In an Age of Human Climate Failure

It is now official, the global Enlightenment project has failed. Mother earth is on fire; world-wide capitalism is drowning in debt; nuclear weapon states are expanding as international relations become much more tense; and economic impoverishment continues to grow, while the richest of the rich get even richer.

In the West, the Liberal Jewish community has been wedded to the Enlightenment project for the last two hundred years. In Europe, especially Germany, this marriage led to a tentative quasi assimilation, culminating in their annihilation during the Holocaust. In the post-war era, especially in America, the last two generations of this Enlightenment project have yielded a different kind of dramatic Jewish tragedy: that is, total Jewish assimilation leading to a kind of atheistic liberalism. This new philosophy is totally within the boundaries of modern global capitalism, especially in its Social Democratic form. But, for the vast majority of ex-Jews, this new assimilation is outside the tent of the Jewish people. In other words, the Reform and Conservative branches of Judaism have dramatically moved from their initial position of quasi assimilation in 19th and early 20th century Germany, to an equally dangerous new position in 21st century America. For the Jewish cause, assimilation is akin to annihilation.

Global capitalism has been the principal economic and political structure of the Enlightenment project. But by growing toward a planetary dimension, it has nowhere else to grow. In other words, it is like a red-dwarf star in its final phase; it is about to implode financially. But capitalism’s monetary excesses — leading up to a complete financial calamity — are nothing compared to the gross history of human suffering that it has caused.

By opening national borders to unlimited capital currency flows, entire traditional agricultural communities have been wiped out in the name of neo-liberal efficiency. In the process, millions of self-sufficient peasants have been exposed to an economic system that has treated them with utter immoral contempt. They have been treated worse than serfs and almost as bad as slaves. Naturally, these newly homeless people fled to either unsustainable and grossly overpopulated third-world cities or to the high-income geographic areas of Europe and North America. Intense poverty mixed with mass urbanization has led to conditions of material inhumanity — global class war on an incomparable scale.

Human rights, as the ultimate Jewish value, within such an Enlightenment system of economic degradation becomes an essentially meaningless concept. But Liberal Enlightenment Jews operate completely within the concept of an urbanized, cosmopolitan, industrial civilization framework. However, in our age of human climate failure, humans no longer have the luxury of unlimited economic growth. This summer has shown the “canary in the coal mine” of our climate failure. Unless we (as a civilization) absorb carbon on a massive scale, temperature rise on planet earth will potentially destroy our social ecological niche. Civilization is now at risk.

This is no time to further increase global living standards to a first-world urban standard. Unfortunately, this is the only human development model in current use. Every developing country wants to grow like the Chinese. But isn’t material growth within an industrial urban model anathema to future ecological sustainability? The short answer is YES! The long answer is YES, YES, and YES!!! The question everyone should be asking is why did the Chinese Communist Party choose an urban, industrial, capitalist development strategy to increase their country’s gross domestic product? In a geopolitical environment of competitive military expansion and potential aggression, they had little choice.

The sad truth is that the global Enlightenment project has ushered in two massive world wars, a Cold War leaving human civilization on constant alert with the potential for nuclear annihilation, and now a period of atomic weapon proliferation leading to an even greater escalating danger (an A-bomb race in the Middle East?). The Enlightenment movement has never led to peace. Why? Because it has become a secular movement within a universal application of human culture. In other words, it is essentially authoritarian in concept. Unlike Judaism, which sees an international panoply of hundreds of nations achieving peace in partnership with Divine authority, the Enlightenment wants everyone to be the same — the universal expansion of so-called democracy within a Western capitalist industrial model.

Such a paradigm, of a human monoculture, is similar to modern centralized agriculture. One model fits all terrain. But this concept is human folly because nature cannot sustain a universal doctrinaire system. Nature is composed of multitude and variety. And human civilization is not above nature. Humans believe in their myriad of cultures. Judaism believes that peace can only be attained when it becomes clear to all that only a mix of many nations and cultures will be able to live together in harmony. In other words, in Judaism, the universal project of global peace can only be achieved through the cooperation of many unique component parts. Of course, unlike the modern atheistic Enlightenment, such a peace will be under the authorship of Divine guidance (history) but also within the ultimate paradox of human freedom (free will).

The failure of the Liberal Enlightenment has ushered in an era of political, economic, and, most importantly, ecological dislocation. This new era has its own geological designation — the Anthropocene epoch. It is unlike anything the world has ever seen. Humanity is now in complete control of the current ecological direction of the natural world. As biological human beings, all humanity is now in the same fix. Science can only help to save us from the ravages of climate change that we as a species have unleashed, but our human morality is the key. Because once people realize they are expendable, peace can never be achieved. But without peace, the transformation of an urban, industrial civilization (Western Enlightenment) to an ecologically sustainable rural-based world peasantry will be impossible.

What the world needs is a long era of permanent peace whereupon the vast majority of human beings can be engaged in the small-plot production of food and the planting of hundred of millions of new trees. The human access to land must become as natural as soil, sky, and rain. Only the reforestation of our earth can re-absorb the vast amount of carbon that the failed Liberal Enlightenment era has pumped into the atmosphere. In order for this to be accomplished, it has become essential that the Jewish Biblical economic concept of Jubilee be enacted. Jubilee will ensure continuous access to land.

Hopefully, the concept of Jubilee — the earth is ultimately owned by G-d, and all people should have permanent access to it — will become an historical fact. Only land Jubilee can save us. Hopefully this Orthodox Jewish law will become Israel’s cultural and Biblical contribution to a world redeemed from our dangerous Enlightenment Age of climate failure. Through G-d’s wisdom, the choice still remains ours.

About the Author
Steven Horowitz has been a farmer, journalist and teacher spanning the last 45 years. He resides in Milwaukee, Wisconsin, USA. During the 1970's, he lived on kibbutz in Israel, where he worked as a shepherd and construction worker. In 1985, he was the winner of the Christian Science Monitor's Peace 2010 international essay contest. He was a contributing author to the book "How Peace came to the World" (MIT Press).
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