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An Earth Day like no other

Even as we grieve and rage over the death and destruction that this virus has wreaked, it is impossible not to notice the drastic benefit to the environment
Illustrative. The Dhauladhar mountain range of Himachal, visible after 30 years, from Jalandhar (Punjab), after pollution dropped to its lowest level thus far -- a distance of approximately 200 kilometers - about 124 miles). (Twitter/Diksa Walia)
Illustrative. The Dhauladhar mountain range of Himachal, visible after 30 years, from Jalandhar (Punjab), after pollution dropped to its lowest level thus far -- a distance of approximately 200 kilometers - about 124 miles). (Twitter/Diksa Walia)

I was 15 years old when I heard about Earth Day for the first time.

The year was 1991, the year my twin sister began her radical transformation from regular suburban high school girl to tree-hugging hippie. She became vegetarian, dyed her hair, started wearing recycled clothes, attended anti-fur rallies and quickly rose in the ranks to become president of our school’s environmental club.

Here and there, she would share with me what she was learning and teaching others about, but…I…couldn’t…care…less. Trees, whales, cows, rainforests, smog, ozone layer. Didn’t interest me. I was too busy going out for fast food with my friends or doing laps around the mall to care about what humans were doing to the Earth.

But then, during my first year in college, something changed. All of those soundbites my sister threw at me for years were starting to sink in and take root. I suddenly became hyper-aware of how many of our everyday seemingly innocent actions (what we bought, what we ate, what we wore, etc.) were wreaking havoc on humans, animals and ecosystems across the globe. And I felt that I had a moral responsibility to care about that.

With my eyes opening wider and wider, I saw environmental problems all around me. Over-consumption, over-packaging of consumer goods, over-processed foods, an inhumane meat and dairy industry, disastrous levels of air, water and soil pollution, and on and on and on.

It was both exhilarating and even liberating to see the world in its true colors, no longer hidden from view as it was in my youth. But it was also overwhelming. The extent of the problem was paralyzing at times, leaving me to wonder where and how to start and if the problem could every truly be fixed.

But I took a deep breath and took my first steps on my path of environmental living. I declared my major in Environmental Studies, became vegetarian (vegan shortly after), tried my best to only purchase products and goods that I really needed, made sure what I bought was environmentally friendly, got involved with environmental education and bought almost exclusively organic food and produce.

Like my sister, I was now on a mission to save the planet.

Eventually my environmental work led me to a discovery of the abundance of environmental teachings in Judaism, which in turn inspired me to take a deeper look into Judaism in general, which led me to choosing to take on a religious lifestyle and which led me to moving to Israel (another story for another time). And while my professional life has taken me in the direction of Jewish and Israel education, I have continued to carry with me a strong passion for the environment and a desire to live as environmentally responsible as I can.

But, truth be told, it hasn’t been easy. As our world has become more and more globally connected, the number of consumer goods available to a rising global population, with an ever increasing appetite to consume, has skyrocketed. A situation that is only possible through our silent support of polluting factories worldwide and long fuel-intensive shipping lines (to make these good available to us) as well as horrible conditions for factory workers (to keep the prices low). It seems that with every product we buy and action we take, there is no avoiding hurting the Earth and its inhabitants a little more. Even if our desire is so strongly the opposite.

And so that question that I asked at the beginning of my environmental journey has come back to me over and over again, each time getting louder and louder:

Can this global ecological crisis really ever be fixed? Is there enough time and are there enough people that are willing to slow things down enough, and possibly even reverse certain trends, in order to allow for the healing of the wounds we humans have inflicted on the Earth?

And then the coronavirus struck.

And the entire world stopped.

In what seemed like a blink of an eye, manufacturing plants around the world have come to a halt. Planes, trains and boats, the tools of international shipping, have been grounded. Most stores, malls and markets are closed, not receiving goods nor selling them. And, as a result, production and consumption worldwide has plummeted.

And while our hearts intensely break over the sickness and death this virus has brought to the world, and for the millions of people out of work as a result, it’s impossible not to take notice of, and even marvel at, the sudden and drastic benefit to the environment this is all having.

No environmentalist could ever have imagined a shift like this happening this quickly or to this degree. For decades we’ve been making changes in our own personal lives, and trying to encourage others to do the same, in order to lessen our contribution to the massive environmental destruction that is a natural result of human society’s incessant march towards increasing consumption and resource use. But often times the changes seem too small, too limited

So this Earth Day will be the first Earth Day since it began 50 years ago when the Earth really is getting the break it so desperately needs and deserves.

And while we all know that as soon as the coronavirus is a thing of the past, people on every continent, from citizens to leaders, will want to return to the world as it was before as quickly as possible, my hope, and the hope of many people, is that human society will, before doing so, recognize this unprecedented and historical opportunity to start all over again, to thoughtfully and consciously choose the kind of world we want to live in, and will ask itself:

“What do we really need in our lives in order to be truly happy human beings, and what can we live without? What are we willing to give up in order to make sure that true health and happiness are the norm for people all around the globe? What systems are we willing to change in order to safeguard the health of our planet and its countless delicate and complex ecosystems?”

The future of our world depends on our answers to these questions.

About the Author
Akiva Gersh is the editor of the book "Becoming Israeli" (www.becomingisraeli.com), a compilation of blogs and essays that speak of the inspiring and the sometimes wacky and crazy experience of making aliyah. Akiva himself made aliyah in 2004 with his wife Tamar and they live in Pardes Hanna with their four kids. He teaches Jewish history at the Alexander Muss High School in Israel in Hod HaSharon. He is also a musician and in 2010 formed Holy Land Spirit, an uplifting and spiritual musical experience for Christian groups visiting Israel.
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