accomplished. His Secretary of State was formerly CEO at Exxon-Mobil, the original perpetrator of climate change denial (full disclosure: Exxon later reversed themselves on this, but much damage had already been done).
While a post-truth world is dangerous no matter the issue, defying scientific facts is especially galling when it comes to our planet. Not only can’t trees object to policy themselves, but the eventual demise of our environment is by its nature contrary to the short-term interests of literally everyone, meaning we can’t rely on capitalist markets to work this out for us. Electing an alleged billionaire who has shamelessly cast aside any campaign rhetoric about standing up to big business–who described climate change as a hoax to boot–adds salt to the wound, and has caused justifiable despair among those in the field.
Judaism is unambiguous in its calling for respect and empathy to the environment. Our tradition personifies the land and the trees, imploring us to treat our world as we would a human being. We sing in psalm 150, Kol Hanshama Tehalel Yah “every living thing praises Yah”; Yismechu Hashamayim vetagel ha’aretz “let the heavens rejoice, let the earth be glad.” We celebrate a new year for the trees. We give the land a rest as part of every seventh “shmita” year (“the land shall have a complete rest, a Sabbath to the L‑rd; you shall not sow your field, you shall not prune your vineyard, nor shall you reap the aftergrowth of your harvest”).
What actions can we take on behalf of our tree friends this year?
If consistent with your Shabbat observance, commit to attending the March for Science on Washington on Earth Day, April 22. On the occasion of “Jewish Earth Day,” mark your calendars, make your signs, book your travel plans for this event. Sustained protests have already demonstrated their effectiveness on this administration, and I can think of no other cause that needs us as badly as this one.
Next, pick up the phone on behalf of trees as a birthday gift, even if you are burned out calling everyone on other issues (I am, honestly). Ask your senators to oppose Scott Pruitt’s nomination to the EPA, and Rick Perry’s nomination to the DOE. Another call to make is to your representative to urge that they oppose HR 861, which seeks to dissolve the EPA.
Take advantage of your social media platform to gain and raise awareness. Follow morally courageous environmental organizations’ twitter accounts (e.g. @SierraClub, @Greenpeace, and the Jewish organization @Hazon). Consider following relevant “rogue” federal agency accounts–a crude tool for resistance perhaps, but Donald Trump will not reliquish this battleground and so we must be counted on it.
Finally, on a more spiritual note, this is a great year to start or continue a regular custom of holding or attending a Tu B’Shvat seder. This simple, kid-friendly ceremony provides an opportunity to contemplate the gifts we often take for granted from our environment. Check out Hazon’s haggadah or make your own. Use the opportunity to set personal goals on how your family can protect the environment this year. Give tzedakah on behalf of our planet.
And importantly, take the moment to teach the next generation real facts about how we are destroying our land.