As Earth Day 2017 approaches (it falls on April 22 this year, which also happens to be Shabbat), where are we as human beings? Where are we as Jews?
My answer will probably not surprise you — we are focusing on the wrong things, and we are not doing enough to avert catastrophe.
The human race, and many of the creations we share this fragile planetary ecosystem with, face the most serious threats since the last ice age. Although we face many grievous prospects — ocean acidification, the loss of the majority of wild animals, crop failure, and plastic pollution, to name but a few — one issue looms larger than the rest both because of the direct effects it will have on the habitability of the earth for us and the likelihood it will make some of the above dangers to worsen. That issue is, of course, climate change.
Climate change should be the Jewish community’s number one concern. It poses more of a long-term threat to world peace than Donald Trump, more of a danger to Israel than Palestinians, and more of a threat to civil society and the protection of minorities than the alt-Right in their wildest wet dreams (don’t think about that). For the many JuBus (Jewish Buddhists) among us, climate change promises to cause more human suffering than desire and the false belief in a separate self (unless you posit that climate change is ultimately caused by desire and the false belief in a separate self, which I guess it is, so score one for you Jewish Buddhists- but that’s not the point of this article).
Scientists point out that the dynamics of climate change are playing out much faster than we expected. Our overly linear, Newtonian models are proving themselves inaccurate in the face of the stunningly volatile complexity of nature’s feedback loops, several of which are combining to augment each other and speed our race up the thermometer. While nature heats up, so does our rhetoric, but our behavior remains perilously cool. One might say we are glacially slow to change.
In a recent stunning manifestation of climate change, the massive Kaskawulsh Glacier in Northern Canada retreated so much that its meltwater abruptly switched direction — instead of flowing into the Slims River and then north to the Bering Sea, the water has changed course and now flows south toward the Kaskawulsh River, the Gulf of Alaska and the Pacific Ocean.
“Climate change is happening, is affecting us and it’s not just about far-off islands in the South Pacific,” said one of the scientists who made the discovery. “The effects can be very rapid and can be somewhat unanticipated. Climate change may bring new changes that we’re not even really thinking about.”
There is no need to list “particularly Jewish” concerns to motivate action on climate change. Nevertheless, it is worth considering the price we may pay if things unfold as growing ranks of scientists say they will. For Diaspora Jewry, three major urban centers for world Jewry are all severely threatened by climate change: New York, LA and Miami. All three cities are at risk of extreme summer heat, increased difficulty controlling air pollution, electricity disruption, rising sea levels, water shortages, and extreme weather events. New York, the urban center with the most Jews outside of Israel, is particularly vulnerable to rising sea levels and under some models is predicted to have it’s current infrastructure severely damaged. On a more minor, but still poignant level for many, it was recently pointed out that many coastal Jewish cemeteries, traditionally viewed as sacred places, will vanish under the rising waves.
The most serious threat climate change poses to Jewish culture specifically, though, is towards the land of Israel and its neighbors. Israel faces threats from increasing desertification, rising sea levels, greater forest fires, extreme heat, loss of biodiversity, water shortages, increased regional refugees and a generalized Middle Eastern brawl for dwindling resources. The unique marine ecosystems in the Mediterranean and Eilat are projected to lose a third of their species, and there will be no more skiing on Mt. Hermon.
Ski concerns aside, it is authentically terrifying to think realistically about how this might play out in Israel in the next fifty years. To take one of the most volatile political situations in the world and throw in a scorched land becoming increasingly inhospitable where already bellicose neighbors squabble intensely over basic resources sets up a situation even the wily, tough sabra of the Zionist miracle may not be able to handle. Picturing Israel in fifty- or maybe even twenty- years, one imagines it’s current reality nightmarishly intensified as Israelis perch perilously on the rising Mediterranean Sea (in a no-doubt- brilliantly-conceived self-defensive tech bubble) while Messianists within and anti-Zionists without rage. What will it mean for Israel to be surrounded by failed or fragile states?
If Israel cannot withstand all of the existential threats it currently faces being intensified tenfold, our old-new-land may once again disappear, submerged back into the Jewish unconsciousness and the prayerbook. I know the disappearance of Israel has been prophecized since its inception, but 70 years is not really a very long time for a country to have survived and can hardly be found reassuring. Greater and more stable countries and empires have vanished without a trace after lasting centuries.
What effect would the radical destabilization of the Middle East have for our survival? It is impossible to predict, but for the many Jews who love Israel passionately, a lack of similarly passionate action on climate change is incomprehensible.
Regardless of the priority one sets on the country of Israel, as a human being and a Jew addressing climate change should be a priority. Hopefully, there will be a significant Jewish presence at the People’s Climate March on April 29, but mainstream Jewish organizations suffer from the same malaise on this issue as the wider culture does- the lack of a visceral threat hamstrings our sense of urgency, and we are hypnotized by the immediate.
Harvard psychologist Dan Gilbert says that the human brain is built to respond to four different kinds of threats: the intentional, the moral, the short-term, and the immediate. Climate change is none of these , and consequently it “evades our ancient alarm system.”
The risks to all life on the planet only grow with every passing day, and following in the footsteps of a certain Jewish organization that has gotten a lot of press lately, we all need to put Hillel’s question to ourselves — “If not now, when?”