Judaism and Climate Change

Another American Thanksgiving came, but this year we said a special prayer. It wasn’t solely a prayer of thanks for a bountiful harvest, but also a deep prayer of gratitude for the two and a half billion peasants throughout the world who are literally the hope of humanity. You read this correctly; without peasants doing very small-scale farming, the chance to roll-back carbon emissions from the so-called “developed world” is most likely to fail. As corporate scientists search for a technological fix to maintain our ever-growing capitalist life-style, these peasants are being forced off the land at alarming rates. However, with them go the best hope to solve all of humanity’s deepening climate change dilemma.

All across this planet, smallholders (less than five acres or two hectares) are farming with non-industrial techniques of carbon sequestration known as traditional organic agriculture. They are building up the soil of organic matter as their crops are taking the carbon from the sky and holding it in the ground in the form of new topsoil. It is a truism of agriculture: If you are not creating new topsoil, then you are emitting carbon. Large farms and giant corporations are primarily involved in the process of growing plants through the use of oil-based fertilizers. The economic sector which emits the greatest amount of CO2 into the air is, by far, this very same sector of industrial agriculture. These facts are well known to agronomists throughout the world. It is estimated that between 44% to 57% of all greenhouse gases are created through industrial agriculture, greater than automobiles or electric generation.

Don’t get me wrong; I know that the vast majority of the American diet comes from extremely large chemical-based industrial farms. And like everyone else who has ever farmed, I understand that chemical farming provides for substantial yields. But the question is: How long can this system sustain itself before it collapses due either to temperature rise or the extreme erosion of its own precious soil?

Soil is one of the three most precious resources that humans use in order to survive. But unlike light and water, which Judaism believes come directly from G-d, soil is the very stuff of our partnership with the Divine. Adam, the first human, was made from adama (Hebrew for land or soil), and at the end of a human life each individual returns to that same soil. Soil is what provides our very life, and if we mistreat the soil, we mistreat our very future. The lives of our children, our children’s children, and the lives of all humanity’s children depend on a balanced relationship with G-d’s precious creation — earth. But unlike the sun (light) or the clouds (rain), we humans are the caretakers of the soil.

The future belongs to those individuals who care for the soil and treat it with the respect that a Divine partnership requires. Soil is not just material; it is also the essential “stuff” of our ethical relationship with all of G-d’s creation. To mistreat your own children, or anyone’s children for that matter, is to upset the very order of the moral universe. This has been understood by generations upon generations of our ancestors — that is, fellow Jews.

The Torah tells us that we (as humans) do not own the land, that the land belongs to G-d and that we are merely its caretakers. In other words, we are tenants in contract with the Divine, to respect the land and to be its steward. There is nothing capitalistic about this relationship, and in the same way, it is not socialistic either. Neither the community nor the individual owns the land; G-d owns the land, and G-d expects us to nurture it like we would our own kin. Therefore, farming is not about the amount of the yearly yield and/or its profit margin, but rather a sacred activity. Farming is about our love of life, and life’s future prospects.

Farming can be either good or evil. Industrial-scale farming, which depletes the soil of carbon and sends that carbon directly back into the sky in the form of CO2, can be characterized as evil. The more CO2 that fills the sky, the higher the temperatures rise. The higher the temperatures rise, the more extreme the weather events become. The more extreme the weather, the more difficult the balance needed to sustain farming. Hence, the Divine relationship between humanity and the soil — from which all civilizations sustain themselves — is broken. G-d is not breaking his Covenant with Noah (that He will never again destroy the land through flood), yet humanity is breaking that same Covenant with G-d. Regional floods that should occur every one-hundred years are now occurring on a much shorter time frame. The same is true for drought. But whose fault is it?

G-d has kept the Covenant with Noah. It is the ancestors of Noah (humanity) who have not been true to their contract with G-d. It is up to all of us to nurture the land. We are to blame, all of us, who do not care for the land or its proper stewardship. We denigrate the world’s peasants; we force them off the land to live in giant cities without any hope of an agrarian livelihood. We have pushed hundreds of millions of other peasants on to marginal lands. As of today, they only occupy a quarter of all arable land across the globe.

But these smallholders are our greatest hope. They continue with traditional farming practices, building up the fertility of the soil to sequester carbon. But they also produce 77% of the food eaten throughout the so-called under-developed world. It is these peasants on the marginal lands who, by necessity, truly understand the soil. In fact, they are nearly the only persons left who understand the nature of real farming. That is, to build-up the soil through a keen understanding of local conditions using both permaculture and poly-cultural methods and a constant observation of the land. Peasants understand their plants and animals, as well as the myriad variables of small-scale, healthy soil production. To keep the land healthy literally requires the skills of a finely-tuned physician. Peasants are truly the stewards of the land. This not romanticism; this has now become a natural and historical fact.

