I am not a Jewish climate activist. That doesn’t mean I don’t care about climate change or the environment; I care deeply about both. It’s more about my not having an interest in labels. That’s a personal choice, and not at all a commentary on other folks’ choices. We live in a world in which people seem to need to label others to figure out who they are and what they stand for. I prefer to let how I live my life speak for me.
With respect to climate change and the environment, I’ve known for as long as I can recall that America is something of a planet pig, i.e., we Americans have been more than profligate in our use of natural and other resources, and in doing so with hardly a care for the consequences. We are now—like it or not—being forced to confront those consequences. And when I think back over the arc of my own life, I wonder how complicit I’ve been in all that piggishness.
I spent the first ten years of my life in Brooklyn, New York (way before it was a trendy place to live). I rode my bike everywhere, spent my time outdoors with friends climbing trees and playing stoopball and stickball. We had one car, which my father, z’l, took to work every day. And my mother didn’t drive.
We moved to the surburbs and my mother did learn to drive, badly. Nearly every vacation was a car trip, in part so my father could combine that with hunting for antiques for his business. We had almost nothing I can think of as “excess” in our lives, not even food. I couldn’t tell you precisely what our carbon footprint was, but I’d reckon it was pretty modest.
As for my Jewishness and its connection to climate and environmental issues, that’s really pretty easy. My father was an observant Jew, so he was home for Shabbat and the Jewish holidays that required it, and home early on Fridays from work. He didn’t drive then, further reducing his impact on the environment. But I’m quite sure he didn’t think of it in those terms. He was just a modest person, living his life according to the rhythms dictated by Judaism. He was also a Holocaust survivor, so for him just being alive was a gift. He wouldn’t have known how to be profligate, even if he’d had the resources to be.
Though I am not the most learned of Jews, I do take my Judaism seriously, and I’ve long known of the biblical encouragement to be fruitful and multiply, and of the declaration that man shall have dominion over all the creatures of the earth. But I never thought that meant it was our job to destroy creation; I actually believed it meant we needed to be good stewards of creation. What kind of Jew—what kind of human being, frankly—would go about squandering and destroying what God had created?
So what has that meant for me practically? It has not made me an ascetic. It has made me someone who tries to be mindful of my place in the world, and the ways in which my movements and choices intersect with those of millions of others to create an impact, for good or for ill. It doesn’t mean that I’ve forsaken travel, which means I have added my portion of carbon to the world every time I’ve boarded a plane. But that plane has taken me twice to the Amazon, where I have seen with my own eyes what is at stake. And what is at stake is something magnificent, irreplaceable, extraordinary, and magical beyond anything man could possibly create. Ever. I have experienced sunrise in the Sinai desert, the waters that thunder at Victoria Falls, elephants and water buffalo on the banks of the Zambezi River, and other sights too numerous to mention. But no matter the man-made wonders I’ve seen, it is the natural wonders that never fail to take my breath away. They remind me that we are truly small, and ultimately insignificant creatures in what is the much greater majesty of the natural world.
If we could embrace our smallness—if we could truly lean into what it means to be humble and grateful—it would be a small, but I think hugely important, step toward making better choices for our world. I am reminded of a statistic I heard on a radio show not long ago, comparing the carbon footprint of the average American to that of the average Zambian. If you want to be a better steward of the earth, be more like a Zambian, and less like an American. Make do with less of everything. Honor God’s creation and what it means to be a faithful Jew. It’s not about slogans and labels; it’s about choices and actions. I know mine aren’t always perfect, and they likely never will be. If can make them better and better, then maybe there’s hope. But I can’t do it alone.
I don’t know what to say to those who think taking is the job of humans on this earth. And while I know that there are many complex reasons for the imbalances in our world that drive bad choices, for those of us who live in a country that has done more than its fair share of taking, maybe the easiest choice before us is to focus finally, and as fully as we can, on giving back. If we don’t do it willingly, Mother Earth will surely demand it of us.