The annual reading of the Torah has come full cycle and, once again, we begin at the beginning with the story of God creating the heavens and the earth and all they hold. The process culminates with the creation of male and female who are blessed and admonished to “fill the earth and master it” and rule the world’s creatures (Gen. 1:28). Humanity springs from the soil and is told “to till it and tend it.” (Gen: 2:15). Human beings have a task: to be God’s stewards on earth. They are given dominion over animal and plant life as a sacred trust; not to exploit it but to cultivate it. They are partners with God in the work of creation.
The command of Genesis seems clear as to what humanity’s responsibility is in maintaining harmony between the needs of man and the imperatives of nature. To alter the balance risks unleashing forces that may imperil mankind itself. In this context, we may ask ourselves how the United States, demonstrably the most God-fearing nation in the West, has lived up to its Judeo-Christian precepts in fulfilling the biblical injunction to nurture the Earth’s bounty and husband its resources.
Apparently, not too well. The Trump Administration has systematically moved to roll back the environmental protections of recent years, most notably undermining the U.S. commitment to the 2015 Paris climate agreement among 195 nations to reduce global warming, to undo the Clean Power Plan, to thwart regulations limiting greenhouse gases, to reverse rules on fuel efficiency, to thwart efforts at expanding clean energy sources such as solar and wind power, and to resuscitate polluting sources such as the coal industry, already succumbing to competition from more efficient competitors. This does not begin to take into account the mounting rollbacks of protections on hazardous wastes, coal dumping, flood-building standards, oil-rig safety, fracking, fossil-fuel emissions, toxic discharges, chemical pollutants and a host of other regulations designed to protect the public from the effects of industrial pollution.
The sponsors of this unraveling hardly pretend that it is done in the name of the common good. To the contrary, the risk of curtailing these regulations can be physically harmful to our citizens and the prospect of terminating the Paris accord increases the advance of global warming. That these policies will bring back jobs to such failing sectors as the coal industry has been widely debunked. The primary beneficiaries of this self-serving behavior are the fossil fuel companies and their shareholders. The true motive for these enactments is simply greed. It poses under the banner of individualism and untrammeled entrepreneurship. It balks at regulations or any attempts to impose limits on its appetites. In so doing it reveals a venality and a selfish indifference to the well-being of the commonweal that is the actual driving force behind such recidivism.
In the face of overwhelming evidence by the scientific community that man-made fossil-fuels are contributing significantly to global warming that threatens the planet’s ecological balance, the fuel industry and its acolytes have responded with blustering denial and an attack on science itself. Ironically, some of those Americans who may be most vulnerable to the effects of global warming provide their rank and file. Many of them are true believers, in every sense. Whatever they think about the efficacy of science, they might well consider God’s admonition to the first humans to preserve the gift of the earth, and not abuse it. Cain incurs guilt not only because he slays his brother but because he pollutes the ground with Abel’s blood, thereby cursing the soil and making him a ceaseless wanderer. Cain’s sin lies in denying that he is his brother’s keeper.
This lesson of Genesis is that we are indeed our brothers’ keepers; that we spring from a single human origin. We are responsible for one another. Some of those affecting righteous piety in the Trump camp would do well to dwell on this teaching as they consider the consequences of global warming for the future of all God’s creatures.
Jack Schwartz was an editor of Newsday’s Book Section.