I am often struck by the fact that the Jewish press doesn’t cover ecological news much. We tend to cover anti-Semitism a lot (regardless of what certain NY Times op-ed writers hallucinate to the contrary), we cover Israel related news and famous Jews, and commendably we focus daily on social justice issues impacting women and ethnic, gender, and religious minorities. But the ecology? Environmental news generally doesn’t find a place in the Jewish press (unless it’s a piece about Jewish environmentalists).
Let’s face it, Jews are not natural ecologists. Largely urban for the last century or so, we are “the people of the book”, not the forest. We have been at the forefront of emancipatory political movements for the last couple of centuries, informed by our long and bitter experience of poverty and oppression, and we have been major contributors to the intellectual culture of the modern world, energized by our two millennia immersion in the cosmos of Jewish texts and a culture which prized learning and conceptual innovation above most other things.
A month reading the Jewish press will reveal a plethora of articles debating ethical and political dilemmas, calling out injustice and bigotry, and criticizing ourselves and our institutions. Will there be a running flow of articles on the destruction of the ecology and the political-social-economic catastrophes most informed experts argue are just around the corner?
Not so much.
The Jewish tradition is not un-ecological. Our most cherished texts call nature sacred, a language which reveals the divine whose every detail is under the transcendent care of YHVH. Our biblical texts admonish us to respect the land, which belongs not to us but to God, and to let it have it’s own Sabbath of rest like any other living creature. Our Rabbinic texts admonish us not to be cruel to animals, to waste nothing. We even have a holiday dedicated to trees.
Yet in the face of the impending disaster, we seem just as hypnotized as everyone else by what is more immediate and less important by any rational standard. Yes, the occupation has to end. Yes, African-American activists should denounce Farrakhan. Yes, #metoo. I am not saying we should not talk about these things, not write about them, not organize around them. I do. This is not an “either-or” situation. Yet surely it should be a “both-and”.
If you need to be reminded why you should be as urgently concerned as if your hair was on fire, here are some reasons: This winter, as parts of the arctic were 45 degrees above normal and scientists recorded temperatures 35 degrees above the average in Siberia, an unprecedented cold snap broke out across Europe and brutal winter storms smashed the Northeastern United States. Scientists are now saying that it is not as simple as things getting warmer, or colder, for that matter, rather what climate change means is that all weather will just get worse. We’re not suffering that much yet from these distortions of the climate, but these anomalies and intensifications of weather patterns are harbingers of much worse to come.
Meanwhile, according to the World Wildlife Fund’s 2016 Living Planet Report, over the last four decades, the global animal population was reduced by nearly 60%. In Germany, flying insects have declined by 76% over the past 27 years, a development that no doubt mirrors changes all over the world. The World Wildlife Foundation recently predicted that the world’s great forests could lose half of all wildlife by the end of the century. Our oceans, whose barrier reefs are dying and whose waters are acidifying, are also much more full of plastic than we had realized.
It’s looking like we’d better start figuring out how to calculate Shabbat observance on Mars. It’s denuded, barren landscape, so utterly without the mind-boggling richness of the earth ecosystem with its unmeasurable proliferation of creatures rooted, winged, footed and fanged, maybe what we deserve in the end. For a species which thinks of nothing but itself, what could be more fitting than a planet where we will finally be utterly alone?
In the face of the greatest threat to human civilization since it was created, a threat now known about for decades, our response thus far, en masse, has been to increase our destructive activity. Even among those of us who care more for refugees and victims of war, crime and dehumanization than we do for whales and rainforests, we should be very frightened right now. Climate change is already driving war, violence, and an unprecedented global refugee crisis; experts say the destruction of the earth’s ecosystem will likely make all of this much, much worse. If we care about women, or refugees, or victims of poverty and crime, or racism- if we care about any of these things, we should be terrified about climate change and the destruction of biodiversity and ecosystem integrity.
The Jewish community does have it’s eco-warriors, to be sure. Yet as a journalist who is constantly immersed in the Jewish word-world, I am continuously amazed by the lack of reporting on new findings about the planetary ecology and the much greater interest in the fortunes of Jared and Ivanka. No doubt this is partially rooted in the sense of powerlessness, a sense that I myself also struggle with on a daily basis. Surely, though, the well-known words of Pirke Avot apply here: “It is not up to you to finish the task, but neither is it yours to abandon it.”
Another root of this lack of focus seems to me to be the idea that reporting on the plastic in the ocean or warming of the Arctic in and of itself would not be “a Jewish story.” That’s the assumption I would like particularly to take issue with here. Whether one is a religious Jew, acting from within the Jewish ethical tradition, or a cultural Jew, the ecology is and will be a very Jewish issue. It’s time for us to put it at the forefront of our consciousness because every single issue we care about is linked to it. “If not now”, we may be too late.