The soil is to plants what the stomach is to humans. Plants take the carbon out of the sky (through the light of photosynthesis and the miracle of water) and use some of that carbon for growth by making sugars. The rest of the carbon (as sugar) is secreted into the soil to feed the multitudes of tiny living creatures which inhabit the living soil. In exchange, these organisms provide the plants with essential minerals (like phosphorous) and gases (like nitrogen) to complete the very cycle of life.

On the planet Earth, all life is carbon-based, therefore requiring carbon-based sugars. But without this essential exchange — carbon for phosphorous and nitrogen — plants tend to get greedy and hold their carbon (as sugars) until they die. Then, as the plants decay, the unused sugars break down into their constituent parts, and the carbon evaporates back into the air instead of the ground. This is precisely what happens in industrial farming. Chemical fertilizers replace the carbon exchange with artificial nitrogen and phosphorous, thereby killing off and starving the vital organisms in a living soil. Without these sugars to feed the living soil, the land slowly dries further, depleting the soil of its vast sugar-eating population. In the process, carbon accumulates in the atmosphere.

Soils, like our own stomachs, are vessels that hold vast micro-organisms (bacteria) for the purpose of proper digestion. In the process of healthy plant digestion, sugars break down into their constituent parts, and carbon becomes sequestered into the soil through the natural cycle of photosynthesis. Without the constant renewal of organic matter into the soil, these vital biological exchanges cannot take place. Organic matter returned to the soil becomes the natural resource to house and feed a living soil. This organic matter is constantly being broken down into its constituent parts in order to exchange carbon-based sugars for essential minerals and nitrogen.

Instead of proper digestion through the exchange of sugars for minerals and gases (phosphorous and nitrogen), the process is disrupted and digestion remains incomplete. The living soil then becomes starved of food. The starving of the soil is the same as the starving of people. Soil dies and becomes silt, which then adversely impacts the water cycle, another grave threat for humanity. At the same time, in chemical agriculture the natural cycle of nitrogen becomes unhinged from plants through the impossibility of human control, thereby impacting the atmosphere with another serious greenhouse gas and polluting the water and ocean through the vast release of manufactured nitrogen.

In other words, the soil is very much like a vast stomach, teeming with micro-organisms that place the carbon cycle in its proper balance. Plants breathe in CO2 from the air as they breathe out oxygen into our atmosphere. But the burning of ancient and naturally sequestered, carbon-based fossil-fuels (oil, coal and gas) releases CO2 into the atmosphere, unhinging this very balance. The worst culprit is not these ancient fossil fuels from carbon naturally sequestered millions of years ago. They now power cars and produce electric generation. Yes, these fuels are a carbon problem, but the worst culprit is chemical agriculture. These highly mechanized mega-farms release into the atmosphere present-day carbon in enormous quantities. A living agricultural soil could have captured this plant carbon, but it did not due to the fact that human stewardship of the land has been so completely disrupted by chemical agriculture.

However, through the widespread re-introduction of organic methods, by small holders and tiny organic farms, and the spread of cooperatives for investment capital in appropriate technology, the carbon cycle can be returned to balance. The simple scientific fact is that peasants farm by building up the soil with decayed plant and animal matter, and in the process they create new topsoil with a vast microbiology. Through these time-tested organic techniques, carbon is sequestered in large amounts within the ground itself. Conversely, agribusiness emits huge amounts of carbon into the atmosphere altering the very balance of nature.

It is humanity’s moral choice as to how we are to proceed. Judaism has always been a religion of nature and history in unity. Humanity, in its spiritual and moral freedom, is not viewed as separate from nature. On the contrary, in the Hebrew language the word for soul and breath are one and the same, ruach. The Earth in its natural living splendor is the very place of human (historical) redemption according to the ancient prophets of Israel. History’s redemption will occur through the actions of living human beings in a balanced interchange with their environment. The harmony of humanity with all their fellow beings is the very nature of this redemption. This includes a living soil and a carbon cycle in equilibrium.

Human history has now come to a crucial crossroads in its treatment of Nature. Climate change due to human interference with Divine Creation risks the very future we all desire for our children and the generations to come. Judaism believes that all humanity is reflective of the Divine only in the sense that it can perceive the future and therefore act upon it. Either we will return the carbon to the soil, or we will not. Either way there will be consequences. This not some complicated and highly stratified technological fix. The answer to our natural-historical dilemma is as old as the Hebrew Bible itself. Either civilization begins to take its agrarian roots seriously, or the basis of civilization will become eroded and placed in serious jeopardy. This is our present situation.

Ancient Israel was a land of smallholders and peasants who understood that their relationship to Divine authority was measured in terms of a bountiful and sufficient harvest. This was the measuring stick of both morality and economics in the Hebrew Bible. It is more relevant today than ever. Because in order for humans to survive as a species, we are going to have to place hundreds of millions of new smallholders and peasants back on arable crop land in order to literally suck the carbon out of the sky. If civilization can place humans on the moon, it can certainly replicate the ecological-economic characteristics of ancient Israel. For without natural harmony, there can never exist a social or historical harmony.

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).