Our tradition is ready for the climate crisis


David Zvi Kalman

Smoke from California’s fires is regularly bad enough to tint the sun on the other side of the country. Pakistan and India just experienced a devastating heat wave. In the Middle East, temperatures have risen by 1.5 degrees Celsius, more than twice the global average.

Climate change, and its punishing effects, are here, and getting worse, yet Jewish thinking and advocacy on climate change are still stuck in prevention mode. The Jewish organizations that have blossomed to meet the political moment, not to mention the rabbis, activists and rank-and-file Jews who are engaged on this issue, are largely focused on one bottom line: Judaism demands that we care for the planet before it is too late.

This sentiment remains important and I support it, but it cannot be the only Jewish message for the moment. This is because “we” — the Jewish people — are likely powerless to affect the environment on a scale that would make a difference. It is also because, whether we like it or not, it is too late. As a scholar interested in the Jewish future and as a member of a research team devoted to Judaism and the natural world, I believe it is time to expand our understanding of what “Jewish environmental thought” can be.

The problems with mainstream Jewish approaches to addressing climate change, which scientists say is rapidly approaching a breaking point, are twofold.

First, unlike many other environmental problems, climate change can’t be meaningfully curtailed through individual behavior; for better or worse, it is primarily in the hands of national governments and the energy sectors that they regulate. In the United States, it is largely for the worse: Legislative deadlock and the current Supreme Court’s deregulatory impulses make it hard to imagine tighter regulations on emissions, and domestic political polarization severely hampers America’s ability to exert influence over the 85 percent of global emissions that are produced outside its borders. These realities undermine much Jewish thinking on climate change. Rabbis can tell their congregants that they should care for the planet until they’re blue in the face, but if their ideas are to be greeted with something other than a nod of agreement, a wistful sigh and eventual indifference, they cannot solely focus on the possibility of political change.

Second, the “it’s too late” piece is harder to hear. Even if humanity radically changes its ways in the next decade, as the Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change says it must, disasters aggravated by climate change are already here, and many people — especially young people — operate under the assumption that they will get worse. Despite this, messages from Jewish leaders largely continue to focus on prevention, frequently insinuating in the process that climate catastrophe is on us if we fail to act. Such messages were appropriate in the 1980s, when disaster merely loomed on the horizon. Now, however, this line of thinking will increasingly be heard as nothing more than a grand “I told you so.”

We can address both of these problems by expanding our conception of what Jewish environmental thought is supposed to be. Even as we continue to push for sensible climate policy, we must make realistic plans to greet the future, as well. Rather than doubling down on messages of prevention and personal responsibility, hoping to achieve a better result perhaps by being more emphatic about it, Jewish environmentalism must help people adapt to the stresses of our warmer world, offer consolation to those who are mourning the one that we are losing, and prevent us from treating the present climate as “normal” by reminding us of the truly normal climate that will soon be out of living memory.

The Jewish tradition is already well suited for these tasks. As examples: rabbinic Judaism’s central narrative about moral failure leading to the loss of a land bears a striking similarity to the contemporary climate crisis, and the long process by which all types of Judaism dealt with that tragedy speaks to its ability to reinvent itself around a story of loss and recovery, a story that has served it well through other periods of persecution. In terms of memorializing tragedy, Jewish tradition continues to commemorate events that took place more than two millennia ago, and the imperative to never forget continues to be highly motivating.

An expanded Jewish environmentalism also offers us the chance to reconsider a basic question: Is this line of thinking for the benefit of the world, or just for other Jews? While politically minded environmental thought is strongly incentivized to spread universal messages, it does so by focusing on stories that Christians and Muslims will find relatable — Adam being charged with stewarding the world, Noah and the flood — and ignoring a much larger set of stories and ideas that are particular to Jewish tradition. The proposed new kinds of thinking might ironically be better capable of speaking specifically to Jewish interests, developing ideas about how to adapt to a changed planet that draw from the particulars of Jewish history.

Shifting Jewish environmental thought in this direction is not without its risks. As with any strategy that takes climate change to be inevitable, this line of thought could be accused of propagating a dangerous fatalism and sapping environmental activism of its energy. The risks are serious, but Jewish educators and leaders must understand that new ideas are crucial because environmental fatalism has already become the accepted wisdom. Many young people already assume that their entire lives will play out in a world of radical climatic decay, and this plays a powerful dampening effect in their ambitions to change even non-environmental aspects of the world. Jewish environmental thought, like the environment, is out of time. It is time to embrace this reality and think about the subject anew.

David Zvi Kalman is the scholar in residence and director of new media at the Shalom Hartman Institute of North America and the owner of Print-o-Craft Press. He holds a Ph.D. from the University of Pennsylvania.

Via JTA.org

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