I am afraid that we will be wearing masks for a long time to come.
And it won’t be solely because of a viral pandemic. Soon it may be because of the air quality of our planet.
There is a clear scientific consensus on a human-driven warming of the earth, with carbon-based pollution released in the environment as the major contributor. As shown by data from NASA and NOAA, the last few decades have seen a sharp spike in global average temperature, and the increase of carbon-based pollutants caused by human activity is destroying our environment. According to David Wallace-Wells, Deputy Editor of New York Magazine and the author of The Uninhabitable Earth: The Story of our Future (2019, Penguin Random House), the dramatic increase of carbon dioxide in the air that we breathe, especially in the last ten years and, if we continue on this path, will eventually cause dying oceans, unbreathable air, wildfires, physical disasters, and food insecurity.
On the global scale, carbon-based pollutants and other greenhouse gases cause the heat of the sun to be retained within the atmosphere, raising global temperatures. This activity leads to both warming of the seas and melting the Earth’s ice caps that raise ocean levels and cause frequent flooding of lower-lying areas, threatening some of the world’s largest coastal cities and population centers.
In addition to the warming temperatures, Wallace-Wells shares that the U.S. National Center for Atmospheric Research projects that the air circulating the Earth will also be “dirtier, more oppressive, and more sickening…the hotter the planet gets, the more ozone forms, and by the middle of this century Americans should suffer a 70% increase in days with unhealthy ozone smog…Already 10,000 people die from air pollution daily.” The author continues that “more than half of the carbon exhaled into the atmosphere by the burning of fossil fuels have been emitted in just the past three decades…the industrial world’s kamikaze mission is the story of a single lifetime.” With this trajectory, it is becoming more of a possible reality each year that we may be wearing masks after the pandemic subsides; not only to protect ourselves from the SARS-CoV-2 virus, but also to filter out toxic pollutants that are quickly becoming part of our daily inhalation.
A concomitant issue about our air quality and global warming is related to methane. The US Environmental Protection Agency notes that methane is an additional greenhouse gas produced from ruminant livestock, other agricultural practices and by the decay of organic waste in municipal solid waste landfills. Methane is a significant contributor to the greenhouse gas effect. These emerging issues in global environmental science remind us of a more personal responsibility, one that Judaism is constantly calling out to us: how can the actions of one person affect the world?
Deuteronomy 20:19 shares a powerful vignette of the importance of considering the environment around us. It describes how even during war, we are called to ensure we do not cut down fruit trees, a prohibition called Bal Tashchit, to teach sensitivity to our surroundings even when threatened by enemies. Rabbi Shneor Zalman of Liadi in his Shulchan Arukh HaRav extends this law, commenting that this prohibition includes the spoiling of any object, not just fruit trees, from which humankind may benefit.
Eichah Rabba, a midrash written 1,200 years ago, sums up the ultimate human challenge of living in the environment and protecting it: “In the hour when the Holy One, Blessed be He, created the first man, He took him and let him pass before all of the trees of the Garden of Eden, and said to him: See My works, how fine and excellent they are! All that I am going to create for you I have already created. Think about this and do not corrupt and desolate My world; for if you corrupt it, there will be no one to set it right after you.”
Considering the perspectives of the individual versus the community brings a paradoxical tension. As individuals, we each have personal and familial needs that are a part of our daily lives, many of which may not be beneficial to the health of the earth but are a part of living in the developed world. On the other hand, we also live in a global community where we need to consider the effect of our decisions affecting the world around us.
With this in mind, what are our responsibilities as individuals in a global community? The rapid warming of our planet raises challenging questions. Should we seriously consider becoming vegetarians or consciously eat less beef to lessen the damaging methane emissions from the cows raised for beef production? Should we demand from our governments the institution of a carbon tax to make air polluters pay the full and true cost of the pollution they create?
Or is our role as an individual futile in terms of the damage being done collectively as a global community to the environment, putting all of humankind in danger?
The message from the Bible and Rabbinic literature is clear. Genesis 2:15 implores us that our human obligation is to both till the land and watch over it.
We can’t stand idly by. Humans are doing serious damage to the Earth.
The pandemic of our time has taught us that we have the ability to individually and collectively adapt our lives to address environmental challenges. Therefore, on the matter of human-induced global climate change damaging our environment, we cannot claim the futility of an individual’s action and we have no escape from direct responsibility. The Torah’s words are speaking directly to us. NOW. TODAY.